The best Lensbaby lenses, along with Lomo lenses, are a great way to inject a bit of fun into your photography. These often affordable lenses offer a wide range of funky and creative effects that can really give your images a distinctive look. With plenty of lenses to choose from, which one should you pick?
Typically when it comes to buying a lens, one of our main concerns is optical quality and how sharp they are. Things though are a little different when picking the best Lensbaby or Lomo lens.
That's because half their charm is the quirky nature by which they capture the scene, with sweet spots of focus and blurring of the image all part of the distinctive aesthetic they create. If you're looking for flawless results, theses aren't the lenses for you. However, if you want a lens that will produce dramatic, eye-catching effects that can make your shots instantly stand out from the crowd, the retro-inspired features found on Lensbaby and Lomo lenses are definitely worth trying out.
Don't expect any of theses lenses listed below to offer autofocus, while many have fixed apertures, making shooting with a Lensbaby or Lomo lens very much a back to basics experience. This does mean that they do require a little bit of practice to get the technique dialled in, but you'll be rewarded with funky focus and bokeh effects 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.
The best Lensbaby and Lomography lenses in 2020
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.
The Lensbaby Velvet 28 is the latest in a line of Velvet optics from the company, and if you have it come across it before, 'Velvet' is a synonym for 'soft focus'.
That's not to say the images you'll get are going to be out of focus. Instead, image detail should still be rendered tack-sharp, but your photos will benefit from a soft velvet glow that will permeate the image and intensify towards the edges.
Not only do you get this dreamy glow, but the Velvet 28 has another neat trick up its sleeve in the shape of its rather handy 1:2 macro capability. This means it can double as a useful close-up lens (with the same ethereal soft focus, if you so choose, or you can deactivate if you prefer). Nicely made as well with an all-metal construction, and while the long focus throw can make it a faff, this is a great lens if you're looking for something a little different.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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