The Lensbaby Velvet 28 is the latest in the manufacturer's Velvet line of optics, where 'Velvet' is a synonym for 'soft focus'. So if you've been coveting those dreamy soft focus lenses from the past, or the abundance of soft focus effects made possible by everything from Instagram to lens filters, this is the glass for you.
As you'd expect, the Lensbaby Velvet 28 is a 28mm wide-angle version of the existing Lensbaby Velvet 56 and Lensbaby Velvet 85 optics. Both of which, according to the manufacturer, "turn every hour of shooting into the magic hour." So, as far as creative glass goes, this promises to be one of the best Lensbaby lenses if you're looking to add an incredibly distinct dimension to your images.
As with most soft focus lenses, the effect becomes less pronounced as you stop down the aperture. Which means that, shooting at f/8 and lower, this behaves pretty much like a standard 28mm lens – though it does have one more party trick: the ability to shoot macro images at 1:2 magnification. (Conversely, if you want to shoot above f/8, you have to accept the soft focus look.)
Does that mean that the Lensbaby doubles as one of the best wide-angle lenses, and triples as one of the best macro lenses? Read on to find out…
Mount: Canon EF, Canon RF, Nikon F, Nikon Z, Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds (tested), Sony E, Pentax K
Full frame: Yes
Image stabilization: No
Lens construction: 8 elements in 7 groups
Diaphragm blades: 12
Minimum aperture: f/22
Minimum focusing distance: 50.8mm
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.5x
Filter size: 67mm
Dimensions: 72.4 x 72.4 x 62.5mm
If you're not familiar with soft focus, it's easy to look at the resulting images and conclude that 'soft focus' is the same as 'out of focus'. However, this isn't the case. With a soft focus lens, the image detail should still be tack-sharp – it simply sits beneath a layer of soft velvety glow, which intensifies towards the edges.
As such, if you zoom in on a soft focus image, it should still render the detail underneath the softness. This is why soft focus lenses were favored by portrait photographers for golden age Hollywood portraits as well as Seventies and Eighties glamor photography; they add a radiant glow to images, with the softness disguising uneven skin and blemishes, while the sharpness in facial features is retained.
The Velvet 28 isn't a portrait lens, of course (that would be where the Velvet 85 comes into play). However, while it's a wide-angle 28mm optic on full-frame cameras, the crop factor of smaller sensors makes this an equivalent standard lens on Micro Four Thirds (50mm) and APS-C (42mm / 44.8mm on Canon). So this lens enables you to apply the soft focus effect to landscapes, street and travel photography.
It can also record images at 1:2 magnification with a 50.8mm minimum focusing distance, meaning that it's capable of light macro photography as well.
Build and handling
Like its longer siblings, the Velvet 28 is built like a tank. At a hefty 453.6g, it is heavier than the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III body (414g) that we paired it with. So if you're using a smaller camera, you might want to add a grip to better balance it and improve handling.
Still, the all-metal construction is incredibly solid and sturdy. Even the lens cap is a slip-on metal affair, matching the beautifully machined matte-black sheen of the rest of the lens. It all amounts to a very luxurious, premium feeling – a vintage lens engineered like a muscle car. Despite the bomb-proof build, however, it is not weather-sealed.
As with all Lensbaby optics this is a fully manual lens, and the focus ring has an incredibly long throw of around 300°. On the one hand this is incredibly useful, especially for shooting macro at close distances where hair-fine focus is a necessity. When shooting on the street or in everyday situations, though, expect to spend a lot of time turning the ring to find focus.
Obviously the aperture ring is a manual affair, too, but it does more than simply adjust traditional aperture functions such as exposure and depth of field; here it also controls the soft focus effect. The clicked ring goes from f/16 to "+", which is f/2.2 – a bonus stop that sits one click ahead of the billed f/2.5 maximum aperture. (On our lens there is a little bit of play at f/16, no doubt due to it being an early sample.)
So how does that soft focus characteristic work in practice, given that the Lensbaby Velvet 28 is translating a traditionally portrait lens effect to street, landscape and macro photography?
The current lockdown situation made it difficult to test the lens in a true landscape setting, but it's clear that with the right scene – trees with defined, leafy foliage being perfect – you can achieve a truly painterly look to your photographs. Harsh sunlight can make the bloom effect overpowering when wide open, meaning that results are generally most pleasing when dialed down to around f/4.
Street photography is perhaps less suited to the Velvet 28 than buildings and architecture. In particular, Cotswolds-style structures can be rendered as oil painting-like postcard images, the gentle brickwork and beamwork resulting in very pleasing pictures bathed in a silky soft glow.
A byproduct of the soft focus effect is that points of light are rendered as beautifully big bokeh balls. This achieves an even more niche characteristic, within an already niche lens effect, but if you're looking for a new to add orbs and bokeh balls to your images without fiddling with prisms, look no further.
If you happen to be using the lens on a crop sensor body, the 50mm field of view does make the lens suitable for upper body portraiture as well. Shooting at wider apertures, especially in black and white, produces some satisfyingly old school Hollywood-style portraits.
In our experience, though, the best application for the Velvet 28 is to take advantage of its 1:2 macro capabilities. With its 50.8mm close focusing ability, you can shoot great close-ups of flowers and fine detail – and embellish them with a whisper or a shout of soft focus as you see fit.
Indeed, in all applications, you can choose to effectively deactivate the soft focus effect altogether. By stopping down the aperture to f/8 not only do you achieve optimal sharpness, you also 'turn off' the softness and bloom (which intensifies the wider you set your aperture, with it being most pronounced at f/2.5 and "+").
This means that if you'd rather shoot your shots with no soft focus characteristics, simply set the Velvet 28 to f/8 and you've got a satisfyingly sharp 28mm lens that can be used for conventional landscape, macro and all kinds of other work. And when you're shooting a subject that would suit a little more creativity, you can open up and start introducing a velvety smooth glow.
Given that the Lensbaby Velvet 28 is specifically designed to deliver softness, not sharpness (and that the whole point of its lens characteristics are to confound our conventional testing methods), we didn't put this optic through our usual spectrum of lab tests.
Far more useful, in our opinion, is a demonstration of exactly how differently the image is rendered as you open up the aperture and increase the intensity of the soft focus effect. Click through the sample images below to see how much you can make a Wookiee glow with this lens.
The Lensbaby Velvet 28 is a true triple threat, offering a wide-angle field of view, light macro capability and its signature soft focus effect – a unique combination that makes this a uniquely creative lens.
Clicking through some of the sample shots in this review, you'll no doubt have a very strong reaction – you will either love the velvet effect or hate it. Some subjects are suited perfectly to it, with softness and bloom producing painterly and even expressionistic images. Other subjects just make you want to rub your eyes or clean your glasses with how hazy they look.
The beauty of the Velvet 28 is that you can control how strong the effect is, simply by stopping down the aperture. We were very pleased with how it performed when shooting macro, in particular, and a touch of glow can enhance a great many images; indeed, the way that points of light are rendered as bokeh bubbles means that there are some tantalizing possibilities for night shooting.
It should be noted, though, that manual focus at f/2.8 can be difficult at the best of times; factor in the amount of softness and bloom with this lens, and it can be nigh impossible to find focus without stopping down. And focus peaking is almost useless since it relies on contrast, which is rendered a Vaseline smoosh. Magnifying helps, but be prepared to wrestle with fine focusing.
Dial down to f/8, though, and you have a crystal clear lens that renders as sharply and softness-free as any regular 28mm. It's not that much more expensive than regular 28mms like the Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 IS USM, but it's a lot more versatile. If you're looking for a special effect lens for stills and video, which can double as a light macro lens and triple as a regular wide-angle lens, this is a great investment.
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