I can’t think of a single use case scenario for which you NEED the Lensbaby Velvet 56 in your bag, but if you are anything like me, sometimes you just WANT something, because it is fun and cool and pretty, and this lens ticks all those boxes. In fact, if you're anything like me, your Lensbaby will probably be living inside of a camera bag that is also more fun and cool and pretty than practical. We're just like that.
I call the lens an accessory because I see it as being more like a silk scarf or a velvet hat, it is not a practical necessity like pants or shoes, but it provides a nice finishing touch to your outfit and perhaps an extra creative glint to your eye.
Yes, you can create a similar dreamy, glowing effect in photoshop, but you can’t reproduce the way you will look at things differently when you have it on your camera and that’s what makes it so special.
A Cut Above
For those who have played with some of the earlier Lensbaby lineup, those interchangeable lenses that you pop in and out of a body that bends to create blur effects around the edges, the Velvet 56 will feel surprisingly solid and well built. It is also quite a lot easier to master (or, at least, boss around a bit), because it is fixed in its housing, just like a regular lens.
The image is sharpest in the middle and gradually becomes softer towards the edges, at least at wider apertures. If you're married to the rule of thirds or pixel peeping at 100%, you may find this lens hard on your OCD.
Relax, I say and enjoy it for what it is: a creative tool, not a scientific instrument. A paint brush, not a protractor. Stopped down, the Lensbaby Velvet 56 behaves more like a regular prime lens and is surprisingly sharp, but it's probably not for you if that is the feature that makes it appealing since a regular 50mm prime is so inexpensive.
This is also a pretty great looking lens, which admittedly shouldn’t be much of a factor when buying a lens and my common sense prevailed and I stuck with the ($50 cheaper) black model, but I still think the silver one looks super hot. Even the black version is made of smooth, cool and shiny metal, not plastic.
Focus and Metering
The lens is manual focus only and the focus ring moves smoothly but has enough tightness to allow precision. Metering will still work with most cameras, so you can shoot in aperture priority mode if that is your preference. Shutter priority will not work because the aperture is also manual and the camera has no control over it – more about that in a moment.
Some older or entry-level cameras will not meter at all with a manual lens, for example, my Nikon D3200, so if this ability is important for you or if you are not comfortable in full manual mode, you should do your homework on how the lens will work with your camera body before buying (or commit to learning to shoot in manual, it’s really not that hard! Here’s a good place to start: http://improvephotography.com/start/).
As I mentioned previously, this lens is sharp when stopped down – the only caveat being that it can be difficult to focus at higher f stops due to the manual aperture. When you use a lens that has an aperture controlled by the camera, it actually keeps that aperture wide open, letting in lots of light while you focus and only snaps closed to the aperture you have set when you press the shutter.
With a manual aperture, there is a dial on the body of the lens that you use to physically set the aperture. That means that what you see through the viewfinder gets darker with every turn of the dial and it can become difficult to focus pretty quickly as you stop down. If you want to take a photo at f/16, you will probably need to use a tripod, focus with the aperture open and then close it down. Obviously, this becomes pretty tricky handheld.
My biggest complaint about the aperture dial is that it is a bit loose and easily moved accidentally while focusing or holding the camera. Next thing you know, photos that you thought you were taking at the relatively sharp f/4 are unusably soft at f/1.6. Because your camera does not know what aperture you are using, this information will not be saved with your metadata and won’t be visible later in Lightroom (or whatever post processing software you are using).
The aperture range goes from f/1.6 to f/16, with clicks at the common aperture settings, but you can also stop anywhere in between.
Soft and Dreamy Springtime
While it’s fun to use at any time, Spring is the season you are most likely to see the Lensbaby Velvet 56 accessorizing my camera. The soft, dreamy look just suits flowers and blossoms, pastel colours and bright, clean light so well.
It also doesn’t hurt that it focuses at just 5 inches (12.7cm) from your subject, making it a 1:2 macro lens. (A true macro lens is 1:1, meaning that the object will take up the same amount of space on your sensor as it does in real life). I find 1:2 is perfect for flowers, and small objects – things that would not fit on your camera's sensor at 1:1 anyway.
This is not the macro lens to purchase if you are thinking you would like to photograph insects because the 56mm focal length is going to mean getting way too close. If you're brave enough to get that close to a spider or lucky enough to get that close to a butterfly, then power to you, I'm sure you'll get some great shots, but I'll stick to flowers and jewelry and baby toes and puppy paws, thank you very much.
When stopped down to f/2.8 or f/4, you can get beautifully sharp details while keeping the background silky smooth with a touch of glow around the edges. This is my favourite way to use the lens because I find the wide open apertures are just a little too soft for my taste.
The bokeh effect produced by the lens at lower apertures creates a nine-sided (nonagonal and yes, I had to look that word up) shape when background lights are closer up, but the shape softens out as lights are further back. Other backgrounds blur into smooth and glowing scenes ranging from completely abstract to impressionist. This can be a useful tool for separating a subject nicely from a cluttered, busy or unappealing background.
Almost Cures My Petzval Cravings
At times, there is a hint of spin blur around the edges, reminiscent of what you can achieve with a much more expensive 70-200 f/2.8, zoomed all the way in and with a wide open aperture. It may even be satisfying my craving for the Lomography Petzval Lens , another completely unnecessary but drool worthy lens that I have been coveting for the past few years. This effect, which was totally unexpected to me may actually be my favourite thing about the lens.
Black and White
When photos taken at wider apertures with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 are converted to black and white, the glowing, dreamy effect can make them look like photos taken with infrared film, so there's a costly camera conversion saved, as well 😉
Eerie and Surreal
Another time that I find myself reaching for the Lensbaby Velvet 56 is whenever I want to create an eerie or surreal mood. This lens is perfect for photographing abandoned places and cobweb covered details.
Many antique lenses and cameras were blurry around the edges, had very shallow depth of field or had heavy vignettes, so when we see these things, we are immediately reminded of vintage photos. A derelict house with some blur around the edges almost appears to be in motion, it gives it a very haunted feeling and I just love giving myself the creeps.
What Else Is It Good For?
I'm not, personally a big portrait photographer and I haven't used the lens much for photographing people, thus far. I can definitely see the appeal, though as long as you're mindful not to push the dreamy effect too far and wind up looking like a glamour shot from the 1980's! I have used the lens to create a lovely, soft glow that makes babies and sleeping pets look like little angels…even if they're not.
If I were a wedding photographer, I think that I just might want this lens in my bag for close up photos of rings and flowers and a glowing shot or two of the dress. Because of the ability to stop down and have a sharp, 56 mm prime that can focus up close, the Lensbaby Velvet 56 can even make a good all purpose lens for walking around town and photographing whatever catches your eye.
How Does The Lensbaby Velvet 56 Compare To The Soft Optic?
What if you're an old Lensbaby pro and you already have the soft optic, isn't this the same? Well, yes…and no. The soft optic does produce a very similar effect, but with none of the convenience of having the aperture dial right on the lens. The older, swappable optic systems had a little magnetic wand and a bunch of aperture disks that had to be manually removed and replaced with a different size whenever you wanted to stop up or down and that was a pretty major hassle.
Secondly, as you move into the smaller apertures on the soft optic, the dreamy effect becomes less and less noticeable throughout the whole image, it didn't really have the ability to take an image that was tack sharp in the centre, gradually becoming softer towards the edges, you had to choose between all over sharpness or all over dreaminess. Whenever I took photos with the soft optic, I loved them at first glance, but on closer inspection, I could just never find a spot in the photo that was completely sharp enough for me to be happy with it and that ability is what I love in the Velvet 56, at least once I stop down to around f/2.8-f/4.
One really cool feature of the soft optic that is missing in the Velvet 56 is the aperture with multiple holes that created crazy starburst highlights. The starburst catchlights in the eyes made everyone look like anime…but, again I never really found any of those images to be acceptably sharp enough to be “usable” and let's be honest, the cartoon look is not for everyone.
Where To Buy
If you've decided that you simply cannot live without this lens, well who am I to judge? You can purchase the Lensbaby Velvet 56 directly from the Lensbaby website (and check out some of their other wacky and wonderful lenses while you're there), or you can purchase one from Amazon.
Do you already own the lens? We'd love to hear from you! Share your thoughts below, what is your favourite subject to photograph with your Lensbaby?