Lensbaby Composer & Fisheye Optics

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Product(s): Lensbaby Composer & Fisheye Optic
Provided By: Lensbaby
Prices: ~$269.95 & $149.95 repectively
Click here for lowest prices of Lensbaby products

 

Introduction:

I remember when I saw my first Lensbaby.  I was attending a wedding and during the reception, had the good fortune to share a table with the photographer. At the time my interest in photography was limited by my Fuji F50 which was not a great outlet for creative expression.  That day, however, I happened to be toting an Olympus E420 which was on loan from my place of employment.  The other occupants of my table were much better versed in the photographic arts and so it happened that the professional photographer began showing off his toys, a Lensbaby being among them. The Lensbaby back then was a wobbly affair that looked more like a spring than a lens, but the photographic principal was the same; creative focal effects. After that night I mostly forgot about the Lensbaby, but my interest in photography did not wane. Several years later I was quite surprised when Zeus of BCCHardware offered me a chance to take a look at the newest iteration. I'm by no means a professional photographer so this mini-review will be written from the perspective of an enthusiastic amateur.

 

First Look - What's In a Lensbaby?

Lensbaby evolution has resulted in three current products.  The Muse, Composer, and the Control Freak. I received the Composer, which is probably a good thing as it is the most balanced of the three lenses. The Lensbaby Composer allows the photographer to swap optical elements which allows for a wider range of effects. By default mine came with the standard Double Glass Optic element, a set of aperture discs (we'll get to that later), a neat black carrying pouch and a small instruction manual.

Lensbaby Composer
Lenbaby Composer
Lensbaby Optic
Double Glass Optic

 

Specifications:

  • Double Glass (Multi-coated Optical Glass Doublet) included
  • Focal Length: about 50 mm
  • Focus Type: Manual
  • Aperture Type: Interchangeable, magnetic aperture disks
  • Apertures: f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22
  • Minimum Focus: about 18" (45cm) / Maximum Focus: infinity
  • Size: 2.25"(5.7cm) h x 2.5"(6.35cm) w / Weight: 3.7 oz (104.9g)
  • No electronic communication between the lens and the camera body
  • Available in mounts for Canon EF (EOS), Nikon F, Sony Alpha A / Minolta Maxxum, Pentax K / Samsung GX, Olympus E1 / Panasonic Lumix DMC
  • Automatic light metering is possible by shooting in aperture priority mode for almost all digital and film SLR camera bodies except certain Nikon bodies including the D40, D50, D60, D70, D70S, D80, D90, D100, N50, N65, N70, N75, N80, Kodak 14N and ProN, & Fuji S1, S2, and S3.

 

On the next page we'll take a quick look at the interchangeable fisheye optic for the Lensbaby before we put them to use and take some photos.



Fisheye Optic:

In addition to the standard optic element, I also received the 12mm fisheye optic element. The fisheye optic is very different from the standard optic in that it deals more with field of view than with selective focus. Like its sibling optics the fisheye produces some very interesting visual effects which makes it great for creativity but impractical as a day to day wide angle lens. The fisheye optic also comes with a set of aperture disks, a plastic carrying container and a small instruction booklet. 

DSC_0059.jpg by Nicao
Fisheye Bundle
DSC_0076.jpg by Nicao
Optics Side-by-side

 

Specifications:

  • 12 mm focal length 
  • 160 degree field of view 
  • Minimum focus: 1" from front of optic 
  • Maximum focus: infinity 
  • Six element multi-coated optical design 
  • f/4 optic with aperture disks that range from f/5.6 to f/22 
  • Shipped with clear plastic storage case 
  • 1.89" (4.8 cm) x 1.89" (4.8 cm) x 2" (5.08 cm) 
  • Compatible with the Composer. Special adapter required for Muse (sold separately - available November 15th).
  • Not Compatible with the Control Freak

 

 

What is a Lensbaby?

Most babies are cute, but I'm not sure that such a statement could be applied to the Lensbaby. It's a rather odd looking affair that takes certain visual cues from a universal joint. Don't be alarmed though, its appearance is integral to its operation. As stated before, adjusting the focal point on a flat plain is the Lensbaby's primary effect.  To accomplish this one simply rotates the front part of the lens in a certain direction. As the front of the lens moves, so does the focal point.  When the desired effect is achieved, the locking ring is rotated to lock the lens in place and the photograph can be taken.  This locking ring is what separates the composer from the muse and the control freak.  The muse is more like the classic Lensbaby which cannot be locked in place.  The control freak takes the composer one step further by utilizing set screws to adjust the desired angle of effect. 

DSC_0067.jpg by Nicao
Lensbaby Composer
DSC_0077.jpg by Nicao
Lensbaby Composer

 

Now that we understand a little bit of what the Lensbaby is about, we'll hop on over to the next page and talk about using this nifty little contraption.

 

Using the Lensbaby:

While the uses of the Lensbaby are wide and varied, it is its usage that is a bit more tricky. First off, this is a 100% manually focused lens.  This means that you will be focusing every shot yourself so be absolutely sure that your diopter is  spot on.  The instruction booklet makes a special point of emphasizing this because an incorrectly adjusted viewfinder will result in blurry shots. An unfortunate side effect is that the Lensbaby is not that great for taking pictures of fast moving objects, such as small children or pets.

The second thing that a new user will find a little disconcerting is the light metering.  Now some cameras are a bit smarter than mine and will provide light metering in aperture priority mode but the lower end Nikons are not in that group.  With my D90 I had to use full manual mode without even a light meter readout to hint as to the efficacy of my parameters.  It was a bit awkward at first but after a while I began to develop a sense of the appropriate settings. It would still take me a few shots to zero in on the right shutter speed though. A camera that provided better light metering would have helped this situation immensely. Perhaps I'll have to consider this factor for my next body upgrade.  (Come on Nikon get with the video thing!) 
 
Lensbaby Composer w/f4 Aperature
Lensbaby Composer w/f4 Aperature

Another interesting thing about these lenses is the way that they handle aperture.  The discerning reader will have noticed that each optic element comes with its own set of aperture disks. Now, some of you old salts will laugh at me, but I've been using n00b lenses for my entire sojourn with the SLR so the idea of changing aperture manually came as somewhat of a shock. Of course I'm familiar with the concept of aperture (mostly with depth of field) but the Lensbaby employs this part of the optical triad with a slightly different twist. For the double glass optic, aperture controls the size of the focal area. The smaller the aperture (larger F number) the smaller the sweet focus spot will be. For the fisheye optic, the aperture controls how sharp the image will be overall.  The larger your aperture the softer the image will be. In some senses this is not so different from ordinary lenses which tend to start off soft but sharpen up as you step them down. Changing the aperture disks is a fairly simple - but time consuming - affair involving a magnet which is used to extract the existing aperture disk  and to place the new in its place.

 

As mentioned before, one of the unique aspects of the Lensbaby composer is its ability to swap optic elements.  The bottom of optic case serves as an extractor tool which is used to rotate the existing optic releasing it and allowing for the insertion of a new one.  This procedure is not complicated but the same care must be observes as when replacing a lens. A missing optic element leaves your camera's sensor open to the elements, a situation which should be minimized.

In case you haven't gotten it by this point, the Lensbaby is a very manual affair. While I would consider this one of its' downsides,  it did have the benefit of forcing me to get used to all aspects of my camera. It was a time consuming process but in the end I am glad for the betterment of my knowledge that it provided.

On the last page we'll show some examples of the Lensbaby Double-Glass and Fisheye Optics in use on the Composer.  Finally, we'll wrap up with our thoughts.


Photographic Examples:

Like all artistic tools the Lensbaby's power lies more in more in the skill of its operator than mechanics. The real trick with the Lensbaby is in taking advantage of the situations where it shines.  It takes real talent to be able to visualize a scene, not for what it is but what it could be, and then to apply the correct tool to get your results. I'm afraid that I have a long ways to go in my photographic journey so I won't pretend that I have a firm grasp on this concept, but using the Lensbaby for even a short time stretched my creativity in a good way. Here are a few of the more interesting things that came out of the Lensbaby during that time.

 

Double Glass Optic - selective focus

Selective Focus
Selective Focus - Double Glass
Firelight Focus
Selective Focus #2 - Double Glass

 

Both of these shots were taken using firelight only.  The long exposure times necessitated that the camera be on a tripod. Note how even though the objects are on a single focal plane, only one area of the picture is in focus.
 

 
Fisheye Optic - wide angle
 
While we were staying at a bed and breakfast I had a chance to take pictures of some lovely flowers. The fisheye lens allowed me to get so close to the flower that it was almost touching the lens.  Even my prime lens would let me get nearly that close.
 
DSC_0590.jpg by Nicao
Wide Angle Effect - Fisheye
DSC_0605.jpg by Nicao
Almost Macro - Fisheye

 

The fun part about the fisheye lens is not in in realism but rather its' surrealism. It sure looks wacky the way that it can turn a nice straight construction site into a mass of curves. 

Garage Trusses - Fisheye
Garage Trusses - Fisheye
Garage - Fisheye
Garage - Fisheye

 

Photographing small children is not something that the Lensbaby excels at. They move too fast for effective manual focus. It was still fun to try though, and I got this shot of my son playing in a tube at the playground.  The fisheye is great here because it allows you to see the whole tube and gives a much better context to the shot. 

Boy in a Tube - Fisheye

 

 

Image quality:
 
I'm going to touch on this briefly just to let you know that it didn't slip my mind. I don't have the complicated test equipment, environment, or expertise to do this topic justice so I'll just leave you with a couple of thoughts.  While neither the double glass, or the fisheye optic was as sharp as my F1.8 prime, they were both still adequate for the job.  Their primary purpose is visual effects not exceptional clarity.
 
 

 
Conclusion:

The Lensbaby is a hard product to review, because its' usefulness is determined in a large part by the user. If you are the type of person who likes the artistry of photography and doesn't mind spending a considerable amount of time setting up a shot then this product will prove very useful. However if you like to point at pretty things and go "click" then the Lensbaby will prove useless and infinitely frustrating. After having used it myself I must say that it's a tool that I would appreciate having in my bag.  I probably wouldn't use it everyday but for certain situations it is definitely invaluable. 

Pros:
  • Good construction
  • Produces effects you won't find in another product
 
 
Cons:
  • Manual focus
  • Awkward light metering on some cameras
  • Manual aperture

 

This product is pretty hard to give it a full rating according to our review criteria, but after reading this review, you can determine for yourself if you want to take your creative photography to the next level with a Lensbaby.  That being said, for quality, creativity and control I believe it deserves an Editor's Choice - Silver Award.

 

Silver

 

I'd like to thank Lensbaby for sending out both the composer, double-glass and fisheye optics for us to try out. If you have any questions or comments, please drop Nicao a line in the forum at the "Comments" link below.