Product Review: Lensbaby 3G

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As most of you who frequent this site know, I like to make photos that are impressionistic and artistic in nature; less “true” or journalistic and more interpretive. Some have argued that these aren’t really photographs or in the case of a digg commenter, that I’m “shitting on photography”. I see it less as an excretory function and more of an artistic one, but I’m certain arguments could be made for both. I’m going to forego that discussion on this post.

In the past, I used a lot of digital editing tricks to try to remove the technology of the camera from the final work. I know this is a paradoxical notion. However, for how I work, it’s cheaper in time and money for me to use the tools I know and can afford to get the results I want. I love film, but was never really satisfied with my Holga. Without major modification, the Holga isn’t as reliable as my digital SLR. And while I love film, I’m trying to capture that same essence of random weirdness digitally, while enhancing the experience for the viewer in terms of art over reality. In other words, I’m trying to create my view of a scene, not a real representation of a scene. I use the camera to capture a starting point, knowing that in most cases, I’m going to use some tricks to get the image where I want. With the Lensbaby 3G (link goes to shopping cart page on lensbabies.com because they use flash on their site and I can’t link directly to a product page), the amount of work I’d have to do in an image editor or post-processing stage is drastically reduced, in some cases, nearly eliminated:

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I remember seeing photos from Heather Champ’s site in 2004 when she first got a Lensbaby [1, 2, 3, 4]. I wanted to get one immediately, but we had just bought the D70 and couldn’t really afford any accessories. In 2006, we were looking at buying a new camera and before we started our lens collection, determined that we’d research the hell out of our next camera purchase and make a real investment with whatever body we chose and lens line. We did that with the Canon 5D and shortly after we got the camera, we were sent a Lensbaby 3G, which about detonated me out of my skin with anticipation. While I’ve been a fan of weird toy camera blurs and inconsistencies, I was giddy imagining being able to have a little more control and the ability to actually meter a scene and still have crazy blur. That’s the beauty of the Lensbaby.

I Love Her Still

The 3G is a small, lightweight lens that attaches the same way most other lenses do to your SLR camera. The nice thing about the 3G over previous versions of the Lensbaby line is that you can lock the focus area and then use a focus ring and three adjuster screws to dial in the sweet spot. The lens also has a series of discs that have a range of f-stops. If you want a small blur area, you can remove the metal disc with a magnetic wand (included in the package) and replace it with a higher f-stop ring. The range is from f/2 to f/22 (f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 are included with the 3G). I like a good amount of blur, so I’ve been using the f/4 and f/5.6 rings the most.

Once attached to the camera, the lens is adjusted by first squeezing a couple of quick release knobs on the bottom of the outer ring and then bending the lens tube. The more severe the bend, the more harsh the blur. Once the sweet spot is found, there is a single lock button that is easily reached with a finger. Finer tweaks can be made by moving the limited range focusing ring and if needed, the three threaded posts that act as a bellows control on the tube. It’s a bit of work, but once you get how the lens operates, sweet spots can be found and focused relatively quickly.

With the locking ability, it makes it much easier to set up and repeat a shot. The older generations of Lensbaby lenses were manual focus, meaning you had to do some gymnastics to hold the sweet spot/focus area with every shot. I would imagine this still has appeal for certain photographers and the shots they want, but for me, I prefer the lockability and tweakability that the 3G allows. It’s really a testament to the engineering mind behind the Lensbaby line that an inexpensive, flexible focus system can be used on just about any SLR (film or digital) with a standard lens mount and get repeatable results. For fans of macro photography or tilt-shift photography on a budget, this is a great lens.

I typically shoot in natural light, but adding a flash for indoor shots has been relatively easy, given that the 5D will still meter through the Lensbaby. I’ll take a couple of test shots and tweak the shutter speed and flash zoom settings, depending on the effect I want. This is where the digital ability to instantly preview shots is wonderful. It takes a little more time to get a shot, but with the lockable positioning and options for holding the focus, the results are spectacular.

One of the difficulties with this lens is shooting portraits of living creatures. I tried a few Leta shots, but gave up quickly. With Chuck, I had an easier time, but had to hold the treat on my knee while I worked the lens. Portraits with the 3G will take a compliant and willing subject. It took a little longer than normal shoots, but after a few shots, I did one that had the sweet spot where I wanted:

The Former Congressman Worrying Again

The lens does take some getting used to and I’m still working to understand how the sweet spot works. When you bend the lens, add the camera angle and distance to the subject, it really jacks the depth of field and in some cases, it’s very difficult to see if you’ve nailed a shot without previewing and zooming in on the camera or even getting the shots on a larger screen. The depth of field can be extremely shallow and I found that breathing or moving could change what was in focus:

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I’m looking forward to a long relationship with this lens and you should see more work from me in the future. To see other Lensbaby 3G shots, click here.

Other reviews:

CNet has a more technical review with a lot of photos of the product.

Popular Photography

The Online Photographer

NOTE: I just want to add a note about product reviews on this site. All reviews are unsolicited. That means I write them because I dig on the product or service or want to attempt to make constructive criticism. I do not review products because I’m being paid to do so. We get sent stuff all the time, and if we like it, it turns up in photos because we are wearing it or using it in real life and/or I write about it. If we don’t, it is given away or donated. I’m moving towards doing reviews, not for the schwag, but because so many of you ask my opinion all the time and I think there is value letting others in on the discussions.

I’ve also hesitated in the past to call something a review, when I’m just spouting off about it. I’m making an attempt here to be a little more pro. I said little.

  • http://www.writingortyping.com Jill Smith

    My brother got me a lensbaby for Christmas. He’s a professional photographer – actually, he gave me his hand-me down one. I think he got the 3G for himself. I have a flickr set of the shots we took at Christmastime with it:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/writingortyping/sets/72157594521566524/

    It is a really fun gadget, I have to admit.

  • http://www.isoglossia.com s gazzetti

    Nice review. I just got a(n Original) Lensbaby a few weeks ago and have been enjoying playing with it. I envy you the lockability, as the basic one can be a bit fiddly and trial-and-errory. I can’t believe that I’m already wondering how I can possibly rationalize buying the 3G. Toys!

  • http://stunewsandphotos.blogspot.com/ Stu mark

    First, is that your wedding ring? Is it a spinner ring? Our wedding rings are spinner rings, and we’d not run into anyone else who had them.

    Second, I’m a big fan of Duchamp, so I think your photographs are really excellent, some of them are brilliant. You have a painter’s eye.

    Third, congrats on making it through the Terrible Twos with both your eyes intact.

  • http://www.blurbomat.com blurb

    Stu, thanks!

  • timb

    Jon,

    If you haven’t already, then get the best tripod you can afford. In my 27 years experience as a professional I’ve found that a good tripod is one of the best investments you can make.

    The ability to then capture low light motion-blur coupled with the differential focus effects the Lensbaby can generate can result in some superb images.

    Both you and ‘er indoors have great eyes for imagery – can’t wait to see more from you both.

  • http://www.ranzino.com ranzino

    Thanks for the write up. I’m definitely into more straightforward shots, but I enjoy your ability to take the ordinary and transform it into something else. Looks like this lens will go a long way towards helping you accomplish that. And as far as the terrible twos were concerned, forget about the twos, the threes are absolutely brutal beacuse not only are they physically capable, they have tremendous reserves of willpower and the beginnings of logic. A deadly combination.

  • spookychick

    stu mark ~ my best-girlfriend and her first husband had spinner rings. great for attention deficient people.

    i would love a lensbaby! this is a technique i used to force in the darkroom with somewhat unpredictable results. good blog!

  • Virginia Gal

    I expect my digital camera to point and shoot a beautiful picture without any effort on my part. That said, while I don’t always “get” your pictures, I appreciate that you explain how you create them, and that you do so in a way that even this semi-technophobe can understand. Many thanks!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/jesc JesC

    I’ve been eyeing the Lensbaby and while I’m not quite ready to buy it, I really appreciate your review. I have a D70 and I also thought your post about the Canon 5D versus the D70 was well done and on point. Keep the reviews coming-

  • http://fiddley.com Pete Dunn

    Bitchin’ Camaro.

    I love my Canon S3 IS but have wanted to do some cool stuff like this. I guess I’ll have to check it out.

  • http://www.agirlandaboy.com leahkay

    As I’ve mentioned before in this forum, I’m both cheap and lazy. This winning combination leads me to think I could recreate the lensbaby effect in Photoshop without having to invest in and lug around and finetune on the spot an extra attachment. As you said, “Itís cheaper in time and money for me to use the tools I know and can afford to get the results I want.” For me that means Photoshop. And although I completely understand the lure of the gadget in and of itself, maybe you could tell us a little bit more about the advantage of lensbabies from a technical standpoint as it compares to Photoshop. Is it more than just two different methods to get the same effect?

    (For the record, I think that digital manipulation of photographs should be considered a subgenre of the art. It’s not cheating on “pure” photography; it’s just an extension of the artistic process.)

  • http://www.blurbomat.com blurb

    leahkay, spend hours in photoshop or a few minutes shooting? Over the lifespan of the lens, I’ll save well over the cost of the lens in the time it takes getting cool blurs with the lens versus the time it takes to get a similar effect in Photoshop.

    The lens is flexible and so bendable that one can get an infinite number of blur effects at the touch of a finger. While I love Photoshop, I love being able to work quickly and spend the time in Photoshop on other things.

    For me, it is more than just two methods to get the same effect. I don’t even have to think about how many layers and types of blurs it would take to get an effect. I just bend the lens, get the sweet spot where I want, meter, shoot and adjust. Repeat. The whole process takes a fraction of the time and yields an effect that doesn’t require lots of post-processing.

    I’ve already got a massive camera bag, adding the relatively small Lensbaby to it isn’t that big of a deal, especially knowing that I’ll get some cool shots I will be more likely to share and do so more quickly.

  • http://www.digitalpretzel.com fred

    i just got some of my prints back from my first time shooting with my new holga. it was lots of fun.

  • http://dooce.migrantroo.com minxlj

    Thanks for sharing your review, it cool to see how people actually USE things and what they also THINK of using them. You don’t have to explain why you want to make more arty shots or representations of them – your photography is exactly that – yours!. These people who say they aren’t really photographs – ???? WTF? If it’s taken with a camera, it is a photograph. I for one am enjoying the stuff you’re doing, and thanks for sharing! It’s given me a couple of ideas for my D70 shots, and I might even buy a 3G at some point, cos it looks cool for experimentation :-)

  • http://www.headphones-on.com Liz

    Thanks for this write up. I’ve been pondering a lensbaby for a few weeks now and I think you just sold me.

  • http://www.medusaeyes.com medusaeyes

    I’ve enjoyed your reviews/comments about both your new camera and the lensbaby. Although I love photography, I’m an amateur so reading your insights is helpful. Keep ‘em coming!

    I’ve recently been sharing more photos on my own site and have a few questions about sharing photos online (if you don’t mind).

    Do you worry about photo theft? Are you concerned with people taking your photos and using them? Do you take steps to prevent this? Personally, I’m drawn to the interactive aspects of sharing photos online at Flickr. I like giving and receiving comments and feedback, I like challenging my own creativity and seeing how others use the medium. I don’t like the idea of watermarking, but short of that, I can’t think of another way to protect my photos.