The Lensbaby Composer EF

The Double Glass Optic - the shift I seek

Over the Christmas holidays I was fortunate enough to receive a set of three Lensbaby Optics; I was unfortunate enough not to receive the lens body to hold them for use. Despite a wicked headache that must be from a detox cleanse I am trying to do, I braved the weather to finally head over to a shop to pick up the requisite Lensbaby Composer for the Canon camera system. I was wanting to wait until cash flow was more like a waterfall than a stream, but the reality is that pieces and parts collect dust, and I just had to lay out the cash to be able to use this thoughtful present.

The Zone Plate Optic

Unlike V.’s Diana Camera system, the Lensbaby remains digital and thus does not have the same style of dreaminess afforded by the Diana. What it does allow is to shift the centre of focus by bending the lens body, and it provides me with through-the-lens focusing. V.’s camera is more authentic in my opinion; with a wide variety of perspectives, whereas the Composer replaces a 50mm perspective only. This addition allows me to take pinhole, zone plate, single glass, double glass and plastic lens images in a variety of perspective shift ways. This is not a tilt-shift lens that one might use to correct angles in architectural or food photography, but rather a focus shift that blurs the aperture focus point. While I need a tilt-shift option for my work with Paderno, I am waiting until Canon releases their rumoured 90mm TSE L series lens, and that will require more than penny saving to procure.

Shifting focus to the far left

I would be insane to purport that this system could replace either my Canon or my Hasselblad lenses; I need a specific look and clarity to do commercial work that is just not reasonable with the Lensbaby. However, the effects are fun and do permit for experimental dream photography that would be wonderful for travel work where colour, mood and motion are what the photographer is attempting to capture. Ever since I sold the broken Pentax Spotmatic lens that captured some of my India shots I have been wishing for a replacement in digital, and I believe that with some practice the Lensbaby can reproduce similar photos. I would assert that to diminish the creative potential of either lomographic or Lensbaby lenses is to be a photographic snob more than an aficionado of photography. The Lensbaby is equally fascinating as a Hasselblad or Canon lens in terms of engineering, as is the simplicity of the Diana camera with its plastic. The Lensbaby Composer appears to be made of light plastic and aluminium. I would not want to rely on its build quality as a professional, but it is more than sturdy enough for an avid enthusiast who might drop it in the water or a desert.

Broken Spotmatic Asahi lens circa 1970s

The Lensbaby  and lomography movement has been seen as an amateur fad for hipsters, who will eventually just use their iPhone app to create the same effects digitally, but I think that they can be invaluable tools in the hands of an artist wanting to take their work into new areas. I know that V.’s Havana shots were unique and beautiful; they were also impossible to do digitally while maintaining the authenticity photographers want. Digital effects are just that: effects.

The reason I wanted to add this to my lens collection was not gear addiction, wherein I just collect lenses and cameras for a shelf without using them. I see my lenses as artistic brushes, and as long as I use each one regularly, then it makes sense to acquire new tools as I master old ones. One of my new rules is that I can only travel with one or two lenses so that I can learn how they behave and shape my perspective as a photographer. I might miss “the shot”, but I will undoubtedly get others and build on my actual skills. For the upcoming Peru trip, I am thinking of traveling with the Canon EOS mkIII [with 300mm f.4 L lens and the Lensbaby] and the Hasselblad SWC/M only. Sure, I have access to a full stable of Canon lenses through school and a complete Hasselblad V set of prime lenses, but the nature of the trip should dictate the gear. I figure the extremes of 38mm in medium format film will cover landscape, the 300mm will cover wildlife, and the Composer will capture the magic. Hard to say. A macro lens would be good, too, but I am not sure how to work that in yet without too much gear.

I have always wanted to experiment with pinhole camera techniques. Yes, I know that I could merely drill a hole in my lens cap, but that seemed like a hack job with few creative thrills. Having a kit of four lens options for one perspective is interesting. Shooting one subject from the same spot with each lens optic might produce a compelling series on the Great Wall or Machu Picchu.

The Pinhole Optic

In the end, my studio is the worst place on the planet to test lenses without my Profoto lights set up (15ft ceilings suck light like a vampire), but I decided to include the first feeble attempts to use the lens for interest’s sake. This lens will come along to Peru in March, and if it works out then I will take it on our adventure deeper into South America in August. Machu Picchu, the Salt Flats and Lima would undoubtedly be magical through this lens. I would be amiss to forget to mention that I also bought V. a Canon EF adapter for her set of Diana lenses at Christmas, but that she has not had an opportunity to try them out in the field. I know the one disappointment for her on that was that the fisheye became a mere wide angle once it moved from medium format film to 35mm with a cropped sensor. I am not sure how much use either of us would get from a true fisheye, but it would have been fun to play with.

The Zone Plate Optic

On other notes, I read Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis today on the Kobo eReader and have started Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. The Idiot is making me think a lot about Russia, our social class system of rich and super-rich in comparison to then, and what makes his writing so compelling. Overall, the experience with the Kobo has been excellent; it is the type of thing that would be worth gold on a long journey by train through Russia or India, I think. One could read the canonical texts for each area and carry very little with your pack. My students can only benefit from seeing me model reading and learning through new avenues; some old dogs can learn an infinite number of new tricks.

The Single Glass Optic Shifted

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