Let me preface this post by clarifying that I’m not a professional photographer – I just enjoy taking and indeed making pictures. Since buying my first proper SLR camera 10 years ago (essentially to ensure I had good photographs of our soon to be born first child), I’ve gone through a number of digital compacts, not-so-compacts, and more recently Canon DSLRs, increasingly enjoying photography as a hobby.
The ‘selective focus’ mantra and somewhat quirky nature of Lensbaby’s products mean they’ve always been on my radar. They seemed like they would suit my creative side, but there has always been something more important to spend my hard-earned money on – food, clothes, electricity, tyres…. Since essentially exchanging my Canon 40D DSLR kit for a micro-four-thirds Panasonic GH1 outfit earlier this year, the family snaps (and video) are looking better than ever, and I’ve caught the legacy lens bug, grabbing a few eBay bargain lenses along the way. Having got used to manual focus, the announcement of a native m4/3 mount Lensbaby caught my eye, and I was lucky enough to be able to get my hands on the Tilt Transformer with Composer last month. So what’s it like “seeing in a new way”..?
First things first, I have to credit Lensbaby on their packaging design – it’s clever, spot on from a branding perspective and not only does it look green, it feels green too, if you know what I mean (environmentally friendly if you don’t). Lensbaby have been very clever with the design of the product itself too. The Tilt Transformer can be used on its own as a Nikon lens mount adaptor, allowing you to control the focal plane of any mounted Nikon lens. Very clever. If – like me – you don’t have any Nikon lenses and acquired the package with Composer focus front, you simply mount that instead, and you’re ready to start having fun!
The lens is relatively lightweight and feels well enough made, but it doesn’t feel like a ‘premium’ product. The Tilt Transformer element is a simple ball and socket design that seemed quite stiff to adjust at first but does ease with use, and the locking ring seems to have enough grip to support even a relatively weighty Nikon lens, although I’ve yet to test that theory.
The Composer front is of equally simple design and has no aperture blades, requiring you instead to insert aperture discs using a magnetic wand. You’re not restricted to just using circular apertures, and if you invest in Lensbaby’s Creative Aperture Kit, you can experiment with heart or star shapes, or even cut your own unique shapes for interesting bokeh. Sticking with the standard discs, unlike a traditional lens with iris blades, all apertures are perfectly circular so you’ll get nice circular bokeh balls until you start moving the sweet spot about.
Changing aperture discs is a little quirky, but once you get the hang of it, it’s no big deal. For me, the only down side is the optic adaptor which screws onto the front and has to be removed to change the aperture discs. Presumably this is only an annoyance on the m4/3 Composer, as the standard DSLR models don’t require the extra optic adaptor. The act of focusing itself is smooth, but there’s not a lot of damping – hardly surprising considering there’s not that much glass to move about.
Without any aperture discs inserted and with the tilt transformer centred, the lens is 40mm f/1.6. Since a lot of my photography is done in available light, the fast aperture was appealing, and the 80mm (35mm equivalent) focal length seemed ideal for portraits. My initial reaction was that it’s not quite as useful in this regard as I had hoped, as there’s a bit of a dreamy glow and the sweet spot of focus is rather small. However, if you stick in a smaller aperture disc you’ll see that glow disappear and the sweet spot increase making it much more user friendly, particularly for hobbyists like me! Perhaps that’s why the f/4 disc was installed on delivery, and I shouldn’t have been so keen to use it wide open.
Don’t get me wrong though, the Composer is perfectly usable at f/1.6 and sharp in the centre. Being somewhat ethereal wide open is a common characteristic of many fast lenses (including some very expensive ones), and having a sweet spot of focus – and being able to move it off-centre – is the whole point of the Composer. In my excitement to see what 40mm f/1.6 looked like, I had momentarily forgotten that ‘traditional’ isn’t really what the Lensbaby is about – it’s about creativity. It’s a system too, so you can swap out the installed double-glass optic, or add macro, tele or wide-angle lenses. I’ve asked Santa for the Lensbaby Accessory Kit, but I don’t think I’ll be in luck this year….
So do I like it? Very much so – I just wish I had more time for my hobby to enjoy using it some more! It’s funky, fun and versatile, although I will admit that when tilted to extremes the resulting images won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Personally, I really like the results with the sweet spot moved a touch off-centre to one of the horizontal or vertical thirds, and one of the neatest things when used with the GH1, is that I can also move my focus magnification point to the same spot for quick, accurate focusing. You really can get great portrait, still life, landscape, abstract and macro shots with the Composer – you just have to start thinking in a new way.
Find out more about the Tilt Transformer and other neat Lensbaby products at http://www.lensbaby.com
Visit my flickr page to see my set of Lensbaby images.