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Published on July 21st, 2011 | by Greg


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).

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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