On this particularly hot summer in Austin, Texas, my son was taking some swimming lessons at an Austin pool. Ramsey park pool is a small public pool in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by small but nicely kept up houses. I grabbed my newest photographic toy, a Olympus E-PL1 camera that I recently purchased along with a Lens Baby I recently receive from a friend. A Lens Baby is a fun, special purpose lens that is designed to create distorted images. There are many models but there is only one that works on the Olympus micro 4/3 standard, the Composer with Tilt Transformer. This model couples a tilting mechanism along with a manual focus system that allows you to interchange many Lens Baby optics. Also, you can remove Lens Baby composer section and mount Nikon lens to the tilting mechanism. The photographs on this post used the standard issue Composer with Tilt transformer which comes with the double glass optic.
Some photographers really get into the Lens Baby lenses because of their creative control. They produces a very different look, as you can see, from a standard lens. In some ways, you can get a similar funky, out of focus or distorted look that you can get with plastic lens cameras such as the Holgas. I’ve always been curious about these lenses but never had the opportunity to play with them until recently. These lenses are strictly manual focus which is also a big change for me. I’ve been spoiled by fully automatic focusing lenses so this is a bit of a learning curve with the Lens Baby. On a Olympus, the 40mm lens acts like a 80mm when accounting for the 2x crop factor. This is prime lens, not a zoom so you are locked into a 80mm point of view. There are, however, still two 2 rings on the Lens Baby. The black one acts as a manual focusing ring the other silver ring loosens the tilting mechanism. The double glass optic included in the package creates an area of sharp focus surrounded by distorted fuzzy area. The tilting mechanism allows you to move the sweet spot of focus from the center to other parts of the frame. The aperture can also be changed but that involves a bit of effort by changing aperture disks.
I use the LCD on the back of the camera to focus but this is only good enough for rough focusing. To fine tune the focus I hit the magnify button (set to 7x magnification). All of the images on this post were taken at an Aperture of f4. However, possibly because of the distortion effects of the lens, I found that even at f4, the depth of field was quite shallow. A precise touch was required to achieve sharp focus. It took me a couple of hours to get the hang of the lens’ tilting and focusing mechanism. A trick that helped me focus better with this lens is to move the zoom box to match the location of the tilt. For example, when the Composer is set straight and perfectly centered, I keep the green zoom box on the center of the LCD. The zoom box, as I call it, is the area that gets magnified when I hit the magnify button. If I tilt the lens baby to the right like I did in the Life Guard #1 photo, I also move the green zoom box to the right to approximately match where I think the sweet spot is located. This will take a bit of experimentation and practice but I’ve gotten the hang of it pretty quickly. With the zoom square set I can hit the magnify button to quickly fine tune focus. I usually zoom out to the standard view after focusing to do some final tweaks to the composition before hitting the shutter. I have, however, also taken some photos in the magnified view if I really needed capture the image quickly.
The build quality of the Lens Baby is quite good, better than I expected. All of the components are made with solid metal and plastic parts. The zoom ring is decently smooth, and feels better than the standard Canon lenses that I have. It has a substantial feel especially compared to the very plastic feeling Olympus kit lens. I get the feeling the lens will hold together and give years of reliable service. The only area that feels a bit diminished is the tiling mechanism. The ball joint that moves and tilts is not always smooth and at times binds a bit. It makes fine control and precise movement slightly more difficult. I noticed on the Lens Baby website that there is now a Composer Pro which claims to have an upgraded swivel ball and focus mechanism. Seems like Lens Baby realized there is an opportunity for a high quality “pro” product. Despite the rougher adjustments of the swivel area, the product is very useable. Ultimately, it does not take away from the capability of the product.
While I’m not ready to do a serious portrait session or landscape with this lens, I have to admit it kind of fun. It is a bit like iPhone photography with the various post processing effects — you end up with photographs that differ from the standard look. Unlike the iPhone, however, you set the look when the you click the shutter. The effects are true optical effects so there is no going back like you can in computer based post processing. While you lose the ability to undo the effect, you gain by getting a high quality image.
I’m still using a digital camera, but somehow the tilting and distorting lens gives an analog feel. I think it’s a great lens to take along when you just want to have fun and take photography less seriously. It’s also an easy way to achieve a different look and point of view, particularly if you end up taking photos of the same old subjects. The $350 list price seems a bit high and with some online discounts the price falls just below $300. Whether the fun and creative aspects of the Lens Baby are enough to justify its cost is up to you. However, for the price, there are certainly other lenses that I would buy first. I can see bringing this lens on future downtown Austin photo walks to put a new spin on an increasing familiar location — a place that I’ve visited extensively over the last couple of years. And when you are through acquiring all the “practical” must have lenses, you maybe ready for a lens that brings whimsy, playfulness and maybe a bit more creativity to your photographs. Ultimately, if a tool helps to unlock greater creativity, maybe that tool becomes priceless.
About the images
I’ve amped up the color on these photos (excluding the product shot) more than normal. To me the playful distortions seem to look good with the corresponding boost in color. All photographs were taken with the Olympus E-PL1 at ISO 100 with a fast shutter speed since it was bright and sunny. Exposures on Life Guard #1, #2 and #3 were boosted by 1/3 stop. #4 was set with zero exposure compensation. I used the f4 aperture disk in the Lens Baby with the double lens optic. The photographs were post processed with Apple’s Aperture 3 with increases in color saturation and a bit of sharpening.
Note: Please click on the image above to see a larger version.