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Z-Cage

Review of the
Lensbaby Composer

Written by Ron Risman
December, 2008




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Reviewed by Ron Risman, December 2008

Introduction

The new Lensbaby Composer™ is the follow up to the popular Lensbaby 2.0, a selective focus SLR lens that behaves much like a tilt shift lens - only more fun and much easier to use. The idea behind the Lensbaby is to blur out most of the image while keeping a sweet spot (area that's in focus) over the part of the scene you wish to draw attention too. With the Lensbaby and Lensbaby 2.0 this was accomplished by squeezing and bending the lens to the desired position while pressing the shutter button. This effect creates a very dream-like look to your images and one that would be time consuming and difficult to duplicate using Photoshop.

Lensbabies are known to help photographers break out of their artistic doldrums the minute they look through the viewfinder and out through the eye of the Lensbaby. Have you ever carried your camera with you only to find out that their's really nothing interesting to shoot? Put the Lensbaby on the camera and you'll instantly find new creative ways to make the ordinary look exciting and fresh.

The freedom of the bellows-style design of the original Lensbaby and the Lensbaby 2.0 is exciting for some photographers, while others found the inability to easily recreate the same shot over and over again frustrating. When using the Lensbaby and Lensbaby 2.0 you would adjust the lens using random pressure and angle to adjust the sweet spot and focus. For photographers that shoot in a studio or for the ability to duplicate an effect over and over again, Lensbaby, last year, introduced the Lensbaby 3G. The Lensbaby 3G features the same bellow design of previous models but with the ability to lock in your sweet spot and then fine-tune the focus by turning one or more of the three focus adjustment rods.

Review

This year Lensbaby refreshed their entire lineup with three new lenses: The Lensbaby Muse™, the Lensbaby Composer™, and the Lensbaby Freak™. The Lensbaby Muse looks and works very similar to the Lensbaby 2.0, while the Lensbaby Freak looks and works similar to the Lensbaby 3G. Lensbaby didn't want to mess with success, so instead of changing their design, they worked with it - and added a new feature called the Optic Swap System.

The Optic Swap System provides even more creative freedom by allowing users to pop-out the crisp multi-coated double glass optic and replace it with a softer, more dream-like single glass optic or with a plastic optic that provides a very ethereal look with strong chromatic aberration. There's even a pin-hole/zone plate optic that can easily be swapped in or out. The lenses that make up the optic swap system can be purchased separately for $34.95. The Lensbaby Composer ships with the double glass optic ($85 separately).



Lensbaby Composer™
The new Lensbaby Composer™ introduces a completely new "ball & socket" design that takes the bending and focusing and separates them. This allows the photographer to easily focus the sweet spot over their subject before bending the lens into the desired position - or vice-versa. The lens position stays right where you place it and focus can then be locked in just by turning the locking ring. I think a lot of people will love this new design as it allows for repeatable effects and fast focus all with just one hand. Others may still prefer the original bellows-style design of the Lensbaby Muse as it forces you to play and think different with each and every exposure. Studio photographer may still prefer the Lensbaby 3G (now called the Lensbaby Freak) as it offers the most advanced fine-tuning of the three. The Lensbaby Muse and Freak are also better suited for macro photography as their minimum focus distance is 12", compared to 18" for the Lensbaby Composer.

All three Lensbabies now feature the ability to swap out the optics in order to change the overall look and feel of their images. As mentioned above there are three additional add-on optics that are currently available, each with their own special look and feel. The sample images below were shot with each of the optics that are available, starting with the included double-glass optic. The double glass, single glass, and plastic optics create the traditional Lensbaby look with a defined sweet spot of various clarity (depending on optic used). The Pinhole / Zone Plate optic creates images that are softer from edge-to-edge with no defined sweet spot.

The test images below were shot indoors under traditional incandescent lighting. The relatively low lighting created quite a challenge when trying to frame and focus the shot using the Pinhole / Zone Plate optic as the small f/177 (pinhole) and f/19 (Zone Plate) apertures made the scene look completely dark through the viewfinder. I ended up shooting blindly and hoped for the best and had to use long exposures to capture each of the scenes. When shooting through the pinhole lens I even had to bump the ISO to 1600 in order to keep the exposure to 30 seconds.

The 50mm multi-coated optical glass doublet provides a very sharp sweet spot of focus with minimum diffusion at all aperture settings.


The 50mm Single Glass optic is similar to the original Lensbaby optic and is ideal for fine art, portraiture, black and white images, and any shot requiring a subtle, soft, dreamy effect. The Uncoated 50mm double convex plastic singlet optic is the softest optic overall and creates very airy photos with a lot of chromatic aberration.
This shot was taken with the 55mm PinHole/Zone Plate Optic with the lens switched to Zone Plate. The Zone Plate mode offers an f/19 aperture, which for this indoor shot, forced me to set the camera to a 25 second exposure at ISO 100. The images created with the Zone Plate lens offer a very dreamy look with similar focus from edge-to-edge. This shot was taken with the 55mm Pinhole/Zone Plate Optic with the lens switched to Pinhole. The Pinhole offers an f/177 aperture, which for this indoor shot, forced me to set the camera to a 30 second exposure at ISO 1600. The images created with the Pinhole lens offer a soft look with similar focus from edge-to-edge.


Control Depth-of-Field with the Included Aperture Discs

If the ability to swap optics weren't enough, the Lensbaby Composer includes 7 aperture discs that drop into the lens opening and are suspended just about the lens by tiny magnets that hold the discs in place. Without an aperture disc installed the optics default to their f/2.0 opening. Each of the 7 discs then allow for increased depth of field. The only optic that does not make use of the aperture discs is the pinhole / zone plate optic, which has its own predefined aperture setting (f/177 and f/19 respectively).

Below are sample photos shot using the standard 50mm double glass optic included with the Lensbaby Composer. Each image was shot at a different aperture, from F2.0 through F/22. Notice in the images how the sweet spot spreads out as the aperture size is reduced (larger aperture number). At F/16 and F/22 only the corners show slight signs of softness and diffusion.






Conclusion

As someone who really enjoys the bellows-style Lensbabies (Lensbaby 2, 3G, Muse, and Freak), I have mixed feelings about the new Lensbaby Composer. While the ball & socket approach has the same net effect as squeezing and bending, I felt a bit less connected to the whole process. On the other hand, the design of the Lensbaby Composer provided me with the ability to place the camera on a tripod in order to set up the shot exactly as I wanted - and then keep it there while I adjusted the scene (see still life photos below). Since the Lensbaby Composer retains its position, its easy to re-arrange a scene or to take multiple shots with the same lens settings. Of course, that brings us to the new Lensbaby Freak (replaces Lensbaby 3G). The Lensbaby Freak will retail for the same price as the Lensbaby Composer ($270) when it ships in 2009 and will offer the best of both worlds with regard to flexibility. The Lensbaby Freak offers the bellows-style "Bend and Squeeze" flexibility of the Lensbaby Muse (and original Lensbabies) with the ability to lock the position and refine focus like the Lensbaby Composer - albeit in a different manner. The Lensbaby Freak, like the 3G before it, also looks quite different and will attract more attention whenever you use it out and about. This can either be beneficial and detrimental depending on location, situation, and subject. In the end I think it comes to down function, more than form. If you mainly shoot in the controlled environment of a studio, you'll likely want the Lensbaby Freak for the added 'micro' control over focus and sweet spot. However, if you plan on shooting in a wide variety of situations, the added adjustment speed of the Lensbaby Composer will more likely appeal to you.

When reviewing the Lensbaby products I always keep in mind that these are specialty lenses and, as such, are not suited for every photographer or every situation. The relatively inexpensive price (starting at $100 for the Lensbaby Muse with Plastic Optic) make it a great DSLR add-on, especially for those looking to enhance their photography and inspire creativity. While I don't shoot with a Lensbaby every day, I always see the world differently through its lens when I do. That in turn inspires new angles and new subjects - many that would not have worked without the Lensbaby. Take a look at some of the photographs below and you'll see what I am referring too. The shot of the Pine bough would never have worked with a regular lens, but looks great when shot with the Lensbaby.

Below are some photographs shot with a Lensbaby. The tea kettle shot was enhanced further in Photoshop. All other images were unaltered except for some slight contrast adjustments and resizing to fit the page.

Available for Most Camera Mounts
The Lensbaby lenses are available for most SLR camera mounts: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony Alpha / Minolta Maxxum, Pentax K, Samsung GX, Sigma SD, and Olympus 4/3. Lensbaby also makes a model for motion picture cameras. This Lensbaby 3GPL retails for $490 and is compatible with all motion picture cameras with a native PL mount.

Along with the new optic swap system, Lensbaby also offers a variety of add-on accessories and converter lenses for the Lensbaby line. Choose between .6x wide-angle, Telephoto, Creative Aperture Kit that allows you to custom cut your own aperture disks into any aperture shape you want, cases, replacement lens cap, and replacement aperture discs. You can view the entire line up of Lensbaby products on their website at www.lensbaby.com

Direct Links to Lensbaby Products at the Following Retailers:
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