Who Is Buying Lensbaby Lenses and Why?

Who Is Buying Lensbaby Lenses and Why?

Lensbaby has always been an enigma to me, and I've never been quite sure what niche they're meant to fill. Perhaps you can help me.

I'm a positive, optimistic type of chap generally and a firm believer in live and let live. However, I need to step out of that persona for a moment and discuss a company that baffles me more than any other in the industry: Lensbaby. This company has been around for nearly sixteen years now, and I've seen many images taken using their lenses, as well as reviews and videos of their newest equipment. Every time — every time — I furrow my brow and wonder what is trying to be achieved.

The initial motif of Lensbaby seemed to me (from the outside) to be to create vintage-inspired lenses that didn't focus too much (pun intended) on sharpness and traditional lens-gauging metrics. Brilliant. I can see exactly the sort of niche that would occupy and furthermore, I think on that description, I'd likely be a customer. But in reality, their lenses are more confusing to me than that. They appear to be less like the marrying of vintage lenses with modern creativity, and instead the union of poorly aging Instagram filters with cataracts. What am I missing?

While working in philosophy, I clung to one principle old Berty Russell said in one way or another: you should turn a problem on all sides. So, with Lensbaby, I've looked for counterarguments. Are there great images taken with Lensbaby lenses? Absolutely. Here's one from their Instagram:

So, what's the issue, then? Well, I'd argue that the rare, great images that are taken with Lensbaby lenses are not great because of being taken with their lens, but rather in spite of being taken with it. The above image taken with, say, the Zenit 85mm f/1.5 would yield largely the same results (insofar as you could get the radial bokeh), if not slightly better by virtue of the superior optics (in the traditional sense of the term.) What bothers me most of all, I think, is that the great images you might see on Lensbaby's marketing material and their Instagram are rather far from representative. You could argue that is the case for all manufacturer promotional material, and you'd be right, but I believe the gap between the average buyer and their flagship images is far wider than most.

I'm not comfortable calling anyone out specifically — even if their images are available through Creative Commons — so instead I'll make you do some of the leg work for my case. Click here to see recent and popular Lensbaby images on Flickr. If the photographers are enjoying using the lens and like the images they're creating with it, more power to them! Ignore me — please. But, I scroll through this feed, and for 90% of the images posted, I'm wondering what the point of using the lens was. In the best case scenario, where the effect is pleasing to some degree and adds something to the composition, you could have achieved it in Photoshop. Perhaps you're an "in-camera only" purist, but that seems like a bizarre stance to take here. In the worst case scenario, you've just smeared your frame to no obvious end.

I've scrolled through hundreds and hundreds of images with Lensbaby lenses, and for the most part, I can't see who the target demographic is and why they would want these lenses. Their lens effects seem to offer little that couldn't be done in seconds in Photoshop. The Edge effect is faux tilt-shift, which can be achieved properly with a lens (albeit a much more expensive one) or if you're looking for a similar visual to Lensbaby, the Instagram filter. The Sweet Spot look is a sort of tunnel vision effect that can actually be pleasing on occasion, but it's just some blurring, which could be done in Photoshop or with some Vaseline around the edges of a cheap filter. The Velvet effect is just soft focus; the less said about that, the better. The final "look" of Swirl is the only I could imagine using and couldn't be as easily created in post, but if it's radial bokeh you're after, there are much better options.

I have nothing against Lensbaby as a company; they appear to have been growing consistently for some time now, and they have an undeniable cult following. But that's where my confusion lies. What am I missing when it comes to Lensbaby? They're fairly cheap, small, light, and (occasionally) interesting. But new challengers to the industry 7artisan do all of that better, their lenses are more widely applicable to different styles, and are much cheaper. Look at their 35mm f/1.4 we recently reviewed, for example. Furthermore, if it's the vintage aesthetic and handling you're after, vintage lenses are great fun to play with. If you're looking for quirky lenses with modern build quality, you have multiple options in 7artisans, TTartisans, the aforementioned Zenit, among a host of others.

I openly admit I have had limited hands-on experience with Lensbaby products. Perhaps there are hidden depths to the creative inspiration that eluded me (and seemingly most photographers). But if these lenses have some absurdly high skill ceiling, I'd still have to ask who they are for? There are many hands-on reviews of various lenses of theirs that are written by photographers I know to be talented and consistent image creators. Nevertheless, the images they furnish the review with are miles below the quality they produce week in, week out. More puzzling still, most reviews appear to be overwhelmingly positive about the lenses, which just adds more credence to the claim that they're not bad; I just don't "get" them. So, please, help me out.

Are you a Lensbaby fan or can you just spot exactly what it is I'm missing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Previous comments
jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

I think it's because everyone doesn't want to be "the same". Some want to "try something different". Whether or not it makes coffee or fries cabbages is quite beside the point - it's different, and it's fun.
Personally, I have never tried - let alone owned - a Lensbaby.
But having said that, I've tried something like 20 or 30 different cameras, with all of the different lenses that involved. Actually it might even be more than that.
And I do it because I've spent my life working in an office, so once I get home, I like something "creative" and "interesting". "More of the same" just doesn't do it for me.
So if someone else is doing "less of the same", by using Lensbaby lenses, I'd just say "Go, man!"

Phil F. Zucker's picture

Don't judge the brush by the people who use it! :-) That said, the Lensbaby lenses are IMO very nice brushes for "painting with light" - and that's what photography is about, isn't it? If you fail to find enough good pics made with those lenses or feel flooded with bad ones - well, I think that can be true for a search for pictures done with any specific lens, cheap or expensive. Lensbabies in their different flavors can be difficult to master; and they sure will slow you down while taking pictures. But both doesn't need to be an disadvantage.

Some direct remarks on some of your statements:

"The Edge effect is faux tilt-shift" - no, it's the real thing. To be precise there is no "shift" with the Edge lenses, but they are real tilt lenses that can place the plane of focus anywhere, as larger and more expensive T/S-lenses do - only less precisely so. And of course you can emulate the "tilt-shift" effect with software if you want that miniature look, but you cannot emulate front to back sharpness on a chosen focal plane - this is pure hardware and optics, and the Edge lenses can do that.

"Velvet effect is just soft focus; the less said about that, the better." Uh, oh ... I know in the age of digital photography sharpness is really sought after a lot, but in the not so short history of photography there was always a place for softer renderings. Soft focus shouldn't be confused with "out of focus" - it's a method of combining perfectly sharp images with overlays of less sharper renderings, and this can be achieved with a variety of methods (a lot of those were explored by Lensbaby, but not only by them). The important thing here is the control the photographer has of the amount and style of the blur, to be able to fine tune the effect. Lensbaby delivers here.

"... you could have achieved it in Photoshop" - I hear and read that a lot. Digital post processing has evolved, but capturing light rays with a lens is a three dimensional event, with reflections and refractions influencing each other - and those three dimensions can not be recreated fully in 2-D post processing. Much is possible, I do agree, but certainly not everything. And fine tuning a picture composition in the viewfinder, realizing a picture idea as much as possible in the camera is IMO always a good idea. I'm not shy to PP, and I do PP a lot, but I know the better the original pic, the easier the PP work and the better the final result.

Lensbaby has not made everything right, but their product line showed that they wanted to give photographers control over the outcome, and that's what I like about them. They also explored a lot of different venues for creating pictures with different technologies, using a lot of historically interesting references, e.g. their Soft Focus plugin optics with special diffusion discs like those used in the legendary Rodenstock Imagon or their Zone Plate/Pinhole optics - and this and more of that to really affordable prices.

What the people do with these opportunities is in their own responsibility. And a lot will fail, will see the novelty effect of it only, won't persist and thus will produce only inferior results. But I've seen a lot of excellent results realised with Lensbaby lenses, and I think they really have earned their niche in the existing lens lineup.

John Peltier's picture

I'd prefer to look at a "soft" photo that evokes a strong emotional response over a "vanilla" sharp digital photo any day.

Sam Sims's picture

Well said. I can’t stand the typical snobbish attitude as shown in this article. People don’t have to like Lensbaby lenses or other lenses not chasing the same dull (imo) ‘perfection’ but why do they feel they have to insult others that do like those sorts of lenses? I like modern manual lenses like Voigtlander but get bored of all the people saying manual lenses are archaic and no longer relevant.

Charles Mercier's picture

It's hard to take good photos and with thing like this, it just makes it that much harder. Here is a good use of this effect though. (Granted, I've only spent the last 4 minutes discovering and finding out about this thing.)


Fetching image ...
Stephanie DeFranco's picture

As an avid user of all Lensbaby products, I hardly ever do a session without one in my bag. And when I travel I never take a "regular" lens with me. Why is this? I have found that people are always looking for something that sets them apart from the next artist and Lensbaby does that for me & my clients. High school seniors LOVE the fun effects that come from Lensbaby, especially the different lens flare that each optic creates.

As for the "being able to do that in Photoshop" bit.. I hear this ALL THE TIME from people, but why wouldn't you just take the time to do it in-camera that you can show people right then on a session for what you had envisioned initially? I would prefer more time behind my camera rather then sitting for hours at a computer trying to decide which prism effect I think looks "ok" on the photo.

Maybe it's just the fact that I have integrated my style so much with Lensbaby effects that I can't ever see myself going back to a basic lens. They helped me step away from getting the same shot as everyone else and people notice that.


Caroline Jensen's picture

Lensbabies are for people who 'get' what Lensbaby offers. I have taught classes on using these lenses for years and if you love them, you do not need to be convinced. I didn't find my visual voice until I picked up a Lensbaby. Creative blur moves me emotionally and I am not the only one. It's cool if it is not your thing, but this article seems like a hit piece meant to channel readers into looking at other brands' lenses linked in the article, which is off-putting. In spite of mentioning numerous times that no offense is meant, it feels dishonest given that the author mentions..."I openly admit I have had limited hands-on experience with Lensbaby products." Um, ok, well, try a few for a couple of months and come back with a real review, good or bad.

Jonathan Adams's picture

Creativity is explored in many ways. Not sure why Jack White uses a coke bottle but who is it for me to question his methods.