Lensbaby Composer Pro / Sweet 35 Review
Body and Design
When centred (i.e., set pointing straight ahead) the Composer Pro is a fairly compact design about the size of an autofocus 50mm F1.4 prime. On the tilting section of the barrel there's a broad focusing ring, and on the fixed section there's a locking ring for the ball and socket joint. This allows you to tilt the lens freely up to about 20 degrees in any direction, and lock it down when you've reached the position you want. Unlike the other optics, the Sweet 35's aperture ring peeks out of the front of the barrel, and extends forwards on focusing closer making it more accessible.
Overall the Composer Pro's build quality and operational feel is impressive - all movements are extremely smooth and precise, and noticeably improved over the original. The focus ring in particular is much better damped than before, but the tilt joint is also noticeably smoother. Both of these make it much easier to set precise adjustments, and really compose your images exactly as you'd like.
Optic swap system
The Composer Pro uses Lensbaby's 'optic swap' system, meaning lenses can be interchanged within the barrel. The Sweet 35 offers a welcome change though - all of the company's previous optics required a tool built into the base of their (rather bulky) hard plastic lens case to remove them from the barrel. However the Sweet 35, while using exactly the same bayonet-mount system, can be removed by hand, simply by pressing it down and twisting counterclockwise 20 degrees. You'll still need the removal tool for your other optics, of course, but this is a positive improvement.
The lens is supposed to be mounted by lining up the circular marks first, then twisting it into place, but because the bayonet has simple 3-fold symmetry it will fit in two other orientations too. As the optic mounting mark also serves as the aperture-setting reference, it's important to get this right.
Compared to Lensbaby Composer
Side-by-side with the original Composer (shown here on the right), you can see that the basic design and dimensions are absolutely identical. But the Pro makes greater use of metal in its construction - most notably in the ball joint - and aside from the lens mount is finished entirely in black.
On the camera / in use
The Lensbaby mounts on the camera like any conventional lens, and with its large control rings it's very easy to handle. Note though that there's no mechanism for actually ensuring the lens is centered (indeed that's not really the point). The front section of the lens also rotates freely within the ball and socket joint about the lens's axis; it's a good idea to keep the aperture index mark towards the top of the barrel, where you can see it most easily while shooting.
Working with the Sweet 35 adds one complication compared to the various 50mm optics - the image shifts substantially further when you tilt the lens, and when using an APS-C camera image elements can move halfway across the frame between the centered and fully-tilted positions. This makes the whole process of composition, including tilting and focusing, somewhat more iterative than before. It's still a pretty fluid process when shooting handheld (once you get used to it after a little practice), but can be a little awkward when shooting from a tripod.
|The Composer Pro is available for all major SLR lens mounts. The mount is completely 'dumb' with no contacts to the camera body, so you'll get no lens-related EXIF data.
Users of Micro Four Thirds and Sony NEX cameras can buy the closely-related 'Composer with Tilt Transformer' that also serves as Tilt adapter for Nikon F lenses.
|The focusing ring has an 11 mm-wide ribbed rubber grip, with a travel of 100 degrees across the full range. It's smooth and precise in operation, and a great improvement over the original Composer.
The focusing action moves the entire optical unit forward by about 1cm, which makes the Sweet 35 protrude substantially at closest focus.
|The plastic ring around the base of the ball joint allows you to adjust its tension, and lock it solidly in place when required. This can be especially handy when working from a tripod.|
|The Sweet 35's aperture ring pokes out from the front of the barrel. It has click stops at full-stop intervals, but can be set at intermediate positions too.
The solid circular dot serves as the index mark for making your settings - here the lens is at F5.6.
|The aperture ring stops the diaphragm down directly, so you view at the taking aperture; this means the camera's optical viewfinder will get dark distinctly dark at smaller apertures.
The diaphragm itself is an impressively-circular 12-bladed design. Note though that the lens's blur characteristics in out-of-focus regions are influenced mainly by its unusual optical design.