What follows are some initial thoughts about the Lensbaby Spark lens released a little over a week ago. I have been using the lens for about three days now on a Nikon D40X (I did say they were initial thoughts). I was a Lensbaby virgin having never tried any of the growing range of lenses and accessories previously.
Click the arrow then the fullscreen button to get a good idea of exactly what this lens does to images:
About the Lensbaby Spark
The spark is a fixed aperture f/5.6 50mm prime. Their are currently versions for Nikon and Canon mounts. The lens does not communicate with the camera. Some cameras will function in aperture priority mode so they must either be able to measure the aperture somehow or have a facility to have the aperture number entered by the user. I honestly don’t know which as my Nikon D40x will only function on manual with this lens. Re light metering; Some cameras will give a reading and some won’t The D40x won’t. This is not a big deal as metering by the guess/take a shot/adjust either shutter speed or ISO accordingly gets to be pretty instinctive very quickly.
The unique selling point of the Lensbaby is the ability to use selective focus that is not depth dependent. There is a sweet spot where things appear sharper with the area outside the sweet spot delivering more blur as distance is increased. The size of this sweet spot depends upon the f stop selected and, as the Spark is a fixed f stop the sweet spot size is non-negotiable, i.e. fixed. Now the good bit, this sweet spot can be moved around the frame. Focusing and positioning of the sweet spot is achieved pushing and tilting the lens.
I like this way of working and I think that it will be more than just a passing novelty but the gratification is not quite instant. I’ve taken the lens out three times now and the experience has been very different each time: First Time
Clumsy. I was just not used to working with something that I didn’t find instinctive. I followed the instructions but nothing looked right in the viewfinder. I was going to delete the images in the camera but on a whim decided to open them up in Lightroom to take a look. I was actually pleasantly surprised – images that I would have sworn were out of focus were pretty sharp (they are never completely sharp as we are not talking expensive glass here). Second Time
Better than the first time. Still a bit hit or miss but the whole process seemed a little easier. I got some very usable shots out of this run. Third Time
Something just clicked. It was as if my brain had caught up – the process was now instinctive and more than that, I knew if a view or subject had potential before I put the camera to my eye.
Checking out the Lensbaby website it very quickly becomes apparent that the target market for the Lensbaby Spark is the very young and the very inexperienced. The logic is fairly straightfoward insomuch as the company wants to open up a new market. The Spark’s $80 price tag roughly halves the previous price of entry to Lensbaby photogtraphy. I think that they may be making a mistake though, my hunch is that those new to DSLR photography will struggle with this lens and then either return it or consign it to the back of a cupboard or draw along with a very negative view of the whole Lensbaby thing – a potential future customer lost.
On the other hand experienced photographers, who have thought that I couple of hundred dollars is to much to throw at what they see as a gimmick, may well part with eighty dollars just to sate their curiosity. I am a case in point; I have been toying with the idea of buying one of the existing Lensbaby offerings for well over a year now. The reduced entry price made my decision an easy one. The release of an eighty dollar lens was a great idea but I think that they may just have pointed it at the wrong market.
Tips and Tricks
The instructional video for the Spark advises two handed focusing and tilting – I find it easier just to use the middle and index finger of my left hand, one each across the top and bottom of the lens surround. My fingers won’t bend like the person’s on the video! The take home here is experiment and see what works for you.
On the Nikon D40X I set my function button to control ISO setting – this means that both shutter and ISO can be set without going into the menu.
The instructions treat focusing and placement of the sweet spot as seperate issues – I find it easier now to treat them as one and the same. Makes the whole process much less clunky.
Don’t judge the image by what appears on the viewscreen – the small version all but loses the blur – it is there and will look much better even at as low as 500 pixels on a normal computer screen.
If you want to enhance the effect and have Lightroom 4 bump up the clarity setting. If you want to really go for it use a gradient with the gradient sharpness set as low as possible working away from one edge of the sweet spot.
Try black and white – it is possible to get great looking noir type shots with this lens.
Stick at it.
I have now owned this lens for three days and wouldn’t part with it. The first time that I looked through the viewfinder I was underwhelmed to the point of taking the thing off and sending it back to the manufacturers. If you can work with delayed gratification you will probably like this lens.
Using this lens will make you a better photographer, partly because focusing is manual and more difficult but mainly because it will make you a good judge of light and this is a skill that transfers to any optic. An ability to work in Manual without the use of a light meter is never wasted.