A Love for Adapted Lenses Leads One Photographer on a Journey to a Slower Pace

If you're in the photography game, either professionally or passionately, you've undoubtedly been overcome by the tingly, musing desire to buy some new gear that maybe you didn't need. You know, the stuff that clicks and shines and makes you dream of meandering the streets of New Delhi or the Highlands of Scotland on a golden, breezy morning.

Michigan-based wedding and portrait photographer Rachel Shomsky is a self-professed "glass addict" who never thought her constant tinkering with vintage and adapted lenses would lead her on path of rediscovery with Lensbaby's new Velvet 56 manual focus lens.

It was at a Parker Pfister workshop last year that Shomsky ran into Lensbaby founder Craig Strong.

"He said, 'you have a lot of lenses there!'" Shomsky described her first interaction with Strong as he looked into her bag.

Wedding photos shot with adapted Russian Helios 85mm f/1.5. Copyright 2015 | Image by Rachel Shomsky | http://RachelShomsky.com

After discussing her arsenal of alternative glass, Shomsky said Strong inquired about her interest in testing new products. She replied that she'd be happy to but she didn't think much of it until January when the Lensbaby Velvet 56 was at her doorstep.

"I get excited about these kinds of lenses," Shomsky said, adding that up until this point she hadn't always prioritized breaking out an alternative lens during a wedding shoot. "You have to get through the day and keep your gear experience level in check."

While her Russian Helios or a vintage Kodak lens might make an appearance at a wedding, Shomsky said she didn't often plan for it because she was focused on doing what was she knew would work for her clients.

"You wouldn't change your whole reception lighting setup the day of a wedding," she said. "You really have to be sure that you're comfortable with all of the little quirks and tricks that come with [alternative] lenses. That's really how I've felt about it."

It was the chance to spend serious time with one alternative lens this winter that had Shomsky rethinking just how much of a place her adapted lenses might have in her wedding workflow. The Lensbaby Velvet 56 just seemed to speak to her. Shooting with it pre-release for the manufacturer was a challenge and an experience that proved to have lasting affects on the seasoned shooter.

A dreamy portrait taken while testing the Velvet 56 before its release. Copyright 2015 | Image by Rachel Shomsky | http://RachelShomsky.com

"This project totally changed me," Shomsky said. "I had one lens with one focal length on everything I shot. It whooped my ass and I'm just so much better for it."

Shomsky said the experience of really having to use a quirky manual focus lens, rather than simply choosing to use one because she had time or was in the mood to do so, really caused her to re-evaluate how she'll plan to shoot going forward.

"I know that I'll be rethinking what I take with me from now on," she said. "I know some people will say this sort of lens isn't practical for weddings. Why not? I don't need my work to be like or look like everything else out there."

Shomsky admits that she's always been drawn to things with a vintage appeal, and the Velvet 56 just resonated with her like a familiar painting on a familiar wall.

"I was shooting models, which I don't really do a lot," she described one session with the Velvet 56. "This one set just reminded me of my grandmother's senior portraits, and it really got to me. This lens forces you to ask what are you gonna do? It has such an old soul look, and I love that."

Through her subjects and her inspiration to shoot for Lensbaby, Shomsky says she found a new pace.

A portrait from the Lensbaby Velvet 56 set that reminded the photographer of her grandmother. Copyright 2015 | Image by Rachel Shomsky | http://RachelShomsky.com

"I'm slowing down," she said. "These old lenses and lenses like the Lensbaby slow me down and they really make me think. I'm realizing now that I really needed that."

During the process of working with the new vintage-inspired Lensbaby, Shomsky said she truly fell in love with the lens. It will be more of a mainstay in her workflow than she had ever expected — as will her new carefully considered pace.

The prospect that certain gear can shift our perspectives is an interesting one that should intrigue photographers in a way that requires more careful consideration than your standard GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). For Shomsky, a validation of her love for quirky lenses helped her to find confidence in more thoughtful, deliberate approach. Has a piece of gear, a certain shoot, or any experience made you change the way you approach a shoot?

A portrait using the Lensbaby Velvet 56. Copyright 2015 | Image by Rachel Shomsky | http://RachelShomsky.com
Pigtails and big expressions photographed using the Lensbaby Velvet 56. Copyright 2015 | Image by Rachel Shomsky | http://RachelShomsky.com

Find more of Rachel's work on her website.

All images used with permission.

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8 Comments

Tam Nguyen's picture

I freaking love that Russian Helios lens. It's so awesome. But I'd rather kill myself than using the Velvet. It looks like the worst-quality lens ever made by mankind.

Alice Avenne's picture

Yeah, I don't get soft focus lenses. Soft focus can be achieved with normal lenses too by greasing up the lens with butter if needed but this isn't the 80s and we're not in Kansas anymore.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

Or you can buy a soft filter for roughly $20.

Phillip Gullett's picture

I definitely vouch for the Helios, but the expensive Lensbaby thing seems a huge waste. The Helioses create interesting and beautiful artifacts, but the soft focus look can be had easily without spending hundreds of dollars on a lens that does only that.

I bought a Fotodiox adapter, and they sent me a free Visilex "light cannon" along with it. The Visilex does pretty much what this Lensbaby does. Fotodiox first tried to make it a speed booster/focal reducer, until word got out about the hideous performance. Then they rebadged it a "soft focus adapter". Now they're basically giving them away, although B&H will still try to charge you $99 for one. I tried it once, and then stuck it back in the box and put it in the closet. I'll get it out again if I'm asked to take beauty shots of Napoleon Dynamite's fake girlfriend.

Get a Helios... or three.

Anonymous's picture

I once remember one of my wedding photography mentors saying to me "we spend all this money on sharp lenses,but we are then looking for a softer look with filters etc." There is a great beauty in the soft look for bridal portraits. Occasionally with a manual lens I would get the picture slightly out of focus but the result was still pleasing.I have noticed also that when you take a shot in colour and get it slightly out of focus,if you convert it to black ad white it can become a winner.Nice shots Rachel.

Rachel Shomsky's picture

Thank you so much Geoff! I'm really loving this lens!!

Rainer Lucks's picture

Hell! Just take a shot slightly out of focus and you get the same results.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

Love the Russian Helios lens! I think anything with soft focus you have to be very careful with. You can get the dreamy effect like in the top pictures, which is beautiful. But you can also get into Glamour Shots territory if you aren't careful.