Thursday, 14 June 2007

Lens Baby Review-Part One

Part 1: The Technical Stuff

There’s a growing market for cameras and lenses that can produce “whole lot of nothing” pictures. Perhaps the most popular of these is the plastic Holga which is revered for its faults which include vignetting, light leaks and poor quality lenses.

The appeal of these devices is their ability to take an ordinary-looking scene and, by dint of their odd qualities, transform it into something worth looking at. It never ceases to amaze me how even the most mundane subject can be made to look appealing by a Holga.

The Lensbaby falls into this category in that it offers the photographer the chance to concentrate focus on a small, sharply-defined area that is surrounded by out-of-focus planes of varying degrees.

The company that makes Lensbabies kindly sent me the latest 3G version of the lens for review and what an interesting time it turned out to be. I’m not really interested in lab-type reviews of products so this is a practical, hands-on approach along the lines of those by Michael Reichmann or Mike Johnston.

The 3G, the third model in the Lensbaby line, came out in September last year so whilst this isn’t the first review by any manner of means, it’s certainly the newest!

First of all, it has to be said that the 3G isn’t the most intuitive of products to use. Neither is it particularly user-friendly in that there’s no easy way of cradling it or carrying out the various adjustments that are possible.

Despite these ergonomic shortcomings, it emerged as a very creative tool–one that opened up an ever increasing number of picture-taking possibilities the more it was used.

In essence, it’s a two-element lens of about 50mm which attaches to the camera via a small bellows unit. These elements are held together by three long screws which not only give the lens and bellows some rigidity but enable the “sweet spot” of focus to be moved around.

This probably sounds a bit confusing but in practice is actually pretty simple. In use, there are three main adjustments possible:

* Rough focus, achieved by disengaging a locking mechanism which allows the front part of the unit to be positioned closer or further away from the film plane in the same method as a bellows unit for macro photography

* Sweet spot movement which enables the sharp area projected by the lens to be moved around the frame

* Fine focus in the conventional way which lets the photographer carry out some minor tweaks to sharpness before taking the picture

Once you’ve seen something you want to photograph, the first thing you have to do is disengage the lock. To bring distance objects into rough focus, the front part of the unit should be brought closer to the camera. For closer subjects, it’s pushed further away.

You can see the subject gradually coming into focus as you do this and, once it looks pretty sharp, you press a small button that locks the lens in that position.

If the subject is in the middle of the frame, all that remains to be done is a bit of fine-focusing.

If the subject is off centre, the sweet spot has to be moved to cover that part of the frame by turning one or more of the three long screws which control the pitch and yaw of the front part of the unit.

If, for example, the subject is one-third in from the right hand side of the frame, the lens has to be turned to face to the right of centre. If the subject also happens to be towards the bottom of the frame, the lens has to be pointed downwards as well. How much is down to experience and trial and error.

If you get the sweet spot right on the subject, it will be rendered nice and sharp. If you just miss it, then something else near the subject will be caught in the sweet spot. The Lensbaby’s main challenge–and the biggest cause of complaint amongst people who can’t get the hang of it–is zeroing in on the sweet spot.

Supplied with the Lensbaby are seven aperture rings which, just like in a normal lens, define how far the plane of acceptable focus extends. The container for the aperture rings is built around a magnetised rod and this is used to reach down and remove the ring, which is firmly located by three little magnets. It’s very easy to do and just as easy to drop in the new ring.

The 3G comes fitted with the F4 ring already fitted which gives a slightly wider sweet spot than the maximum F2 aperture you get with no ring inserted. Wide open, there is virtually no depth of field in close-up shots and not an awful lot in landscape work. At the other extreme, the smallest aperture ring of f22 produces photographs with, I think, a more natural, if less striking, appearance.

The smaller apertures are also easier to use from the point of view of zeroing in the sweet spot as there is a little more margin for error. In other words, your focusing cock-ups aren’t quite as apparent!

That’s the technical stuff out of the way. Now on to Part Two of the Lensbaby 3G review.

P.S. The Bathing Beauty shot above is of my mum taken in 1950 when she was 20. She hated the Lensbaby photograph I took of her and the close-up of her eye so I promised to add the old photograph to redress the balance. What a beauty she was-and still is!


Anonymous said...

Bruce, you are doing such a great job. Your site will grow big because your pictures are excellent and well presented.

Yvon Bourque



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