Mini-review: Making portraits with the Lensbaby Composer on film

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A few years ago, when I was first getting into serious photography and before I started exploring analog, I purchased a Lensbaby Composer lens for my Canon DSLR. For those who haven’t heard of the Lensbaby, it’s a (rather expensive for what it is) selective focus manual lens. Basically, you decide which part of the frame will be in focus by tilting the lens (it’s fixed to a rotating ball), focus, and the end result is more or less blurred depending on aperture.

At first I was in love with the selective blur, the unanticipated bokeh, the weird perception trick that tells you an area is blurred because it’s far from the focal plane when in fact it’s not. I used it for everything, but just like mobile phone filters, I quickly grew tired of it and realised it ruined more shots than it enhanced. I stored it away and kind of gave up on it.


Years later, I was given a Canon A2 film camera by someone who knew I was exploring film, and when I realised that nearly all my lenses worked on this old Canon I was thrilled. I even tried the Lensbaby on it and one day as I was meeting old friends for lunch I took the camera with the Lensbaby attached and shot some impromptu portraits. I quite liked the results, and this one, in particular, struck me as really good. It was shot up close at f/2.8 (the widest possible aperture) which is why the focus area is so small, but the twinkle in the sharp eye really made the shot, I felt as I was reviewing the processed negatives.

I didn’t yet clearly identify what it was that I loved about it, but a few weeks later at a family reunion I tried it again and did a whole series of portraits. This was late afternoon summer light, and I decided to shoot at f/5.6 using a much higher ISO film. I shot every family member available, and liked the results a lot although I felt that f/5.6 gave too much of a focus area for what I was after. Mind you, it was probably best in the context of family photos (because people want to see their faces sharp on such souvenir shots) but that cemented the idea that the whole point was to shoot as shallow as possible. This shot of my dad is representative of the results from that session.

It was those shots that allowed me to pinpoint exactly what I loved about lensbaby film shots: the way the grain breaks down in the blurry areas is unlike anything I’ve seen, and unlike digital Lensbaby shots. Obviously, shooting with Delta 3200 meant lots of grain, and it was therefore more visible. But the same session also confirmed that the transition between sharp and unsharp areas was much smoother at f/2.8 and that gave a more pleasing result (to my eyes) for more artistic projects.

Last summer, I had the opportunity of doing another session with a bunch of friends. I purchased a white sheet for a background and had only a reflector for lighting. I shot at f/2.8 on ILFORD FP4 PLUS, and was really pleased with the results. Here are a few of the shots from that session:

Earlier this year, before the world went mad, I asked a few friends to join me in the studio for various experiments including another batch of Lensbaby portraits. This time I used Rollei RPX100 film, which gave me a slightly lower contrast and delivered a more wistful look. These were shot at f/4 (I realised at the last minute that I didn’t know where the little packet of circular rings to change the aperture were, so I just went with the one that was in the lens.) Looking back I think f/4 is a good compromise for these kinds of portraits, neither too blurry nor too sharp.

While my initial love for lensbaby shots in the streets or in landscape has turned to dislike, I’m glad to have found this one area where I really think the Lensbaby delivers something distinctive. I have not yet tried this with colour film, but I will although I suspect the clarity and legibility of black and white makes monochrome portraits with the Lensbaby more effective. I can’t wait to do another session of such portraits.


~ Benoît

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