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.