Gear of the Year Part 8: Wenmei's choice - Lensbaby Velvet 56mm f/1.6
My photographic style has always favored precision and sharpness with rich tones and vibrant colors. I also have a bit of a control issue - my inner engineer likes predictable behaviors and consistent results. But sometimes I get into a photographic rut and I need something to give me a creative jump-start. Where do I turn? To Lensbaby of course, because how better to feed my need for precision, sharpness, control and predictable results than by using creative lenses that have very few of those qualities?
|Predictable behavior. ISO 400, F4, 1/125sec.|
My pick for Gear of the Year is the Velvet 56 F1.6 lens from Lensbaby. It’s a portrait lens that is incredibly versatile, going from a soft ethereal glow at F1.6 to satisfyingly sharp details when stopped down.
What I love:
- 56mm focal length, perfect for portraits
- Sharp focus when stopped down, if I need a break from the velvet glow
- 1:2 magnification means I can get up close and personal with my subjects or shoot near-macro details
- Soft focus effect forces me outside of my comfort zone and makes me think more creatively when setting up my shots
- Sleek body looks cool, especially the silver version
When I first picked up the Velvet 56, I had a hard time figuring out how to make it work for me. My creative style does not naturally include soft edges or ethereal glow, so getting a feel for the lens and how it works took several days of shooting. (In contrast, colleagues who tend to shoot in a dreamier, more vintage style have tried the lens and fallen in love with it immediately.)
|Still shooting stopped down to F4, having trouble embracing the glow. ISO 200, F4, 1/200sec|
With the Velvet 56, once you open up above F2.8 it’s impossible to get a sharp edge. Having a direct relationship between the wide apertures I typically use to capture light and the soft focus that is a signature of this lens was very frustrating to me. However, once I gave up on the idea of being able to control both light and focus in the ways I expected, I found creative freedom in allowing myself to shoot for the “feeling” of a moment rather than the precision of it.
|Sleeping children helped me step into the world of intentionally soft focus (by taking "dreamy" a bit literally...each of us takes the path that works for us). ISO 800, F2, 1/125sec.|
I am still a huge fan of sharp focus and the comfortably predictable results I get from more conventional lenses, but I find that I reach for the Velvet 56 more and more for personal projects and family lifestyle or legacy sessions. The phrase “emotionally in focus” is often used to justify keeping a blurry shot that you like, but I find that it is an accurate description of how I use the Velvet 56. Sometimes, emotionally in focus is the best way to capture the moment.
|This 'emotionally in focus' moment brought to you by an irritated 5 year old. ISO 400, F2, 1/250sec.|
And sometimes you just have to appease the engineer inside and stop down to F5.6 or F8 to try for that tack-sharp focus. Luckily, the Velvet 56 can do that too (manual focusing ability of the photographer notwithstanding).
|Nesting dolls on the mantel, no emotion required. ISO 800, F5.6, 1/200sec.|