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Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion

I’ve experimented with Lensbaby lenses for years, since they paradoxically let me focus on blur in a very unique and compelling way
Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion

During a trip to Florida a few years ago, while staying at a beach-side resort, my daughter began blowing bubbles by the beach. What intrigued me about the oval shapes and oily texture of the bubbles is that they echoed some of the oval shapes appearing in the background as part of the photo’s bokeh. I love the dreamlike quality the lens allows me to capture.

When I think of my earliest photographic influences, I recall browsing through the many photography tomes my father owned, including books on Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus and Irving Penn. But despite the vast differences, you’ll find in these photographers’ work, one of the few elements they share is that many of their photographs had a dazzling display of sharp detail and crisply rendered forms and patterns, whether I was examining Adams’ Yosemite landscape, Penn’s celebrity portraits or Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moments.

In a way, their sharply focused details, which comprised so much of their work, taught me to see and seek out fine or dramatic detail when shooting. Which is why, when I first started shooting my own fine-art still lifes in art school, I strove to produce sharply focused images that had lots of simulated texture and crisply rendered details.

But in 2006, I was given a Lensbaby lens.

It wasn’t an expensive lens. But I believe that little lens had a big impact on my work. After using it for a while, I started to think about photography in a different way.

Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion
In this image (Meditation, 2015), I felt the Lensbaby lens allowed me to think deeply about how to visually connect objects that are in focus with those that are out of focus. It also gave me a new appreciation for the intriguing genre of stained-glass windows, which can fill an interior with an extraordinary spectrum of color.

Here’s how. For starters, instead of always trying to capture subjects in the sharpest manner possible, I realized I could explore trying to purposely distort the scene. So, from 2007 through 2014, I used a Lensbaby lens to take a wide array of fine-art images in many different locations and moved away from shots with extreme detail and sharpness.

Instead, I focused on blur and distortion in my photos. (I did this in video, as well.) During this time, I was excited to venture into this new artistic terrain. In this article, I’ll present some of the more successful compositions that I took with my Lensbaby lens.

Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion
For this image (Love, from 2014), I walked by many New York City store windows at night, searching for a colorful, dramatically lit scene. This store window had the word “Love” stenciled in a fancy script font onto the inside of the store window, which became my point of focus. The blurred, colored abstract shapes in the background are just various pieces of colored paper.

How A Soft-Focus Lens Works

Most photographers recognize soft focus from seeing the bokeh or background blur when shooting with shallow depth-of-field. It’s one of the most conspicuous ways we notice a soft-focus effect.

As many of you know, when you shoot at, say, f/2 aperture and focus on your subject, such as an apple placed on a porch table, most anything in back or even in front of the apple will be blurred and not in focus. However, each plane of focus covers the entire frame in your composition, since they’re parallel to the front of the lens. In other words, any object, whether in the corner or center of the image, will more or less have the same amount of blur or sharpness, depending on its distance from the lens.

So, whether the apple is placed in the center, edge or corner of your composition, as long as it’s the same distance from the lens, another object placed at that same distance will exhibit the same degree of focus or blur.

However, because you can bend, twist or rotate a Lensbaby lens, you can alter these parallel “planes.” So you can, more or less, increase the amount of blur in most sections of the picture, while setting a specific point of focus in just one part of the scene.

Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion
Although this image was technically set in an indoor setting, some trade shows, like this one, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, provide so much light that you sometimes think you’re outside.

So, say on that porch table you placed two apples (instead of one), each positioned on either side of the table and the same distance from your camera lens.

If you used a traditional DSLR or mirrorless lens to focus on the apples and shoot your photo, both apples would be captured with the same degree of focus. But with a Lensbaby lens, you can adjust the lens in such an unusual way that it allows one apple to be rendered in focus, while the other is completely blurred and distorted.

Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion
During Halloween, you can use a Lensbaby to produce surreal-looking stills…and video, as well.

How I Used My Lensbaby Lens

One of my favorite parts of using this lens was how dramatically it warped and distorted light sources or reflections.

So, I began to travel to particular settings that could offer dazzling light shows or settings with dramatically lit interiors or exteriors, including Las Vegas casinos, Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot, Catholic churches with large stained-glass windows and technology trade shows.

But no matter what my environment, my process was the same. Although my version of the Lensbaby lens included aperture rings to set a smaller aperture, I only shot at its widest aperture, f/2, to produce the largest amount of background or foreground bokeh. I also first chose to focus on a particular subject, in order to “anchor” the work with some detail.

Next, I attempted to maintain that sharpness in the frame while turning the focusing ring on the lens and slowly moving my position to capture the most prominent blur and bokeh of colored light in the background. Often, I would attempt to capture settings at night or in a dark environment. That would mean I would boost the ISO, but I avoided pushing the ISO too high, to minimize image noise.

Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion
This photo is an early experiment with a Lensbaby lens, shot at the Las Vegas airport just as I was about to leave and head back east. Moral of the story? Always keep your eyes open for artistic opportunities.

A Final Thought on Using a Lensbaby Lens

My artistic side highly recommends experimenting with this lens (or, better yet, more current versions). But the teacher side of me wants to warn you: This lens can be frustrating. And I found I was missing the mark many times when shooting, although since it’s digital, the only thing you’re wasting is time.

For me, the process wasn’t hit or miss. My shots were mostly misses.

But I did hit once in a while. And in those images, I felt I produced a wonderfully surreal, dreamlike quality, which I found I couldn’t achieve with your typical lenses. So, for me, the process of producing a lot of duds was still worth it.

Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion
This colorful video game arcade near Niagara Falls offered a nice setting to try out a Lensbaby selfie.

Lensbaby Gear: What’s Available Now

One downside I found using an old Lensbaby Control Freak lens was that sometimes I didn’t find the lens to be reliable. For example, to lock the focus, this version of the lens relied on three spokes, which were positioned around the body of the lens. You would bend the lens and then lock the angle in place on one of these spokes. However, every so often, the plastic locking mechanism would slip, and you would have to bend the lens again in just the right way in order to produce the effect you were after. It wasn’t a deal breaker for me, but it was a bit annoying.

Lensbaby’s Deliberate Distortion
This version of the Sweet 35 Optic, $349.95, comes with the Composer Pro II mount, which lets you swap out the Sweet 35 Optic with another lens.

But the good news is that Lensbaby has developed many other lenses at different price points to suit almost any photographer. One that I find to be quite versatile is its Composer Pro II series (now in its third generation).

It’s a system that lets you drop different interchangeable optical elements into the Composer base, such as the Sweet 35 (35mm), the Edge 50mm (50mm) or Twist 60 (60mm), among others. Like previous lenses, these optics distort light and bokeh in different ways. But it’s a system, so you have a choice in the focal length and style of distortion.

The Lensbaby SOL 22, $199.95, is designed for Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras.
The Lensbaby SOL 22, $199.95, is designed for Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras.

However, they’re pricey. The Sweet 35 Optic (which can fit many mounts of the major DSLR and mirrorless cameras) costs $349.95. But that includes the Composer Pro II base. Once you own the base, the Optic lens is much cheaper. For instance, the Sweet 35 Optic without the base costs $179.95.

The Lensbaby SOL 45, $199.95, is designed for APS-C type mirrorless cameras and select DSLRs.
The Lensbaby SOL 45, $199.95, is designed for APS-C type mirrorless cameras and select DSLRs.

If you’re not looking for a system, consider one of two new Lensbaby SOL models, which cost $199.95 each: The SOL 45, for DSLRs and APS-C-sensor-based mirrorless cameras, and the SOL 22, for Micro Four Thirds cameras. Each offers the ability to tilt the lens in any direction, up to 8.5 degrees, and allow you to place your point of focus in your image. You can also twist to lock it in place without fear of slipping.

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