Lensbaby Composer Pro / Sweet 35 Review
Lensbaby is a company that's been steadily pursuing its own unique course for the past seven years or so, making what it calls 'selective focus' lenses for SLRs that exhibit a distinctive low-fi aesthetic. The basic principle is to utilise optically simple lenses which are deliberately uncorrected for many aberrations, and therefore produce a sharp zone of focus (or 'sweet spot') in the center of the image field with ever-increasing blur outside it. This is combined with a flexible barrel, such that the lens can be tilted and the sweet spot moved around the frame, to focus on off-center subjects. The size of the sweep spot can be increased by using a smaller aperture.
The original Lensbaby was little more than a flexible plastic tube, with a mount at one end and an uncoated single-element 50mm F2.8 glass lens at the other; the aperture was set using drop-in plastic discs held in place by a rubber ring. The sweet spot was manipulated and the lens focused simply by squeezing on a collar around the lens (in its modern incarnation, this design is known as the 'Muse'). It was an endearingly low-tech concept, but in practice could be was rather frustrating to use - the non-locking design meant that there was essentially no way of taking the same picture at different apertures, for example. And the single-element glass lens was a little too low-fi for many tastes.
Over the years, though, Lensbaby has refined its designs to address these problems and make its products more 'serious'. The Lensbaby 2 introduced a higher-quality 2-element lens and easier-to-use, drop-in magnetic aperture discs, and the '3G' a mechanism to lock the flexible barrel the desired position. Then a couple of years ago the company totally overhauled its range, bringing in the entirely different 'Composer' barrel design based upon a ball-and-socket joint for tilt, and conventional helicoid ring to set focus. At the same time it came up with an 'optic swap' system that allowed lenses to be interchanged, plus a choice of lenses including single element glass, dual element glass and plastic (all still at about 50mm focal length). The company also sells fisheye and pinhole optics, plus a range of screw-on wide/teleconverters and close-up lenses.
We rather like the Composer; it allows reasonably consistent shot-to-shot results, which means you can experiment more easily with apertures and different exposures for creative effect. But with the best will in the world it's still slightly rough around the edges, with a somewhat loose focusing action and imprecise movements. Likewise the drop-in magnetic aperture discs still aren't especially user-friendly, and the temptation is to pick one for a shooting session and stick with it, hoping things work out in the end - especially when using any of the screw-on lens accessories.
This is where Lensbaby's latest products come in - the Composer Pro and Sweet 35 optic, which are the subject of this quick review. The Composer Pro maintains the same basic ball-and-socket design as the original, but promises improved construction and refined operation. Meanwhile the Sweet 35 becomes Lensbaby's first lens to incorporate a built-in aperture mechanism. It also, as its name hints, has a different focal length to previous optics, at about 35mm, offering a more 'normal' perspective on APS-C cameras and a moderate wideangle look on full frame.
By their very nature Lensbaby's products aren't for everyone, with their emphasis on the aesthetic 'look' of the image rather than any conventional concept of image quality. This review will therefore be rather more subjective than usual, and since the lensbaby lends itself poorly to analysis using our normal tools, we have decided not to give it a score.
Selective Focus - what does it mean?
For those who haven't come across Lensbaby's product before, the idea of selective focus may be difficult to visualize at first. The example below illustrates the concept - when the lens is centred only an area in the middle of the frame is sharp, and the edges are blurred. By tilting the lens it's possible to move this sharpness 'sweet spot' freely around the frame, focusing selectively on your area of interest.
In this scene, we tilted the Sweet 35's 'sweet spot' from the centre of the image, to the left, and then to the right. Be aware that tilting the lens can dramatically alter the composition of the image as well, and you'll often need to rotate the camera to compensate. This is especially pronounced when working at short focus distances, as the front of the lens will also move relative to the subject.