Review: Lensbaby Soft Focus Optic

In case you’re not familiar with Lensbaby we’ll give you a little history.  The original Lensbaby was a flexible plastic lens barrel with a glass optic.  Bending the tube would shift the sharp area of the image to different spots.  Compressing or pulling the lens would focus it.  In addition the Lensbaby included several aperture discs for controlling the size of the sharp spot.  While the effect on the image was cool the usability and mechanics we’re terrible.  This original version is still available today and is known as The Lensbaby Muse.

Fast forward to present day.  The Lensbaby is now a full-fledged system with three different lens bodies and several interchangeable optics.  For our test we used the Composer,  which is a more sophisticated ball and socket lens body, fitted with the soft focus optic.  The Composer has a separate focus ring for more precise focusing.

Composer

There’s a lot of good to be said about the soft focus optic so that’s where we’ll start.  It can lend a dreamy almost surrealistic quality to images.  It’s fun to use and can spark creativity in an otherwise dull situation.  My personal preference is to use the f/5.6 standard aperture disc with the soft focus optic.  In addition to the normal aperture discs the soft focus optic comes with three specialized discs.  These discs are supposed to create a central spot of sharpness surrounded by blur.  Not radial blur like the standard glass optic but planar blur.  I haven’t had much luck with these and rarely use them.

Then there’s the bad.  The bad stuff is kind of what makes it good so don’t panic.  The soft focus optic is extremely prone to flare and not the good kind.  It’s the kind of flare that kills all contrast and washes out the whole frame.  Almost as if you are using an expensive Nikon zoom.  Post processing can take care of it but it’s still a bitch.

Flare example

After post processing

With a true soft focus lens there is a sharp image veiled by softness.  I have not found this to be the case with the soft focus optic.  It seems to be just soft regardless of the aperture used.   I’m not complaining, in fact this is why I like it.  The landscape shooting I do benefits from this effect.  Also the corners are extremely soft (Canon 16-35L) which helps to direct attention to the desired subject.  This gives an image an almost “painted” quality.

Soft corners

The minimum focus distance is short but the maximum magnification is no that great.  Still, its good enough to capture most of the small things you’ll encounter.  There is a set of macro filters that can be used in conjunction with the lens for better magnification.  They are inexpensive and effective.

With +4 macro filter

The quality of the bokeh is hard to describe.  It’s not quite like any other lens I’ve used.  Background and foreground elements are soft and smeary.  Like you put some petroleum jelly on your lens.  Zoom users should have lots of that around but they’ll want to save it for other activities.

Bokeh test

All in all the soft focus optic is a great tool to have on hand.  It can be incorporated into many different types of shooting.  The combination of wide-angle, macro and telephoto adapters only add to its usefulness.  If a soft and somewhat lo-fi look is what your into pick up a Lensbaby and a soft focus optic from your favorite camera shop.  Or just buy an expensive zoom.  Peace.

Biggy

  1. Lu
    May 20, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Great review.
    Although it’s a lens that is pretty hard for me to use, too complicated, like zoom lenses when you have to rotate the ring to zoom in or zoom out…

    Enough softness today 🙂

    • May 20, 2010 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks Lu glad you like it and you are absolutely right less is more. Keep it simple.

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