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Tuesday February 20, 2007 7:20 pm

Lensbaby 3G In-depth Review


Lensbaby Review

So obviously, we at Gear Live are fans of new camera technology and the selective focus Lensbabies SLR lenses certainly fit the bill. We were already familiar with their selective focus lenses for digital cameras in the form of their second generation (2G) Lensbaby, but they were kind enough to provide us with one of their brand new 3G Lenbabies for review.

The Lensbaby is a bellows style lens for modern SLR cameras. They feature low dispersion multi-coated optical glass lens mounted within a flexible rubber tube to allow the photographer to tilt the lens side to side as well as compress it closer to the camera. Much like cameras from 100 years ago or more focusing is accomplished by simply compressing the bellows to move the lens closer or further away from the camera. We have a full, in-depth review for you, after the break.

 


SELECTIVE FOCUS


What differentiates Lensbabies from other SLR lenses is their selective focus effect. Due to the way that the lens interacts with light at various angles, shots taken with the Lensbaby have a sharp “sweet spot” with everything else in the image blurring away from that sweet spot. The size and sharpness of the sweet spot is affected by various sized openings internally which are accommodated by interchangeable (and hackable) aperture disks that sit in front of the lens.

The aperture disks are small rings of various sizes that are held in place by a small ring of magnets ringing the the lens. By tilting the Lensbaby gently from side to side the sweet spot can be moved around the image with the out of focus area twisting and bending around the sweet spot. The Lensbaby also creates interesting effects in the out of focus areas with smooth semi-oval shapes emerging giving a very organic bokeh. The images have a unique soft focus around the edges such as the image below.

Antique and fruit store in Washington State
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WHAT DIFFERENTIATES THE LENSBABY 2G FROM THE LENSBABY 3G


Optically the 2nd generation Lensbaby is very similar to the new Lensbaby 3G, and they both feature the same spontaneous focusability. The 3G has several major improvements as well as a number of small (but very nice) evolutionary tweaks. The most obvious difference is the focus locking ring and selective focus posts. When not ‘locked’, the 3G acts much like the 2nd generation Lensbaby - you can quickly focus by compressing the entire lens with the focusing collar, and move the sweet spot by tilting the lens side to side.

The 3G adds repeatability to your results - and the ability to use a tripod - by allowing you to then ‘lock’ the lens with the push of a button. Once you have roughly the composition and focus you want the locking button uses pins in the focusing collar to freeze the lens in place. By turning the focusing collar or twisting the focusing posts it is possible to fine tune both the focus and the area of the image that contains the sweet spot.

Since the Lensbaby 3G can be locked in place longer exposures can be accomplished on a Tripod. This also enables much smaller aperture disks to be employed for much larger sweet spots, and other long exposure shots such as the one below.

Pulse of the city
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Because the Lensbaby 3G is larger and has focusing posts, it seems to be more fragile than the 2nd generation Lensbaby. The 2G is very sturdy and stands up to being thrown around in a a camera bag much better. The 3G actually requires a hard case to avoid damage to the focusing posts and locking mechanism. Like any camera lens, the Lensbaby 3G should be treated carefully as it won’t stand up to excessive abuse.

In addition, the Lensbaby 3G uses a different mechanism to change aperture disks than the 2G. The 2G comes with 5 disks of various sizes and a tool which can be used to pry out the installed disk to insert a new one which is held in place magnetically. The 3G’s aperture replacement tool features another small magnet which makes changing disks as easy as touching the old one to make it stick to the aperture replacement tool and popping in a new one. It’s a small refinement - but one that makes a big difference if you change apertures frequently.

USING THE LENSBABY


The Lensbaby family is fun to use and gives the photographer a lot of control over their final image. The focusing mechanism is very ‘hands on’ and really involves the photographer in taking the shot - it’s about as far from point and shoot as you can get. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of focusing at first, but after a couple of hours with a Lensbaby it becomes very natural - focusing and sweet spot control becomes an almost second nature. Point and shoot the Lensbaby is not - it’s the most manual possible way of using a camera - and as daunting as that might sound to some photographers that are used to modern lenses with autofocus it’s very fun and rewarding to do.

Lensbaby shots tend to have a very organic feel to them. Some photographers hyper-saturate in post processing for more of a Holga look, and others prefer to remove color and tint the image slightly for a more antique look - with the vignetting and soft focus these shots are often quite successful.

The Lensbaby also is very suitable for exploring abstract images. When out of focus the lensbaby creates interesting distortions in images. By gently twisting and bending the focusing collar it is possible to create a number of effects. Particularly with digital SLR’s where taking photos costs nothing this kind of experimentation can be very fun and rewarding.

ACCESSORIES


The Lensbaby line has several available features to extend its capabilities. Both wide angle and macro lens adapters are sold at reasonable prices. The Macro kit actually contains two lenses: a +4 and +10 adapters. By using one or both of the Macro adapters the Lensbaby is able to focus from it’s normal 2 foot minimum down to mere inches when stacking both lenses. The macro kit retails for around $30.

Red Flowers macro
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We didn’t get a chance to check out the wide angle lens kit, but from viewing sample images on the web it looks to add about 40% to the viewing angle available in the Lensbaby (normally roughly 50mm equivalent). The wide angle lens kit also includes a telephoto attachment to give you the best of both worlds for wide shots as well as long focal length work - and all for under $90.

Finally the Lensbaby 2G and 3G both work with the Lensbaby Creative Aperture kit - their newest accessory. Normally in a lens the aperture is as close to circular as possible - by changing this shape the out of focus areas of the lens will be altered by that shape. For instance points of light will cease to be points and rather take on the form of the aperture. The kit is very inexpensive (under $10) and comes with one star shaped disk, one heart shaped disk, and five blank disks for your own creative endeavors.

Yellow stars from the Creative Aperture Kit
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FINAL THOUGHTS


Lensbaby Review ScoreAfter several weeks with both the 2G and 3G lensbaby we here at Gearlive are quite happy with them. The question has been asked if the Lensbaby is gimmicky and the answer is a resounding yes - but it’s a good kind of gimmicky thats fun to use, and with a little practice can resulting some really interesting shots and breath a creative spark into your personal photographic style. We found the lensbaby a very creative and rewarding lense to use. Check out some of the shots we have taken in our Flickr set or in the Flickr Lensbabies pool for more examples of some of the effects that can be achieved with a Lensbaby.

If you do a lot of tripod or studio then the 3G Lensbaby is essential, but otherwise the 2G Lensbaby is cheaper, sturdier, and smaller. They are optically identical and when not using the locking mechanism the 3G ‘feels’ the same as the 2G. Regardless of which one you settle on we highly recommend checking them out - this one will be in our camera bags for quite some time to come.

- Sparky

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