There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the newest lens in the Lensbaby family. The Velvet 56 offers a bit of a departure from what Lensbaby has been known by in that it has forgone the ability to selectively manipulate the plane of focus into a point or tangential plane, with most lenses offering the ability to be swapped into or out of one of their lens housing bodies like the Composer Pro, or Scout.
The new Velvet 56 is a solidly built, fixed focal length 56mm f/1.6 prime lens that has a different trick up its sleeve. In days of yore, many portrait photographers used lenses that would intentionally soften contrast and the overall image, aptly called “soft focus” lenses.
Enter the Velvet 56, and as its name suggests, it is as smooth as Barry White by candlelight. C’mon in for some sample shots and my thoughts…
Out of the beautifully designed packaging, you’ll notice that this sucker is a wonderfully engineered, meticulously built optical grenade. Solid metal and glass with a heft in the hand that resembles lenses from times past. No composite, light weight materials here. While solid, it is manageable, and certainly not overbearing, even on a micro 4/3 body, weighing in at 400g. The mirrorless versions of the Velvet come with an included, screw on hood which is a very nice, practical addition as well.
The Velvet 56 is named not just for its soft focus effect, but it’s smooth, creamy tonal transitions and dreamy color rendering. It is a big friend to skin, and whether for still, or video, provides a photographer with a tool capable of achieving a flattering, dream like effect.
Lensbaby has never been the type of company that fought for every line of resolution by any stretch of the imagination. While I’m sure that their optical engineers would let me know that when stopped down, many of their lenses are in fact very, very sharp, that hasn’t been why one has traditionally searched out a Lensbaby product. That said, and while this new Velvet intentionally softens the overall image at apertures wider than about f/4, stopped down past that, it is actually, remarkably sharp, and like traditional soft focus optics, still retain detail, but quickly soften the transition to take care of the finest areas of contrast, leaving definable, broader swaths of contrast behind. It’s not ‘out of focus’ it’s ‘soft focus’ which is a totally different thing. In the image above for instance, everything is easily discernible, even sharp-ish. We can still see detail in the hair, eyes, etc, but it’s like the image got slapped with some type of magical 70’s disco filter.
Below are shots from wide open through f/16 (the smallest available aperture) with a 2/3 stop initial adjustment, and full stops from there on. Notice the detail still visible even wide open. It’s far from tack sharp, but still there. This lens has three zones to me, first up to f/2 where it is what I’d call dreamy or surreal. Next, the middle ground from f/2.8-f/4 which I’d say is the sweet spot for portraits or anything where you want the effect to almost be secondary. It’s still dreamy, but not overtly so. Then from f/5.6 on, it performs as most any other lens of comparable focal length would. The out of focus areas still show some haze comparatively, but detail is sharp, and the soft focus effect takes a backseat becoming nearly unnoticeable unless you really look for it.
Have a look:
I feel that the portrait sweet spot is right around f/2.8 for the softer skin and features, to f/4 if wanting to keep features like eyes sharp while still allowing for a bit of the skin softening. When shooting wide open, or at f/2, this lens offers a very dreamy effect:
Not a desirable effect for everything, but a nice way to evoke a feeling of surreality. Going the other way, you can actually get a sharp, some might even say “traditional” result from a lens of this focal length at f/4 and beyond while still producing a very creamy transition to the out of focus areas in an image.
Within a foot of the subject at f/4:
By stopping down, it stops being a soft focus lens, and becomes a very sharp standard focal length on full frames, a traditional portrait focal length on the APS-C lot, or on the micro 4/3 cams, a great mid tele equivalent field of view. Kudos to the folks at Lensbaby, a very fun, interesting and unique offering in our new digital reality.
One other great benefit to this lens is its ability to focus very close, allowing for a 1:2 magnification at minimum focusing distances, beautifully labeled by way of recessed etching on the lens barrel itself. Both of the following shots were taken at near minimum focusing distance:
A handy lens with the ability to satisfy quite a few different needs in one package. While the soft focus lenses of yesteryear have seemingly made way for ever climbing sharpness metrics, and people trying to squeeze every line of resolution from a given sensor, it’s nice to have a lens that can offer remarkably sharp results and a great on the fly 1:2 macro option, but opened up a bit offers a unique feature for flattering, skin softening portraits, surreal closeups or ethereal landscapes.
I really enjoyed shooting this lens on my GX7, and hope to get another version to shoot on the Sony a7II to see how this does against the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens at like aperture just for fun. Lensbaby offers the Velvet 56 in Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K or Sony A mounts for the DSLR (DSLT) folks, and now most mirrorless systems in Fuji X, Micro 4/3, Samsung NX and Sony E mounts.
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Thanks for the read as always, and happy shooting!