So I recently picked up a Lensbaby Composer Pro for the Canon EF mount. For those of you that don’t know, the Lensbaby Composer Pro is an effect lens that basically puts the front element of the lens on a ball swivel. This gives you the ability to throw parts of the frame wildly out of focus, and make other strange depth of field adjustments. I basically thought of the Lensbaby as a poor mans tilt/shift lens. Not that it can actually do what a tilt/shift is meant to do, but it can do what I usually used a tilt/shift for. I figured I would go over my thoughts on this lens with you guys including my hesitations, what I like, and what I do not like.
First: My Hesitations
I am a bit old school when it comes to effects. I entered the film industry before the digital revolution, and therefore am well grounded in doing things the old fashioned way. As a part of this way of thinking, I have always felt the best approach was to get a clean image, and mess with it later. Why? because you can always mess with an image after you shoot it, but you can’t clean up an image you messed with when you shot it.
That being said, I am also a fan of doing effects optically when it is easier then doing them in post. Why add time to post if you can get it in camera?
For the first 20 years of my career, I lived in Hollywood. When I would DP, I shot mostly narrative type things, and interviews. For those types of projects, there really is very little use for an effect lens like this. I also worked a lot as a gaffer, and/or best boy on music videos and commercials. I worked for several years with an amazing music video director who had a certain affinity for using tilt/shift lenses to distort his images. The results were breathtaking, and I truly began to develop an appreciation for this technique.
Now that I have retired from mainstream Hollywood, I find myself doing projects that allow me to be more experimental. So in that case, the Lensbaby Composer Pro seemed like a good tool to add to my collection.
Second: What I like
I can’t start a section about the pros of the Lensbaby Composer pro without mentioning the price. I have compared this to a tilt/shift in the way that it can distort depth of field. Yet the Lensbaby is easily 1/10th the price of a tilt/shift. Now granted, the lens baby can not do what a tilt/shift is designed to do. But, if you were just going to use the tilt/shift to distort, then this can do that for far cheaper.
Lensbaby originally came out with a plastic model that you moved the front element with your hands while you were shooting. The Lensbaby Composer Pro has a locking ring for the front element allowing you to fix it into the position you want. I find this to be a great added feature. Using this feature, you can lock the lens to have half the frame completely out of focus so you can easily add titles over the out of focus area. With the lock, you don’t need to hold the lens in place for the shot. The original Lensbaby was also focused with the same mechanism as the distortion was achieved with. Therefore you had to hold the lens to keep focus. The Lensbaby Composer Pro adds a traditional focus ring. I find that much better for shooting video. Some people will also point out that the Lensbaby Composer Pro uses glass lens elements as opposed to the plastic ones in the original model. The glass elements will give you a better image quality, but considering the whole point of using a Lensbaby is to distort your image, this wasn’t a deciding factor for me.
Third: What I don’t like
There are a few things that I do not like about the Lensbaby Composer Pro. The first, and most obvious is the aperture. Don’t go looking for any iris ring on this lens. Instead, the Lensbaby Composer Pro comes with a set of donuts marked with f-stops. These attach to the lens via magnets and effectively reduce the aperture. Now I get it, putting in a real iris would have made the lens more expensive, and probably slower. As it sits, the first donut is an f/2.8 which means that the wide open setting is likely a 2.5 or a 2.2 (I haven’t taken the time to meter it). This is a decent speed for a cheap effects lens.
I might say that as a poor mans tilt/shift lens, it would have been nice if they included the “shift” part. But to be honest, that is why this lens is so cheap compared to a real tilt/shift…
If there is any other “con” to the Lensbaby Composer Pro, it is that there really isn’t much that this lens does that I couldn’t do almost as well in After Effects. And I would have more control over it if I did it in post. However, getting it in the can at the shoot is easier then spending even more time messing with it in post, so there is that.
Do you have a Lensbaby Composer Pro? What do you think of it? Is there something I missed? Is there something I got wrong? Let us know in the comments below.