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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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42 Comments

Justin Sharp's picture

Sometimes people fall into two categories: those that want to step out of the box and explore new and different territory and those that are confused by the out of the box steppers.
If you fall in the second group, that’s not a bad thing. Yin must have its yang. Both groups are valid.

J. R. Wheatley's picture

"Out of the box," you say.

What is more "in the box" than buying THE line of products that are supposed to make your photography "out of the box?"

Lensbaby isn't out of the box. It's very, very squarely within a box. The question is why is that particular box attractive to people? The author says he doesn't know the answer to that question, and the commenters here have offered their own answers.

And the answers are not that Lensbaby allows you to be stunningly creative. The answers indicate that their products allow you to do specific things are that are very much within a widely acceptable box.

Justin Sharp's picture

Obviously our definitions of this box are incompatible. I googled the phrase out of the box and found this definition: “it is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective.”

Within photography, there is a conventional approach to creating a photo. When you take a photo, there are elements of composition, exposure, contrast etc. that are fall within an acceptable range of “correct.” If you’ve ever taken a university course in traditional photography techniques, you’ve undoubtedly experienced this. When you start taking these foundational elements and push them beyond that which is acceptable, that’s when the photo starts moving toward experimental.

This is what I meant by out of the box; pushing against the idea of convention.
Now, once you’re out of the conventional, there might be more interesting ways to experiment than using Lensbaby products, but this is just a tool.

As to why the idea of “out of the box” is appealing? Welcome to the human condition. From the beginning, there have been boundaries set and those determined to challenge these boundaries.

Jon The Baptist's picture

I'm in agreement. I don't know how Lensbaby is as popular as it is. That being said, I did see a classic Lensbaby be used in a TV show once (Grimm). Camera Dept adapted a Lensbaby 2.0 onto the Alexa and they had someone jiggle the thing around while the steadicam op moved around so they could illustrate a bad drug trip. Worked PERFECT for it.

No idea what episode and season it was, it was years ago, and I was on as an advisor.

Troy Straub's picture

I thought about getting the circular fisheye for micro4/3 just for something goofy to play with. But I realized I could buy both the Laowa and the Meike for about the same price as the the Lensbaby alone, and they were both much smaller and faster. Which is what I wound up doing. I got the Laowa and then found a used Meike at a price I couldn't pass up. Both turned out to be great little lenses. The Meike is faster and easier to not get yourself in the pic. But the Laowa is smaller, wider, and focuses quite a bit closer.

Jeremy Strange's picture

I remember looking at getting one when they first came out. To me at least, part of the appeal was that at the time mirrorless wasn’t really a thing, and if you wanted EF mount lenses you were limited to Canon’s own (which are sharp and clinical), Sigma (the new up and comer with their Art series) and Tamron/old Sigma lenses which were seen as simply not as nice as Canon’s OEM options. The idea of a manual focus lens actually made out of metal that has a smooth focus ring seemed highly unusual and interesting to me, as did the promotional material. They offered something new for the EF mount, or at least it seemed new to me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s what interested me in them.

Abe Halpert's picture

I only use mine for certain wedding film companies I work with on shots of the cake, bouquet, invites etc. they intersperse the effect throughout, probably a handful of shots in a 4-minute video

I've also used it for visually-incapacitated POV shots to good effect

Colin Robertson's picture

I think they appeal to amateurs who want to get some creative selective focus and other effects without breaking the bank. Doing these effects in post is predicated on knowing what you're going for... They're not a great choice if you want anything that's predictable/repeatable.

Mike Ditz's picture

And that's part of the fun about doing it with a lensbaby. Sometimes there's a happy surprise.

Deleted Account's picture

"This company has been around for nearly eight years now"

Lensbaby first launched in 2004, 16 years ago. I'm not sure where you get the 8 years from, unless it's for a specific product in their lineup.

As for their products, I love that the market offers such a diverse choice and I prefer a lens to have some flaws/character as opposed to being optically clinical, but I'm definitely not their target audience.

Robert K Baggs's picture

My mistake — I did think it sounded briefer than I remembered. I'd read two milestone dates and took the wrong one. Well spotted.

Spy Black's picture

It really comes down to marketing, and Lensbaby has that down. Great marketing can make a subpar product look better than it really is. Apple, Ducati, and Harley are all long-term examples of that.

Rick Rizza's picture

I use Lensbaby for video shooting that can create a dreamy situation. It's like having a defective tilt and shift with very shallow DOF. It's wonderful and amazing if you know how to use it. Not to. Mention that you can change the aperture to any shape you want so you can have a heart shape bokeh, which is cool.

Beside, it's a cheap thing, and some people just love to try new stuff.

Alan Klughammer's picture

I bought one of the "sharp" lenses as a poor man's tilt lens. I use it in certain situations instead of focus stacking. The special effect lenses remind me of the old Cokin filters. Maybe useful for one in a million ideas, but overall kind of gimmicky...

Dan Ostergren's picture

I've always been a big fan of lensbaby and have always enjoyed the images I've taken when using one. I think they're a great way for anyone to get creative. There are all sorts of styles and artforms that many people "don't get", just like old folks who "don't get" the noise that young people call music these days. The world would be a much more beautiful place if people could just open up their minds to the things that they don't understand or aren't used to.

Mike Ditz's picture

I guess you could use the same argument about any gimmick, trick or technique that is different. What is your opinion on the millions of PS and LR plugins that are very popular?

I had (until I lost it) one of the first Lensbaby lenses, and it was fun to use it on my then new 1Ds which at the time was the king of the hill. Putting the wacky $60 lens on a $6000 camera was liberating, and unpredictable.

I looked at the 7artisians lenses but don't know anything about them. LEnsbaby are special FX lenses and the 7art seem to be "normal" optical designs.

PNW Capture's picture

Years ago., I had never heard of Lensbaby but when buying my Canon 6D the "Composer" was on sale so I bought it. In those days it used manual aperture disks. I had tired of shooting sunsets and moonsets and wanted to try something different. I found that this crazy lens that let me focus on specific objects and blur the rest fascinating. It opened my eyes. In full disclosure I was not ,nor am a "professional" photographer, but then again does that really matter to the question posed? I was so taken by the product that I contacted the CEO via linked in and as the story goes, I was later brought in to run the company from 2015 until 2020. I can speak to the question asked. In my experience the main reason people by a Lensbaby lens is that they tired of their results and wanted something new, and shooting with a Lensbaby lens achieved that goal. The literally thousands of people I met who shot with Lensbaby loved it because they actually felt something when they shot with it. I am not sure if that is because it is manual and you have to work for every shot, or if they just needed something new to inspire them, but regardless the passion is real and heartfelt. In my case it made me a better photographer. I had to learn to understand everything about photography and improve my skills. I suggest you look to photographers like Kathleen Clemons, Jake Hicks, Polina Plotnikova, Kevin Kabota and others for their reasons. I have met them all and they shoot with Lensbaby lenses because they love them, not for any other reason. I will never forget one woman from Australia that became ill and could no longer do portrait work and had no means of income. She bought a Velvet and became a successful flower photographer As for me, I know longer work for Lensbaby, having retired and moved on and have no further financial gain from their success. I shot with LB lenses exclusively for five years but am now enjoying my Sigma 24-70 and working on long exposure nature images. I will always be thankful for what shooting with Lensbaby taught me. They are not "marketing machine" they just make products that they think inspire.

Krzysztof Jozwik's picture

Not everyone pays adobe monthly...

Jay L's picture

I love Lensbaby lenses because of the mood and selective focus I can do which is unique compared to other standard lenses. I enjoy creating in camera when I am there in the moment not when I’m sitting in front of a screen. Consider the paintings in art history, there are many styles. Impressionist painters were untraditional and shunned and now they are celebrated and probably the most popular painting style reproduced around the world. Maybe you’re a traditional Ansel Adams photographer, which is fine. There are many styles of photography which resonate with different people. Lensbaby promotes seeing in a new way that is fresh and offers many creative options, not just tack sharp images- although they offer that too!

Jay L's picture

...

John Peltier's picture

No reason to poo poo on how people choose to express their creativity and for not using photoshop. Photography is a separate process for everyone and we shouldn’t expect to understand why they do what they do - just let them enjoy what they’re doing.

Sam Sims's picture

Agree. I get quite fed up of the snobbish attitude towards lenses that are a little bit different (also including manual lenses). People who think there’s such a thing as right and wrong should just spend all their time and energy on their own photography instead of looking down on people they’ve never met for choosing and liking the ‘wrong’ photography equipment.

J. R. Wheatley's picture

I don't think he poo-pooed anything.

He asked a question. Then considered it in detail. And he still doesn't get the appeal.

That's not poo-pooing. That's being thoughtful.

John Peltier's picture

A thoughtful question would be, "why do photographers like Lensbaby? Help me understand."
But he didn't leave it there. He put down the photographers who use them, said their images are subpar, and alluded to their methods as being "dumb", for lack of a better word. It's not his place, or anyone else's, to say a photographer is "wrong" without talking to them first. That's what this post amounted to.
It's fine if he wants to ask the question to gain insight. I'm all for that. I personally don't get the lenses either, it's not my style. But I would never trash another photographer in my quest to understand them.

Sandy Brown Jensen's picture

Who is LensBaby’s target audience? I am.
I have no interest in edge to edge focus.
I consider PhotoShop to be a bloated program from a previous century that my life is too short to learn. I have photo editing apps on my iPad, and I know how to use them.

You may consider them cheap or inexpensive, but each of my LensBaby lenses took me sometimes months to save up for. They are very high quality metal and glass—each is a pleasure to hold and to shoot.

Each of my LB lenses does something excitingly different. When I show LB work in gallery shows or on social media, I am always showing some unique vision of my world that I love and that (some) people exclaim about and even buy from time to time.

But then, I love the blur, the swirl, the dance, the suggestive, the luminous, the abstract. I live deep in the 21st century, and LensBaby helps me express these times more beautifully and uniquely.

Sam Sims's picture

Great attitude. Some of the photography gear snobs could learn a thing or two.

I unfortunately have been on the receiving end of unnecessary criticism because I like manual Voigtlander lenses and don’t care for the obsession with shallow depth of field and ‘creamy bokeh’ or edge to edge sharpness. That’s their problem though. If we all bought the same equipment and liked the same styles, photography would be very dull.

I have always felt it is easy to create rubbish photos with Lensbaby lenses but taking the time to really get to know them well will eventually pay off. I’ve considered purchasing the Burnside 35 as it could be an interesting lens to use but if there was any way to rent one first, I’d rather do that, just to be sure I liked it.

J. R. Wheatley's picture

You repeatedly call him a snob. You take this personally. Apparently he really touched a nerve with you.

He's not being a snob. He's not looking down on it. He's just saying he doesn't get the appeal.

I don't get the appeal of cigars. That doesn't make me a snob regarding cigars. It means I have thought about cigars, watched people enjoy cigars, and still don't understand why they're appealing.

Cristina Venedict's picture

I like to create photos that tell a story and this lens helped me achieve. Love my Lensbaby!

Mark Sawyer's picture

Every modern lens is computer-created to the same design philosophy: flat field, no distortion, no astigmatism, no chromatic or spherical aberration, no flare, maximum contrast, maximum resolution corner-to-corner... Perfect lenses. Stepford lenses.

Why use anything else when you can have the same old perfect every time?

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.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lensbaby#/media/File:Lensbaby_example_sst.jpg

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.

https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/sdplensbaby/

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.

Dan Ostergren's picture

This.

John Peltier's picture

Nailed it.

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.
https://youtu.be/yZ7DZ7HPXck

Marcy St Laurent's picture

The images on Flicker are ummm Hmmmm, not saying mine are great as I have had the lens for a week. If you look on Facebook there are two lensbaby groups and the images are better. I picked up the trio28. I can emulate Todd Hido easier. I'm into that obscure dark moodiness. I don't like to do a lot of work in LR nor are my skills much past basic in that area. This lens has slowed me down and I am even more present... pushing me. I don't have to wait till I get back and do PP to see what I have. My photography skill level. Not a pro but good enough where people have asked to purchase images or do a photo shoot. Who is this for, some of us just can't project what it will look like after we process it. It's more of a learning style I think. I am naturally analytical. It takes more energy to access the creative side. So for me getting it as close as I can in the field cuts down on frustration on not seeing what I truly have. I can get into the flow easier. I don't have patience for filters and Vaseline!

Jack Flesher's picture

While I have never been a fan of the original lensbaby pinhole or tilted PoF style output, some of their newer designs were compelling. I have an appreciation for older legacy lens style rendering for certain subjects, notably Petzval design lenses with their aperture-dependent feathered resolution falloff and vignetting plus circular background bokeh, all while holding surprisingly sharp central image areas -- and all of this usually progresses from extreme to barely noticeable as you stop down. Most current lenses are so good optically, they have no unique character. Don't get me wrong, I like great glass as much as the next guy. But I also like to have some flaws to exploit, especially when those flaws are pleasing -- sometimes the enemy of good is perfect... So earlier this year I sprung for a couple Lensbaby Petzvals to play around with. In my case, after carefully reviewing several example images, I decided on the Burnside 35 and Twist 60. My first comment is the both of them combined cost less than a single 35mm f1.8 AF prime would have cost me for my system. Second comment is there is a learning curve to obtaining the result you're after. I am a fairly accomplished photo editor using both CaptureOne and Photoshop extensively -- so I can create falloff and other vignetted or blur effects in post pretty easily. But the results never quite matched up to the true legacy lens look I was after. In the case of the Lensbaby's above, the effect is seen realtime in camera as I adjust focus, aperture and subject to background distance. Plus their construction is such they operate focus and aperture just like any other manual lens you might have used over the past 50 years -- and specifically not something like you would have used 120 years ago. Finally, in addition the Burnside has a vignette dial that allows for some added control -- while vignette is very easy to add later in post, the effect of this slider is variable and therefore adds another realtime creative option at capture. All in all, I find both satisfying to use and I enjoy the results I obtain -- and after some time behind camera with them, I get reasonably predictable results. So count me as a satisfied customer.