Thanks in part to apps like Instagram, the selective focus effect — where only a narrow piece of the photo is in focus and the rest is blurry — has become more common. It was also popularized by photographer Vincent Laforet, who used a tilt-shift lens to make the real world look like a miniature model of itself (check the photos here and here). It was a different way of seeing things that was surprising and fun to look at.
The problem is, most of us aren’t as good as Laforet, so we have to proceed with caution if we’re going to make effective selective-focus pictures. Too often we get sidetracked by the technique and forget to make a picture that can stand on its own. Boring food photo? Shoot it with a selective focus lens or apply the feature in Instagram, and voilà! — a slightly less boring food photo.
This misuse, or overuse, puts Lensbaby and its Pro Effects Kit (made for Canon and Nikon DSLRs) in a tough position. The kit offers two selective-focus optics, two macro converters, and a carrying case. It all costs $730, which is a good chunk of change to spend on something that should probably be used sparingly.
Another knock against the kit is that it’s not the easiest thing to use. To attach Lensbaby optics to your DSLR you first have to snap something called the Composer Pro onto your camera’s lens mount. The Composer Pro comes with the kit and is the piece that, using a ball and joint system, lets you swivel the optics around and choose where you want your spot of focus, or “sweet spot,” to land. Then you choose which optic — the “Sweet 35″ (35mm focal length) or the “Edge 80″ (80mm focal length) — to insert into the composer. Being able to choose different optics is a nice feature, but inserting and removing the optics is a total pain. The first time I mounted the Sweet 35 I thought it was secure but it fell out as soon as I picked up the camera. To remove an optic you have to master a push and spin technique that is not easy. I thought I broke the optics several times because I had to push so hard.
It takes a minute to figure out how to control the swivel of the composer and place the sharp spot of your focus. But after a while it becomes fairly routine. In terms of ease of use, I prefer the Edge 80. At that focal length your sharp spot of focus is more defined and easier to place where you want it.
Once I got the hang of everything, I admit I had fun testing the kit. It was a refreshing challenge to try and find “appropriate” uses for the optics, and I never had any complaints about the quality of the glass and the sharpness of my pictures. Both optics are reasonably fast — the aperture on the Edge 80 goes to 2.8 and the aperture on the Sweet 35 goes to 2.5 — so they performed well in low light on my Canon 5D Mark II.
Since the test, however, the optics just sit in my bag. That’s partly because I’m in front a computer most of the time. But it’s also because I find myself weary of pulling them out unless I’ve planned a shoot that highlights their strengths. The entire Lensbaby Pro Effects Kit costs considerably less than one Nikon or Canon tilt shift lens ($1,300 – $2,500), which also creates a selective focus effect. But dollar for dollar I can think of several other $730 purchases I’d rather have in my camera bag quiver.
If you’re set on using a selective focus lens on your DSLR, you can buy the Composer Pro with just the Sweet 35 for $380. The Edge 80 by itself sells for $300. If that’s still too much, you might try the Lensbaby Spark. It’s a low-end 50mm selective focus optic with a fixed aperture that you focus with rubberized bellows. It’s not half as sharp as the Sweet 35 or the Edge 80, but at $90 it’s a good way to get your feet wet. The photos you get with the Spark often resemble something you’d get from a toy camera, but if used with a little ingenuity, it can be a lot of fun and you’ll spend a lot less money trying to figure out if selective focus photography is indeed for you.
All photos: Jakob Schiller/get-gadget