Lensbaby Velvet 56 Initial Thoughts

This past weekend, I had opportunity to break out the new Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens and so I thought I would share my initial impressions of the new lens. For starters, let me say that I’m a Lensbaby fan and have been for a while. I had the original Lensbaby lens, now called “The Muse” for a long time, finally upgrading to the glass optic swap out system and now the Velvet 56. I won’t bore you with details about myself here (you can look that up if you really want to know) so let’s get started with the review (of sorts.) I will also point out that I normally don’t do gear reviews-I’m not the paid reviewer type of person so this is my honest impressions of the new lens, without any preconceived notions of trying to sell you anything (this is a free website and, as such, you get what you pay for and all. Apologies if this review comes across as less than polished, but that’s life inside my little world.) 

The packaging on the lens itself is wonderful. It came in a nice little box with Lensbaby images on the side. Perfect for gifting, although, with it’s $500 price tag gifting might be out of the question for some folks. The lens itself feels wonderful in the hands. It’s metal and it does not feel like a cheap or kit lens at all. If anything, it has more a retro feel about it, reminding me of some of the old Zeiss style lenses in terms of looks. It has a manual focusing ring and a manual aperture setting ring on the lens itself, so you can see from the front what f-stop you set it at. All well and good, as I would expect this of a “real” lens. My biggest gripe has been that, being a Canon shooter, the lower f-stops are usually at the other end of the scale. This one seemed backwards to me but again here that’s just me getting used to it. There was nothing about the lens that would put me off, in fact I rather liked it. The feel will come in time.

I should also point out that I got the silver model which, I’m told, does not have the stickers but has engraved aperture and focus markings. I believe this is the only difference between the two lenses so those on a tight budget might want to skip the silver in favor of the black model.

First shots off the card were interesting for me. Being a Lensbaby shooter for a while, I’ve been doing a body of work where things are very out of focus, like nothing in focus in the image at all. The new model will allow me to do that nicely, as the aperture settings allow you to control the amount of focus. That sounds really great on paper and I can tell you that I will someday get a better feel for the lens but, right out of the box, it’s hard to know what f-8 is going to do, for example. So, I found myself setting it wide open and then stopping down until I got the out of focus effect I wanted. Again, this is more of a learning curve than any fault of the lens. Overall, I’d have to say it’s the type of lens I will find myself shooting some and probably going to in my bag again and again.  I’ll have to play with it some more before it gets totally comfortable but I love what I’ve seen so far. That’s really the best you can get with a new lens right out the box, isn’t it?

Some other tidbits about the lens. It comes with a pop on style metal lens cap, which is really nice, but not perfect. I’m a bit old school and so I like to use UV filters on the front of my lens for protection. If you go the UV filter route with this Lensbaby, the lens cap will no longer fit. Now, I know there are easy workarounds for this but, at $500, I kind of feel like they should have thought about this better. Of course, the fact that the lens is threaded for filters is itself interesting news. Imagine the filters you can add to a Lensbaby. Infrared? ND Grads? See where I’m going here? This is big news that’s been overlooked in all of the reviews I have read on the lens so far (of course, there aren’t many of those yet, as this lens is new to market.)

Some of you will probably complain that the lens is manual focus. It is. It’s a manual focus lens. Manual focus. Say it with me. Manual focus. Don’t buy it and expect it to auto focus. It won’t. It’s a manual focus lens. Got that? I’m sure you do but not everybody will. I can hear the complaints already. “But, it doesn’t focus right!” Yeah, it doesn’t focus at all-you do. Turn the flipping ring already. It’s designed to make it easy for you to turn the ring so just do it and quit your griping. Having used a manual lens in the past, it really doesn’t feel any different from my old Nikon or Mayima or Hassy lenses in terms of focusing. There’s a nice track, it’s smooth, and you focus it by turning the ring yourself. The ring is easy to grip with your free hand and I was able to focus without having to stop looking through my camera pretty easily. I did mention it was manual focus, right? Works as designed, really that does, and I have no complaints. 

As a proud owner of the glass optic system, I had some of the optic swap devices Lensbaby makes. These can produce great images, the pin hole one is especially fun, but the entire swap device system left me a bit cold. It was hard to swap out those “lens guts” as I call them. It just wasn’t an easy system to use in the field, especially given that most of us wind up using the Lensbaby as a second lens anyway. It’s hard enough to swap out the lens itself and then, on top of that, I’m expected to swap out the optic system too? That was never my favorite, despite the fact that I loved the pinhole optic. What I ended up doing was shooting a second camera, leaving it setup with the optic system lens and then just swapping out the optic swap choices as I saw fit in the field. It was still a bit cumbersome to have to do that, as it was never as easy swapping out the optic swap device as changing an actual lens. I also had to deal with the burden of an extra camera body which is a hassle but it’s always good to have a backup anyway. These are just the choices we make and not really anything reflected upon the quality of the Lensbaby systems.

Fast forward to the new Velvet 56. It doesn’t support the optic swap system. Now, I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing but I do kind of feel there’s a hole where the pinhole used to be (so sorry for the bad pun there but it had to be said.) On the one hand, I kind of miss my easy access to a pinhole camera, on the other, I did mention the new Velvet 56 takes filters, yes? Filters. Mmmm filters. My brain (well, ok, what’s left of it) is still swirling over that one. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “Ah the places you will go, the filters you will use!”

So, bottom line, do I like the lens? Yes. Is it worth $500? Depends. To me, yes. I think of it as a “real” lens and welcome the aperture settings. (Ahem, repeat after me, “Real photographers stop down!” Thank you very much!) It does not feel cheap and I think there are a lot of creative uses for it. If you like the soft dreamy effect, let’s face facts, you’re going to need to manual focus anyway, and this lens will not disappoint. I love the filters. Did I mention it has filters now? Filters, yes indeed! I sort of miss the glass optic system, but then I only loved that for the pinhole. (There might be a way to weasel a pinhole option out of the new Velvet 56, although I haven’t really thought about that yet.)

One last note about the new Lensbaby Velvet 56: I did not have a good chance to play around with some macro images yet. I’m sure this is one area where it will really rock the house. Clocking in at a 56mm very nice useful focal length, having a wide open f1.6 available, and also being able to do macro work is quite a powerful combination. Overall, this makes for a light and bright soft focus lens. I would be even happier if they would make a filter threaded lens cap that was convertible into a lens cap pinhole filter. Now, that would really make my day but, hey, I can’t ask for the sky, the moon, *and* the stars, right? Right? (Ahem, Lensbaby folks, if you are reading this, kaleidoscope lens. Say it with me, “Kaleidoscope lens.” It’s not just for breakfast anymore, m’kay? It’s what all the cool kids really want for Christmas this year! Um…please? Pretty please with sugar on top? Don’t make me turn this blur around!)

Until next time…

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