Few camera lenses are as simultaneously loved and hated-sometimes by the same photographers-as the lenses from Lensbaby. These funky tilt-shift lenses are designed to bring back a sense of fun and artistic flare to photography by allowing you to create unique out-of-focus effects that you cannot replicate with a standard lens. The new Lensbaby Tilt Transformer not only promises to do the same, but it allows photographers using Micro Four Thirds digital cameras and Sony α NEX digital cameras a way to create these effects using Nikon lenses.
Before we take a closer look at the Tilt Transformer you might be asking, "What is a Lensbaby?" These simple and elegant tilt lenses allow you to shift the plane of focus so that much of your image has a strange out-of-focus blur except for a small "sweet spot" of the frame that is in perfect focus. That description, in a nutshell, is why some photographers love Lensbaby lenses and other people say, "Why would you want to do that to your photos?"
Another technical criticism that some people level against Lensbaby lenses is that the optics (the actual glass or plastic elements inside the lens) aren't very good. Yes, it's true that even if you don't alter the plane of focus with the original Lensbaby the center of your image will be in focus but the edges of the frame still won't be sharp. This is just one of the reasons that the Lensbaby Tilt Transformer was invented. The Tilt Transformer allows you to attach any Nikon lens to the Tilt Transformer's swivel ball mount, instantly turning a regular Nikon lens into a tilt-shift lens.
The exit sign images below illustrate how a typical Nikon 18-55mm zoom lens can be transformed into a tilt shift lens using the Tilt Transformer. In the first image, the lens was essentially in the "normal" position which created a normal-looking exit sign. In the second, the lens was tilted to one side so that only a small portion of the sign was in focus.
Is this a fun tool that can help you create some unique photos? Absolutely. Is it worth $250 for the Tilt Transformer or $350 for the Lensbaby Composer with Tilt Transformer? We'll have to take a closer look to answer that question.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Unlike all previous Lensbaby products, the Tilt Transformer isn't a lens but is essentially just a lens mount adapter with a ball swivel. Like the previously reviewed Lensbaby Composer, the Tilt Transformer allows you to move the front of the lens freely and then keep it in place with a locking ring.
Lensbaby Tilt Transformer Specifications:
While previous Lensbaby lenses are available in all standard DSLR mounts, the Tilt Transformer is only available for Micro Four Thirds and Sony α NEX cameras because of the short flange back distance on those cameras. In non techno-geek speak the Tilt Transformer sticks out from the camera's mount by almost an inch. If you move a lens mount that far forward on a Canon or Nikon camera then the lens can't focus. Since the Micro Four Thirds (Olympus Pen series and Panasonic Lumix G Micro series) cameras and Sony α NEX cameras have a shorter distance from the back of their lenses to the front of the image sensor, you can attach the Tilt Transformer to these cameras and then attach a Nikon lens or a Lensbaby Composer. Like all Lensbaby models, The Tilt Transformer requires manual focus.
The Tilt Transformer consists of a metal lens mount for either Micro Four Thirds or Sony α NEX, a metal swivel ball, a metal locking ring to control the tilt, and a metal Nikon adapter plate. As previously mentioned, you can also purchase the Tilt Transformer with the modified version of the Lensbaby Composer. The Composer features a double glass optic and aperture disks that can be changed by manually swapping the magnetic disks with the included magnetic tool.
If you've never used a Lensbaby before then you'll be pleased to know it's pretty straightforward after learning to use the locking ring. The Lensbaby team includes an extremely short "user guide" in the box but you might not need it. The easiest way to use the Tilt Transformer is to compose your image with the lens in its normal position, manual focus on your subject, then twist the locking ring and move the front part of the lens so the "sweet spot" is where you want it. You will want to twist the locking ring back into position to hold the lens when you're shooting unless you feel comfortable holding the lens all the time.
The size of the sweet spot or "focus slice" is dependent upon your depth of field. In other words, an aperture of f/2.8 produces a very thin slice of focus with significant blur, while f/16 produces a very wide slice of focus with a much smaller amount of blur. The more extreme the angle of tilt and the brighter the aperture are the thinner that focus slice appears in the image.
On a related note, it's worth mentioning that the Tilt transformer tilts more than the standard tilt-shift lenses I've used. This makes it easier to achieve extreme blur with a very small/thin focus spot. In addition, this might be helpful if you want to use the Tilt Transformer for architecture shots.
This part of the review is likely to be as polarizing to readers as a Lensbaby is to photographers. Considering what the Tilt Transformer is designed to do, it offers fantastic performance. You can mount a Nikon lens to an Olympus E-PL1 and use it as a standard lens (keeping the tilt ball in the normal position) or you can use it like any other Lensbaby. Although my first reaction is to cringe when I look at the Tilt Transformer's $250 price tag for what is essentially a modified $40 lens mount adapter, $250 is a small price to pay for converting any Nikon lens into a tilt-shift lens. The 85mm f/2.8 Nikon PC-E tilt-shift lens costs about $1,800 new, or you can buy the Tilt Transformer and a Nikon 85mm f/1.8D for less than $750 total.
The price/performance ratio really does depend on how you look at it. If you just want to attach Nikon lenses to an Olympus Pen camera, the Tilt Transformer is way too expensive. If you want to turn a quality Nikon lens into a tilt shift lens, the Tilt Transformer is the least expensive way to go.
As previously mentioned, the Lensbaby Tilt Transformer requires you to manually focus your lens regardless of whether you use a Nikon lens or the optional Lensbaby Composer. The focus ring on my Composer is fluid with just a bit of "grind" at the extreme ends of the focus range. The ring travels about 140 degrees between its closest focus point of 45cm and infinity. Although manual focus can be tough with a live view camera like the Olympus E-PL1, you can set the camera to magnify the image on the LCD screen to make it easier to manually focus the lens.
Once again, a common criticism of Lensbaby lenses has been that the edges of the frame lack "tack sharp" focus even when the lens is in a normal position. The real benefit of the Tilt Transformer is that you can transform optically excellent Nikon lenses into tilt-shift lenses. In that usage scenario, the Tilt Transformer delivers stunning image quality. The Tilt Transformer made it so easy to use Nikon lenses with the Olympus E-PL1 that I had to force myself NOT to use it as a "regular" lens adapter but rather as a true tilt-shift lens. Using the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 or 85mm f/1.8 as portrait lenses on the E-PL1 was great fun.
As far as the Composer goes, the lens is abundantly sharp when the focus point is near the center of the frame but you will certainly notice more distortion and softness at the edges of the frame even if that is where you moved the focus "sweet spot" when composing your image.
Contrast and color accuracy from the Composer are reasonably good, but if you're going to judge your photos of technical perfection you'll want to mount a good Nikon lens to the Tilt Transformer instead. Although the brighter apertures are fun to use, I found it ideal combination of "focus slice" size and usability in most lighting conditions was an aperture of f/4 indoors or f/5.6 outdoors. It's very difficult to get critical focus (particularly with moving subjects) when you use a wider aperture of f/2.8 or f/2.
Once again, the team at Lensbaby has done what they do best: They created a product that can be used to craft great images, but it isn't for everyone. For starters, $250 is a lot of money for an amateur photographer to spend and not even get a lens. The other nagging concern that keeps popping into my mind is that the "novelty" or "creativity" of using a Lensbaby starts to disappear as more and more people start flooding the internet with Lensbaby photos.
The Tilt Transformer and Composer are solid, reliable, and user-friendly tools for creating "selective focus" images. I still hate the magnetic wand and the aperture disks used in the Composer since it's so much nicer to use the aperture ring on a lens. Additionally, I was a little disappointed that Lensbaby engineers didn't put a line on the tilt ball of the Tilt Transformer so that you can quickly set the lens to the "normal" position.
Despite the minor technical annoyances, price criticisms, and questions about the novelty of these images, the Tilt Transformer works exactly as advertised. If you're a photographer using a Micro Four Thirds camera or a Sony α NEX and you love to use manual focus and have "fun" while creating images then the Lensbaby Tilt Transformer and Composer might just bring a smile to your face ... and the faces of the people who look at your images.