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Guaranteed Smiles: Lensbaby Composer Pro Review

There are very few things you can buy that will make your photography better. The truth is, you just have to practice more. The good news is, I can practice more–I’ve got a lifetime to do so, and so do you. But if I can buy a tool that will help me have fun while practicing, then that might just be worthwhile, and I’d say that the Lensbaby Composer Pro system is just such a tool.

Lens-what?

LensBABY. They’ve been making lenses for years, and they’re made right here in Portland, Oregon, USA. The distinctive thing about Lensbaby lenses is that they allow you to create awesome focus effects in the camera. The cool thing about them is that they are upgradable and changeable. The Composer Pro is a lens holder, but you can swap out the glass. It’s unique, and so are the images. Check out the thin slice of focus I made here, as if I used a tilt-shift lens.

What’s it do?

Lensbaby gives you greater options for control over the single most powerful compositional tool you have: focus.

The lens mounts normally to the front of the camera, but it has a ball joint that lets you twist and turn it all over the place, which changes the plane of focus. Normal lenses mount and maintain the plane of focus perfectly parallel to the camera’s sensor–in fact, you’ve got a real problem if the lens is not perfectly parallel. The trouble is, everything in your frame that you want to be in focus has to sit on that plane, and within the depth of field, and everything there will be in focus, even if you don’t want it to be.

In this portrait, I wanted both faces in focus, but I wanted to minimize attention on the coffee cups. The man is standing closer to me than the woman, and their hands are in the same plane as their faces. I used the Edge 80mm lens to create a slice of focus including both faces, but excluding their hands. This just isn’t possible with a normal (boring) lens.

Here’s another example of the slice of focus the Edge 80mm offers. A wider aperture, like f/2.8, makes a very thin slice of the world show in focus. A smaller aperture (it goes down to f/22) makes a much thicker slice in focus, and is barely noticeable. I’ve found that the aperture is really an affect dial, turning up and down the slicyness.

Besides the Edge 80’s slice, there’s also the Sweet 35 and Sweet 50. I haven’t used the new Sweet 50mm, yet, but I enjoy the circular spot of focus the Sweet 35 yields. Twisting and turning the lens body moves the sweet spot around the frame, and, like the Edge 80, adjusting the aperture changes the depth of the effect. A big aperture makes a smaller sweet spot that is in focus, while a smaller aperture opens up the sweet spot to include more of the picture. It dials from f/2.5 to f/22.

Ok, But How About Quality?

These lenses are little hunks of metal and glass, and are very well made. The lens body that twists and turns is all metal, and it fits more snugly on my camera than most of my lenses. It’s so great being able to change the lens optics–it’s makes the whole thing small and in-expensive. These lenses are manual focus, so there’s no motors or anything complicating the build. I find no flaws in the build quality and nothing wanting.

Oh, and these lenses have 12 aperture blades. TWELVE!!! My best Nikon lenses only have 9. This make super smooth bokeh bubbles in the background.

Image quality is very good. Wide open and in high contrast spots there is some chromatic aberration, but nothing Lightroom can’t take care of, and nothing distracting anyway. The lenses are sharp and contrasty. No complaints. They cost a few hundred dollars, but you only buy the lens body once and then add optics as you like, so it’s a good system for affordability.

Manual What…?

Yep they’re manual focus lenses. Normally, I can’t manually focus on a DSLR to save my life. But that’s when I’m looking for razor sharp focus at f/1.2, and I just can’t do that unaided. There is, however, a little light in the bottom left corner of your viewfinder that lights up when the area under your focus point is in focus. This aid is ample help for me when using this lens because I’m making a great effect, not a razor sharp focus plane.

What’s more, I use these on my Panasonic GH4, and it’s a match made in heaven. Micro Four Thirds cameras have Focus Peaking, which puts a colored outline on everything in the frame that’s in focus. It makes manual focus so simple and exact, I actually do use it for razor sharp focus at f/1.2, and I get great results. Lensbaby lenses are ideal for MFT shooters.

What Do You Mean Guaranteed Smiles?

It’s simple. When I make portraits with strangers on the street, and show the portrait made with these lenses, they instantly smile and get excited because it looks incredible right in the camera. It’s something iPhones can’t do, and it’s something I personally can’t even do in Photoshop. (Whoops! I spoke too soon: Lensbaby for Mobile Phones) People smile every time they see it, and I often get to make another portrait with even better expressions. This makes me smile, too. Smiles all around.

Conclusion

I think the Lensbaby Composer Pro system is just plain fun. The pictures will make you smile, and they’ll make your subjects smile. The ability to create focus effects right in the camera makes me look like a rockstar photographer right on the scene. Solidly built with quality components, I expect these lenses will last a lifetime. Highly recommended.

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