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Just another gimmick? "Fine art"?
on March 2, 2010
I took the time to use the Lensbaby Composer on my Panasonic G bodies, my Canon 40D and my Canon 5D Mk II for a total of about 200 purposeful images before writing this review. I didn't want to approach the Lensbaby with any bias or preset expectations, nor did I want to prematurely fire off a trivial review after taking a few casual images. I hope you find this review helpful.
I consider the Lensbaby prices rather steep for what you get, so I held off buying one for quite some time. The Composer looked to me to be the first viable implementation of the Lensbaby, not being attracted to the hand and finger gyrations required to work the other versions such as the Original, 2.0, and Muse. I also wanted to be able to lock in specific shots.
Mechanically, I was disappointed with the operation of the manual focus ring. It is not smooth and consistent during its entire rotation. At the closest focusing distance, the ring rotation is jerky. After a quarter of a turn or so, it smooths out and becomes consistent. Unfortunately, many of my shots are taken at or near the minimum focus distance. For a manual focus lens only, the Composer needs to provide an optimal focus experience. It misses the mark. I can live with it, yes, but it's annoying and shouldn't be happening on a lens in this price range. The mount, however, is machined nicely and fits snugly. The locking ring works well, allowing a good degree of how much friction you want applied to the lens movements. The lens cap is of questionable build quality, and the lettering on the front of it arrived partially rubbed off, or never painted on. Not very attractice for a brand new lens.
Optically, the Composer comes with the Double Glass Optic, consisting of only two glass optical elements, each multicoated. Being a primitive optical formula with erratic (if any?) quality control, you can rest assured of chromatic aberration, vignetting, decentering, flare, veiling, distortion, and any number of optical gremlins that normally leave photographers in painful grimace. Once you start twisting and turning the Composer to move its "sweet spot", what Lensbabians call "bending", those gremlins multiply and intensify. If the Lensbaby teaches you nothing else, it will be an appreciation for the efforts of optical engineers to tackle those nasty gremlins so that we may produce images of technical quality with our regular lenses. However, as strange as this may sound, you're either going to embrace these gremlins and enlist them as agents of creativity, as I chose to do, or you're going to be sending the Lensbaby back to take advantage of their 30-day money-back guarantee, which I was tempted to do.
The Composer includes aperture disks that control the size of the area that is in focus. The Composer has an approximate focal length of 50mm and, sans any aperture disks, it's rated at f/2. But wait, there is quite the rub with that focal length. It's 50mm, true, but only on a full frame sensor body. On cameras with "cropped" sensors, and that covers the majority of cameras being used at this time, the effective focal length changes. On a Canon 7/10/20/30/40/50D and all Rebel digital cameras, that 50mm becomes an 80mm lens. Ugh. Not exactly a versatile focal length. To remedy that, well, be prepared to spend more money. There are two wide angle adapters available: a .42 and a .6. Both of them introduce even more chromatic aberration, and with the .42, hideously so. There are aperture disks for f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16 and f/22. Changing these disks can be an awkward exercise, especially if you're shooting from a tripod and don't want to disturb your setup.
There is a clever optical swap system the Lensbaby employs to switch to a variety of optical setups. I also purchased the single optic system, which is even more primitive than the double glass optic. It's just one glass uncoated element, less sharp than the double optic, and hosting a variant breed of the optical gremlins mentioned above.
The Composer, as it ships, does not have a very close focus distance. If you're going to hang onto your Lensbaby, an investment in the macro kit is a no-brainer. It includes +10 and +4 closeup filters that simply screw into the front of the optic. They are also stackable, but if you do stack, place the +10 closest to the lens, and screw the +4 on top of it. With either of both macro filters, you'll gain the ability to close focus. It is in the macro mode that I find myself making some of my favorite Lensbaby images.
Likely, you'll find the Lensbaby to have a steep learning curve. You'll have to become familiar with how your camera body works in its non-automatic modes (Program, Aperture Priority or Manual), as the Lensbaby has no automation to it whatever. It does not automatically change lens aperture settings, nor will it automatically focus. The camera body does still compute exposure automatically, but bending the lens may throw the auto exposure off, as light is now bouncing around at crazy angles. You'll need to monitor your histogram and know how to dial in exposure compensation. If your body has it, LiveView is a godsend, enabling you to zoom in on areas you want to manually focus. Also, if you change to aperture disks smaller than f/4, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus with accuracy as your viewfinder grows dimmer and dimmer. LiveView uses video gain to brighten your LCD. Invaluable. As for how to move the sweet spot to the desired location, practice makes the closest thing to perfect you're going to find with the Lensbaby. In summary, you'll need to learn to master your camera in its more manual modes and learn the trickiness of the Lensbaby lens movements to achieve successful images.
If you go to the user forums at the Lensbaby web site, you'll be able to view many images taken by its members, for better or for worse. I often find Lensbaby images to fall into the "trick shot" category, akin to those made by fisheye lenses. Overall, I view them as gimmicky. Sometimes you'll find an image that really works for you, but much of the time, they're muddy blurry mis-takes that make you wonder why anyone would want to degrade, even brutalize, the sophisticated sensors embedded in your expensive dSLR.
Be forewarned: you may not enjoy using the Lensbaby, and you may find the resulting images to quickly wear out their welcome. I consider the current Amazon rating to be higher than it deserves to be. There is comfort to be found in the 30-day money-back guarantee -- you'll only be out the return shipping costs and your time.