The Lensbaby Composer should come with a warning label. Something along the lines of "Warning: This lens will turn you into a completely obnoxious photographer." Your friends and family will cringe bringing you out in public when you're carrying a camera with a Lensbaby attached. You'll flood their Facebook, Flickr and Twitter accounts with countless photos. You'll explain to anyone on the street exactly how the lens works. I myself may be guilty of several of these charges.
For those unfamiliar, Lensbaby is a manufacturer of lenses for your DSLR or compact interchangeable lens camera. They are designed so that the front part of the lens can be moved around, thus allowing you to move the area of your image that's in focus. This so-called "sweet spot" will be in the sharpest focus, and everything else in the frame will be blurred to some degree.
The images below illustrate the idea. In the first, the lens was shifted to the left, bringing the part of the wall closest to the viewer in focus. In the second, the lens was pointed to the right.
So just how well does the Lensbaby Composer work? Is it worth a not-insignificant investment of $270? Check out our walkthrough video below to see how it works, and keep reading our full review for the complete analysis.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Unlike previous Lensbaby models, the Composer allows you to move the front of the lens freely and then keep it in place with a locking ring. Preceding models required a little more finesse.
Lensbaby Composer Specifications:
The Composer is currently available in all mounts listed above. Our review unit was of the EF persuasion, and I used it primarily with the Canon EOS 60D. The 60D's 1.6x crop factor means that the Lensbaby's roughly 50mm focal length magnified to an equivalent of 80mm. All Lensbaby models require manual focus.
With most systems, automatic metering can still be used in aperture mode. The most notable exception is the Nikon D90 - manual mode will be your only option.
The Composer itself isn't available in a Micro Four Thirds or Sony NEX mount, but the Tilt Transformer is offered for these compact interchangeable lens cameras. The Tilt Transformer accepts Nikon lenses or the front portion of the Composer. If you're a Panasonic G or Olympus PEN owner, don't despair. There's a Lensbaby for you too.
The Composer consists of a mount, a locking ring and a manual focus ring. It ships with a double glass optic, and additional optics can be purchased to achieve various effects. Aperture is changed by manually switching out magnetic disks with f/4 being the disk you'd find on your lens if you took it out of the box.
You'll also find a short instruction manual in the box and a small plastic device that looks like the end of a stethoscope. It has two uses - one end is a magnetic tool for switching out aperture disks, and the disks are stored in the other end. The lens has a steel base, and other parts appear to be composite and plastic.
Using the lens is straightforward and intuitive once you have a feel for how it handles. The (very brief) accompanying guide suggests composing your image with the lens in its normal position, manually focusing, moving the front part of the lens to position your sweet spot accordingly and then adjusting focus again. It's also suggested to try slight movements first rather than putting your sweet spot at the very edge of the frame.
This proved to be good advice. When the focused portion of the image falls somewhere within the center of the frame or out to the "rule of thirds" crosshairs, sharpness is optimized.
There are infinite possibilities once you're comfortable with the lens. That's what potentially makes using the lens so addictive. Once you've spotted a subject, you can tweak your focus and the angle of the lens in any number of ways for any amount of time until you've annoyed your spouse or companions or whoever you're out with.
Different aperture disks will change the size of your sweet spot and therefore the dramatic effect of your photo. But here's the Composer's Achilles heel. Changing out aperture disks takes a couple of seconds, but that's a couple of seconds you may not have. If you're used to making changes on the fly, you might find the aperture disk system a bit frustrating. I shot mostly with the f/4 disk for this review, and that generally gave me a tight sweet spot with enough room to work with. The disk holder is easily stashed in a camera bag or even a coat pocket, so it's easy to keep it on hand. It's probably better, though, to stick with one disk for an extended amount of time.
Using the slowest aperture disks (higher numbers) will noticeably darken the image you see through your viewfinder. It's a good idea to pay attention to your camera's metering system if you're able to do so.
Keeping in mind what the Composer is built to do, its performance across the board is pretty good. When you factor in the cost, things get a bit tricky. The $270-ish investment you make in a Lensbaby could almost purchase a wide angle prime with better sharpness, contrast and build quality. It's a matter of how much you're likely to enjoy using the Lensbaby and whether or not a standard lens would be a wiser way to spend your money. Ignoring these other factors, it's easy to like the Composer's performance.
Once again, the Lensbaby Composer is a manual-only operation. The motion of the focus ring is fluid, and once I had a good feel for it I could focus fairly quickly. The ring travels about 140 degrees between its closest focus point of 45cm and infinity. I would recommend sticking with your optical viewfinder and staying out of Live View, if your camera is so equipped. It's also important to make sure your diopter is adjusted properly before you start shooting.
The Composer's most natural application, its bread and butter, is a shot in which all elements of the photo would normally be in focus with a regular lens. Of course, seeing as you're using a Lensbaby, you can make a dramatic shift and draw attention to something significant to the right. Or the left, or up, or down...
But the fun doesn't stop there. A picture taken at a great height can give the effect of miniaturization.
I liked the lens's sharpness when the focus point falls near the center of the frame. I didn't notice any significant problems with flare. The closer your focus is to the outer perimeter of the photo, the greater the distortion in other areas. For the most subtle effect, use a narrower aperture and little bit of lens shift.
For a better idea of how the various aperture rings affect the image, take a look below. Each picture was taken with the camera focused roughly at the 7-inch mark.
Contrast and sharpness are satisfactory for the applications of this lens. If it's impeccable image quality you want, you probably aren't considering a Lensbaby anyway. I was happiest with image quality when I used an f/4 or f/5.6 aperture. Going wider than that doesn't give much margin for error if you're not focused precisely on your target, and I usually liked a little wiggle room when manually focusing.
The focal length is equivalent to a portrait lens, which means you'll need to back off a bit from close objects. For street shooting and other situations, it's a nice length.
A Lensbaby isn't for everyone. Either it appeals to you or it doesn't. If it does appeal to you, then I can recommend it as a fun and annoyingly addictive toy for your photo arsenal. The price tag is worth noting - for around $270 (at the time of this writing) you'd be able to purchase (or at least make a serious dent in) a more traditional lens. There's the danger, too, of the novelty wearing off. But what's the fun in talking about that?
The Composer is the product of several evolutions in Lensbaby's lineup, and it's the most user-friendly of the selective-focus lenses in the catalog. However, there are still a few frustrations with the lens's functionality. You'll have to fumble around with a little magnetic tool to change aperture on the fly. Manual focus will slow down some photographers and make shooting moving objects tricky.
Anyway, part of the appeal of the lens is that it does take some time to get used to. Photographers love to fiddle with things, make adjustments, try new tricks and get lost in the process of making images. If the cost doesn't bother you, and maybe even if it does a little, the Lensbaby Composer is sure to offer hours (and hours) of entertainment.