Bending backwards for better photos
4 Mar 2007
A good while ago, I discovered the phenomenon of the Lensbaby lens. Basically, it's a bendable lens that you can use for creative effect. It means that you get what essentially is a tilt/shift lens which allows you to work with creative selective focus, extreme macro photography, and lots of creative freedom.
I recently got my grubby paws on a Lensbaby, and ever since, I've been a complete convert. I recently spent 4 days exploring Madrid, and despite of having a lot of expensive glass, I ended up only using the Lensbaby lens throughout the whole trip.
Using the Lensbaby 3G
The lens I have is the Lensbaby 3G, which is the newest and funkiest Lensbaby created to date. It's a funky-looking little lens which has a vast range of versatility. You can use it like the original Lensbaby, by just squeezing it (to focus) and bending it (for selective focus) by hand, or you can lock it off. When you lock the collar, the little sticks that stick out through the lens come to their own: They're actually threaded, so you can twist them to fine-adjust the focus and selective focus of the lens. In addition, there's a focussing ring you can use to get focus right, rather then compressing or stretching the whole bellow.
For something that basically started out as a toy, the Lensbaby is growing into its own shoes as a pretty damn important and impressive player in the photography scene.
For Aperture, the Lensbaby has a really clever solution, too: instead of a shutter-based aperture, the lens uses small black circular bits that are held in place in front of the lens element by magnets! It sounds completely ridiculous, but it works surprisingly well.
Getting used to the Lensbaby takes a long time, perhaps because it initially seems so damn counter-intuitive. Focussing, selective focus, and tilt/shift theory is pretty confusing stuff. But then the same happens to you as what happened to me: Suddenly, it just clicks, and the whole thing becomes a three-dimensional photography experience. You have the shutter speed, ISO, the disc-based aperture control, and the bendy-lens goodness.
How to get the best results
Especially when the lens is new to you, it's incredibly tempting to over-do the effect. 'look what my lens can do' is cool for a while, but it's kind of like the kid who discovered the cloud filter in Photoshop, and now can't stop using it for everything (I was that kid once. Shut up.). When using the Lensbaby, it's definitely a case of less is more, and it's a lesson that is hard to learn.
When I was first shooting with the Lens Baby, I went to the New Forest, and ended up with a lot of photos that were seriously overdoing the effect. Since, I'd love to think I've started to get the hang of it a little bit better.
What surprises me, is how versatile this seemingly simple lens can be. I've successfully used in portraiture, for example, a genre where I wouldn't have thought that the Lensbaby would be able to excel. I was additionally surprised how beautiful the Bokeh (the out-of-focus highlights in a photo) are of the Lensbaby.
Other experiments I tried include architectural photography, street photography, abstract photography, heck I even tried product photography. With the vast amount of creative vibe I got off the lens, I even had a shot at food photography, although I'd be the first person to admit that I probably over-did the effect a little bit...
As a general tip: When you are photographing with a Lensbaby lens, make sure you put your camera into manual mode, and control everything yourself. Also, make sure you use Raw file format. Exposure can be really tricky, and you can tease some amazing colours out of Lensbaby photos, and the extra flexibility offered by the Raw file format really helps in that department.
Right, but is it actually any good?
"So, all of this is good and well.", I hear you say. "You've had the lens for a week or so, and you've taken some hot photos", you continue. "But is it really worth it? After all, the 3G version costs a whopping $270.00, the version 2 costs $150.00, and even the original Lensbaby is not exactly the cheapest gadget you can buy at $96.00!"
Well, you are right, for what it is, it is slightly on the pricey side. On the other hand, I was surprised about one particular aspect of the Lensbaby: In its simplicity, it is actually an extremely powerful lens, which not only offers a level of artistic and photographic freedom which I haven't experienced before or since, but it also offers a deeper level of insight into the deepest roots of photography. By instinctively starting to grasp how you can bend a lens one way for one effect, and another for another effect, you develop as a photographer: One step closer to complete photography zen, where you become one with the camera.
If the 'photography zen' wishy-washy stuff doesn't do it for you, then be persuaded by the photos in this article. Or the photos taken with lensbabies on Flickr (just search for 'lensbaby'). Or by the excitement of using a lens that is unique, exciting, and creative in a fantastic way. Or the fact that nobody has ever asked me about any photography equipment I carried around, but despite me not speaking much Spanish, half a dozen people struck up conversations with me in Madrid because of the funny-looking lens I was using.
Is it a brilliant lens? Definitely. Is it worth the money? Well, it depends on how much money you have to spend, and how you want to develop as a photographer. If you don't have any prime lenses, I'd say buy a 50 f/1.8 first. Once you've got one of those, build yourself a macro lens. Then, take a damn good look at the Lensbabies. I, for one, know I'll never want to be without one of these things in my photo bag. It really is that good.