Commentary # 10 ~ November 2007
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The LensBaby 3G - Because Life is too Short to Spend Reading MTF Charts

November 2007

- by Craig Wassel

Our family would probably qualify as a "Tafy". That's an acronymn for a "Technologically Advanced Family". Our house has a hard wired and highly secured wireless network, wireless Mac and Windows laptops, it's own file and mail server, DVR, DVD-R, and, of course, plenty of photographic technology within it's walls. Still, I don't consider myself much of a "gadget geek", and that goes for photo gear as well. What I mean is that I do or buy something just for the sake of having a gadget. I carefully consider all the things on my wish list, and ask myself which one will make the most difference in my photographs. Whatever gadget I decide to buy next has to give me something significant I do not currently have. Otherwise, it's not a worthwhile gadget. It's just a gimmick, a waste of money, and a waste of space in my day bag.

Quite a while ago I started noticing some strange little devices called "LensBabies" advertised in photography periodicals, but I never paid much attention. Honestly, they looked too unusual to be anything but gimmicks.

It can be very fun and liberating to be completely wrong . . .

A friend and fellow photog is much quicker to purchase gear, and he bought a LensBaby 3G. He peaked my curiosity, so I looked at the lenses on the the LensBabies website (link). Now, those who have read my previous commentaries know I find every way possible to avoid writing equipment reviews or making equipment references. The reason I am breaking from that guideline here is not because these products have impressive MTF charts. I would be suprised if any exist - there is no reason to make them. It's not because I am getting anything from the company for loving their equipment. The only thing they probably know about me at this point is I purchased some of their gear. It's because these lenses deliver a very unique flavor of photography. Some of the proof is in examples shown on their site. Here, I thought, is a relatively inexpensive lens that might add something very different to the look of my work.

I am slow to convince, though, and a little cynical when it comes to advertising. I stopped to consider that the featured shots were by far more accomplished and skilled photographers than I. The final step - or what should have been the final step - was borrowing my friend's LensBaby. I only had it for one evening and had no good light to work with, but the strange looking little lens lived up to its billing and I could see potential so quickly that my brain and shutter finger could not keep pace.

Then I made a mistake, and it's a mistake I actually advised against in my commentary "Photography Blogs - They Aren't Always About Making Great Photographs" (link). I started reading some threads I found in Google Group searches about these lenses. Most were very negative. The one that still sticks in my mind is "How to Properly Use a LensBaby". The instructions read something like: "1.) unmount the lens 2.) hold over trash can 3.) drop it in - it's an overpriced toy".

I started to second guess my decision to buy one, and I needlessly delayed my purchase by several weeks. Then I came to my senses and realized that there was not one example photograph from a LensBaby in any of these threads, nor from any lens touted by any of these un-renowned (not that I am renowned) critics, nor any link to any portfolios. As I always say, there is a reason why they call them "critics" and not "complimenters". I cringe at every potential photograph I miss, so I wondered what I might have gotten just in those few additional weeks of shooting with a LensBaby, and then proceeded to make the investment.

One of the greatest compliments I have ever received on my (pre-LensBaby) portfolio was when a friend of mine looked at me and said, "You see the world differently than the rest of us". I was totally flattered. The only way I can think of to give my flattering review of a LensBaby is to say it takes "seeing the world differently" one step futher and to a different level.

Now I am going to proceed with describing to you some criticisms of these lenses, which are EXACTLY why a photographer should consider owning one.

  1. LensBabies are clumsy and awkward to use, and slow you down.

    My Reply: Yes, at first they are awkward. So what. I knew this going in. After getting mine, I left it mounted for three straight days, practiced, and shot nearly 500 frames for no other reason than teaching my hands to work the lens without looking. What good is any gear without practice and being able to compose with it with ease? Further, what is so wrong with slowing down and working a little harder for worthwhile results? Doesn't that make them all the more satisfying?

  2. LensBabies do not autofocus.

    My Reply: Geez, come on. Auto-focus lenses have not been out THAT long. Have we really become totally reliant on that feature? If you are not comfortable with manually focusing quickly when you need to, consider this an opportunity to get comfortable with it. Sooner or later, autofocus lenses go to sleep on you in low light.

  3. Not only do LensBabies lack an aperture ring, you actually have to manually change the irises with a magnetic tool. In fact, if you are using the wide angle or telephoto attachment, you have to unmount that first to get to the iris.

    My Reply: First, practice with the LensBaby before you are in a situation where you are depending on getting a shot, and you need to react quickly. Based on your subject, plan, compose, and choose your aperture ahead of time. Even if you spot something fast moving and un-anticipated, leave your setup in place and just shoot. You just may be pleasantly suprised at the unique result you get. That is part of the fun.

  4. Most cameras cannot meter with a LensBaby. On ones that do, metering can be very innaccurate.

    My Reply: Again, practice with the LensBaby before you are in a situation where you are depending on getting a shot and you need to react quickly. I found my favorite body - although it meters in aperture priority mode with my LensBaby - overexposes. So what? That's what that little "+/-" button is for. I typically shoot from between -.3 to -1.3 to achieve good exposure. Look at it as an opportunity to get comfortable knowing your exposures without having to wait until your film is developed or by checking your LCD to find out if you were right. Once comfortable with any lens, I turn my auto LCD preview option off, and only check it occassionally to make sure my eyes have not been fooled. I also have heard about this new (grin) technique called "bracketing" that can help.

  5. LensBabies produce photographs that are not only soft around the edges, but often not sharp in the middle, either.

    My Reply: Exactly. Can we learn that blur CAN be beautiful? Sometimes I think some of us have been shooting for so long that we are stuck in the box of thinking only in terms of sharpness; we start to believe an MTF chart can tell us the chances of taking captivating, interesting photographs. It's almost like when you ask a new photographer to zoom in on a portrait subject, and fill the frame by cutting off part of the person's head. It's uncomfortable at first.

  6. You can achieve the same thing in Photoshop.

    My Reply: Well, no, you can't. You can only simulate it, because there is a very big difference between bending and altering light on its way to striking a sensor or film frame, and manipulating pixels of an electronic image on a computer screen.

I could go on with several more topics, but hopefully I have already made my point. Still, I'm not saying that everyone should shoot with one. Photographers' tastes vary just as much as viewers' tastes. Some photographers as well as viewers will continue to look at photographs made with LensBabies and ask, "why?".

It reminds me of the Great Satchmo's (jazz great Louis Armstrong) reply when asked, "What is Jazz?". He graciously smiled and said, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know".

"I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject-matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others . . . "

~ Robert Frank ~

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Blur CAN be Beautiful

" . . . Still, some photographers as well as viewers will continue to look at photographs made with LensBabies and ask, "why?". It reminds me of the Great Satchmo's (jazz great Louis Armstrong) reply when asked, "What is Jazz?". He graciously smiled and said, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know". . . . "

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