Lensbaby is one of those rare companies that comes out with a product that gets people to look at a commonly-used piece of gear—in this case, the prime photographic lens—and conceptually remixes it. The Lensbaby Sweet 35 is the latest refinement.
For the last several years we've seen a steady stream of new optics and flexible lens bases with new refinements and improvements based on user response. With the Lensbaby Sweet 35, Lensbaby addresses one of the key problems/stumbling blocks potential users have had with the Lensbaby selective focus Optic Swap System: the aperture.
At f/3.5, the Lensbaby Sweet 35's “sweet spot” is fairly small, transforming this mundane scene into something dreamy, while its 12 rounded aperture blades, which are controlled by a good old-fashioned aperture ring, assure pleasing bokeh.
Until the Sweet 35, the only way you could change the aperture on a Lensbaby was inconvenient. A series of aperture discs was held in a separate container; each disc was a different aperture, and was held to the surface of the Lensbaby optic magnetically. Removing the disc required the magnetic end of a tool, supplied by Lensbaby. No aperture disc was the widest aperture. This was a necessary nuisance, since the size of the Lensbaby's aperture directly affected the size of the in-focus area, or “Sweet Spot,” in Lensbaby's selective-focus lenses. The smaller the aperture, the larger the sweet spot. The larger the aperture, the smaller the sweet spot.
The Lensbaby Sweet 35 focuses close, but it varies depending on which base you use: 7.5 inches with the Composer, 6 inches with the Scout, and 3 inches with the Muse or Control Freak.
The Lensbaby Sweet 35 is the first Lensbaby optic with internal, adjustable aperture blades adjusted via a good old-fashioned, conveniently-placed aperture ring. Simply turn it to change apertures. It took the insert-remove-aperture system of the earlier generation of Lensbaby optics to make me appreciate the ease and convenience of having a built-in one, something we take for granted with other lenses.
While other lenses always project an image parallel to the film/sensor plane, Lensbaby lenses can be tilted to change the image's focus plane in relation to the film/sensor plane, producing near view-camera-type control over what is and isn't in focus. Unlike most view-camera lenses, though, Lensbaby lenses are deliberately designed with a sharp “sweet spot” surrounded by blur for a dreamy effect that has been embraced by everyone from portrait and wedding photographers to photojournalists.
Street photography with a Lensbaby Sweet 35? A challenge—but not impossible! In this case I used f/8 for a wider sweet spot.
The Sweet 35 will work with any one of the flexible Lensbaby bases—the Composer/Composer Pro, Muse, or Control Freak (each offers different levels of control over lens positioning), or with the fixed-position Scout (which is currently only available when sold in a kit with the Lensbaby Fisheye). All of Lensbaby bases are available in most DSLR and many MILC camera mounts. It is a 35mm lens that can be used on a full-frame camera, and covers the equivalent angle of view of a 50mm lens when used on an APS-sensor camera.
Pleasing fall-off in this architectural detail shows both focus oddities and the lens's pleasing bokeh.
For this review, I used the Sweet 35 in a Scout base—meaning the sweet spot was always perfectly centered—and found it to be easy and intuitive to use. Unlike most modern lenses, the Sweet 35 stops down in real-time, so when previewing an image in the optical viewfinder, you will see a darker image as you stop down. If your camera has Live View, this might be an appropriate time to use it so you can preview your work as you shoot to make sure focus is where you want it. The Sweet 35's wide focusing ring moved smoothly and easily (as does the ring on the Composer Pro; I prefer these two bases for my Lensbaby shooting as they offer the easiest focus and positioning control.)
Use selective focus to guide the viewer's eye. While the flowers and the post they were stuck in are both in the same plane of focus, selective focus help guide the viewer's eye straight to the flowers despite potentially distracting clutter in the foreground and background.
Conclusion and Recommendation
The Lensbaby Sweet 35 is a fun lens that will get you thinking differently about how you see and photograph the world. Thanks to its ease of use, it's a user-friendly point of entry into the unique Lensbaby system. Optically, its sweet spot is sharper than its predecessors (although the Lensbaby Edge 80, introduced more recently and reviewed here, is the best, optically, of all Lensbaby Optics). I recommend either the Sweet 35 or Edge 80 (or both!) in conjunction with a Composer or Composer Pro for an accessible way to enjoy creativity that is encouraged by using Lensbaby's unique selective focus system.