Creative lenses have become a popular way to do things “in camera.” Sure, there are hundreds of options for numerous editing programs that can do creative effects in post, but there is something to be said about getting everything in camera as it’s happening, including tilt shift effects. Unfortunately for most of us, tilt shift lenses are just not in the budget. That’s where Lensbaby’s modular lens system comes into play.
I’ve owned the Lensbaby Composer Pro for almost two years, but only recently sprung for some of the optional lens accessories in the Sweet 35 and Edge 80 optics. The Composer Pro has extremely manual aperture adjusting (as in, you go and drop in the desired aperture with a magnet). This isn’t really a big deal because most people who shoot with Lensbaby tend to select the aperture they like, which determines how extreme of a shift effect shows in the image, and keep it there. That said, the benefit of selecting the Sweet 35 or Edge 80 is that you get easier to use manual aperture located on the front of the element. This gives you the option to quickly adjust aperture on the fly if you’re finding that your normal tilt shift mainstay isn’t really working for you in a particular situation.
So let’s say you’ve never shot with a Lensbaby before. What can you expect? I’m not going to sugarcoat it: there is a steep learning curve. It’s not uncommon to have to spend a lot of time with a Lensbaby before you get the hang of it. To be honest, I’m still working on it even after shooting a lot with the optics. The lens attaches to the front of your camera, then has a tightening ring that connects to a sort of ball-head-like swivel that contains the front element. That swivel is what you use to create the tilt-shift effect. The more you tilt the front element, the stronger the blur. Learning to mix that shifting with your preferred aperture is going to take some practice, but when you get good at it, the shots you can achieve will look really sweet.
I really appreciate what this lens can do, but it’s really tough to get a feel for the optics. Once you get the tilting down, you still have to make sure everything is sharp (manual focus only). Manual focus usually isn’t a big deal to me, but mix in the tilt-shift blur and it can be difficult to nail a tack sharp shot.
Now that we’re talking about sharpness, the Lensbaby lenses are not cut your eyeballs sharp like some other lenses on the market. It's not the same kind of lens as most any on the market though. The level of sharpness really doesn’t bother me, because being razor sharp isn’t really the point of these lenses.
The Sweet 35: I found this modular attachment to be most akin to shooing the Composer with the double glass optic of the two modular optics I reviewed. It was really good at giving me a perfect little sweet spot of focus while really blurring all around that spot. This is less of a line, more of a round effect. It is also pretty wide, which is nice if you want to fit more in your frame. I also liked the minimum focus distance, which is far more conducive to shooting closer to your subject than with the Edge 80, which required a lot more space before I was able to get a subject in focus.
The Edge 80 Optic: If you are looking for something more akin to a traditional tilt shift lens, this optic is a good choice. It gives a slice of focus that was, to me, much easier to control than the Sweet 35. The more defined line of the Edge 80 is what, I believe, makes for that easier control. With the Sweet 35, you can find yourself so tilted that it’s nearly impossible to get a perfectly sharp image. It’s really easy to go overboard. I fussed around with the Sweet 35 for about three times as long as with the Edge 80 on the same subject before I was happy. I also prefer this focal length for portraits.
Both of these lenses suffer from considerable chromatic aberration, so be careful. It's pretty easy to take care of in post as the CA is not so abrasive that it ruins images, but I would be remiss if I neglected to make you aware.
What I liked:
Ease of manual aperture
The bokeh is really quite pretty on both optics
Creative options available
What could use improvement:
Can be hard to get a perfectly sharp image
Steep learning curve (not really anyone's fault though)
I like Lensbaby lenses. They take a lot of practice before you can really say you’ve “mastered” them and you have to be careful to not let yourself get overbearing with the effect, but when you do get the hang of these lenses, you’ll find yourself making some really beautiful images in-camera. For you wedding or senior portrait photographers, I recommend getting one of these and practicing. I’ve seen these used in those markets with great success. You can get some really stunning images with the Lensbaby that your clients will love.
If you forced me to pick, I would lean towards the Edge 80 optic on the Composer Pro. I liked the sharpness better and preferred the style of the tile effect. It was also a heck of a lot easier to use than the Sweet 35, which I found myself getting frustrated with a few times. Please note, I have not-so-good eyesight, so manual focus is tough for me. More than once I was relying on live view to get sharpness dialed in. My issues with the Sweet 35 are likely easily blamed on my vision.
With the price points of these lenses, you can afford to play around and decide what is right for you. Picking up a Composer Pro is really an investment, because Lensbaby has a large number of modular accessories that you can try, making that one lens body into many possible lens options.
As I mentioned, I'm still learning when it comes to Lensbaby lenses. If you want to see what kind of awesome images you can get with this lens, head on over to Lensbaby.com, where there are a plethora of beautiful shots available for your perusal.