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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.