Lensbaby is a company that's resolutely pursued its own path since it first started making 'selective focus' optics for SLRs about 8 years ago. Its lenses offer a distinctive low-fi aesthetic, with a 'sweet spot' of sharp focus that can be moved around the frame. Over the years its product range has expanded and increased in sophistication, but the basic aim has been the same: to provide a creative alternative for photographers who sometimes find technically-perfect images to be uninspiring.
By its very nature, this approach has made Lensbaby's products somewhat niche in appeal. But the company's latest optic, the Edge 80, may well see many more photographers sit up and take notice. It's an 80mm F2.8 telephoto lens that's optically-corrected across the whole frame, and designed to be used in the company's flexible lens bodies more-or-less like a conventional tilt lens. This means it gives effects somewhat similar to the 'Miniature' modes seen in many current cameras, but with a far greater degree of creative control and flexibility. Its short-telephoto focal length means it's particularly well-suited to close-ups, abstracts and portraits.
The Lensbaby 'Optic Swap' System
The Edge 80 joins an extensive system based around Lensbaby's 'Optic Swap' concept. Optical units fit into flexible lens bodies that mount onto the camera, and come in a variety of types. Our favourites are the Composer and the similar but more-refined (and expensive) Composer Pro, both of which use a ball-and-socket design with separate tilt and focus controls. For more information on how the Composer Pro works, click here to read our review with the Sweet 35 optic.
Older lenses such as the Double Glass optic need to be removed from the body unit using a specific tool that's incorporated into the base of their supplied protective plastic carry-case. However the Edge 80, like the Sweet 35, can be removed and exchanged quite straightforwardly by hand - you just push down and twist, rather like a child-proof bottle cap.
The Edge 80 is not compatible with the 'Composer with Tilt Transformer' for NEX and Micro Four Thirds cameras, but this doesn't really matter as these offer similar tilt movements with any Nikon lens. And while it physically fits into the 'Scout' unit, its fixed-body design rather negates the point.
The Edge 80 optic
The Edge 80 is, essentially, an 80mm F2.8 lens that has a bayonet mount at the back to fit into Lensbaby's body units. Optically it's a 5-element, 4-group design with a built-in 12-blade circular diaphragm that stops down to F22. It has one notable trick - a built-in 'extension tube' so you can pull the lens forward in its mount for closer focusing down to about 48cm / 19".
Using the Edge 80 is reasonably straightforward. The aperture is set using a ring on the optical unit, and the diaphragm stops down directly as you turn the ring. This can make the viewfinder view relatively dark, and at small apertures you're generally best off switching over to live view (if your camera offers it). It's normally easiest to set the camera to aperture priority and shoot away, letting your camera choose the shutter speed, but you can equally use program and manual modes.
When using a Composer body you focus using the large ring at the front of the lens body, and can tilt the lens freely using the ball-and-socket joint. It's not always entirely easy to see exactly what's going on in the viewfinder, so again live view can be an invaluable aid to composition. The conventional metering systems of SLRs also get confused when the lens is tilted, so you have to be prepared to watch your exposure as you shoot and apply compensation when necessary. Again, most cameras meter much better in live view.