Quaint imperfection? Fuzzy focus? Funky blur? It's in there! Learn how to enhance your creativity and increase the fun factor in your photography with these innovative, unique lenses.
Toy cameras, which have an enthusiastic fan base, have one little problem: They use film. Most photographers have moved on to digital, but many still pine for the creativity and quaint imperfection of toy cameras like the Holga, Lomo, or Diana. In 2004, Lensbabies (since renamed Lensbaby) tapped into this fan base when they introduced the original Lensbaby selective-focus lens (right).
The lens is flexible, and projects an image with a sharp middle “sweet spot” surrounded by rapidly deteriorating focus. Areas surrounding the center that should be sharp are rendered blurred and slightly distorted. Blur increases as you get farther from the center of the image, giving the overall image an imperfect, toy camera-esque feel. But the Lensbaby takes this one step farther: Tilt the front of the lens and you can move the in-focus “sweet spot” from the center to either side, or up or down.
Lensbaby has been refined based on user feedback. A second generation version, the 3G, allowed users to lock the lens in position, and further versions added higher-quality glass. Late last year the Lensbaby concept was further enhanced with the Composer (left), which tilts via a ball bearing, focuses via a standard focusing ring, and has an “optic swap” system which lets you change the effect or quality of the image.
But throughout Lensbaby’s evolution the underlying idea has remained the same: to jog your creative juices and have some fun with photography.
To illustrate this article I used a Lensbaby 3G, which was introduced in 2006 and is no longer in production, but the concepts remain the same. Whether you own a G3, a Composer, Control Freak or original Lensbaby, I hope this will help you get the most out of it.
Getting the toy camera look
To get a simple toy-camera look, all you need to do is keep the front element parallel with the sensor or film plane. Don’t tilt it, just do whatever your model requires to get the center in focus. Even if you have the G3, which promises fine-tuned focus control, you won’t get it perfect. Don’t worry. Imperfection is part of the Lensbaby’s charm!
In this shot, the sweet spot makes the Flatiron Building—which is located just a few blocks from Adorama—look like a tabletop replica.
The focus fall-off from the center sweet spot in this shot gives this image a sense of forward motion.
Moving the sweet spot
Let’s say you want an off-center subject. You can easily move the sweet spot so it coincides with the subject position by tilting the front of the lens.
In this shot, the sweet spot is in the center. Let’s shift it to the right…
To shift the sweet spot to the right, simply tilt the front of the lens to the right. You can fine-tune focus by turning the focus wheel (on the Composer or 3G) or by pushing the front of the lens in to a greater or lesser degree.
To shift the sweet spot to the left, tilt the front of the lens to the left. The more extreme the tilt, the farther to the edge focus will go, but there will also be more distortion and optical weirdness.
Making the sweet spot wider
Each version of Lensbaby has an insert to make the aperture smaller. The smaller the aperture, the larger the sweet spot. The tradeoff is that you will need a longer shutter speed when shooting with the smaller aperture.
Getting the right exposure
Since aperture is fixed, the easiest way to meter a scene is to put your camera in Av (aperture priority) and the camera will automatically set the shutter speed. However, manual metering is even better if you have tricky lighting.
Can I use it on a full-frame DSLR?
Yes! The out of focus area will appear wider in 35mm-sized sensors (or if you shoot with a 35mm SLR) than in photos taken with an APS-sensor DSLR.
Combine Lensbaby with post-processing techniques that further enhance the toy-camera feel of your pictures.
With the sweet spot centered, I focused on the middle of this gaggle of geese at a local park in New Jersey. To enhance the focus falloff, I used the Lens Vignette control in Photoshop’s RAW interface to create an exaggerated vignetting effect. I also pumped up the saturation slightly . You might say I goosed this shot! Note the wacky oval specular highlights in the blurred areas!
I was standing with the sensor plane parallel to the railing, and shifted focus to the lower left for this street scene outside New York’s Penn Station, but since the guy in the background was wearing a distracting bright red shirt, I turned it into black-and-white in Adobe Photoshop Elements. I also added a little grain to give the shot a bit of grit.
That’s really all there is to it. Simplicity rules! Now go out and have some fun!
What are you doing with your Lensbaby?