The Lensbaby Composer – Initial Impressions

Lensbaby Composer with case and aperture rings etc.

The Lensbaby Composer – Initial Impressions

I recently ordered a Lensbaby Composer, and after spending almost a week in the current very crowded Tokyo customs facility, it arrived today. Excited like a little kid, I left the office as early as possible, and then ate dinner itching all the time to open the little package to my right. After clearing the dishes away, I finally got the nod that I could open my new toy. Yes!

Lensbaby Composer with case and aperture rings etc.

Lensbaby Composer with case and aperture rings etc.

The first thing that struck me when I opened the box is that the Lensbaby Composer is big and heavy. I don’t mean heavy like a big L lens, but it’s got a good weight. Then I realized that it has a metal mount, which I should have noticed from the pictures I’ve seen of it, but hadn’t. This was another great surprise. Overall, the build just feels great, right down to the knurling etc on the focus ring, and the second ring used to lock the movable Lensbaby head in place.

Note that the dedicated lens case in the above photo is not included with the Lensbaby Composer. You have to buy this separately, but this too is well made and well worth the $14.95 extra in my opinion.

I have a first generation Lensbaby, and a Lensbaby 2.0 and never really like the way they looked on the camera. I use 5D and 1Ds series cameras, and always have the battery grip on the 5D, and the old Lensbabies looked a little bit too small on the camera, and never felt balanced. This is really not the case with the Composer. It feels very similar in size, weight and overall balance, to having the Canon EF 50mm F1.4 lens attached.

Lensbaby Composer on the 5D Mark II

Lensbaby Composer on the 5D Mark II

The other thing I never liked about the old Lensbabies was the softness of the images. I read on the Lensbaby Web site that the Composer came fitted with the multi-coated Double Glass Optic, from the Optic Swap System, which allows you to change the optics to use the Composer with various lenses. I didn’t buy any other Optics this time. I figured I’d see how much I use the composer first, and also, I wanted to check the build quality (which is now behind me).

I couldn’t wait to try the Composer out to see just how sharp it was, so I grabbed my tripod, and headed out in a thunder storm to give it a try. The following two images were the results of this tiny excursion into the elements.

Tokyo Rainstorm with the Lensbaby Composer

Roof-tops in a Rainstorm with the Lensbaby Composer @ F2.8

Tokyo Rainstorm with Lensbaby Composer @ F4.0

Tokyo Rainstorm with Lensbaby Composer @ F4.0

After really just a handful of shots, I can’t say for sure, but the Lensbaby Composer seems to have nicer bokeh around the edges than the previous Lensbabies, and the sweet spot is reeeeaaaally sweet, and by that I mean sharp! The double glass really does improve the image quality of the Lensbaby. Here are a couple of 100% crops from the above photos. Now, bear in mind that these were shot at 10 and 8 seconds respectively, in a torrential rainstorm. I reckon these are pretty sharp.

100% crop @ f2.8

100% crop @ f2.8, 10 second exposure

100% crop @ f4.0, 8 second exposure

100% crop @ f4.0, 8 second exposure

I really like the way you can now focus the Lensbaby with a focus ring, like a traditional lens, and the focus mechanism is totally separate from the adjustment of the sweet spot, though you do have to refocus after you adjust it. I like to shoot on a tripod, and take my time over composition, and fine tune the focus etc. That was not possible with the Lensbaby 1.0 or 2.0. All of that is behind me know, and I feel as though the Lensbaby Composer has now finally made the Lensbaby a serious artistic tool for our photography toolbox.

I haven’t tried any of the apertures smaller than f4.0 yet, and the conditions tonight weren’t great, so I’ll definitely update you again when I’ve had a chance to use the lens under more normal conditions. Right now though, from the build quality, feel and all important image quality, I’m very pleased that I picked up this lens. I can’t wait to shoot with it again!

My only tiny little peeve, though for this price I am already way more than satisfied, is that when you turn the locking ring to lock the front of the lens in place, it sends the focus off. If it held focus when locking it down, it would actually be a little too good. 🙂 I think my working style will probably involve adding just enough tension to stop the front of the lens from flopping around, but not so much that I can’t move it, and just leave it like that, and not actually lock things in place most of the time. That should give me the best of both worlds.

Another enhancement request, rather than a peeve is that the Composer case that I also bought would be even better if it had a belt loop. It’s great as it is, but with a belt loop I could have quick and easy access to the Lensbaby Composer while walking around town or on location etc.

Anyway, apart from these two tiny things, it’s a big thumbs up all round for the Lensbaby Composer. Go buy one!

Don’t forget, I’m giving a Lensbaby Composer away to one of the winners of the MBP Photography Assignment too!

 

12 Comments
  • Richard Olpin
    Posted at 00:36h, 17 June Reply

    Thanks for the heads-up Martin.

    I’ve been interested in the Lensbabys right from the first version they made but never quite got around to buying one yet. You’ve just re-ignited my interest so I think I’ll have as shop around 🙂

  • EdT.
    Posted at 00:56h, 17 June Reply

    I’m happy to see you like this lens as much as you do. I actually have two of them (one for my 5D, and another for an Olympus E-520 I recently purchased), and have done several “assignments” using nothing but this lens. I tend to prefer the larger apertures (f/2.8 or f/4), but have been known to use the f/8 or f/11 sometimes in bright sunlight.

    One thing you might find interesting, given your preference for tripods: the pinhole/zone plate optic. I actually used this *handheld* last weekend, and it produced some interesting effects.

    ~EdT.

  • scmartin
    Posted at 01:26h, 17 June Reply

    Martin,

    Thanks for “focusing” on the lens quality/sharpness in your review. I’ve been hearing about the lensbaby for some time now but was always suspicious of the lens quality for the price and considering it only has a few elements. It always seemed like it would be a step down from any “normal” lens. So it sounds like this newest version, the composer, is ready for serious photography. It seems that the only final detail that needs work is the name “lensbaby”, it really bothers me!

    -Steve

  • Landon
    Posted at 04:49h, 17 June Reply

    Nice review my friend. I have debated if I should update my 2.0 and this probably has pushed me closer in doing so.

  • Marcus
    Posted at 06:24h, 17 June Reply

    Great review !! I’ve been using a Lensbaby 3G for a over a year now. At first I was disappointed by how soft the results were. But recently I’ve been finding a nice balance between bokeh and sharpness – adding selective sharpening in photoshop.

    The bokeh in your top photo is so beautiful – as is the 100% detail. Now I want one !!

    Great storms last night. Down here we got the full lightening and torrential rain show as I was walking home o.0

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 23:33h, 17 June Reply

    Thanks for all the great comments!

    I’m pleased you enjoyed the mini-review. I really can’t wait to get back out with the Composer!

    Cheers,
    Martin.

  • Mojo Yugen
    Posted at 00:12h, 19 June Reply

    One thing worth noting with all the Lensbaby lenses is the difference you get when using it on a full frame camera vs. a smaller sensor. I’ve used all the LB lenses on my 350D but it wasn’t until I used it on my new 5D mkII that I felt I was really seeing it’s full potential.

  • David
    Posted at 15:32h, 19 June Reply

    This is not good. I have been interested in a Lensbaby since the first one came out, but never thought much of them after playing with them at Yodobashi, or even looking at the sample photos they had.

    This one looks much more interesting, and those few photos make it seem that it does have much more potential. Don’t know if I will be allowed to buy one though, as I just bought a new lens.

  • Jon Sheer
    Posted at 14:39h, 25 June Reply

    Hey Martin,

    You’ve (re?) ignited my interest in Lensbaby products as well–great test shots, I must say. Incidentally, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them but a German company called Zork (not to be confused with the text-based computer adventure game series from the early 80s) makes a multi-focus system for 35mm format that allows you to use APO lenses 80mm and longer like the Schneider Componon or Rodagon/Rogonar in a similar fashion. Expensive (about 600 bucks US for the adapter mount alone) but top-notch German engineering and quality. Check it out here:

    http://usa.zoerk.com/pages/p_mfs.htm

    Cheers,

    Jon

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 12:34h, 28 June Reply

    That Zork lens looks pretty neat too Jon. Thanks for sharing!

  • tlinn
    Posted at 09:04h, 30 June Reply

    It was interesting to read your mini-review, Martin. Not having used an earlier version of the Lensbaby, my first impression of the Composer was that it felt like a toy — not a precision instrument like a typical L lens. Of course, it’s great fun and very intuitive to use. The biggest challenge for me is focus — both obtaining sharp focus and being cognizant of where the spot of sharpest focus is within the frame. When using a tripod, this is fairly straightforward. When shooting a moving subject, like my son, I find it to be more of a challenge.

    http://www.tlinn.com/images/lewis_linn/2009.05.03_portraitsession/portraitsession_2009-05-03.htm?ssm=3

    I often see folks citing the Composer as a poor man’s alternative to a tilt-shift lens. I tend to disagree. While it is true that both lenses allow for selective focus, my own experience is that the images produced by the two types of lenses are quite different in quality and character. Since you use a tilt-shift as well, I’d be curious about your take on this after you’ve used the Composer for a little while.

    Regards,
    Tim

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 14:16h, 01 July Reply

    Lovely shots of your little guy Tim. It looks like you did pretty well with the Composer to me.

    I totally agree that the Composer is not a poor man’s alternative to a tilt/shift lens. As you know, tilt/shift have selective focus, but it’s from one edge of the frame to the other. A band of focus, not a sweet spot.

    Compared to normal lenses, the Lensbaby Composer is a bit like a toy, but then, I find that I use them like this too. They are now sharp enough in the sweet-spot to be used to create high quality images, and now that I have the Composer I’m looking forward to taking it a little further, but still, when I reach for the composer, I’ll probably do so with the idea of having some fun in mind.

    I don’t as yet find focusing that easy either. It’s easy enough when using a tripod and liveview, but I don’t feel that comfortable focusing and adjusting that sweet-spot while shooting hand-held. I’ll update you on this as I get more practice.

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