Lensbaby is a lens company most photographers have heard of, but a lot have never tried. They aren't like Tamron or Sigma or the other companies that are trying to compete with your camera manufacturers. Lensbaby throws a whole different dynamic into the lens game by offering lenses that are all about creativity and fun. Indeed, if you have never seen anything but your standard lenses, the Composer Pro II is going to make you do a double take.
The Composer Pro II is a metal housing system that can hold different optics from Lensbaby. The Edge 50 is one of those optics. This particular optic allows you to bend the lens so you can obtain the tilt-shift effect slice of focus in different areas of the frame depending on how you bend the lens.
When someone contacted me about reviewing this lens, I was pretty excited. I had heard a lot of good things about how fun these lenses can be, but I had never considered adding one to my gear bag because I already have a list of lenses I need before I feel like my system is complete. Having a narrow point of view aimed at filling my “necessary” gear list, I only looked at a lens like this as something that would be fun to play around with, but would not seriously add to my photography. While I was right about it not helping me fill my necessary gear list, I completely undervalued how beneficial adding some real creativity and difference to your body of work can impact your photographic journey.
Before I get more into how I used this system, let's look at the nerdy stuff:
This is a fixed 50 mm lens. I used it with my Fuji X-T1, which means it had a full-frame equivalent of a 75 mm prime lens. It has an aperture range of f/3.2 to f/22 with a minimum focusing distance of eight inches. It is a manual focus lens that can tilt up to fifteen degrees. It has nine diaphragm blades with 8 elements in 6 groups. It is 3.25 inches long by 2.5 inches wide and weighs 10 ounces. Finally, the filter thread is 46 mm.
Now that we have that out of the way, lets get to the fun stuff. I will admit, I am not a pixel peeper. I cannot give you an in depth review of the technical performance of this lens, but I was pleased overall with the quality of images I made. What I cared about was how this lens got me out shooting more. I tried this lens out in a number of different situations with varying levels of success. The most fun part of having this lens is trying to think of different ways to use it. I am going to highlight my experiences using this lens in different situations.
Probably the last thing most people think of when it comes to the tilt-shift effect is shooting landscapes. Usually you want the whole landscapes in focus, but I am sure we have all seen the cool effects of people shooting cityscapes with a tilt-shift lens. The effect of selective focus leaves the in-focus buildings looking like miniaturized models. I wanted to try this out on different landscapes to see what results I could get. The difficult part is finding landscapes you can shoot with a 50 mm lens, but if you can find a vast landscape, like the one below, or even just focus on a more intimate landscape, you can definitely make it work.
The above image was taken somewhere in Washington or possibly Idaho as I was driving around country roads north of Pullman. I actually really liked the way it came out. I feel like it adds a lot of depth of field and makes the trees in the distance seem much further away. The most fun part of using this lens was that I had fun shooting different images in this location. I started with my normal lens, made a couple shots, looked around and was done in a matter of minutes. Once I got the Lensbaby on, I could do so much more because every shift of the lens and new angle had a different effect. It was really fun testing it all out before settling on the image I liked best and conveyed the feeling I was going for.
That can also be an issue as you can miss fleeting light trying to play with the different angles until you get used to it. Perhaps the biggest issue I had using this lens for landscapes is I seemed to leave it in my bag too often. That is a personal issue. I am still upset at myself for spending nearly a week in Glacier National Park without taking the lens out of my camera bag! While this lens will never replace my normal wide angle lens for landscapes, it is a fun tool to get a different look. This can be useful if you have a lot of time at a location or if you are trying to get a unique look at an often-photographed location.
Architecture shots shots were one of the reasons I was most excited to test out this lens. Unfortunately, I completely spaced the fact that there is not a whole lot of architecture to shoot at 50 mm. Because of that, I was not able to get a lot of good architecture images, but I did have fun experimenting with portions of buildings.
Shooting architecture with this lens really tested my creativity. Because of that, I feel like I was able to make better images in a lot of cases that went beyond the normal shots you would expect. The only way I could get far enough from the building to the right without including a lot of sky or street was to get behind these trees. While this blocked chunks of the building, I think it adds some interest to the frame and I like the look from the selective focus. Had I been shooting with a normal wide angle lens, I never would have thought to frame the image like this and I think I would have ended up with a more boring image or nothing at all. Obviously, there is a lot of shots I also could have made with a wide angle lens that I could not have done with the Lensbaby system, but I think this is what shooting with the Lensbaby is all about-testing your creativity to get completely different images.
A lot of the fun in shooting architecutre with this lens comes form playing with what part of the building you are going to leave in focus. The two images below are of the same building, taken from the same location in downtown Salt Lake City.
By shifting the lens to the left and right, the focus of the frame completely changes. I know, this is not groundbreaking, you could do this same thing with any lens that has a shallow aperture. This example may not be the best for driving my point home, but the slice of focus you can obtain with the Lensbaby can be different from what you can obtain by simply using a shallow aperture because the in-focus slice does not have to be the exact same distance from the camera. That creative flexibility can be a lot of fun to experiment with. In addition, even with a shallow focus I could not have made these images as the building was at least a few hundred feet away from where I was shooting so the focus plane would have all been the same.
Street photography is what I was really excited about shooting with the Lensbaby and it was a lot of fun. There were a few drawbacks. First, the manual focus. I have not shot manual focus since my first SLR camera in junior high nearly twenty years ago. Needless to say, it will take a lot more practice before I can get good enough to really nail street photography with manual focus. Add in the tilting lens and there is another hurdle to nailing sharp focus. Second, the fixed focal length. Some people love shooting with prime lenses. I don't get it. I will always go zoom lenses if I have the option with one exception-using a pancake lens for size. I struggled a lot to capture scenes that were too far away as I saw things across four lanes of traffic and the reach just wasn't there.
The slice of focus allows you to create some cool images. There is no other way you could get the two men in the above image in focus (at least part of them) while the Starbucks sign between them is completely out of focus. This is a really cool feature for street photography because it allows you to remove distracting items that often invade street images without having to actually remove the item in post processing. It often helps draw your focus to the subject of the image and, like in the above image, it can help you connect different parts of a frame that otherwise would have nothing drawing them together.
The above image is another example of being able to use the slice of focus in ways you wouldn't be able to use otherwise. When I saw this group crossing the street in front of the Chase building, I thought it almost looked like a commercial because they all had the banker look and were all wearing the same color. I did my best to quickly tilt the lens in such a way that the slice of focus would connect the people to the Chase logo to really drive home that connection.
Using this lens in street photography is really fun. It won't be my only lens for street photography, but I think it will probably be used more often than not. I look forward to using it in Paris later this month to see what images I can come up with.
I think urban photography often goes hand in hand with street photography so it makes sense that a good street photography lens would also also be good for urban photography. What makes the Lensbaby great for urban photography is the ability to draw the focus exactly where you want so you can blur out all the distractions that often clutter an urban scene.
In this image, I wanted to tie the flat tire of the bike into the graffiti while leaving the repeating patterns to mold together in a blur. This lens can be really fun with repeating patterns because you can blur them together or I could have kept all the bikes in focus while blurring out the rest of the frame for a completely different take on the scene.
Playing with the focus can be a lot of fun when trying to contrast different parts of a scene. In this image, I kept all the focus to the left side to highlight the lady and all the newish cars in contrast with the crumbly buildings in the alley and the dumpsters on the right side of the frame. I think it tells a story of her clinging to the clean side of the alley and avoiding the less appealing. I could have just as easily (maybe), drawn her into the slice of focus with the crumbling wall and blurred out the cars to really emphasize her being in the alley.
If you follow Improve Photography, you have seen Erika Kay's amazing portraits taken with her tilt-shift lens. I definitely didn't accomplish anything like that in the portrait shoot I did using this lens, but I still had a lot of fun. Using the slice of focus, I was able to capture the subject in sharp focus and throw everything else out of focus even without the separation between subject and background you normally need to accomplish the same effect with a regular portrait lens. Unfortunately, I failed to obtain a model release from the portrait shoot I did so I can't share any of my results. That's what happens when you are playing with new light modifiers and a new lens and realize your wife just happens to be doing someone's hair for prom–an impromptu photo shoot where no one thinks about a model release.
I would not suggest this lens replace your normal portrait lens by any means. You may not even get to use it if you are under time constraints and need to get the perfect shot, but if you find yourself getting bored and wanting to try something new, this lens could be the spark of creativity you need.
I will be brutally honest here, my attempts to capture my family with this lens were utter failures. Not that I don't think you could make some really great images, I just could not get the manual focus down well enough to nail the focus on my fast-moving kids. The unfortunate image to the right was the closest I was able to get at capturing my kids in sharp focus and it is still not quite there. But I do think you can see the potential in that image. If you could imagine some fun toys or a pet where the chew toys are, you could see how a nice sliver of focus would connect my daughter to a secondary subject while throwing the rest out of focus.
While I had a lot of fun shooting with the Lensbaby system, it is not going to take the place of my standard lenses. It likely will not be my go-to lens for any genre of photography, although it may come close in street photography. But this is not to say I don't see an immense amount of value in owning this system. More than anything, Lensbaby will allow you to get creative and try some new things. Every photographer goes through a rut now and then. The Lensbaby will get you out of that rut and out shooting. It will test your vision and force you to really think about your composition and help you become a better storyteller as you figure out all the different stories you can tell in one scene just by tilting your lens up, down, right or left.
Be sure to check out the awesome reviews Tracy Munson wrote on the Lensbaby Velvet 56 and Twist 60. The Twist 60 is one I think looks especially intriguing as it is another lens that is going to allow some major creativity.
If you are interested in checking out more about the Composer Pro II with Edge 50, you can see it on the Lensbaby website, where it is currently selling for $399.95. In addition to the Fuji X mount, it is available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Sony Alpha, Micro 4/3, Pentax K and Samsung NX mounts. You can also pick it up on Amazon if you prefer.