Lensbaby Composer: Crazy Fun, and Inspirational (Review)

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In the photography world, precision and perfection is often the topic of discussion, especially as we’re learning our craft.  We read articles explaining the best way to get tack sharp focus, or how best to eliminate camera shake.  Proper focusing techniques, choosing the correct depth of field and composition are also common topics.  In learning how to be perfect, two things are often lost:  Fun and Creativity.   Oh what a boring world we’d have if fun and creativity were forgotten.

Creative blocks create a mess of problems.  When faced with the pit of despair and stagnation, we often look to our equipment.  Perhaps we need a new camera?  Perhaps a new lens might help?  We scrounge the internet and magazines for the next thing – the next acquisition that will hopefully get out of our slump.  Yet we are faced with expensive options that – lets face it – won’t really help us do what we want.  What we really need is to be a little loose.  What we really need is to make photography fun again.  And that’s a void that Lensbaby hopes to fill.  For the purpose of review, Lensbaby was kind enough to loan me a Lensbaby Composer with Double Glass optics (I’ll explain the different lenses and optics later).

The Lensbaby System

“Survivor” (f/4, 1/60)

Lensbaby is a manufacturer of creative lenses where the focusing plane is adjustable and variable.  Among their product line are three lenses:  The Muse, a free form composition lens; The Composer, a smoother composition lens; and the Control Freak (Editor’s Note – the Control Freak has been discontinued), where the term “tweak” doesn’t really explain the level of control you have over the lens.  Lensbaby’s mission is to provide fun and creative lens systems that can be adapted for whatever your creative endeavor might be.  But I also find the system to be a great way to change perspective, to get a new look.

There’s an important distinction to be made:  The Lensbaby system is not a tilt/shift lens.  Both feature an adjustable focusing plane, so many get confused.  The difference is subtle, but important.  While a tilt/shift lens’s field of focus is flat, the Lensbaby system has a curved field of focus.  The purpose of a tilt/shift lens is to correct distortion.  The Lensbaby’s curved field of focus allows for selective focus – a sweet-spot focus, if you will.

Each of the lenses serves as a framework for the optic systems.  The optics are swappable, allowing you to change out the optics for whatever effect you desire.  For the optics, you have a choice between six types:  Double Glass (clean and clear), Single Glass (for an antique look), Plastic (for the toy camera look), Pinhole, Soft Focus and Fisheye.  To compare the effects of the optics, I would highly recommend you check out the Optic Comparison at Lensbaby’s site.  And again, these are swappable, so you can have more than one set of optics for use in the same lens.

“Impervious to Light” (f/8, 1/125)

Controlling the Lensbaby lenses is about as simple as you can get.  Apertures are set by literally dropping washers with different sized openings into the optic system.  Washers can be removed using a magnet (supplied) which also doubles as a storage container for the washers not-in-use.  The focusing process varies depending on which lens you have.  For the Composer and the Control Freak, a built-in focusing ring is included.  For the free-form Muse, focusing is handled by squeezing the lens.  When it comes to setting the focusing sweet spot, the Muse – the simplest of the three – is tweaked by simply bending the lens.  The Composer has a swivel ball where you can slide the lens into place to adjust the sweet spot, and then lock it down by rotating a locking ring.  If you’re using the control freak, there are a set of three knobs to slowly, and precisely, move the lens into position.  If you’re a free-form photographer, you may find the Muse to be perfect to compliment your style.  If you’re more of a tinkerer and you carry your tripod around everywhere, the Control Freak is going to be up your alley.  And the Composer, which I have been working with, is somewhere in between with regards to the control you have.  But the level of control is where the differences between the lenses ends.  From this point on, realize that any effect achievable with one of the lenses is entirely possible with another lens.  All that changes is your approach.

As you would expect, the Lensbaby system is available for a several SLR cameras.  Lensbaby offers mount options for Canon and Nikon, of course.  But they also offer mount options that fit Pentax, Olympus 4/3rd (which also fits Leica) and Sony (the Sony also fits Dynax and Maxxum cameras).  Metering is a different story.  If you’re a Canon user or an Olympus user, your camera will most likely meter through the lens perfectly and work well in Aperture Priority mode.  But some Sony SLRs and some Nikon SLRs will work only in Manual mode.  I used a Nikon D80 for these tests, so I was working in full-manual.  Without my in-camera meter, I had to experiment a little bit.  But based on my experience, I was able to figure things out.  Note, if your in-camera meter doesn’t work, your TTL flash will also not work.  The flash will work, but you’ll need to do a manual power override.  If you are not yet accustomed to shooting in Manual Mode, you will definately want to check the FAQ for compatibility.

The Lensbaby Composer – In Use

There is a learning curve associated with almost any lens – but that curve is much steeper for the Lensbaby System.  I spent a lot more time than I would have anticipated getting used to the system.  The lens comes with a nice little tutorial explaining the best way to use the product.  But even so, you can expect to spend some time tinkering.  I don’t count this against the product, however.  The system is just nothing like I’ve ever played with.  Perhaps this is one case where my years of experience are working against me.  But thanks to the many users (and fans) of the Lensbaby products, and especially thanks to some of the users at Lensbaby’s Forums, I learned a few tricks to help me get started. Once I got over the bell of the curve, I was able to work more efficiently with the Lensbaby.

The build of the lens is somewhat misleading.  We’re all accustomed to heavy-duty lenses.  The Composer is incredibly light in comparison, even with the double-glass optics.  My initial reaction was that it felt cheap – like I was going to break it easily.  But after a month of using it, I’m fairly confident that the lens is quite durable – especially after the stress I put it through.  If you think about it, the lens is so simple that there is not an opportunity for much heft.  Even the double glass element is pretty thin – there really isn’t much glass involved, and it’s recessed deep into the lens.  The aperture rings eliminate a major mechanical element, eliminating more weight.  In the end, it seems to be quite durable.  The one thing I can’t speak to is the durability of locking ring on the Composer – I rarely used it.

Overall, the one aspect of the lens that I disliked was the Aperture system.  The system worked quite well from a photography perspective.  But using the system was less than favorable in my opinion.  Changing the aperture on the fly became a bit of a nuisance.  The rings are held in place quite well while in use, but they need to be removed using a tool which is essentially a magnet (the tool is provided).  The tool also doubles as a container that holds the rings.  But the rings are only held in with a lid – which looks like a film canister cap.  So if you want to change apertures, you need to remove the ring from the lens, open the canister, find the aperture ring you like, put all the rings back in the canister and close the lid before your done.  If you don’t keep the thing closed, you’re going to lose the rings.  In the field, it just seemed like too much to juggle around.  My clumsy fingers threatened – more than once – to fumble a ring or three onto the leaf-littered floor where I would likely have difficulty finding them again.  And finally, the apertures are labeled with a simple sticker, nothing more.  I would at least like to see the rings etched in some way.  I would also like to see more consideration given to the storage of the aperture rings when not in use.

Tips for Using the Lensbaby

Okay, so technically this is a review article and tips for its use traditionally has no place here.  But I think that the Lensbaby concept  is far outside of the comfort zone for many people.  Like any wise consumer, I would expect some of you to borrow one of these to try out before considering owning one of your own.  It’s only fair to share some of these tips simply so that you can make a fair assessment of your own.

  • Less is More: Even the most subtle tweaks to the angle of the lens has a dramatic effect on the position of the sweet-spot.  I quickly learned that very slight changes are often times all you need.  After some of my best shots, I found that the lens barely looked like I moved it.
  • Favorite Apertures: Having to change out aperture rings – it can be a bit of a drag.  After lots of experimentation, I found that I liked to shoot most often in f/8 and f/5.6.  I would suggest finding one or two apertures that you really like, and sticking with it.
  • Composition Tip: Center the lens to focus with your subject centered in the field of view.  Then – instead of changing the lens angle – hold the front edge of the lens in place and shift/rotate the camera body to reposition the subject in your field of view.  The idea is that the subject stays with the focus.  I found this to be helpful while I was getting used to the system.
  • Practice With Flat, Patterned Surfaces:  My house is brick, I practiced shooting the brick to get a better idea of how the lens reacted.  For the most part, altering the focusing plane is predictable – but you will never figure it out by focusing on a small object floating in space.
  • Check Your Shots On Screen, Often: Especially if you’re shooting in manual, it’s good to check the shots in the field on the back of your camera.  Make sure you get the shot that you want, and double check your focus.

Final Thoughts

Vertigo

Before I wrap things up, I want to point out that I am consider myself obsessive compulsive photographer.  I obsess about settings and the most minuscule of details.  I was skeptical about whether I’d be able to enjoy a free-form system like the Lensbaby Composer.  But I warmed up to it – perhaps much more than I expected.  The biggest benefit to me was its impact on inspiration.  If I hit a wall, I would pull out the Lensbaby and shoot a couple of shots.  Even if all of the shots were junk (many were – my fault, not the lens’s), I was able to make a transition from the left brain to the right.  I was able to be a little more free-form and art minded.  Switching to one of my traditional lenses, I found myself in a happier place.

Is the Lensbaby for everyone?  If I could be so bold, I think that everyone would benefit by having one – if only as an exercise tool.  And at the price point – about $270 USD for the Composer as of this writing – there’s almost no reason not to have one.  But it is fair to say that many people will not be satisfied, nor would they appreciate, the quality of the images that result.  But if the concept of loose – daresay: imperfect – photographs appeal to you at some level, then I would recommend the lens.

I have but a few caveats.  First, check the FAQ to verify the lens works on your camera.  If it works only in full-manual, and you’re not yet ready for that – you’ll want to hold off.  This certainly isn’t a beginner’s lens.  Next, don’t forget about the many resources that Lensbaby offers, like the forums, their gallery.  When you’re getting started, these are going to help you get over the bell curve.

As of this writing, the Lensbaby Composer, its siblings and all of the optics and accessories are available at both of our favorite retailers: Amazon.com and at  B&H Photo.  The Composer retails just shy of $270 USD whereas the Control Freak is about $350  and the Muse is about $150 (as priced with the double-glass optics).  As I mentioned, choosing between the systems is purely a matter of preference – so I cannot recommend which would be best for your style.  What I can say is that the Composer is a nice middle-of-the-road system, and I expect that most people would be more than satisfied with the Composer.

Things We Liked:

  • The “no-frills” approach – there’s nothing fancy about the lens, but that’s what makes it appealing.
  • Focusing Ring – I could not imagine using the Muse, which doesn’t have a focusing ring.  The ring made life much easier.
  • Interchangeable optics – you can select from double glass, single glass, plastic, pinhole, soft focus and fisheye.
  • Accessories – available accessories include the macro kit, a wide angle lens (adapter), a super wide angle lens (adapter), creative aperture kit (shaped bokeh), a step-up ring and shade and so on.
  • Inspiration – There’s no arguing that a few minutes with a Lensbaby will get your creative juices flowing.

Things We Didn’t Like:

  • Carrier for the aperture rings make it easy to lose things.
  • Changing the Aperture on the fly is a nusiance
  • Aperture Washer’s are labeled with a simple sticker – I would have liked to have seen a more permanent solution.
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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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