Oh baby, my baby!

A declaration of love for you, my baby. In between all the serious bits and pieces, you’re a fun favourite. Many will say you’re just a toy, but you and I know better. You’re original, different, funny and unashamedly yourself. You’re my Lensbaby, and yes, I do like you an awful lot.

Just don’t expect me to be faithful – I like you, but you could never be the only one. At least, not for me. Not because I think you’re just a toy – you can do a lot more than play. But because you’re a bit a one-trick pony. Lovely trick, but it is a rather limited repetoire.

Toy lenses

Normally, when you select a lens, you do expect it to do a number of things right. A level of consistency and predictability in its performance, for example achieve a reasonable amount of contrast and sharpness evenly across the frame. Even if the performance is a bit more flamboyant, it should be manageable in the sense that the quirks can be learned and mastered.

Toy lenses do away with most of that. In exchange you get particular effects that can make or break a photo. Lenses that don’t take themselves too serious, and aren’t workhorses by any stretch of imagination. A bit the opposite of the qualities most are looking for.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to run into heavy biases against toy lenses. Fads, able to do one thing. Often relatively cheaply made, or with poor quality control making them unreliable. Optically typically a long way off, with low resolution and multiple other optical flaws.

Lensbaby Spark/Nikon D700 – Siracusa 2015

Smile

Yes, they’re toys. Exactly the point. What do you do with toys? You play, you have fun. You’re not supposed to be very serious with toys, even if the best of toys can be very educational. Good toys inspire you to experiment and invent, to let your imagination take over and build a fantasy story around the toy.

I’m struggling to find anything bad about that. Sounds like a recipe to just let go and be creative. And that’s what toy lenses can do for you.

Lensbaby Spark/Nikon D700 – Ragusa 2014

Hipster after all?

The use and abuse of toy lenses seems to be a bit hipster-area; lomography, ideally with cheap poorly-made cameras and film that’s either designed to be abnormal, or that’s expired ages ago. Too often mixed up with a level of disdain for those that aim at more normal photography.

I’d like to make a small distinction here, though. Toy lenses sure fit into this kind of photography. But they fit in a bag alongside your serious lenses too. They’re not a fundamental choice, but an extension of the creative options at hand. And exactly for this reason, I think you should just get one. Have that one oddball in your bag that pushes you to do something completely different.

Lensbaby Spark/Nikon F3 – double exposure on KodakColor Plus 200. Siracusa 2015

Lensbaby

So as the images reveal already, I have a Lensbaby Spark. It was the cheapest option they have, and to me the best fun per euro you’ll find for photography. It seems to have been superseeded by a ‘version 2.0’ which is a lot less affordable. A pity, the original is terrific fun. Light, small, cheap and very much a toy.

The rate of “keepers” for photos made with this lens is really low. It’s not easy to focus, and keep focussed. That is part of the fun, but it’s better on a digital camera as you’ll otherwise burn through your rolls of film.

Lensbaby Spark/Nikon D700 – Siracusa 2015

As much as I like the Spark, I wanted one with a touch more control, and a wider aperture to have even more effect. So later, I added the Composer 2 with the Sweet 35mm optic. I also like it’s a tad wider – the Spark is a 50mm lens but I think the effects you get with these lenses suit a wider perspective better.

A note on the aperture: it’s not so much about depth of field with these lenses. It’s more controlling how extreme the effect can be.

The selective focus effect is basically result of having only a central circle which is in focus; this circle can be moved around (similar to a tilt/shift mechanism). The further away from that circle, the more pronounced out-of focus it is. So you get a radial drop-off in focus. The larger the aperture, the smaller the circle.

Lensbaby Composer 2 with Sweet35/Nikon FM2n – Veghel 2020

Are they more creative?

One thing I’ve seen people claim is that these lenses are more creative. When you use one, you have to consider how they change the scene. Is the effect going to enhance the composition, or is the effect going to get in your way? The level with which they distort the ‘reality’ makes the image less literal in the eyes of the viewer. That distortion and “different-ness”, is that more creative?

Well, surely not. The photographer is creative, or not. The tools available can help realise those creative ideas, or not. The use of a specific tool doesn’t make it creative, but the use of the right tool can help express the creative intent of course.

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If you add a screwdriver, all of a sudden there are more ways to get the job done. That’s what these toy lenses add. So, no, they’re not more creative as such, but they add to your options.

If your aim are more conventional photos, well exposed, sharp edge to edge etc. then they may not add anything of value. But at the same time, if you never try, you never know if it actually can work for you.

Lensbaby Composer 2 with Sweet 35/Nikon D810 – Veghel, 2021

Oh baby, what to do with you?

So, dismiss toy lenses because they’re just toys? No way. Get one.

At the same time, make them your primary tool in your toolbox? …. It’s a choice. But they are one-trick ponies, and the trick easily grows tiresome. Use, but use with moderation. They’re not allround usable and the effects do not suit every scene and every occassion.

I usually do not bring a lensbaby with me. To make it work for me, I have to feel like using it, and when I do not feel like it, it won’t work.
When I do bring it, I use it sparingly. But when it clicks and things fall into place, there is nothing like it.

Lensbaby Spark/Nikon D810 – Leur, 2018

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