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Running in the Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I recently picked up a second hand copy of this lens –


– the Lensbaby Velvet 56mm f/1.6.

It’s a well-built metal manual focus/manual aperture lens that sends no electronic information whatsoever to whatever body it is attached to, so using it relies on how well your camera can meter for the aperture presented to it (stop down metering) unless you augment this with an external exposure meter.

So far, I’ve only used the in-camera metering on my Canon bodies. Results have been variable. Wide open, it tends to overexpose but becomes more reliably on target with smaller apertures. Even when off, the metering is only about 1 stop away from the ideal making this a very easy lens to use with both film and digital bodies.

Unlike most of my other lenses, this lens’ particular property is the introduction of soft focus into your images, radiating in effect from the center and increasing in intensity as the aperture is widened. The effect is most pronounced between f/1.6 (where even the center softens) and f/5.6 where the center is sharp and circular zone of softness inhabits the mid to outer limits of your frame. At f/8 and smaller apertures the edge softness diminishes towards levels associated with normal lenses, become quite sharp at f/11 and f/16. Using the lens in this smaller aperture range is no different from using any normal lens, giving this particular effects lens a usefulness beyond that simply associated with its softness. The lens is also a useful macro lens, not true 1:1 macro but a 1:2 macro, easily good enough for a lot of close-up photography – such as this fern leaf:

Fern Leaf by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

But this not why I bought this lens. I bought it for the effect you see as the top of this post, a delicious radial blurring that looks not that dissimilar to that produced by Petzval lenses. Indeed, judging from a look through the lens at the seemingly fairly simple internal optics and mechanism it may not be that different in design. Nonetheless, different it is, and by all accounts has a visual quality that is unattainable in any other currently produced lens, harking (according to Lensbaby’s promotional material) back to mid 2oth century portrait lenses.

It’s a lovely ethereal effect, serving to draw the eye into the center of the image. Tack sharpness becomes irrelevant. All that really matters is relative sharpness, and how you, through your composition, apply that to your image.

This is an enormously refreshing way to photograph. True, it’s possible to generate similar effects with a digital image with Photoshop or some other imaging program, but that, like all Photoshop manipulations, takes you more into the realm of the digital artist and less into the world of lenses and light, the elements that I value most in photography and that remain somewhat (but only somewhat) indifferent as to whether you capture your image digitally or on film.

I, for one, am wholly sick of sharp images. It’s instructive to look back at the great photographs of the past and subject them to the kind of single-pixel defined microscopy that obsesses many current photographers (and serves to sell pricey and ever more optically ‘perfect’ lenses). None of them hold up to such modern digital standards, not least because of all that pesky film grain, but even in situations where grain is greatly diminished (such as large format images) there is nothing approaching the clinically clean effect that now so common and so seemingly desired.

Others can work with that. I think it’s a red herring, an obsession with technical perfection that can work to swamp artistry. The draughtsman’s approach. One leading to precisely the kind of blinkered vision that is the thread running throughout Peter Greenaway’s film masterpiece, “The Draughtsman’s Contract”. Not that most photographers are ever likely to have such a plot woven around them, the point is that they could. It’s a lack of imagination, something I find curiously prevalent in the field.

So here’s a lens that works best with imagination and creative vision. Lots of fun to use and one I keep with me most of the time.