The Lensbaby is a take on plunger cam A lens mounted to some flexible tubing that you can get tilt, shift, and soft focus effects. Lensbaby took this concept and paired it with the single element soft focus lens and came up with a soft focus plunger cam. Effectively a selective soft focus lens that can blur the out of focus bits dramatically. Pictured above is their very first product The Lensbaby 1.0. Lensbaby has since gone on to create more refined and even completely new lenses.
This is not an autofocus lens. It’s manual and in a very different way. To use the lens baby lens, you place a finger or two on each side of the metal flange surrounding the lens while you hold the camera and compose the shot. It takes a bit of coordination. By pressing towards the camera you focus further away. By tilting the flange, and hence lens, out of parallel from the film plane, you can move the point of focus around in the frame. This is how you get the tilt effect. Shift effects are possible as well but I’ve found them to be more difficult to execute and less pronounced in effect. You can also slightly tug on the lens to get get it focus on closer objects for a macro effect. All in all a very versatile lens.
The downside of this lens is that it can get gimmicky very quickly. I got my Lensbaby Lens just before a trip to New Orleans and I went a little Lensbaby crazy. Off the top of my head I can say I took two really good images with it. The rest of the Lensbaby shots left me wondering why I shot that with the Lensbaby. Luckily I did bring and use more conventional lenses. Now I treat it like a fisheye lens. It’s great for some shots. It is THE tool to use for somewhat soft and extremely selective focus effect, especially if fast hand holding (as apposed to using a tripod) is essential. Chromatic Aberrations are not corrected for and fringing happens regularly. On top of it, I don’t believe the element is coated. The Lensbaby is NOT a walking around lens. It doesn’t work well for that for me. The lens itself is too much a part of the image to use it without careful consideration like you would a fisheye.
A final bright spot in this write up is the size and weight of the Lensbaby. For a lens it’s tiny and extremely light weight. If I were traveling light with a film SLR I’d probably pack this lens, a pancake, and a wide angle. The focal length is around 55mm so it should work well with most SLRs even ones with mirrors. Plus the milled metal lens cap is probably bulletproof! This model and its successor are no longer made by LensBaby but you can find an impressive line of its descendants in their product offerings.