The Lensbaby Velvet 56: Another Niche Lens Part 1

NOTE:  You can click on the images to see them enlarged!

I was asked why I like specialty lenses.  Well, I’ve written before about the conflict of clichés having to do with equipment.  It is of significant educational value to teach and show students that great photographs can and have been made with all types of cameras and lenses.  So the argument forms that you – note it is always “YOU” not them – should be able to make a great photograph with any camera and therefore it is not about the tool but about the photographer.

On a technically accurate level that is true.  Great photos have been made with only a cell phone, great paintings have been made using only a pallet knife, great sculptures have been made with a single wax or clay working tool or a single chisel, and great piano music has been written for the use of only one hand.  But for the great artists that made those works, the use of a single tool was an option, a selection made because that tool, and that tool alone best rendered their vision for the finished piece.  It was not because it was all they had or because they tried to shoehorn their vision into the results obtainable only by that tool.  Ansel Adams did not attempt to produce every photograph with a single camera/lens combination.  I do not know why but only photographers, and usually only photographers claiming some connection to fine art intentions seem inclined to let their tool restrict their vision.

I think that is artistically and creatively myopic.  There is no point in having tools you do not know how to use, but neither is there a point in not having and learning to use every possible tool to expand your creative options and unleash your vision.

True too is that frequently I and others will spend a day shooting with a single camera/lens.  But the purpose of the day’s shooting is to learn everything we can about how that lens translates 3D reality into a 2-dimensional interpretation of the original. We learn, from that bit of dedicated practice, how it renders spatial relationships, how it renders depth of field and bokeh; we learn how it handles distortion and diffraction at various aperture settings; we learn how it renders contrast and basic color casts.

We make that effort, do that practice, because each lens has its own unique “look and feel” that is not an issue of better or worse any more than a round brush is better than a flat brush.  But for an artist, identifying which brush or which lens to use to best render their previsualization of their vision for the final image dancing in their brain, it is important to know, as photographers, what lenses produce what results.  So we often take them out, by themselves, and practice with them.   In doing so might we occasionally, by fortunate happenstance, find a perfect subject for it?  Of course.  But does that mean we can now toss all the other stuff away?  Are you nuts?

So over the years in this blog I’ve shown how Hassselblad-Zeiss lenses, Linhof Select-Schneider lenses on view cameras, specialty lenses like the Petzval brass lenses, all produce their unique look.  And now, here is a new one.  This one is made by Lensbaby and is called the “Velvet 56.”  This is not a “toy” lens like many of the early lenses from this company.  It is a thoroughly modern, well built metal lens of roughly 56mm in focal length, but made to mimic the soft tones and fast fall-off of depth of field characteristic of some of the so-called “portrait” lenses designs for large and medium format cameras of the 1940s and through the 70s.

To achieve the diffuse, dreamy look of some of those old portraits without a specialty lens, the photographers had a case full of diffusion filters; I still have mine somewhere.  The problem was that the effect was global, i.e. it was evenly diffused everywhere.    To isolate the diffusion or to gradate it, the trick was to use a clear glass filter (or a skylight filter to warm skin tones) and lightly smear Vaseline™ around the outer edges leaving the center clear for sharp focusing.  It was a soft dreamy look but really messy requiring those smeared filters to be kept in their own cases and away from other equipment.   This new lens comes very close to that smeared-filter look and the outer circle of blur is increased or decreased by adjusting the aperture setting.

It is that expanding circle of diffusion on top of a depth of field with fast fall-off that creates the unique look of this lens and others following older designs.  New designs have worked tirelessly to rid themselves of the increasing distortions and aberrations expanding outward from the center in an effort to render, as much as can be done within the laws of physics, everything equally sharp from edge to edge at any specific plane of focus.  This lens, like the Petzval and Imagon designs, does not shy away from that “flaw,” it embraces it.

It does not have the same amount of radial, “swirly” bokeh of the Petzval design (though it has some) and uses internal iris control instead of Waterhouse stops.  Likewise, it does not use the aperture disks with a halo of openings to create the beautiful  halation of the Imagon lenses.  However it is nevertheless unique and unlike any other modern lenses I have seen or used.  As the name implies, it renders smooth tones, such as facial tones or the soft transitional tones in flower close ups, as buttery (or “velvety”) smooth and at wider apertures mimics the look of some of those old light diffusion filters in creating a soft glow to highlights

At smaller apertures like f11 and f16 the center especially becomes tack sharp.  At f8 and 11  the area of sharpness expands rapidly and it starts to look more like a normal 50-60m lens although the edges are still softer than the center for a subtle type of vignette.  It has about the same barrel distortion of any 50mm-60mm lens.

Though not a true macro (requiring 1:1 magnification), it does however allow very close focusing to about 5 inches at 1:2 magnification which is, frankly, more than some so-called ‘macro’ lenses can muster with 1:4 magnification at best.  Used at the wider settings it yields macros shots that are really stunning in their ability to isolate the subject.  The only issue I have is that the sharp area is dead in the center of the lens so some cropping might be required for composition purposes.  That was also true using the old smeared filters, but when shot on medium and large format cameras, cropping was not any real qualitative problem.

The fatal problem for some modern shooters will be that this is a manual lens… period.  There are no contacts in the mount to allow it to talk to the camera.  So it sets nothing by itself including the focus.  You have to do that yourself and that means you really need to make sure the diopter in your viewfinder is set correctly.  Some reviews mention using the live view and zoom feature to aid in focusing but so far it has not been an issue for me.

I also found auto exposure to be a problem when I tried shooting using aperture priority.  That works fine with the Petzval lens but consistently over-exposed my shots with the Velvet 56 so I returned to the tried and true full manual approach and a hand held meter… no more problems.

I have nearly 40 years of experience using all manual cameras and lenses so barely give it a thought until I hear students grouse about it.  But this is really a lens to use for purposefully crafted images shot deliberatively and, since there is no IS/VR function, most likely from a tripod.  If you are an old pro brought up on 4×5 and 8×10 that is how you shoot everything but it is a change of pace for most younger photographers still learning their craft and believing instant gratification is not nearly fast enough.

So, enough talk, how does it shoot?  Well, here are the results of an afternoon walk through San Diego’s beautiful Balboa Park with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 on a Canon 5D MkII.  Though I cut the exercise short I still managed to learned several important things…

  1. Don’t go to the park on a beautiful spring Saturday afternoon if you want to be able to shoot quietly ANYWHERE.  I was jostled around by herds of people everywhere.  To their credit they were enjoying one of the country’s great parks; but it was a bad choice for me.
  2. If anyone wanted to attack Japan this would have been the day since the entire island’s population was in San Diego’s Balboa Park.
  3. My viewfinder bizarrely shows much greater depth of field and overall sharpness than the resulting picture renders… I mean by a LOT. I don’t know how that is possible with a manual lens but the resulting images were very different than what was appearing in the viewfinder.  I liked what I was getting in most cases but I could not pre-evaluate it in the viewfinder without going ahead and taking the shot and chimping my way to a final.
  4. You cannot compose normally if you want the main subject/focal point off center or it likely will be soft. Even at small apertures (f8-f16) the edges will be soft and diffused.  Plan on shooting the focal point in the center and then cropping if you must.

For the example images in this first test, I purposefully have not cropped or edited the images beyond applying my camera’s sensor profile.  I also applied the lens distortion profile of the Canon 50mm f1.8 as it seemed to best handle the barrel distortion of the Velvet 56 of several I tried. That way you can best see the effects of the lens out to the edges.  You can click on any of them to see them enlarged.

Here first is a Balboa Park icon, the lathe botanical house.  This is shot at f16.  The center is very sharp but the outer edges are going soft.

Iconic lathe Botanical House in San Diego's famous Balboa Park.  This is shot with a new lensbaby Velvet 56 set to f11 mounted on a Canon 5D MkII.  Note the edge diffusion.  You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Iconic lathe Botanical House in San Diego’s famous Balboa Park. This is shot with a new Lensbaby Velvet 56 set to f11 mounted on a Canon 5D MkII. Note the edge diffusion. You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Then I tilted down and opened up to concentrate on the flowers in the foreground.  It is a great example of how even though I focused on them, they are not sharp because they are away from the center.  The ripples in the water at picture center is all that is sharp. In fact some people in the distance are sharp because they are in the central sharp circle.

Wide open (f1.6) the only thing relatively sharp is dead in the center where the water ripples are located.  Even the foreground flowers, where the focus was located, are not sharp since they are on the edges of the frame.  Note the swirly bokeh similar to the Petzval lens.

Wide open (f1.6) the only thing relatively sharp is dead in the center where the water ripples are located. Even the foreground flowers, where the focus was located, are not sharp since they are on the edges of the frame. Note the swirly bokeh similar to the Petzval lens.

That central part of the park was simply swarming with people.  While trying to work with the Botanical House several times people pushed by me or in front of me and since I tend to respond poorly to that I decided it best to leave.  I thought it would be better checking out the flowers over by the International Houses so went there.  And by the House of Iran and a plaque with the declaration of human rights by Cyrus the Great, currently ignored by the modern leaders of that country, were these gorgeous yellow blooms.

The first was shot at f11

At f11 the Velvet 56 handles this close-focus shot like most lenses would.  No surprises here.

At f11 the Velvet 56 handles this close-focus shot like most lenses would. No surprises here.

Then I opened up to f2 though I did not change the plane of focus.

At f2 the soft tonal transitions and glow of the lens really start to show up.

At f2 the soft tonal transitions and glow of the lens really start to show up. It is almost like a selective “Orton” effect of glowing edges and buttery tones but without the post production hassle (or as Michale Orton did it using sandwiched transparencies of different focus and exposure). 

I had intended to run a series of shots at various f-stops, plus play with the flowers against other backgrounds, etc., since when I set up my tripod there was no one around.  But after the second shot above voices close to me made me look up and discover I was now surrounded by Japanese tourists, every one of which had a camera… and usually a very good one.  They were all gesturing at the flowers and my camera; they must have assumed that since I was shooting off of a tripod I had some great shot set up never dreaming I was just doing a lens test.  That sort of amused me.  When, however, one of them came right in and got their camera as close to mine as possible to take his shot, I knew this day was over for me and to forestall some international incident I just needed to come back to my quiet little boar’s den and at least write about my reactions thus far to this lens.

Bottom line for me is… I like it.  But I REALLY need more practice with it; this shortened afternoon shoot was not nearly enough to adequately learn the lens.  This clearly is not a lens to buy, toss in the kit, and then think you can just pick it up and shoot it perfectly whenever you think you have a shot for it.  Among other things mentioned above, you really need to remember to concentrate on the centered area and give room to crop if necessary for composition.  The Petzval is a bit more forgiving in this regard but its diffuse bokeh is not nearly as smooth.

I also need to learn to translate what I am seeing in the viewfinder better in order to anticipate the results instead of having to bracket to find what I like… there isn’t always time for that.  I do not know if that anomaly is a function of my camera specifically or is typical of the lens since I’ve not seen it mentioned in any other review.  When I looked through the sales rep’s Nikon’s viewfinder it seemed to really look like the results; in my 5D MkII Canon, it seemed to make minimal differences in the viewfinder as I changed apertures though it definitely showed up in the captured file. Perhaps I am doing something wrong with it…  Oh goody, something more to research…

In any case, I’m really anxious to now try this lens in the studio for a portrait!!!

But from what I see, learning curve and all, it’s a keeper even if primarily for niche images.  I’m now trying to figure out how to reconfigure my main camera travel case to accommodate it.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to The Lensbaby Velvet 56: Another Niche Lens Part 1

  1. Not sure if this is relevant to your experience re the depth of field being different than you expected — most Canon focusing screens only show accurate DOF in the viewfinder (or LCD) to f 2.8. There were replacement screens but I believe that they were discontinued. A lot of folks had difficulty with the fact that the view darkened as the lens was stopped down.

    • ndking says:

      All DSLRs show the view in the viewfinder with the lens wide open; the iris is only stopped down during the actual exposure. A Depth of Field Preview function manually stops the lens down but in a DSLR can make the image so dark it is virtually impossible to see. Replacement screens offered different grid patterns or, in some cameras, a micro-focus spot to aid in focusing. What surprised me with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 was that the view in the viewfinder, even manually stopped down, did change but still did not look like the final image unlike other lenses where the depth of field preview can give a very accurate sense of what is about to happen. I really like that lens but this aspect still puzzles me.

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