Monday, December 15, 2008

Lensbaby Composer

- image above from Lensbaby website

I've been considering a Lensbaby for some time and a recent cold snap was the final impetus to go out and purchase one. It seemed sensible to pick up the latest (and presumably best) Lensbaby, the Composer model.

The original Lensbaby came with a plastic corrugated tube which could be flexed and stretched and shortened as desired. Another model added Sputnik like appendages to the outside to control the positioning of the tube. The most recent Lensbaby Composer uses a ball and socket arrangement to rotate the lens, while beyond the ball and socket is a standard rotating focusing mechanism that moves the lens in and out, much more like a traditional lens.

I had understood that one could swing the lens to align plane of focus as needed but that's not quite accurate. In reality, there is no plane of focus, rather a central sweet spot with surrounding and ever increasing blur and stretch of the image. The degree to which this happens is a function of depth of field but of course if you stop down to increase the size of the sweet spot, you reduce the blurring at the edges of the image.

What really happens as you tilt the lens is that the sweet spot moves from the centre of the image to the outside and possibly beyond the image so that nothing is sharp. It's a little more complicated though. At least some of the blurring off centre is due to a change in the plane of focus (this with the lens all squared up - by eye, there are no marks or centre detent). This change in focus means that things nearer the camera are sharp and the closer to the edges of the image, the nearer is the plane of focus. It mght be more accurate to describe it as a cone of focus, or perhaps even better a bowl of focus.

In theory this sharpness of nearer things should allow you to tilt the lens to get two things sharp at the same time which are not equidistant, but in fact the way the lens is built (unlike a regular tilt and shift lens) is that as the lens is tilted, nothing is sharp at any distance as you move away from the now off centre sweet spot. All this has to do with the fact that the centre of rotation of the ball and socket is in fact well forward of the sensor and tilting the lens puts you well into the periphery of the lens' coverage. A normal tilt and shift lens doesn't pivot around anything, rather it slides over a curved surface designed so that the curve would be centred on the sensor - thus maintaining lens maximum resolution when tilting.

Now, none of the above is necessarily a disadvantage, just a bit of a surprise to me and not quite what I had expected. It would be better to think of lens tilt in this case controlling the amount of blurring and the placement of same rather than trying to control a plane of sharpness. After all, you buy the lens for it's blurring capabilities, not its off axis sharpness.

I haven't had much chance to explore the lens capabilities but look forward to doing so and you can be sure you are going to be subjected to anything I find interesting.

I welcome comments from those who have made more use of their Lensbabies. Before purchasing it I did spend some time searching the net for images which make good use of the Lensbaby. Unfortunately there are far more bad examples than good and even most of the images on the Lensbaby site leave something to be desired. It isn't a digital Holga, but I am still hopeful it can be used effectively.


Alexandre said...

I'm seeing more and more of this lensbaby thing, but for some reason I am not tempted, most of the time I can't get to see past the effect itself (as seeing points in the same plane of focus not having the same sharpness is somehow very disturbing).

I have a friend who uses his a lot, and has some pretty interesting results, I think:

chuck kimmerle said...

I've had one (version 2)for a couple of years. It was fun at first, but a bit too gimmicky for any lasting or meaningful work, at least for me. Still, I manage to pull it out every once in a while when I'm not in a serious shooting mood or looking for something different at work.

The lack of focal plane control surprised me, as well, but is not a big deal as it's the in-focus area is less than the frame size.

With serious art photographers, I see this as a lens that is either used full-time, or not much at all. It's so different, as are the plastic cameras, that it requires a certain point of view in order to make meaningful images. If used poorly, the line is crossed between "unique" and "gimmick", which is never a good thing.

George Barr said...

The problem with "getting past the effect" as Alexandre mentions is that a lot of images rely on the effect as the only contributing element to the image - as if somehow composition, lighting and an interesting subject no longer matter. Whether I can succeed in using it as a tool remains to be seen. I wonder if it will be a matter of "if the image would have been good without the lensbaby effect" or whether the lensbaby can truly take crap subjects and compositions and make them magical. I have my doubts but will report on progress and failures.


Stacey Huston said...

I really like the effects that can be obtained with the lens babies, but have been having enough problems as of late getting normal shots into

Billie said...

I'm disappointed to read your take on the Composer. I have the original lensbaby but found it difficult to use, holding the camera and holding the focus. The spacey lensbaby would work in the studio but I couldn't see how I could use it in the real world. So the composer seemed like the answer. I ordered it based on what I was seeing in the optics comparison chart that Lensbabies has on their site, but from what you are writing that is not what you are getting. Which aperture ring were you using in your test?

I was hoping to get a holga look using the plastic lens but I guess a Holga is a holga and a lensbaby is a lensbaby. Or as Fred Picker use to say "The same is the same and different is different."

Tim Gray said...

Craig Tanner of the Mindful Eye (formerly Radiant Vista) is a fan and has a good example of effective use at:

eMac said...

I also recently bought the lensbaby Composer and I'm also equally disappointed. Nothing is sharp. Better said, everything is blurred and one only has the option of getting more blur by tilting the lens. Trying to focus is a pain because one has to look for less blur not for sharpness. As I already payed shipping and import taxes into Mexico, sending it back will cost me more. So, I'll keep it... in the drawer.

George Barr said...

I wouldn't say that no part of the image is sharp - it's just that at a wide aperture the sharp area is very small. The bigger issue is trying to come up with a way to use the lensbaby that really takes advantage of its properties, isn't old hat and has superb composition and lovely tones. No small order - I'm still working on it.