Award-winning nature photographer and workshop instructor Jamie Davidson shares the story of her love for Lensbaby, offering up some excellent tips for fellow flower and nature photographers.
There are those who might wonder what it is about a Lensbaby that photographers love. The reasons are many, and as a Lensbaby lover myself I can show and tell.
My first Lensbaby appeared about 20 years ago. At that time, it was all about bending, squeezing and stretching, and placing magnetic aperture discs in the Muse to control depth of field, and the images and process were not repeatable or refinable. Every image was different. It was fun to use and gave intriguing results; however, it was definitely not for the purist or technician photographer. The tagline “see in a new way” totally made sense. The unpredictable nature of the Lensbaby was what made it both appealing and challenging.
Fast forward to 2019, and Lensbaby offers a cavalcade of creative options for all types of photographers—nature, portrait, wedding, travel, street, and still life. Along with their Composer Pro II and optic swap system, they have multiple lenses, each with its own characteristics for creative effects right out of the camera. I have almost every lens and optic made by Lensbaby, including some favorite vintage optics that are no longer made (e.g. soft focus optic). While these are among my “go-to” choices for photographing flowers in the gardens, they’re also wonderful for still lifes and for capturing unique images in a wide array of photographic subjects.
You can classify Lensbabies according to the looks you can get with them. The beauty of Lensbaby for me is that it is possible to create images with unique effects in-camera. These images require minimal post-processing if you’ve gotten the exposure, composition, and focus how you want them.
The effects range from soft-focus, ethereal glow, selective focus with sweet spots, or wedges of focus with outlying areas awash with softness and radiating colors. You also get unique bokeh with lenses such as the Sol 45, Twist 60, and even edges with vignettes and swirly bokeh with the Burnside. Where your vision leads you helps determine which lens or optic you choose to work with.
Manual Focus and Limited Metadata
Keep in mind that all Lensbabies are manual focus, and you do not get an aperture reading or a lens or optic indicator in the image metadata. After a while, you’ll recognize the effects and know your shooting style, but it’s easier to remember what you’ve used if you add that information into the keywords or your naming convention for images. For example, I add “LBV56” to the file name when I’ve used the Velvet 56 lens or “LBS80” if I’ve used the Sweet 80 optic. It’s helpful, but not critical, for the way I work. As for the manual focus, because the lenses actually stop down and get darker with smaller apertures, it’s easier to obtain focus at wider apertures and then make adjustments. Cameras with focus peaking can make it easier to work with, and a tripod is definitely going to allow you to refine composition and focus.
Lensbaby State of Mind
As mentioned earlier, shooting with a Lensbaby requires you to be flexible and fluid, patient and persistent, as well as committed. It’s easy in the beginning to give up when you’re not getting things to go “right,” and tempting to revert to the “traditional” lenses. Hang in there. The flow takes a little time and effort to come, but it does come.
The lenses and optics all work in a similar fashion as your regular lenses. Can’t achieve focus? You might be too close to your subject. Each Lensbaby has a specific minimum focusing distance.
This works similarly as well—a “big number” gives you a deeper depth of field, while the “smaller number” gives you a shallow depth of field.
Most people shoot their Lensbabies using the wide-open to shallow areas of depth as this is where the effects show up best. For example, with the Velvets, you lose the buttery glow after f/5.6. That said, both of the Velvets are sharp lenses and function in a more traditional way above f/5.6, so the landscape or scene needing a deeper depth of field is within reach. Finally, the numbers following the lens or optic names indicate the angle of view. A Sweet 35 optic gives a 35mm angle of view; the Sweet 80 gives a narrower angle of view, and so on.
If you ask me, Lensbaby rocks, and I always have one or two in my bag when I’m in the field. Not only do they fit my creative style, but I can add macro adapters such as the Nikon 6T to the Velvet 56 and get closer. I can use the Macro Kit on the Composer Pro II optics to do the same. Flowers and macro photography have always been my “Calgon,” so Lensbaby fits right in. And while I love them all for different reasons, I do play favorites with a few (Velvet and Sweet).
I have the Velvet 56 and Velvet 85. Both have a place in my bag, especially for the flowers and gardens. Each lens accepts accessories for closer focusing and both give a beautiful edge-to-edge ethereal glow in the wide apertures (f/1.6 to f/4). With both Velvets, you can achieve a “crisp, vintage look” by stopping down your aperture. Selective focus is easy; the focus ring is super smooth. Both Velvets would be great for portraits as well. The Velvet 85 gives you a bit more working distance. I’ve used the Velvets for other subjects such as old cars, trucks, barns, and equipment, and love the effect.
Lensbaby offers the Sweet optics (used with the Composer Pro system) in a variety of focal lengths—35mm f/2.5, 50mm f/2.5, and 80mm f/2.8. The Sweet 80 also offers an option for closer focusing with a “pull out” on the optic. The Sweets are among my favorites for giving a sharp sweet spot that is movable within the frame along with the soft blur areas surrounding that area. The smaller the aperture, the smaller the surrounding blur.