The thing about tilt-shift lenses is that they’re almost universally one trick ponies. When handled correctly they can be used to achieve spectacular results, especially with landscape and portrait photography. When used with abandon the image becomes gimmicky. There’s the rub with the new Lensbaby Pro Effects Kit: less is more.
The kit comes with three different pieces of glass, the Sweet 35, the Edge 80, Macro Converters as well as the Composer itself. The Sweet 35 and macro converters I tended to leave in the bag; the wider view with the Sweet 35 was nice but the distortion at the edges seemed glaring and unnatural. The Edge 80, however, was tack sharp even at f2.8, and the selectively defocused areas felt far more natural than with the Sweet 35.
I was lucky enough to spend a week with the kit, and from that time I discovered a few key facts about Lensbaby’s newest product. The first is that the latest iteration has grown by leaps and bounds from Lensbaby’s first design. The focus is simple and smooth, and can easily be locked down while tilting along the plastic ballhead is almost intuitive. I handed off the camera to somebody in my office with almost no shooting experience, and they had it figured out almost immediately. For a prosumer level lens, that’s a big bonus. Traditional tilt-shift lenses like Nikon’s 85mm PC-E or Canon’s TS-E line are expensive and intimidating to new shooters, keeping them out of the hands of most casual photographers. At a more affordable price, the Pro Effects Kit provides quality shots very similar to its more expensive cousins. The second thing I took away from using this was that I had to ignore my first instinct to tilt the lens to extremes. Pushing the Composer all the way to the edge gave the image an extremely narrow field of focus, something I found a bit too extreme. At this point, it becomes less about the subject of your image, and more about the technical prowess of the photographer. This can work in some situations (especially wider shots and landscape photos where you want to draw attention to a single element within the scene,) but generally speaking it’s not my bag. I found that it was better to tilt the lens gently in one direction or another, selectively defocusing only a few sections within the frame. I also believe that this will be a great piece of gear for DSLR cinematographers, for all the reasons mentioned above.
I only have a few issues with this kit. The Edge 80 is beautiful, but it’d be nice to have a wider lens without the glaring distortion of the Sweet 35. Removing and replacing the different lens attachments takes some getting used to, and can be awkward the first few times around. Another problem I had was the irregular filter size. The Edge 80 has a 46mm thread- not impossible to find, but not a standard thread size either. It’d be nice to mount a UV filter and lens hood, as I tend to be very rough with most of my gear.
One thing to note is that this is a niche lens setup, with limited applications. Most of my work is news related and I’d hesitate to send my editor too many shots taken with this lens. That said, when used with restraint the Composer Kit can help the photographer create some amazing and unique shots. While I may not keep it on my body full time, I do plan on buying one to keep in my bag for those rare and unexpected moments.