If you’ve admired the lo-fi beauty of your bud’s Holga shots but dread returning to the pre-digital dark ages, we’ve got the answer.
Craig Strong invented the Lensbaby to give his snazzy digital SLR shots an aesthetic similar to a Holga’s. The tiny lens fits most popular camera bodies, and it’s decidedly old-fashioned: no auto-focus, no light-metering on many modern cameras, no zoom, no camera-selectable aperture.
Instead, your $150 buys unadulterated photographic fun–a cool effect reminiscent of a Holga or a tilt-shift lens, but totally unique.
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: The Lensbaby is not a serious lens. It’s not made from German-engineered optics, and it’s not going to give you shots sharp enough to identify people in a crowd from hundreds of feet away.
But photography is supposed to be fun, and fun the Lensbaby does with style. This little guy can take shots that you can’t take with other lenses, and he’ll give you more control over your than most other lenses. Think of using a Lensbaby like painting with your camera.
This review covers Lensbaby 2.0, a revised version of the original Lensbaby. Lensbaby 2.0 is available direct from the manufacturer for $149.
The Lensbaby is a small, lightweight (3.7 oz) lens built like an accordian. Different versions are available for various camera mounts (Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Leica, Olympus, Pentax, Contax) but they all work the same way. You use your fingers to squeeze the accordion, bringing your image into focus. Then, you bend the lens left, right, up, or down to narrow your focus to your subject. To hold your focus, you hold your lens still as you depress the shutter.
Lensbaby is made from coated glass and approximates a 50mm lens with a minimum focus distance of about a foot. Because it’s is a purely analog device, Lensbaby does not talk to modern cameras’ sophisticated light-metering systems–which means you need to meter the old fashioned way: using your eyes. Finally, aperture control requires removing the lens and swapping in one of several small metal disks (f2.0, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8).
What’s in the box
Lensbaby arrives in a tiny orange cardboard cube. Inside, you’ll find the lens itself, a screw-on metal lens cap, interchangeable aperture rings, and a ring replacement tool. A friendly accordion-like instruction booklet rides along, as does a soft drawstring cloth pouch to carry your Lensbaby and accessories.
It’s a nice package, and it’s clear that some thought went into the out-of-box experience. Details matter to these people.
(Click on a thumbnail to see it larger.)
How it works
Lensbaby is not your average lens. Not only is it quite a bit smaller than other lenses you’re likely to have, its full manual control makes using it a much more interactive experience.
Focus is pretty easy to achieve (even if you’re used to relying on auto-focus), but holding your focus steady while clicking the shutter requires practice. Maneuvering the accordion lens around to get your subject in the sweet spot also takes some getting used to. But once you get it, you get it.
If you can’t use your camera’s light meter, you’ll probably need to take a few practice shots to get your shutter speed set appropriately for the lighting–not a big deal.
For the most part, we found ourselves leaving a single aperture ring in all of the time. While it was nice to have the flexibility to swap in different rings for different apertures, in practice removing the lens and swapping in parts wasn’t worth the effort.
Even after you’ve logged some practice time with Lensbaby, you’ll still need to take a few shots to get one that works just right in lighting and in focus. And don’t expect them to be tack sharp like the ones you get from your primes, either–that’s not what Lensbaby is about. You can expect good shots, and exercise a fair amount of creative control you couldn’t otherwise.
We were able to get some photos that we could never have gotten with conventional lenses, and would have had trouble achieving even with time in Photoshop. And we had fun in the process!
Here are a few example shots:
(Click on a thumbnail to see it larger.)
Already have an SLR and a decent lens? Then a Lensbaby will make a fun addition to your arsenal, or a great gift for an SLR-toting bud. It’s a whole lot less bulky than a plastic Holga bought on eBay, and at $150, it’s cheaper than most ‘normal’ lenses. You’ll have fun with this one.
(And hey, they offer a full refund within 30 days if you’re not satisfied.)