Lensbaby Composer Review

 

In case you haven’t met a Lensbaby yet, there is one simple fact to know: They’re quirky. Very quirky. Whether this created a need to select an equally odd reviewer is for me to guess, but that aside let's dig in…

What’s in the box?

LensBaby Composer - Flamingo CladThe Lensbaby Composer arrived in an eye-catching little box, clad with a creative image of plastic flamingos, a refreshing little touch compared to the big name lens manufacturers. Enclosed within is a Lensbaby Composer, soft black case, aperture disc swapper and instruction manual (proudly congratulating you, the new parent).

The Composer is available in Canon (EF), Nikon (F), Sony (A) and Pentax (K) mounts.

The design

Upon picking up the Lensbaby Composer it’s immediately noticeable how the feel & build quality have improved tremendously (this the 4th generation of the Lensbaby line-up). It feels distinctly less like a toy than the original Lensbaby; but don’t let this trick you into thinking it’s any less fun!

The direction of the Lensbaby is adjusted by shifting the front of the lens which acts as a ball, within the mount (the socket). The motion feels reminiscent of a lightly tensioned tripod ball head - it’s smooth yet offers enough grip & resistance to remain in place.

Simplicity is at the heart of the Lensbaby Composer design - the first ring focuses the lens and the second ring locks the direction. The lens mount is plain machined aluminium, without the complication of contacts for AF or metering information (leaving the focusing & exposure to yours truly, retro).

Making a debut in the Lensbaby Composer is the new optic swap system. This allows you to use an additional range of optics, each with a set of distinctive characteristics:

  • Double glass (included) - the sharpest sweet spot with a smooth clean blur area.
  • Single glass - similar to the original Lensbaby optic, soft & diffused effect.
  • Plastic - a dreamy effect, similar to a guassian blur in Photoshop.
  • Pinhole - produces a uniform soft focus effect with less distortion from any tilt.

The lens offers a thread for a 37mm filter, perfect for intensifying the style of your image. Try a circular polariser, infrared filter or even a star effect could be the perfect partner to the Lensbaby’s unusual optics.

LensBaby Aperture KitAlong with the lack of communication between camera and lens, the aperture is manually set with a thin black disc which sits just on top of the front element. The aperture disc is held in place by three small magnets in the inner wall of the lens. When the need to swap aperture strikes, an ingenious little tool with a slightly larger magnet (who’d have guessed) is used to pluck the previous disc & position the replacement. Without a disc the lens is has an aperture of f2, with a choice of f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16 and f22 aperture discs supplied.

Out in the field

The basic principle behind this bendy lens madness is to smush everything in the frame, except your carefully selected focal point or ‘sweet spot’ which is accentuated. Wider apertures create a larger blur area, due to the shallower depth of field (e.g. f2.8 compared to f8).

Using the lens at maximum tilt with a wide aperture is quite technically demanding, the focal point is narrow and initially through user-error my ‘keeper’ rate was quite low. If you miss the focus at a wide aperture the resulting frame looks like it was snapped with your eyes closed whilst running a 100m: blurry and very out of focus. Whilst wider apertures certainly accentuate the Lensbaby’s desirable effect, it helps to start out using a smaller aperture like f5.6 or f8 with a moderate amount of tilt.

LensBaby Composer Sample - Rowing LensBaby Composer Sample - Trees

Metering the scene to determine the exposure is a relatively simple process; on all Canon and hi-end Nikon DSLRs (D200+) leave the camera in aperture priority & the camera will set the shutter speed, or you can switch to manual and dial in the shutter speed till your viewfinder exposure meter is lined up.

If you own a camera which won’t meter without communication with a lens don’t despair! It just requires a couple of test frames in manual mode and a quick review of the image & histogram on your LCD, until you nail the required shutter speed. In most scenarios you can then leave the camera on this setting until the light or your direction to the light source changes. For further information on which cameras can meter with a Lensbaby, visit their FAQs page.

LensBaby Composer Sample - Flowers

In this image a thin strand of light was striking the flowers - by using manual mode (instead of relying on aperture priority) and exposing for the highlights this has produced a deep moody background (virtually black), adding impact.

Your baby has a crooked nose

In life you just aren’t allowed to critique a baby, but this is the only case on the planet where it’s acceptable. The only flaw is a minor one - it doesn’t impair the quality of the images you can produce - just the process of using a Lensbaby: it’s physically swapping the aperture discs. This is irritating at times, either crouched down near a subject requiring you to re-frame after the swap or indeed missing an event. Plus if you are using a filter it needs to be removed to access the aperture discs.

Although the Lensbaby formula would be ruined by adding autofocus & metering, just adding aperture control ring on the lens itself would be a step forward. Canon & Nikon can produce 50mm primes with AF, metering and working adjustable apertures for under £100 then Lensbaby should aim to add an integrated on-lens adjustable aperture.

Conclusion

LensBaby Composer - Glass ChickenThe Lensbaby Composer is massively fun - but it can still be a serious tool to add a few stand-out images to your portfolio. The refinement, simplicity and clever optic swap design make the Lensbaby Composer the best Lensbaby to date. The minor niggle of swapping aperture discs isn’t a show stopper. In fact it probably adds to the eccentric charm. All I can advise is go for it - just beware of when you start snapping glass chickens in the kitchen…

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