I remember exactly when I saw a Lensbaby image for the first time – it was a street shot from Vienna. I had never seen such bokeh. The lens used for the image was the “Lensbaby Muse“. It looked like something a plumber would use to unclog your sink. Although I really liked the look of this particular image, I didn’t go out and buy a Lensbaby; as a student, I was quite broke and although I liked using my camera, I was not THAT into photography. Investing in a new lens would have been not a smart move so I forgot about the Lensbaby and I even forgot about photography for a few years. But the Lensbaby and I, we would come together eventually many years later!
Last year I found myself browsing on Instagram and there it was again: The Lensbaby look. Dreamy still live photos, whimsical landscapes and all the blur I love so much when using my Holga or one of my modified cameras. I was hooked, and this time a Lensbaby should be mine. Now I just had to decide which lens to get. After looking at a lot of images from other photographers I decided to get the Sweet 50 and – spoiler alert – a few months later I also purchased the Edge 50. Today I’ll tell you which lens I’d recommend and what can give you a hard time when shooting film with a Lensbaby.
Sweet, Edge – what’s the difference?
Both lenses are tilt/shift type lenses that allow you to control the amount of blur, and where you want the sharpness to be. The Sweet has a round spot of focus, the Edge has a slice of focus. Depending on the aperture you choose, the spot or the slice gets smaller or bigger. Open the aperture wide and you get a lot of bokeh and blur. Choose a smaller aperture and you get a large area that is in focus and less bokeh.
The optics are part of a system with interchangeable lenses. You need to get two parts: the optic itself and a Composer. The Composer works as a housing, mounted on your camera, where you insert either the Sweet or the Edge optic. If you want to switch from the Sweet to the Edge: Just leave the Composer on your camera and swap the optics. I have a plastic container for the Edge which is perfect for storage and transportation.
A few specs
- The number on every Lensbaby optic tells you the focal length: 50mm for the Sweet 50, 50mm for the Edge 50. There is also a Sweet 35 and there was an Edge 80, but this one was discontinued.
- Minimum focusing distance: 7.5” (about 19cm) for the Sweet 35, 8” (about 20cm) for the Edge 50
- Minimum aperture: f/2.5 for the Sweet 50 and f/3.2 for the Edge 50
- Focus: manual, you focus with a ring on the Composer
- You can use filters on your optics, 46mm will fit.
- Lensbabies only work in Manual mode or aperture Priority mode. Some cameras will only work in manual mode! There is a compatibility chart, I recommend to have a look at that.
Choosing the right aperture
In a nutshell: Smaller apertures give you a larger sweet spot (or slice of focus) and a greater depth of field. Choose a larger aperture than about f/4 and your sharp area gets bigger. This way you can control how blurry or “normal” your image should look. Using a small aperture makes your viewfinder go darker! At f/22 it’s impossible to see if anything in your image is in focus – at least for me. When shooting digital, I use live-view to check my image. When shooting film, I simply don’t go over f/8 or so.
Because of the dark viewfinder when using a small aperture, focusing can be really hard. Use the live-view on your digital camera or a wider aperture when shooting film. Focus is manual, this gives you full control over your image. For self portraits you need to guess the distance, use a tripod and maybe you wont use film for your first attempt at this. I shot more than 200 (digital) frames for my first Lensbaby self portrait project and only 3 of the images turned out great (you’ll see one of the images later).
What to shoot?
It’s totally up to you. My main reason to get a Lensbaby was landscape photography. So far I also shot self portraits, still life, a few buildings in Vienna and London and I used my sweet for a maternity shoot with a friend of mine. A lot of people enjoy their Lensbabies while shooting flowers in the garden and there are a lot of great portraits and wedding shots out there, all done with a Lensbaby.
A little disclaimer: Some of the images I’ll show you are shot with a DSLR because I haven’t used the Edge on a film camera yet and self portraits can be really hard to do with a Lensbaby 😉
How much fun are the Lensbaby lenses?
A lot of fun – but maybe not right from the beginning! The Sweet 50 was easy to use and after a few shots, my images got pretty decent. On the other side, the Edge 50 was giving me a really hard time. Controlling the round sharp spot on the Sweet was much easier than handling the slice of focus on the Edge. I tilted and bent the composer with the Edge, trying to see where my slice of focus went. Is it on the right side of the image? Have I tilted to far? I need to make the slice bigger. Damn, the viewfinder is so dark! It took me a lot of shots to get it right with the Edge. Using the live-view and being able to zoom into the image really helps – as long as you shoot digital, of course.
Shooting film with the Lensbabies
Using my DSLR with a Lensbaby was just the warm-up to get used to my new optics. I was eager to shoot film with my Lensbabies! I had my analog Lensbaby maiden voyage with a roll of Ilford HP5+, my Nikon F80 and the Sweet 50. I hadn’t thought about camera-compatibility and had to learn it the hard way on my first walk with the camera: Autoexposure is not possible with my Nikon F80. No problem, I had a light-meter app on my phone so I used that one. To be honest, sometimes I just guessed the light. I went to the woods and the roll turned out surprisingly good.
After that I got a Nikon FE because you can use autoexposure and the Lensbabies with that one. Best reason to get a new camera, right? I used the Nikon FE in Vienna and at home for a still life project with the Sweet 50. I still need to use the Edge on my Nikon FE, I’m somehow afraid to waste a lot of film. The sweet is easier to use but I still go through a lot of film to get some decent images. So, can you shoot film with the Lensbabies? Absolutely! But here’s my advice: Get to know your lens on your DSLR first. Shoot a lot, delete a lot.
Which Lensbaby would I recommend?
Both… But to be honest, I use the Sweet 50 far more often than my Edge 50. I still find the slice of focus hard to handle, even with my DSLR. And I don’t know how frustrating the Edge will be with a film camera, when I don’t have live-view to see if everything is fine. Also, keep in mind that a Lensbaby is a great addition to your lens kit, but it’s not an everyday-lens. At least not for me! I like using it as second (or third) lens for a portrait session or for a few landscape shots, but at the end of the day, I would be pretty bored of the look if I had to use it for everything.
If you have a Lensbaby, let me know how you like it!