This new Twist 60 lens from Lensbaby has my full attention right now. There are always new lenses boasting extreme sharpness or wide apertures or super telephoto, but Lensbaby steps aside from the sharper-faster-longer race and makes tools that actually help me be more creative. In short, it’s a marvelous hunk of metal and glass, it’s affordably priced, and I think you’ll love it too. Keep reading for the reasons why.
Petzval for the 21st Century
Petzval was a scientist in the 1800’s who created a new lens design, and it made big improvements in photographs and projection; google it and you’ll learn volumes about lens design. The Twist 60 is modeled after the Petzval lens. There have recently been other Petzval lens copies on the market, even a model made of brass like the original. Well, the Twist 60 does have a peppy brass colored front ring (I’ve named it C-3PO), but there only thing 19th century about the build of this lens is the craftsmanship and quality it exudes. It is finely made, smooth, and precise. Not only does it have an iris to change the aperture, but the iris has 12 blades. 12 blades! That’s incredible, and the only other lenses with 12 blades I’ve seen are the Lensbaby Edge 80, Sweet 50 and Sweet 35. Those blades make a nearly circular aperture which yields a super smooth background bokeh and beautifully circular bokeh bubbles.
An important characteristic of the Petzval design is that the edges of the image have a darkening vignette and a swirl. These were undesirable in the old designs, and one way many lenses beat the problem today is by making sure that those dark swirly edges land outside the part of the picture being recorded on the sensor. In fact, try using a kit lens made for a crop-sensor camera on a full-frame camera and you’ll probably see the vignette and swirl because that lens was made to project a flawless image on a smaller sensor.
One Lens’s Flaw is Another Lens’s Feature
True to their character, Lensbaby have crafted a creative tool from something others saw as a flaw. The swirl in the Twist 60 (caused by sagittal astigmatism–which I’ve learned way too much about researching this review) is a wonderful tool for separating your subject from the background. The swirl (or twist) seems to continue behind the subject, and it’s remarkable, and it can be very beautiful.
I made these pictures with a Nikon D750, a full-frame camera. The twist shows up best on a full-frame camera (more about this later). These are all shot wide open at f/2.5. See that the subjects are crisp and sharp and really stand out. I found that placing my subject anywhere near a third of the way from the edges made sure that the swirl didn’t affect it–and using the rule of thirds isn’t a bad way to go. For the last picture, I positioned my daughter at the edge so you can see what happens. I focussed on her, then moved the composition. Since she’s in the focal plane, there’s no swirl on her, but she does catch the vignette and softness of the edge. These were shot wide open, but stopping down minimizes the twist and the vignette.
Maximize the Swirl
Not all backgrounds exhibit the swirl. I found the best results when I shot wide open, placed the subject well in front of the background objects, and when the background had small specular features, like leaves shining in the light, or lights, or anything with lots of visible details. A white wall doesn’t twist, and a leafy tree twists best when the light is shining through it. Foreground elements out of focus also twist well, like the dirt and needles in front of this dog.
Cropped Sensor Performance
I don’t own a full-frame camera right now; I use mirrorless micro four-thirds cameras. I love this lens on my Lumix cameras. The pictures it sends to my sensor are cropped compared to a full-frame, but I get a little swirl on the edges. The background separation is still amazing–I think it’s largely due to those 12 iris blades in the aperture. They make the background creamy and smooth. On an APS-C camera, you’ll get more swirl than my MFT, and I think you’ll love it.
I also enjoy the cropped field of view. This is a 60mm lens, which is a little wide for my tastes as a portrait lens on a full-frame. I like to shoot close and tight, and 60mm foreshortens too much for me; but if you like a 50mm, you’re going to love this. However, on my Lumix cameras, it’s like using a 120mm lens, which forces me to stand back to frame a portrait, which in turn eliminates the foreshortening. This is a terrific portrait length for cropped sensors, and I know you’ll like it. Unfortunately, they’re not currently manufacturing the Twist 60 lens body for Fuji or micro four-thirds; so I’m using a $20 Nikon to MFT adapter to make it work, and it’s very good. If you already have a Composer Pro, however, you can use the Twist 60 optic in that body for any camera mount.
By the way, the 12 bladed iris makes excellent sunbursts. This one was shot at f/22.
Is It Sharp?
Like a LASER beam. Creative uses are fun, but I’m not the kind of guy who buys a Holga camera because its flaws make interesting pictures. I’m the kind of guy who uses a camera to make a living; I can’t afford to buy toys for occasional use. Fortunately, this Twist 60 is a workhorse lens. It’s at least as sharp and contrasty as any lens I’ve used. The color is very nice, and I see myself using this lens for all kinds of work. I’ve already shot several portrait sessions with it. I said above that Lensbaby has removed themselves from the race for sharpness, but that must be because they’ve left everyone else in the dust. No, I didn’t shoot any sharpness testing targets with it, and I haven’t measured the xyz of the fifth element in group two. I have photographed people, flowers, and landscapes, and they look good–sharp with excellent contrast and color. Real world tests are good enough for me. Did I mention that the iris has 12 blades and makes really smooth pictures?
You Should Know
This is an all manual lens. It’s manual focus and manual aperture control. Not including and designing for electronic motors and autofocus, and not licensing autofocus compatibility from the big manufacturers is probably why they could afford to make such a sharp lens for so little money. For US$279.95, I don’t know of any lens that is a better buy.
You should also know that this is a part of the Optic Swap system, so if you already have a Composer Pro lens body, you only need the Twist 60 optic, which is just $179.95. But, you’ll get best results if you lock down the body perfectly parallel to the camera body. The Twist 60 body doesn’t tilt like the Composer Pro bodies.
Regarding close-up work, the Twist 60 focuses moderately close at 18 inches. But, I can use it with the Macro Converters for the Composer Pro and get in much closer. This swapping system is really terrific, and it gives a lot of bang for the buck.
If you have a Composer Pro body made for Fuji or MFT, then you may buy only the Twist 60 optic and skip the lens adapter I’m using. I hope they’ll make the rigid body in MFT and Fuji. Lensbaby say the Twist 60 is maximized for full-frame, but the lens is actually maximized for making great pictures on any camera. So what if I miss a little swirl? I get all the other advantages (like a 12 bladed iris and circular aperture :) )
A lens this sharp and well made just can’t be this cheap. I keep waiting for the gotcha, but this lens continues to perform, making beautiful pictures with a marvelous swirl effect that has done Mr. Petzval proud. I’ve been thinking how terrific the Twist 60 will be for cinematographers, too. It’s lightweight, easy on the pocketbook, and the results speak for themselves. You will not regret buying this lens. If you have any doubts, get it from LensRentals.com for a few days, but I know you’ll like it.
Twist 60 is scheduled to begin shipping at the end of May, 2016. Preorder now from Lensbaby or from your favorite retailer.