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Close-Up with a Tilt Lens: Lensbaby Edge 50 Mini Review

I really enjoy close-up photography, so when my daughter had a dance recital recently, I had ulterior motives for buying her a bouquet of flowers. Right after she was in bed, I set about photographing her flowers.

In this case, I wanted to put a new lens through its paces, and this lens is uniquely qualified to photograph closeups of tulips. The Lensbaby Edge 50 is both marvelous as a closeup lens, and its tilt feature makes it ideal for focussing on long things and maintaining sharp focus.

The Edge 50 Optic

Firstly, the lens is a marvel. It’s Lensbaby’s newest lens, and it’s part of a system called the Optic Swap system. The Optic Swap allows you to purchase one lens body, and change out the glass for different lenses. In fact, you can use the same glass in different bodies made for different cameras. So, I could get a Nikon body in addition to my Lumix body and use the same glass in it. I’ve got four different lenses that fit inside the one body. This makes the individual optics much cheaper than other lens manufacturer’s lenses. Lensbaby makes the system for Canon, Nikon, Micro Four Thirds, Fuji, Sony, Pentax, and Samsung.

It’s a 50mm lens, and at US$224.95, the optic is a comparable cost to other fine 50mm lenses (assuming you already own the Optic Swap lens body). However, this lens is the finest 50mm I’ve ever handled. It’s all metal construction, and it feels good in your hand. The glass is as sharp as anything I’ve ever shot. The best thing about it, though, is that the aperture iris has 9 blades, which is extraordinary (most lenses have 5 to 7, and only the best have 9). That’s marvelous, and it affects the image by yielding nearly circular bokeh bubbles and really smooth edges on everything. This lens is at least as sharp as anything I’ve used from the camera manufacturers, and sharper than most of their lenses.

Macro

The Edge 50, like its longer sister, the Edge 80, has a built-in macro extension. When you move a lens farther from the camera sensor, the lens can now focus closer to a subject (in fact, if you enable your camera to shoot without a lens, you can try this holding a lens in front of your camera and moving the lens closer and farther from the camera body). So this little extension makes the lens focus much closer–just 8 inches away from the sensor, or about 5 inches from the lens. It’s important to note that the lens will not focus far away with the extension extended, just like using extension tubes on a DSLR. So make sure you snap it back when photographing normal subjects. Click to view larger images.

Not only does the Edge 50 include a closeup extension, but you can add extension tubes to focus even closer. You can buy a kit with 8mm and 16mm Macro Converters (US$49.95) which allow you to focus closer than 1 inch from the camera. Since these are simply tubes and have no glass in them, there is no negative affect on image quality.

f/3.2-f/22

The Edge 50 is sharp at all apertures. I haven’t done any target tests, but my pictures look great at every setting, and that’s good enough for me. However, there’s a little surprise when shooting at f/3.2: the picture glows. I don’t know how else to explain it. There’s a glowiness, a soft aura on the out of focus places. Now, when you shoot close-up with any lens, the depth of field is significantly reduced, so the sharp area is hard to pinpoint, but the glow is really wonderful. Especially when photographing soft subjects like tulips, this glow adds mood to the photo that would otherwise have to be added in Photoshop. And yet, the picture is sharp within the glow. You’ve just got to experience it.

Stop down at all and the glow disappears. The optic stops all the way down to f/22. Unfortunately, even f/22 isn’t enough to get an entire flower in focus when shooting closeup, no matter what lens you use. But this is where the Edge 50 really stands out from the crowd.

Tilt

You’ve heard of tilt/shift lenses, like the popular Canon TS-E 24mm. These allow you to change the lens’s focal plane to adjust for perspective problems and change what things will be in focus, and they’re very popular for architectural photography. Most tilt/shift lenses cost about $2000. For a fraction of that price, the Edge 50 also allows us to change the focal plane, and here’s why that’s important in close-up photography.

When photographed close up, flowers are long. The stems, the pistils and stamens, and even the leaves are all very long, which makes them hard to photograph entirely within the field of focus. When you shoot close up to a subject, the amount of the picture in focus becomes very shallow, or the slice of focus is very thin. We can use focus stacking to conquer this problem, but that involves shooting several frames and changing the focal distance between each frame and then combining them in Photoshop, and that’s a whole other discipline.

With normal lenses, the focal plane is parallel to the camera’s sensor. That means that when we focus 5 inches away from the camera, everything that is 5 inches away will be in focus, and anything closer or farther will be out of focus. I often get one important part of the flower in focus with a standard lens, but I also often get a spurious leaf in focus because it’s the same distance away, which detracts from the main subject.

With tilt lenses, like the Edge 50, however, we can change the direction of the focal plane. For flowers, that means that even though the petals are closer to the camera than the stem, we can adjust the angle of the focus so both are in the focal plane. This is really cool! Technically, this is called the Scheimpflug Principle, but I’m not technical enough to use language to describe it, so please have a look at my drawings.

Because the front plane of the lens is tilted to match the plane of the subject, the picture projected to the sensor also matches the plane of the subject. This means I can have my focus follow the length of the flower, and that means I can make the important portions in focus in a single photograph without using Photoshop. And get this, because of the tilt I can make the important parts in focus while using a wider aperture, which gives me a faster shutter speed, or lower ISO. That’s a valuable characteristic.

Conclusion

I enjoy close-up photography, and the Lensbaby Edge 50 is a wonderful lens for it because it is razor sharp, has built-in and accessory macro features, glows beautifully when desired, built extraordinarily well, and has the ability to tilt the focal plane to match my subject’s positioning. It’s really fun to be able to make pictures that are artful right in the camera without using any kind of post processing. I’ve discussed only the closeup abilities of the Edge 50, but I also love it for portraits and landscapes. If you want a lens that lets you see your photography in a whole new way, then the Lensbaby Edge 50 is definitely for you.

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