Lensbaby Velvet: Gimmick or Godsend?

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According to their marketing materials:

“Reminiscent of classic 20th century lenses, the Fujifilm X mount Velvet 56mm f/1.6 Lens from Lensbaby produces a uniquely soft, glowing image quality that is well-suited to making expressive and ethereal portraits. The overall softness can be controlled by stopping down the lens while still retaining the smooth tonality of a soft focus lens.”

Expressive, check.  Ethereal, check.  Soft focus, check.  Just based on the marketing materials, I was intrigued.  But I wondered: was this akin to the selective color effect?  Cool at first but ultimately a gimmick.  Or was this something I could just as easily do in post, i.e., via software afterwards?

I recently had a chance to test the Lensbaby Velvet 56 (roughly 85mm, i.e., the classic portrait focal length, in 35mm terms) to determine whether this might have a place in my kit.  First off, it’s well constructed and nicely machined.  Unlike prior Lensbaby offerings, this is a traditional lens in both form and function.

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When opening up the aperture, to 1.6, the overall image takes on a soft, glowing, hazy effect.  Opening up slightly (to 2.8 or 4) leaves the subject mostly in focus and all else largely falls off into blur.  Closing down the lens to 8 offers reasonable edge to edge sharpness.  The lens is manual focus but allows for close focusing, near 5 inches in my experience.  On paper, this is seriously versatile.

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The above images show the effect of stopping down and increasing the soft focus/glow effect.

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In keeping with my newfound openness to shooting jpeg only and attempting to “get it right in camera” (chronicled here), I have appreciated the ability to visualize the final product at time of capture.  No doubt, I could have achieved similar effects in Lightroom afterwards, but seeing the soft focus/glow through the electronic viewfinder of my Fujifilm X-Pro2 camera did help spark my creativity, perhaps most effectively in portrait photography, such as here:

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Ultimately, as a special effect lens only… I would have to say that this has somewhat limited usefulness.  Add to that, though, a classic portrait lens capable of truly sharp images and the near macro ability, I would have to say that the Lensbaby Velvet 56 is versatile, useful and worth putting in the bag.  I’ve enjoyed shooting with it and feel that it’s more godsend than gimmick.  Well done, Lensbaby.

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