the photoshooter's journey from taking to making


Ten feet out with a 56mm that shoots like an 85mm. Little cramped.

Ten feet out with a 56mm that shoots like an 85mm. Little cramped.


IF YOU HAD ONE OF THOSE DADS WHO PURCHASED A SET OF “DO IT YOURSELF” ENCYCLOPEDIAS in the 1950’s, hoping to become some kind of amalgam of Edison and St. Joseph The Carpenter, you no doubt encountered some sort of Page One admonition to always get “the right tool for the job”. In other words, don’t use a screwdriver to pound nails. I successfully resisted the seductive gospel of Being Handy Around The House, but then found, in photography, that the same rule applies, at least as regards lenses. Right glass, right results, right?

Of course, unless you habitually lug the accumulated wisdom of 200 years of shutterbugging and its attendant gear along with you on a daily basis, you’re likely to get into situations where the lens you have readily at hand won’t allow you to do the thing you just decided to try. It’s back at the hotel, back in the parking lot, back at Alpha Centauri, wherever. Thing is, the thing you want is here, right in front of you, leaving one simple chance. Shoot or don’t.

Nearly the same front to back distance, but with a slight diagonal.

Nearly the same front to back distance, but at a slight diagonal.

I recently wandered, on a weeklong practice run for a new Lensbaby Velvet 56, a manual prime lens that equates, on a full sized DSLR sensor, to about 85mm or so. Perfect for portraits, but very, very cramped for general street work. The Velvet, as its name implies, imparts a soft, gauzy layer over top of a sharp image at apertures wider than about f/5,6. From there to the upper stops, it behaves like a regular prime without the softer effect. The temptation is strong to limit its use to flattering portraits. But that vanishes, however, when you see what marvelous cushiness it confers on the hard textures you find in buildings. It creates a romantic, dreamy look for concrete, plaster, and stone, and so, since I had no other lens at the ready on this particular walkout, I decided to try a few street shots with it.

First problem: this thing can make a tight composition look absolutely claustrophobic. One cure is to walk way back to open up the shot; another is to try a diagonal or oblique angle to widen things out. Of course, since 85mm is treading close upon telephoto territory, the front-to-back information will be somewhat compressed; the distances which seem natural to your eye from 35 to 50 mm  seem smashed in at 85. However, since we are shooting for the velvety effect with this lens, compromise is already the name of the game, so angle of composition becomes a partial fix. The feel from ten feet away, seen in the head-on top shot, seems pretty confined, whereas in the second shot, taken about twelve feet at a slight diagonal, the shot is snug but not uncomfortable.

The Velvet 56 is actually remarkably versatile, since, in addition to serving as a great portait lens and a nice landscape glass, it also macro-focuses to about 5 inches, allowing you to work more and switch out less. As always, it’s not so much what a given lens was primarily designed for but what you choose, perhaps out of desperation, to do with it.

Turns out some screwdrivers make pretty fair hammers, after all….


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