You have Velvet 56, why do you need Velvet 85?

Maybe you don’t. I’m going to dig into why Velvet and then why you might want both Lensbaby Velvet focal lengths – then I’ll analyze some images that I made this week with both lenses.

Traits shared by Velvet 56 and Velvet 85:

  1. An image that’s detailed throughout the aperture range with some focus falloff at the edge of the frame.
    • At apertures between wide open and f/4 a velvety glow surrounds those sharp details.
    • The brighter the aperture, the more glow.
  2. Both lenses focus super close (1:2 magnification) without the need for additional accessories.
    • 1:2 magnification means that, if your camera’s sensor is 1.5 inches wide (as is the case with full frame cameras) you can focus on something 3 inches wide and it fills up the whole frame.
    • The smaller your sensor, the smaller the subject you can fill your frame with.

Why 85mm and 56mm focal lengths are complimentary:

  1. 85mm has more compression than 56mm.
    • Longer focal length lenses, when compared to shorter lenses, make things at different distances to the camera look closer together.
  2. Shallower depth of field at 85mm.
    • At any given aperture when at the same distance to the subject and background an 85mm lens gives you a more out-of-focus, less distracting background than a shorter focal length lens.
  3. Longer working distance at 85mm.
    • You can be further away from your subject while achieving the same framing when using an 85mm than with a 56mm lens.
    • This is a huge benefit for macro photography for multiple reasons:
      • You are less prone cast a shadow on your subject at 85mm vs 56mm.
      • Your subject is a butterfly or some other skittish critter and you want to go unnoticed.
  4. Simple backgrounds.
    • The details in your background get bigger and less distracting when your subject is photographed with an 85mm lens vs. a 56mm lens.

I spent the last few days making photographs, with both the Velvet 56 and Velvet 85, of animals on their porches with (and occasionally without) their best friend humans. I did this to compare each Velvet against the other and explore which lens was best at what. Each of the below images links to its full resolution version. Click the images below to look closely at the large files that were exported from the raw files in Lightroom (no sharpening added).

Below each image I’ll speak to what works and what doesn’t and how each lens contributed to the strength and weakness of each photograph.

photo by Craig Strong woman with dog shot with Lensbaby Velvet 84 at F/1.8

Velvet 85 at f/1.8

Here we have my spectacular wife Shari and our nervous/playful canine, Cookie. The extra working distance at the longer 85mm focal length let me back up to frame the bottom and right side of the image with a large and aggressive euphorbia (I had look it up) plant at the base of our stairs. A very out of focus background including the porch railing, house and orange door allowed for simple framing with little bending of vertical lines. The compression is flattering and comfortable to look at.

photo by Craig Strong woman with dog shot with Lensbaby Velvet 56 at F/1.6

Velvet 56 at f/1.6

I like the intimacy here between the viewer and the subject made possible by the shorter focal length lens. Getting close gets inside of comfort zones and can lead to engaging portraits that longer lenses don’t allow. Getting inside Cookie’s comfort zone was not a benefit, though. I don’t dislike the lack of eye contact but she looks stressed. The background, being that I was coming in closer at a lower angle with a shorter focal length, looks a bit stilted.

photo by Craig Strong woman with dog shot with Lensbaby Velvet 56 at F/1.6

Velvet 56 at f/1.6

Neighbors Peggy and Cody in front of their screen door have a sense of playfulness and immediacy (he was trying to escape the entire time). The background is a bit stilted as a wider lens will do but not to the point of distraction. At f/1.6 I’m getting a bit too much glow for my taste and wish I’d stopped this down to f/2.0.

photo by Craig Strong woman with dog shot with Lensbaby Velvet 56 at F/1.6Velvet 85 at f/1.8

This, nearly identical, image shot with the added compression at 85mm bringing the background forward and the foreground back. Peggy’s feet are less elongated and her face feels closer to Cody’s. The simplification of the background and enlarging of the sky reflected in the window are my favorite parts of this image that were not possible with the 56. The glow wide open on the 85 feels better here and I’m more likely to shoot this lens wide open in the future while stopping down to f/2.0 with my Velvet 56 when I want a lot of glow for a scene like this.

photo by Craig Strong woman with dog shot with Lensbaby Velvet 56 at F/2.8

Velvet 56 at f/2.8

Gwyn and her puppy, Roadie. I love this playful image. At f/2.8 this feels like the right amount of glow for an 8×10 print or viewing large online. The only thing I don’t like is how large Gwyn’s knees look. I had to be close to get the framing I wanted and the foreground, with the 56, looks larger than with the 85. I’d probably crop the bottom a bit to make the distortion on her knees less prominent before printing that 8×10.

photo by Craig Strong woman with dog shot with Lensbaby Velvet 85 at F/2.8

Velvet 85 at f/2.8

Gwyn’s knees look normal here. The 85mm focal length compressed the scene so that there is not a huge difference in the near to far subject sizes. This feels more natural to me than what we see in the previous image. f/2.8 matches the look of the Velvet 56 at the same aperture and feels like the right amount of glow to match this mood.

photo by Craig Strong woman with cat shot with Lensbaby Velvet 85 at F/2.8

Velvet 85 at f/1.8

Jamie and her feline pal, Frankie here in beautiful soft light.

I discovered a big advantage of the 85mm focal length when photographing cats. There was NO WAY I was getting close enough to frame this image with the 56 so the 85 was all I used while at Jamie’s. Simple background elements give nice contrast to the subject but nothing distracting. I love the glow at 1.8 here. Combined with the subtle variations in Frankie’s fur, he looks like a velvet cat. This is a super-dreamy photo that I could blow up huge and still love it.

photo by Craig Strong still life with cat shot with Lensbaby Velvet 85 at F/1.8

Velvet 85 at f/1.8

After a relaxing for an hour or so of sitting and chatting with Jamie while Frankie and his extremely skittish sibling, Tuxedo, wandered in and out of view, occasionally an opportunity arose lasting long enough for me to make a photo or two from a comfortable distance. Here again I find the copious glow combines with Frankie’s subtle gradation to create an image I want to see printed large.

photo by Craig Strong woman with dog shot with Lensbaby Velvet 56 at F/2.8

Velvet 56 at f/2.8

This is Combohuahua, Combo for short. After a few days shooting all apertures I shot just f/2.8 during our session this morning. F/2.8 has a nice amount of glow (and shooting just one aperture meant fewer notes to take). This portrait makes Combo feel close. He was. As I mentioned above, the intimacy that comes from breaking inside my subject’s comfort zone can be powerful. That up-close-and-personal feel often overcomes the downsides of distortion found with lenses that are wider than 85mm. Since Combo is a dog, having a big head or an elongated nose is not offensive so being just a couple feet away works well here.

photo by Craig Strong dog on porch shot with Lensbaby Velvet 85 at F/2.8

Velvet 85 at f/2.8

This image compared to the previous shows compression that comes with shooting a longer lens. Here Combo’s head looks like it is sized right for his body. The super shallow depth of field of the longer focal length comes together with more simple lines to make this image of the smallest of my subjects work better for me than the one I shot on my Velvet 56.

Take aways from these mini-shoots:

  1. The velvety effect was essentially identical between the two lenses with a bit more glow, more than I would normally use, at f/1.6 on my Velvet 56 than I got at f/1.8 on my Velvet 85.
  2. For people (dogs and cats included) 56mm gives more immediacy to portraits while 85mm reduces distortion for a more flattering perspective while simplifying the background.
  3. Two out of two cats prefer 85mm lenses.

As with any new lens you will see things with the Velvet 85 that you won’t see with the 56. As prime lenses go, a fast 35, 50, and 85mm have been my constant companions throughout my professional photography career. There is a big difference between each of these focal lengths and how the photos they make treat your subject. An 85 was always my favorite of these prime lenses for images where few distractions and a flattering point of view was in order.

The real question here is, do you want the Velvet 85? If the answer is yes, I have a feeling you’re going to love it.

– Craig

If you want to read another hands-on account and view some stunning portraits made with the Velvet 85, check out Parker J’s blog post on his initial experience with his Velvet 85.

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  • Al Benas

    Does the 85mm only focus stopped down? It does not stay at f/1.8 until the shutter is released?

    • Craig Strong

      Hi Al,

      Yes, Velvet 85, and all Lensbaby lenses, have manual, stopped down apertures. You are focusing at the aperture your image is exposed at.

      Craig

      • Al Benas

        Just checking, thanks.

        • Craig Strong

          You bet.

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