Lensbaby lenses, and Lomo lenses, are a great way of adding fun to your photography and creative effects to your pictures.
It can be all too easy to get carried away with technical details in photography and forget about simply having fun. Rarely is a great photo made by a lens that's 1% sharper than the competition, but there are lenses out there that produce dramatic, eye-catching effects that can make your shots instantly stand out from the crowd. Innovative or retro-inspired features found on Lensbaby and Lomo lenses are much more engaging to use.
These effect lenses also tend to be completely manual, so you get to play about with manual focus and exposure. You may not always get flawless results first time with a lens on this list, but it's these very vagaries of spontaneous manual shooting - combined with the funky focus and bokeh effects on offer - that'll give you unique photos which you can truly call your own.
Five things to watch out for
1. Mounting concern
The Lensbaby lenses on test are available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E and Fujifilm X cameras, while the Lomography lenses will fit Canon and Nikon DSLRs.
2. Manual focus
Don’t expect creature comforts like autofocus: all these lenses are completely manual, so you do all the work, but can take all the credit.
3. Maintain composure
Some of the special effects on offer here necessitate careful shot composition - don’t expect maximum visual pop right from the off.
4. Modular systems
Lenses like the Lensbaby Edge 35 are designed to work with a separate housing - in this case, Lensbaby's Composer Pro II; great if you’ve got one, but it can get expensive you haven't.
5. Budget options
All our lenses use glass elements, but really cheap novelty lenses with plastic elements are out there if you want a uber low-grade look.
1. Lensbaby Sol 45
For fun and creativity, the Sol 45 is just the ticket, and it's a bargain to boot
Focal length: 45mm | Aperture range: f/3.5 (fixed) | Min focus distance: 35.5cm | Mount options: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Fujifilm X
The Sol 45 harks back to Lensbaby’s origins of simplicity and creativity, and, unlike the Edge 35, it doesn’t require an extra like the Composer Pro. The two lenses do still share a similar tilting feature that allows you to tilt the front section to any angle.
The idea is that you pick a subject within the frame, bend the lens towards it, then focus with the manual focus ring. Behind this is a larger ring which enables you to lock the sweet spot of sharpest focus in the centre of frame. Unlock this ring and focus can be shifted towards the edges of the frame. The aperture is fixed at a fairly large f/3.5, helping to produce a sharp circular region of focus around your chosen focal point, surrounded by stunningly smooth bokeh. There’s also a pair of ‘bokeh blades’ that can be pulled across the lens to introduce some interesting texture to the out-of-focus areas. Mount the lens on a crop-sensor body and the focus sweet spot gets closer to the edges of frame, which can be handy with some compositions.
Peak image sharpness is no match for Lensbaby's Burnisde 35 optic, but chromatic aberration is minimal, and the Sol 45 produces very attractive and highly distinctive images for a very fair outlay.
2. Lensbaby Burnside 35
If you put in the effort, the Burnside 35 can work wonders with portraiture
Focal length: 35mm | Aperture range: f/2.8-16 | Min focus distance: 15cm | Mount options: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Fujifilm X, MFT
Lensbaby’s quirky lenses have proved popular with photographers who want to apply creative effects at the shooting stage and make their images stand out from the crowd. The Burnside 35’s signature look is a bright, sharp central area surrounded by bokeh that has a swirl effect and prominent corner vignetting, making it an interesting proposition for portrait photographers.
Covering full-frame or crop sensors and available in Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Sony, Micro Four Thirds and Pentax mounts, the Burnside 35 looks quite old school, but its metal barrel and silky-smooth focusing action give it a high-quality feel. The long focus throw makes manual focusing a pleasure - a good thing, as like other Lensbaby optics, this is a completely manual lens with no electronic assistance.
To really get the most out of the Burnside, shoot wide open at f/2.8 with your subject close to the camera and well separated from a ‘busy’ background with plenty of texture to make the swirling bokeh effect really pronounced. There’s even a slider between the focus and aperture rings to simultaneously control vignetting intensity and the amount of bokeh swirl.
3. Lomography Petzval 85mm Art Lens
A beautiful lens that gives beautiful results that can transform your portraiture
Focal length: 85mm | Aperture range: f/2.2-16 | Min focus distance: 1m | Mount options: Canon EF, Nikon F
This lens takes its distinctive design cues from Joseph Petzval’s Hungarian optic that revolutionised photographic portraiture in Victorian times. The new Petzval is a work of art, with its brass barrel and a gear rack focusing system that features a protruding knurled thumbscrew. A black version is also available if you’d rather a little less bling.
The ‘Waterhouse’ aperture set is similarly antiquated, relying on different plates to be inserted near the rear of the lens, so that you can stop down from the wide-open aperture of f/2.2 all the way to f/16 in single f/stop increments. Funky-shaped aperture plates for shaping defocused elements are also available, including teardrop, star and honeycomb cutouts.
The number of glass elements used in the lens isn’t specified, but the secret recipe enables a sharp area at the centre of the image, with vignetting and a bokeh effect at the edges. The lens isn’t particularly sharp at the centre, especially at its widest aperture, but it gives a beautiful look to portraits with nicely softened skin tones. Vignetting is subtle on full-frame cameras and negligible on crop-sensor cameras. Similarly, the surrounding area of swirly bokeh is reduced on a crop-sensor body, but still looks great.
4. Lensbaby Edge 35
Great fun, and great value if you already own the required Composer Pro adapter
Focal length: 35mm | Aperture range: f/3.5 (fixed) | Min focus distance: 18cm | Mount options: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Fuji X, MFT (via Composer Pro II housing)
The 35mm Edge 35 is part of Lensbaby’s Optic Swap System and is designed to be used with the Composer Pro or Composer Pro II lens housing. Simply insert the Edge 35 into the housing and rotate clockwise. The Composer Pro’s ball and socket design then allows the Edge 35 to be tilted in any direction, and in doing so you move the plane of focus in the image, similar to the tilt element of a tilt-and-shift lens.
The result is a sharp band across the scene with near and far objects both being in focus. Tilting up or down creates a horizontal slice of focus, while tilting left or right gives a vertical slice, and tilting diagonally produces diagonal slices. A locking ring near the lens mount enables the movement to be tightened and loosened as required.
Built quality isn’t quite up there with the Burnside 35, but you still get a metal barrel and glass elements. Focusing is manual-only and controlled using the front ring on the Composer Pro, while the aperture ring can be found on the Edge 35 and runs from f/3.5 to f/22. With careful focusing, you can get impressively sharp results at the point of focus, with steep fall-off and attractive bokeh.
5. Lomography Diana+ 75mm Premium Glass
Works well as an experimental - and possibly expendable - manual prime
Focal length: 75mm | Aperture range: f/7.1 (fixed) | Min focus distance: 1m | Mount options: Canon EF, Nikon F
Think ‘premium glass’ and you probably envisage pro-grade fluorite glass and ultra-low dispersion elements. This Diana Premium Glass lens has none of the above, but it is priced accordingly, and at least its three lens elements are glass, where similarly-priced lenses can be based around horrid plastic elements.
But sure enough, cost-cutting is evident in the Diana’s cheap-feeling plastic barrel and mount, and it requires a plastic mount adapter to attach the lens to a Canon or Nikon DSLR. That ‘premium’ glassware is put to good use though, as sharpness is on par with Lomography’s Petzval lens, and is actually not bad even without making allowances for the lens’s price. There’s also very little distortion and not much chromatic aberration either.
Focusing relies on a ridiculously positioned focus dial that requires you to reach into the front of the lens barrel, meaning you’re quite likely to smear the front element, but that could be a bonus when you’re trying to go maximum hipster with a soft focus look.
If you’re after a cheap lens that’ll help you learn the art of fully manual photography, this is a smart buy, although its high optical quality can ironically make it a little too good for seriously lo-fi images.
6. Lomography Neptune Convertible Art Lens System
If you want complete creative control, the Neptune system delivers, at a price
Focal length: 35mm, 50mm, 80mm | Maximum aperture: f/3.5, f/2.8, f/4 | Min focus distance: 25cm, 40cm, 80cm | Mount options: Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K
Here we have a modular lens system consisting of a base unit that attaches to your camera lens mount, which in turn serves as the foundation for three prime lenses. The base contains some of the optical elements, the diaphragm and focus ring, while the add-on lenses provide three different focal lengths. The Thalassa lens is a 35mm f/3.5; the Despina is a 50mm f/2.8; and the Proteus is an 80mm f/4.
Each add-on lens is very small, but then they’re also very basic. All are completely manual, so not only do you do the focusing, but you also have to manually control exposure metering. The add-on lenses are weighty and well-made, but the base unit feels crudely fashioned by comparison.
Fortunately all three lenses produce exceptional detail rendition, insignificant distortion, hardly any vignetting and very little chromatic aberration. Manual focusing is simple and almost immediate, and the total lack of electronic assistance also lets you learn how under- and over-exposure can produce attractive creative effects.
It’s hard to make a case for the Neptune system on price and specs alone, but it does score more highly on fun factor and helping you maximise your creativity.
The best Lomography camera