Portrait photography will never be the same
The Lensbaby Edge 80 is designed for portrait photography and is the most optically advanced Lensbaby to date. Does it stay true to its specialized roots while reaching for a wider audience?
The Lensbaby Edge 80 is the second Lensbaby to offer an internal manually-adjusted aperture ring (the first was the Lensbaby Sweet 35 Optic, introduced last year), moving away from the kludgy magnetized apertures that you inserted and removed (and, in my case, frequently misplaced) and promoting greater convenience and ease of use. At 80mm, the f/2.8 lens is poised to become a go-to lens for portrait photography.
I have been following the Lensbaby phenomenon since its birth over seven years ago, when the product line consisted of a simple, funky little lens that could be tilted to create artistically fuzzy images with a movable, fairly sharp sweet spot that produced selective focus and wacky bokeh. As the company learned to walk (and changed its name from Lensbabies to Lensbaby), new versions added greater degrees of control, ease of use, and offered greater optical sophistication and quality.
Now, Lensbaby is growing up so fast, and in its late teenage years (that's lens-years, not human years) its latest product shows the greatest degree of maturation to date. The Lensbaby Edge 80, introduced earlier this year, represents a major shift (pun intended) in Lensbaby's approach, moving from a more specialized, limited kind of optic to a lens that has the potential to appeal to a more general audience.
Lensbaby Edge 80 optic in the Lensbaby Composer, ready to rock, roll and tilt.
The big story here is that the Lensbaby Edge 80 Optic ($299) is optically superior to anything Lensbaby has produced to date, with 5 elements in 4 groups. The lens produces edge-to-edge flat field sharpness when pointed straight ahead (or when using the non-bending Lensbaby Scout body), and a slice of sharp focus surrounded by blur when tilted to either side, or up/down. That's a welcome first that makes this 80mm an attractive general-use short-telephoto lens that's well-suited for portraits and photojournalism and numerous other applications, but still gives you the special effects tilt-lens option that made Lensbaby famous.
At 80mm, the Lensbaby Edge 80 is an excellent focal length for flattering portrait photos, while the selective soft focus gives photographers the same creative edge as other Lensbaby optics.
The Edge 80 is a part of the Lensbaby Optic Swap system, so in addition to the Edge 80, you need to purchase a lens body. Compatible bodies are:
- Lensbaby Composer/Lensbaby Composer Pro
- Lensbaby Muse/Muse Double Glass
- Lensbaby Control Freak
- Lensbaby Scout
The Lensbaby Edge 80 focuses as close as 17 inches—closer when used with Lensbaby's macro converter rings.
The bodies are the parts that tilt the lens in all directions and control the manual focus, while the Edge 80 provides the actual optics and aperture control. As with all Lensbaby systems, the Lensbaby Edge 80 is not electronically linked to the host camera, so there will be no meta data about the lens or aperture setting to travel with your images. This also means that you need to shoot in either manual or aperture priority mode and set the aperture manually. You can also shoot in Program mode, which will give you the same result as aperture priority.
The aperture range starts at f/2.8 and stops down to f/22, at which point I recommend using Live View if you have that option to fine-tune focus, since the optical viewfinder will at that point be quite dim. There are twelve (!) aperture rings (see photo, right), so you can expect a near-perfect circle in your specular highlights at all apertures when the lens is centered. There are two focus settings: about 3 feet to infinity, and a close-up setting that lets you focus down to 17 inches. To switch from one focus setting to the other, simply pull the front of the lens out approximately 1/3 inch. Use this lens in conjunction with the Lensbaby Macro Converter and you can get into nice, sharp macro photography.
As with other Lensbabies, the amount of blur and the size of the sharp center sweet spot varies, and can be controlled by changing the aperture as well as how much and in which direction you shift the lens body. But with this model, the image becomes sharper as well. Center sharpness is best between f/5.6 and f/11. Of course, as you move the lens to the right and left, sharpness may be reduced but not by much. A benefit to this is that you can make truer view-camera-type adjustments that control the plane of focus.
By tilting the lens one direction, I kept window in the background in the same field of focus as Davida's face (or at least one side of her face), even though the window was about four feet behind her. The joys of tiltable lenses!
In The Hands
I spent some time shooting with the Lensbaby Edge 80 and Composer Pro. The Edge 80 has a solid feel, and a bit more weight to it (thanks to the five glass elements). The aperture ring has click stops at full apertures but not at intermediate settings, but the apertures are clearly marked and the aperture ring is generously sized, and easy to turn. You need to put a bit of effort into pulling the front element forward to get to the close-focus setting, but this helps prevent accidental slippage. Used in concert with the Composer Pro, which has an easy to grasp and turn focusing ring and rotating ball lens tilt mechanism, I found the Edge 80 to be easy and intuitive in the field. The technology did not get in the way of the photographic creative process.
I can't emphasize enough how important an improvement the built-in aperture ring is. The interchangeable aperture discs were a bit of a production to change, and forced the user to slow down. This could be a good thing—how many times have you been told to slow down and work within your gear's limits? But being able to quickly change aperture settings without removing the camera from your eye opens up an entire new world of possibilities for shooting fashion and portrait photography, especially outdoors where light can change quickly and you don't want to interrupt the flow of the shoot to change aperture discs.
Not surprisingly, at smaller apertures it becomes harder to see the image through an optical finder. This is where live view mode becomes an important tool so if your camera has it, use it when you stop down.
Shot at f/8, this shows of the sharpness of the Lensbaby Edge 80's sweet spot.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Using tilt to control the placement of the area of focus and aperture to control its depth makes the Lensbaby Edge 80 Optic a truly flexible option that puts greater control of image quality in your hands. Yes, it costs $299.95 (plus $199 for the Composer Pro), making it the most expensive model in the Lensbaby Optic Swap system. But for the first time, Lensbaby is competing with more traditionally designed lenses—especially short tele portrait lenses—which are in most cases significantly more expensive. By combining tilt, internal aperture control and vastly improved optics, the Lensbaby Edge 80 makes a compelling argument for itself over its competition. It's swimming with the big fish now.
Which selective focus effect works best here? Note how the light stick above and slightly to the right of Davida's is blurred into oblivion with the placement of the blur on the photo at right.