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The Lensbaby lens systems have been around for a while now and as their use becomes more widespread, the quirky lensmaker continues to expand it's inventory and win over the hearts of creative minded photographers all over the world. It's no wonder why, their arsenal of gear leaves little to be desired in the eyes of those wanting to crossover into the world of selective focus photography. There's a lens, optic, or accessory to accomplish just about any effect you could dream up and they generally come at a small fraction of the cost as their predecessors.
To better explain, let's first briefly breakdown how the Lensbaby family works. They currently market four different lenses. The Composer Pro, the Muse, the Spark, and the Scout. With the exception of the Scout, all the lenses are either on bendable bellows or a smooth-action swivel ball that allows you to rotate the lens in virtually any direction you wish–up, down, sideways. This allows the Lensbaby to have what is called a selective focus. Look at the photo below, do you see how the area in focus–the Sweet Spot, in Lensbaby speak–is placed off-center so only the train is in focus? That is selective focusing. The movement of the bellows or swivel on the Lensbaby grants photographers the ability to place the center of focus anywhere in the frame.
The lenses vary in price, currently ranging from $80-$400 USD, depending on the quality of construction materials and which optics you select for your lens to ship with.
Which Optics, You Say?
That's right, the lens is only part of the equation. With a Lensbaby lens, you can swap the glass in and out depending on your mood and what you are shooting. You can choose from a pinhole, a fisheye, a plastic 50mm (think toy camera), a single glass 50mm to emulate vintage glass, a special soft-focus glass 50mm for dreamlike softness, a double glass 50mm (the most popular of the optics), a glass Sweet 35mm that offers a focus closeness of up to 3″ (7.62cm) depending on which lens you're using, and the Edge 80 which is the cheapest alternative to a legit tilt shift lens I have encountered. Swapping the optics out of the lens is a bit of hassle, admittedly, but it does become a bit easier with practice. You'll need a special tool which is included with the optics. Also, to change apertures on all but the Edge 80 and Sweet 35, you need physically remove the aperture discs (again using an included tool) and drop in a new one. It's less complicated than it sounds, but an annoyance nonetheless. The pricier Edge 80 and Sweet 35 have built-in adjustable 12-blade apertures.
Accessorize, Accessorize, Accessorize
Oh, yeah, we almost forgot to mention there are even more options available for the Lensbabies to further add to your creative control. For the macro enthusiasts (and let's face it, we all want to macro something) there's an 8mm and a 16mm macro conversion kit, which, when stacked together, give you a 24mm macro converter. For the wide-angle admirers, you can use the wide-angle adapter to bump your 50mm optic to a 21mm that touts a focal distance of 2.75″ (7mm) in front of the lens. If you're feeling really creative there is a pre-cut & DIY bokeh filter kit and also a step up ring for select optics which allow you to use any standard 52mm filter on your Lensbaby. But, enough of the technicalities, let's see these babies in action.
Endless Possibility Awaits
As mentioned before, the Edge 80 is Lensbaby's reply to the increasingly popular tilt-shift community. This optic offers a slice of selective focus as opposed to the other optics which create a rounded selective focus. Divide the the frame into three segments the middle segment will be in focus, the other two out of focus, which quite effectively emulates the work of a much more expensive tilt-shift lens.
There's no question that photographers love a 50mm lens. So much in fact, we even coined the term nifty fifty as a sort of pet name for it. Naturally, Lensbaby's best selling optic is 50mm. But, that's not to say their 35mm optic can't hold it's own in the crowd. Both of the lenses are fast, funky, and more than capable. Check out some of these examples:
Metropolis by josemanuelerre, on Flickr
Selective focus has many good qualities, including the bokeh. Even without the optional bokeh filter set, the qaulity of the out-of-focus area can be pretty astounding.
Get close up with the macro converter to focus on the finer details in flowers, insects, or just about anything you willing to get up close and personal with.
And this is just a sampling of what you can do with any combination of Lensbaby tools. A simple Flickr search on Lensbaby yields 250,000 different examples. Each unique and inspiring in their own way. Whatever question you ask of your lens–be it food photography or high fashion photography–the Lensbaby has an answer. No, they are not perfect and may not be able to compare to the other high end lenses, but that's not the the point. It encourages the creative process, almost forcing the person holding the camera to see things in a different way, to pay closer attention to detail. And, yes, a lot of the results can be replicated in Photoshop, but if you come from the school of thought that if it can be done in camera, it should be done in camera and you don't have a small fortune to drop on expensive lenses, the Lensbaby could be your answer.