Fstoppers Reviews the Lensbaby Velvet 56 Lens

Fstoppers Reviews the Lensbaby Velvet 56 Lens

Pictured above is the newest addition to the Lensbaby lens family. However, this classic styled glass isn’t just another portrait lens... and how could it be coming from the Lensbaby camp? The Velvet 56 is a solid, beautiful piece of camera hardware with more than one trick up its sleeve.

About

In 2004, Craig Strong & Sam Price brought to life Lensbaby Inc. in Portland, Oregon. Over the last eleven years, the Lensbaby lineup has been unparalleled. Known for its unique bokeh effects and selective focus lenses, the Lensbaby lineup offers unprecedented effects ranging from the Composer Pro tilt shift lens to the Scout fisheye. Couple this with the option to change the drop in optics, and the combinations are endless. The team at Lensbaby has cooked up something completely new for us this time!

Lensbaby Velvet 56 test

First Use

The first thing you’ll notice about the Velvet 56 is the weight and feel. It reminds me of some of the lenses I have for my Canon AE-1 film camera. I was shipped the silver Special Edition, and the appearance was striking right from the case. The mount is very snug on the 5D Mark III, even some of my Canon lenses don’t fit that well, yet it’s not overly tight. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this lens once I got hands on it, but so far, I’m impressed.

Lensbaby Velvet 56 test

Focusing the lens takes a bit of practice, and with my shooting eye not 100%, I miss focus a fair amount. I found the best course of action is to cheat and use the live view while zoomed in to nail the focus. It’s also good to keep in mind that the sweet spot of the lens doesn’t move around like some of the other Lensbaby products, it’s right in the middle. This makes altering the composition something you’ll have to change after the fact if you want a sharp subject.

Design

Like I mentioned above, the lens is of solid build quality. It feels much better in hand than the nifty fifty, and seems sturdier as well. The focusing ring is smooth and firm, making it very user friendly. Furthermore, if you’re running it at the full throw, which is very large, there are no grabs or slips. Yet, the aperture selection ring feels a little out of place on such a solid lens: it’s very light and I managed to move it without knowing a couple of times throughout my shoots. The 56mm ƒ/1.6 portrait lens boasts 1:2 macro capabilities, and the Velvet weighs in at a solid 400 grams, just shy of the 35L weight of 580 grams.

Photo via Lensbaby

Performance

The Velvet 56, like its name suggests, creates a soft focus effect. Soft focus, while usually is considered a technical flaw, has become a creative tool for photographers. Many vintage lenses suffered from optical aberrations as a design flaw, which some find charming. This lens is quite sharp when stopped down, which also reduces the blurring vignette the lens creates. The more you open up, however, the more of a dreamy look you will achieve. Starting in the corners and quickly working in, the blur becomes more exaggerated with each click of the aperture ring, not that it is a bad thing. Along with more blurring, you obviously are decreasing the DOF of the image, making it harder to nail focus. Once you get down to ƒ/2.8, most of the frame - sans the center - is softened in a gentle swirl of blur. However, past ƒ/2.8, it seems the rest of the image becomes soft focused. You can really create an airy, light image with this effect if having a tack sharp subject isn’t your primary objective. For the image below, I think it works. 

Lensbaby Velvet 56 test

However, I would steer clear of shooting directly into the sun. The Velvet 56 turns sun flare, like the edges of your frame, into a buttery blur. I didn’t find it to be functional when the sun was hitting the lens directly. When low and right behind my subject, it washed out the frame almost completely. On the other hand, in contrast to shooting directly into the sun, I found the macro feature very nice. With a minimum focus distance of 5”, you can get up close and personal with your subject matter. The long throw of the focus ring allows precise control critical focus at the macro level, and I was easily able to grab some sharp images. One downside I found was because there is no chip in the lens, the camera has no clue what the aperture is to store in your meta data. A solution would be to use the lens in aperture priority mode, which is great for a location with dynamic lighting.

Lensbaby Velvet 56 test

What I Liked

  • Build Quality: the lens seems like it has a long life ahead of itself and feels great in hand.
  • Focus Ring: the focus ring is so important on a manual focus lens. This one is smooth and firm, with the long throw focusing is much easier than on many of my Canon lenses. 
  • Macro: the macro feature is something amazing for a portrait lens to achieve.
  • Unique Images: this lens allows you to create some unique images with a range of blurring intensity.

What Could be Improved

  • The Flare: the Lens could probably handle direct light a little better, and really awesome flare could add to an already interesting soft image.
  • Wide Open: the images are almost too soft once you reach ƒ/2.8 to be useable for a client shoot, but may be interesting for something conceptual.

Conclusion

I’m currently without a macro lens, and I think I may have found a dual purpose lens to fill my gap. I can’t wait to give it a go with a gorgeous wedding ring. While this may not be my go to workhorse portrait lens, it is really exciting to see something new and innovative on the market. The results remind me a lot of a soft focus Helios type of image. If you like the soft focus type of images, you can now get much better results than smearing your equipment with petroleum jelly or covering it with nylons. Like most other lenses, I’d suggest renting to see if it has a place in your kit. You can get them now over at B&H, both Canon and Nikon mounts. 

Lensbaby Velvet 56 test

f/2.8

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20 Comments

Aaron Brown's picture

I might actually have to try a Lensbaby now. This looks legit.

Kyle Ford's picture

I was pleasantly surprised, I had no idea what to expect.

Adam Sparkes's picture

I'm going to play with one soon, too. I've never touched a Lensbaby, but there is a first for everything?

Kyle Ford's picture

kinda sounds creepy.

Adam Sparkes's picture

I try.

Spy Black's picture

Is it just me, or are we staring at The Emperor's New Clothes?...

Better to get a DC lens from Nikon. Use the DC ring the proper way and you control your out of focus areas and have an image sharper than scalpel. Use it the wrong way and you get a much better soft focus lens than this.

the bokeh isnt pleasing at all. it gives me a negative clarity in lightroom type of vibe. I feel just any cheap 50mm 1.4 lens would give about the same amount of blur but better rendered with more sharpness

Kyle Ford's picture

You wouldn't be getting the vignetting of blur with a 50 1.4 though. That's what this is doing.

Ramon Acosta's picture

"Along with more blurring, you obviously are increasing the DOF of the image, making it harder to nail focus."

The DOF diminishes, that is why it is harder to achieve correct focus.

Kyle Ford's picture

You are correct, that was my mistake. Thanks!

Sean Shimmel's picture

I hate to come across as the grumpy guy. We all welcome innovative vision.

But...

1. Not only will I pass,
2. ...even if it were free
3. I'd pay money NOT to own one.

Quite unappealing

Kyle Ford's picture

You can send me a pm and I'll get you my paypal info so I don't send this to you. :P

Sean Shimmel's picture

Rascal. :)

(but I'm nearly tempted, I dislike the look/idea so much)

M Russell's picture

Howbout just buy one of those $10 Tiffen blur filters for your current lens and save $490? Or don't buy the filter and add a Gaussian Blur in photoshop and save $500.

It looks like a lovely lens, but I think it's overpriced at $500. Lensbaby are simply hyping optical properties that exist in plenty of older and much cheaper lenses. I've compiled a very short list of some character lenses here, each for under $50: http://sjp.id.au/photography/lensbaby-velvet-56-lens/

Gino Carlini's picture

Good review Kyle... It Looks like nice build quality... but over priced for what you are getting. There are plenty of older manual film lenses you can use with adapters for a much lower price that will create the same effect. I use 1960s German Zeiss Jena lenses... I also see you were having a hard time focusing with your Canon. Try the Fuji XT1 and X-Pro1... the huge EVF plus focus assist makes manual focusing spot on every time.

Kyle Ford's picture

Thanks for the great response! I would love to get Magic Lantern running again, focus peaking is the best. The xpro1 is a solid camera, I love your set up there.

Gino Carlini's picture

Thanks Kyle!! I used Nikon back in the 80s/90s film days and switched to Canon when I went Digital. About a year ago I jumped ship again and went Fuji. I have the XT1 and X-Pro1 and love them. Fuji has some great lenses.. plus both these cameras are very well suited for manual shooting like with my Zeiss Jena lenses...I'm really looking forward to the X-pro2 coming out hopefully by the end of the year.

Anonymous's picture

I'll rent one, I love my Original Lensbaby but this one better be a stunner fort that price...