By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATORS OF THE OPTICAL REVOLUTION known as Lensbaby lenses are more than mere inventors; many are also refugees from the conventional rules of professional photography, or, more precisely, the predictability that adherence to mere technical “perfection” can produce. From their first product over fifteen years ago through their constantly expanding line of lenses and accessories, LB is about embracing the same random artifacts (blur, flares, bokeh, chromatic aberration, etc.) that engineers have forever labored to design out of camera gear and allow them to be put back into the making of pictures, but at the shooter’s whim rather than as mere accidents.
Over the years, The Normal Eye has devoted nearly twenty posts to the unique freedom this concept confers on photography, allowing users to, in the company’s words, “see in a new way.” In my own work, which was shaped over fifty years ago by the influence of print journalists, the idea of control once consisted of adherence to a rigid rulebook governing acceptable precision and uniform sharpness. As I have grown older, however, I have learned that there is more than one way to define control, and that gear that helps me work more instinctively might have to step outside the bounds of mere technical “rightness”.
Nowhere is that newfound freedom more manifest than in the Lensbaby “Velvet” prime lenses, available in a variety of mounts for DSLRs and mirrorless bodies in 28, 56 and 85mm focal lengths. Like all LB optics, these lenses are completely manual, and thus will not share complete shooting data with your camera. For those who seldom shoot on “M” and thus have more limited experience making all the decisions that govern the creation of a shot, this will present a bit of breaking-in, but with that forced preparation comes the habit of deliberately, intentionally creating a photograph. The risks are all yours, but so are all the benefits. As in the days of film, shooting with a Lensbaby entails slowing down and making a plan. These lenses are not for snapshots.
At its wider apertures (f/1.6 to 5.6), the Velvets create an overlay of glow over your images, almost as if they were lit from within or behind, even as the details within them remain focused (see above image). To picture the effect, think of the shortcut Hollywood studios used to produce soft, almost airbrushed portraits of the stars with either gauze or vaseline placed ahead of their lenses. Now, imagine what it can do for your own dreamy portraits. This is not the “low-fi” randomness of cheap, plastic, light-leaking toys, but the “alternate-fi” of real choice.
For any kind of standard street or landscape work, narrower apertures in the Velvets produce conventional sharpness that matches any general-purpose lenses. The V’s are also extremely effective as macros, with a 1:2 ratio (reproducing objects at half-size). Thus, armed with three strong talents in a single lens, the Velvet can easily be left on your camera for extended stretches as an all-purpose go-to. Better still, the softer Velvet effect, as well as the effects of any LB optic, is achieved totally in-camera, without the need of additional post-processing.
In my own work, the harsh detail and sharper edges inherent in architectural or urban scenes can, with my Velvet, take on a warm, even nostalgic feel, selectively smoothing surface textures and lending the whole scene a sort of idealized, fantasy appearance. For sample images from Flickr members around the world, click on the link to their Velvet 56 page. There’s also my own Lensbabyland gallery tab at the top of this page, as well as a shortcut to the first day of Lensbaby’s Shoot Extraordinary workshop for 2020, a great source of inspiration for newcomers.
Lensbabys are not intended as the solution to every photographic challenge. They are augmentations to your existing technique, not a replacement for it. And, yes, I know the term art lens can sound a bit snotty, but, when you generate effects that once were the province of chance or accident and purposely harness them as tools in the making of your images, that certainly bespeaks an “artistic” attitude, and many agree that the LB line of products help you deliberately and uniquely shape your vision. There is more than one kind of photographer, and thus there must be more than one kind of control.