Published on July 21st, 2011 | by Greg0
Lensbabies Galore: Muse, Composer Pro, and Tilt Transformer
A camera is only as good as the lens. Everything else matters- the sensor, the firmware, even the memory card- but the lens is the part where most of the magic happens. And if you have a decent DSLR, chances are you’re feeling constrained by the limits of your lens… or you will eventually. And while your Nikkor and Tamron lenses generally aim for optimal image quality with varying levels of zoom, they don’t offer much in the way of fun tricks or features.
That’s where Lensbaby steps in, and offers a variety of interesting effects. Most of these you could do in post-processing of course, but doing it on-camera offers many advantages. For starters, you get to see the results immediately, and modify your framing and angle to adjust the picture. Also, these lenses are often lighter than the stock versions, and though the optics usually aren’t quite as crisp, other photographers will definitely ask about what you are doing and where you got the odd-looking lens.
We’ve tried out a pretty wide variety of their products before, and continue to like their unique options. Using our trusty Nikon D90, we’ve been testing three of the newest over the past few weeks, and will address each in turn. For starters, one quick thing to understand is that the optics are largely swappable. They make fish eye, soft focus, pinhole, and plastic optics among others. Beyond the optics, you have a few options that serve as a lens, containing the optic, and basically serving as different ways to adjust and manage and control the optic itself. The original Composer was the first Lensbaby we played with. And the Control Freak offered some fun changes to the system, allowing you more control and the ability to lock a focal spot in place.
As with all of the previous systems, you’ll set your camera to manual focus, manual settings, and only be able to adjust the shutter speed on the camera itself. The f-stop you’ll have to set using their custom “interchangeable levitating aperture disk” system, which involves physically using a magnet to remove and insert another little disk about the size of a thin quarter or nickel. This system has some issues- notably, they are easy to lose, despite the included pouch. But it’s hard to think of an easier/cheaper way. The default f-stop (4) is pretty good, and we didn’t need to change it for our purposes.
The coolest thing we tried was the Composer Pro with Double Glass Optic. We tried it alongside the original Composer, and there was no doubt- the Pro model is quite superior. By loosening the locking ring, the front collar
swivels and adjusts the optic’s focal point just as you would on the original Composer. The
Pro, though, is impressively smooth and thus makes it much easier to explore the various possible positions. The focus itself is the same- the original was quite approximate, making it hard to really nail down a particular focal range. With the Pro, it’s much more like a normal lens, where you can twist and set with precision. You can check out our work in the gallery- the first two photos show how you can choose a specific subject to narrow in on, and then play with tilting the optic to achieve the desired effect. The Double Glass is probably our favorite optic ever, allowing true on-camera tilt-shift effects without the need for post-production. It’s a popular effect that you’ve probably seen before, and now is simple to achieve. Each situation requires a little something different, but with a little practice, you’ll be shooting scenes that look like miniatures and making everyone wonder how you created them. $300, and worth every penny.
The Muse with Plastic Optic is also available, like most of the bodies, in Canon, Sony Alpha/Minolta Maxxum, Pentak K/Samsung GX/Sigma, and Olympus 4/3 versions. They also sell a model with the double glass optic, which we discussed above. Check out the last picture in our gallery for a set of four examples taken on after another using the regular plastic optic, and showing how flexible the focus is. The neatest thing about this system is that you feel very hands-on, as you place both thumbs firmly around your camera body and then use your other fingers to squeeze the Muse lens towards the camera and in specific directions. Doing so changes the focal point, and you can simply examine the scene through your DSLR viewfinder and watch as it can drastically alter the mood and texture of the photo without any clicks or buttons. At first, we were nervous about the durability- it looks a bit like an accordion- but the Muse held up very well in our tests. The Muse is more artistic than technical- it’s hard to recreate an image and you can’t lock in a sweet spot. But beginners like it much more than the other ones, as it’s more playful and easier to immediately pickup and start using. It’s hard to get a sharp or crisp image here, but at $100, it’s a nice entry point to Lensbaby photography.
Finally, if you’re a fan of the mirrorless Micro 4/3rds format but have some Nikon lenses lying around, there is finally a Lensbaby lens for you- the Composer with Tilt Transformer. Actually a combination of products, it splits apart into a Composer (the basic model), but also features an adapter mount (the Tilt Transformer). You can remove the front of the lens, the actual Composer piece that contains the optics, and instead attach any Nikkor or Nikon-compatible lens. Of course, the same limitations apply- no auto-focus support- and for those who simply want the Tilt Transformer section it is available separately. So, if you have a Panasonic Lumix G Micro camera, or one of the Olympus Pen or Sony Alpha NEX, you’re in luck. We hauled out our Lumix GF2 and primarily tested the Tilt Transformer section, as we were pretty familiar with the Composer (though it was excellent to see it in action on our pocket camera). What we found it that good glass through with a tilt effect is quite different- the ability to zoom in was strange but enlightening. And though setting the sweet spot on a large lens is awkward and holding the unit a bit difficult, it can create some impressive results from your smaller digital cameras. At $350, we’d only recommend to those with both a compatible camera, Nikon lenses, and a definite need for tilt-shift photography. Others should probably buy the Transformer separately. All items available now, primarily online. And be sure to make use of their excellent educational options, like the webcasts (which unfortunately don’t appear to be updated for some of the new options).