Lensbaby Composer Review

Lensbaby Choices: Paintbrush and Palette

I've been shooting with various Lensbabies for the last five years, and previously reviewed the Lensbaby 3G on the Online Photographer. The current Lensbaby product line features three different lens bodies and four choices of optics: the Muse replaces the 2.0 as the simple bellows option; the 3G is now called the Control Freak; and the Lensbaby Composer is the latest design evolution.

All three lenses are compatible with the Optic Swap System, which allows you to select from plastic, single-element glass, or double-element glass lenses, or a pinhole/zone plate. The lens is your brush, the optic choice your palette. The ability to quickly change the look of your Lensbaby by switching optics opens up a lot of creative possibilities.

The Lensbaby website has a great optic comparison page that compares all of the lens choices. All three lenses are available with the sharp double glass optic, and the Muse is also available with the plastic optic. You can buy additional lenses individually, or get the plastic, single glass, and pinhole/zone plate optics as a package. Each optic is color coded for easy identification in your camera bag.

Extra optics are stored in a small protective case that includes a mini lens cloth. The lid of the case is also the key to the Optic Swap System—insert the lid into the front of the Composer to unlock and remove the current optic. Drop another optic into place, and use the lid to lock it in place. Locking and unlocking the optic takes about a 1/8th turn, and the process is easy once you've done it a few times. Changing optics in the field can lead to a dirty sensor—make sure to turn off your camera, and point the lens and cameradown to minimize exposure to dust.

Alcatraz Guard -- Lensbaby Composer with Zone Plate Optic on Canon 5D, ƒ/19, 4 seconds, ISO 200

Getting Twisted with the Composer

Weighing in at under 6 oz., the Composer is a small, well-built addition to the Lensbaby family. The manual focusing ring works smoothly and has nice ergonomics. I'm getting more shots focused right the first time with the Composer as compared to the multiple tries that were sometimes necessary with the bellows focusing on older models.

The Composer is built on a ball and socket platform that allows you to easily tilt the sweet spot of focus in any direction. The resistance of the ballhead-like design has a nice feel. The lens stays in place when tilted, and the resistance is adjustable.

As with previous models, the aperture is adjusted using interchangeable magnetic discs. The Composer has a maximum aperture of ƒ/2 with no disc installed, and ships with discs in whole stops from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/22.

The Composer is great for street photography because you can preset your focus—just bring the camera to your eye and shoot. Having a focus ring and shiftable sweet spot that stay in place are also a boon for tripod-based macro, HDR, or long exposure shooting. The Composer may also prove to be an interesting tool for time lapse work, or for shooting video on new hybrid cameras like the Nikon D90 and Canon 5D Mark II.

What are you lookin' at? (Cabazon dinosaur) -- Lensbaby Composer with Zone Plate Optic on Canon 5D, ƒ/19, 1/100, ISO 320

I'm in the Zone

Lensbabies can be a great tool for looking at familiar subjects in a new way. As a fan of many types of toy and pinhole cameras, I was really looking forward to using the pinhole optic in the Composer. What happened when I put the pinhole/zone plate optic on the camera took me by surprise—I toggled the lens to the zone plate setting, and fell in love with the dreamy halos.

A cousin of the pinhole, the zone plate consists of concentric circles that alternate between opaque and transparent. The way light is transmitted through the zone plate gives the resulting images a very unique look, with a signature glowing diffraction halo surrounding any bright edges.

Pinhole cameras typically require a tripod even in bright sunlight—at ƒ/177 typical daytime exposures are 2–4 seconds long. A big advantage of the Lensbaby zone plate is the ƒ/19 aperture, making it easy to use hand held. Lower light situations are more challenging due to viewfinder brightness, but with a little practice the zone plate optic still looks great at high ISOs.

From the super-sharp double glass optic to the blurry abstract glow of the zone plate, the Optic Swap System gives you a wide range of choices to make unique images. The Lensbaby Composer is an excellent design update, and a recommended entry point or upgrade for those interested in exploring the world of creative blur!

Visit the Lensbaby website for product information, user guides, video demos, photos, and a forum. Lensbaby Composer lenses and optics (and other Lensbabies) are also available through B&H Photo.

This review originally appeared on The Online Photographer on 3/10/2009.