What has a flexible rubberized tube, like a short version of the hose you find on a vacuum cleaner, and a piece of optical glass at the end? Why, my Lensbaby, of course: a specialized interchangeable lens that fits Nikons, Canons, and other dSLRs. The point of this somewhat bizarre but dearly beloved piece of photo gear? To allow a photographer to control the portion of a photo that is in focus. Lensbaby adherents call this in-focus area the “sweet spot.” Another way to put this: a Lensbaby is an SLR camera lens that allows selective focus with one area of a photo (the sweet spot) in sharp focus surrounded by gradually increasing blur.
Lensbabies come in three varieties: the original Lensbaby, Lensbaby 2.0, and the recent addition to the Lensbaby family, the Lensbaby 3G. The original Lensbaby and the Lensbaby 2.0 are pretty much the same conceptually, although the Lensbaby 2.0 is “brighter, sharper, and faster” as well as more expensive than the original Lensbaby. The Lensbaby 2.0 has a better piece of optical glass on the end, stops down to f/2.o rather than the f/2.8 offered by the older version, and costs $150 versus $96 at retail.
As you can easily see in the pictures below, the Lensbaby 3G (it retails for $270) is an altogether more elaborate affair than either of the classic Lensbaby models.
Whichever Lensbaby you use, don’t expect electronic communication with your camera. You focus by positioning the camera with Lensbaby attached where you want it, and by pushing and pulling the vacuum hose part of the Lensbaby. This sounds a little wild, but actually focusing the Lensbaby works pretty well. (Note: the Lensbaby 3G also has a collar you turn for fine focusing.)
You set the diaphragm of the lens (this is the lens opening, also called the f/stop) by placing a magnetic metal disk with a round opening in the front of the lens. Lensbaby calls these aperture thingees “levitating aperture disks,” and a complete set of these comes with each Lensbaby, along with a handy-dandy levitating aperture disk holder attached to a tool for removing the disks from the lens.
For the most part, you make exposures in manual mode based on trial and error, although with some cameras (such as the Nikon dSLRs) aperture-preferred metering does work.
Once you own a Lensbaby, you may be struck by the need to dress your Lensbaby up. You’ll be glad to learn that there are a full line of accessories for your Lensbaby, including close-up filters and “creative” aperture disks (these last are disks like hearts and stars, and even blank disk slugs that let you cut your own shapes). The ability to capture close-ups with the Lensbaby adds a very important facility to this lens.
It was great to be able to control the sweet spot of focus with the Lensbaby 2.0, but one significant drawback was that this usually meant positioning the bellows tube of the lens by hand. There was no way to lock it in place. This was a significant limitation, because it meant that long exposures were out of the question. In addition, if you had pulled or pushed the Lensbaby tube, you couldn’t expect to repeat what you had done exactly making bracketing and controlled exposures difficult. The Lensbaby 3G overcomes these obstacles, although it also introduces a degree of complexity into the Lensbaby universe.
With the 3G, in addition to the tube, lens, and place for aperture discs, the 3G sports a mechanism for locking the Lensbaby down, focusing posts, and a barrel focusing ring. You squeeze release pins together to unlock the 3G, and you use the focusing post knobs to fine-tune the positioning of the “sweet spot.” See Not Your Father’s Lensbaby for more details on using the 3G.
Lensbabies have been used for every conceivable type of photography, from romantic wedding shots, to creative product and fashion work, and for stunning flower macros. So why should you try out a Lensbaby? I’m a great believer in a new lens as a way to jump start new ways to see, and certainly the Lensbaby is new. It’s easy to use, will give you a different view of the world, and its distinctive simplicity will give a boost to your creativity.