Defined by a combination of focal range, aperture and composition, the "sweet spot" of an image is the area in a photo that’s the most sharp and clear. This sweet spot is used to bring your viewer’s attention to the area of the image on which you’d most like them to focus. For general-purpose photography, sweet spots should be crisp and highly defined, and most lenses are constructed to project an image circle to the sensor that has as little aberration as possible, with edge-to-edge uniformity and a sweet spot that’s surrounded by a soft, pleasing bokeh (the out-of-focus portions of the image).
There are a group of specialty lenses, on the other hand, that are able to provide far more control over the sweet spot of an image. These selective-focus lenses allow you to adjust the plane of the incoming image so that it’s not projected perfectly parallel to the sensor, but rather it’s slightly, or even drastically, distorted. By doing so, specialty selective-focus optics like tilt-shift lenses are able to correct for geometric perspective distortion when up close to larger subjects like buildings, and they can provide creative applications, as well, like miniaturization effects when used at longer distances from subjects.
These types of creative applications are where the Lensbaby line of selective-focus optics comes in. Designed for fun, creative effects like soft focus, artistic distortion, and pinhole and fisheye wide-angle views, Lensbaby selective-focus optics are different from tilt-shift lenses in that they have a curved field of focus rather than the flat adjustments provided by tilt-shift lenses. They aren’t designed to correct perspective, but instead, much like a bellows-style camera, you can position and modify the direction of the focused area in the image. The end result is a moveable sweet spot that’s surrounded by a soft, dreamlike bokeh.
THE OPTIC SWAP SYSTEM
Two new products in the Lensbaby line, the Composer Pro and the Sweet 35 Optic, have updated the series with an optic set that’s still affordable but offers a more professional build than previous models. Compatible with the previous optics and accessories in the Lensbaby system, the Composer Pro builds on its predecessor, the Composer (which is still available), with an improved, more durable metal ball-and-socket configuration. Like a tripod ballhead, the metal ball allows you to aim your sweet-spot focus with smooth and fluid movements. Composition can be locked down with the locking ring on the base; the locking ring also adjusts tension to slow movements or free them up.
The Composer Pro is one of five available Lensbaby SLR lenses. The lenses act as the base for the Lensbaby Optic Swap System, which lets photographers add a variety of Lensbaby optics to the Lensbaby lenses for different looks. There are currently seven swappable optics in the line, including the vintage appeal of the Single Glass Optic, the Plastic Optic for a "toy camera" look and the Fisheye Optic for extreme wide-angle images that are similar to the view provided by a peephole in a door.
Rounding out the other available Lensbaby lenses are the original Composer, the fast and loose Muse without a locking mechanism, the Control Freak for precise macro and tabletop work, and the bare-bones Scout model, best for use with the Fisheye. Accessories are available as well for simulating macro, wide-angle, telephoto and shaped bokeh effects like stars and hearts.
The Composer Pro is available with the sharp, high-quality Double Glass Optic or the Sweet 35 Optic, Lensbaby’s other new entry to the system. The Sweet 35 provides a 35mm focal length when working with a full-frame camera (approximately a 56mm equivalent on APS-C-sensor cameras). It’s the widest focal length available from the company, and it’s also available as a stand-alone product for photographers who have already invested in the Composer or other base lenses. The Sweet 35 includes a 12-blade aperture system with a focal range from ƒ/2.5 to ƒ/22. The internal aperture system is another first for Lensbaby—previous optics employed drop-in aperture discs. Just as with a normal lens aperture, the aperture allows the user to designate the size of the sweet-spot focus.
Lensbaby products are available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Olympus Four Thirds, Pentax K and Sony Alpha/Minolta Maxxum mounts. A Tilt Transformer is available for using the Composer with Micro Four Thirds and Sony NEX mirrorless cameras. List Price: $400 (Composer Pro with Sweet 35 Optic); $300 (Composer Pro with Double Glass Optic); $180 (Sweet 35 Optic).
TIPS FOR USING THE COMPOSER PRO WITH THE SWEET 35 OPTIC
The Lensbaby Optic Swap System begins with a Lensbaby SLR lens base unit that mounts to the camera like any other lens would. Adding the Composer Pro to your camera is as simple as lining up the red dot on the lens body with a corresponding red dot on the camera mount. Plug it in, twist it, turn on the camera and you’re ready to shoot, once you’ve added a Lensbaby optic like the Sweet 35.
To install the Sweet 35 Optic in the Composer Pro, line up the white dot on the aperture ring with the white line on the body of the lens and then insert the Sweet 35 into the Composer Pro. The white dot and white line on the Sweet 35 should both be aligned with the hollow white circle on the front of the Composer Pro. Plug it in and rotate it so that both solid white dots are then aligned, which locks it in place. To remove the Sweet 35, line up the hollow white circle of the Sweet 35 with the solid white circle of the Composer Pro, push in and rotate slightly until both hollow circles are aligned, then remove.
The design of the Composer Pro includes a focusing ring on the tiltable section of the barrel. I found it far easier to control both the focus and the direction of the lens by holding it with my hand from above rather than from below.
Adjust aperture by rotating the Sweet 35’s front ring so that the ƒ-stop lines up with the solid white dot on the Composer Pro’s front-most ring. The instructions note that most cameras will work in aperture-priority mode, and I had no problem getting great metering with the camera I used. In certain situations, selective-focus optics can play havoc with traditional camera metering, however. One way to correct for this is by setting up automatic bracketing in your camera. This will snap a burst of images at a designated range of exposure levels. If your camera has one, using the Live View mode will tell the camera to meter directly from the sensor for better exposures.
The Sweet 35 aperture ring extends from the front of the lens barrel with click stops for each aperture. Line up the aperture with the white circular dot on the Composer Pro base to set depth of field. Use the smallest aperture (ƒ/22) for the subtlest effect and a large aperture (ƒ/2.5) for the strongest bokeh. Sometimes this effect can be too much, so be sure to experiment with apertures a stop or two below wide open for a more natural look.
Determining the sweet spot and positioning it is a matter of experimentation and image review. Lensbaby suggests beginning with a still subject until you’re used to the process. It’s best to tilt first, lock in your composition and then focus. With the range of movements, it’s easy to end up with an image that’s a completely different composition than the one you began with. Experiment with different apertures and compositions on the same subject to see how drastic the differences can be.
Be aware that vignetting may occur when using the Lensbaby at extreme angles on full-frame cameras. This isn’t necessarily a problem, however, as vignetting can help to emphasize the nature of the Lensbaby optics when used correctly as part of the composition. What’s more, these optics are compatible with video-capable DSLRs, making them a fun tool for stills, as well as video projects and filmmaking.
Contact: Lensbaby, (877) 536-7222, www.lensbaby.com.