So as of June 27th Lensbaby have announced a new lens. The Velvet 85mm.
I have been lucky enough to product test this lens and below is my honest and unbiased review of my time spent with it. but first, let me trace my history with Lensbaby products back to the beginning.
Lensbaby is a brand that I have been a fan of for quite some time. They are a creative company that helps photographers bring an element of difference to their photography. I still remember the first time someone recommended that I check out this company and the creative lens' and optics that they did for photographers. I was experimenting with old school products using screw on filters or smearing vaseline on my lens' to create a soft focus look to some of my photos.
My first lens I purchased was a composer pro with a 50mm sweet optic. This was a lens that had a focus area in the centre of the lens, that was classed as the sweet spot. You could then pivot the lens around to move this sweet spot to the desired place in your composition and then the rest of the image would gradually fall off into a pleasing soft streaky blur. It gave some really interesting results and after the first time, I used it for some portraits I fell in love with it.
I added to my collection of optics over time for the composer line and I was still using them at least for a couple of images every shoot I did, just to add a bit of variety. But after a while, I kind of kept leaving it in the draw and nearly forgot about it all together.
But out of nowhere, Lensbaby announced a new product that they were just about to launch and I was enthralled by the images I was seeing with this new Lens that they had manufactured. That lens was the Lensbaby Velvet 56 f1.6.
This was a lens that was capable of creating really soft velvet glowing images but also pin sharp images depending on the aperture that you were using. It was a fantastic lens, it gave me some of my favourite images to date. I won't go into too much detail about that lens, but just know it was and still is a fantastic bit of kit and I love using it.
Fast forward to April 2017 and I got a wonderful opportunity to product test the beautiful big brother to the Lensbaby Velvet 56mm, the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm.
Lensbaby had seen my previous work that I had created with the Velvet 56, a lens that was more of an art lens and every day/macro lens. Although I had used mine for a whole host of portraits they felt and so did I, that it wasn't categorically a portrait lens.
So they created the Velvet 85.
Now for that honest and unbiased review.
I spent two months with the lens and really put it through a rigorous test. I used it on several shoots, in a variety of different settings from natural light portraits to studio head shots.
I’ll start with the build quality of this lens is exceptional. As with the 56mm, the Velvet 85 has an all metal body that really feels like it can withstand anything you throw at it. The focus ring gives beautifully smooth movement through the course of its travel distance and is easily found without needing to take your eye from your viewfinder. Using the aperture ring is pleasant and once an aperture is selected it firmly falls into place and stays there.
The creative look this lens is capable of is when wide open at f1.8is that you get this very soft velvety glow that spans the entirety of the image. It looks nearly out of focus, however, it's more of a diffused look, then out of focus. Kind of reminding me of vintage soft focus lens from a bygone age. Although at f1.8 I can’t say I was a huge lover of the how soft the images actually were. But there is a sweet spot in the centre of the lens, and as you stop down the aperture ring, that sweet spot grows bigger. Meaning that more of the image becomes sharper and in focus and the velvet glow slowly gets less. Using the lens at apertures like f4 and f5.6 meant you could have a relatively large sweet spot of focus, yet still have a pleasing yet subtle amount of edge fall off. Using this for portraits is great because it helps to draw the viewer into the image and directly where you want them to, whilst also giving the image an intriguing feel to it.
As a portrait photographer, I love to use lens’ that really compliment the person I'm photographing, and using focal lengths from around 80mm -120mm have always been my go to choices. Shooting with lens’ in that range helps give great compression to facial features and makes everything look in proportion as if you were looking at your subject with your just your eyes. I found the Velvet 56mm to have a little bit of distortion, especially when trying to fill the entire frame with a subject's face at quite close distances. The Velvet 85 has no such issue, it creates a beautiful rendition of a subject's face, as any good portrait lens should.
Seeing this is a manual lens, in terms of focusing and selecting aperture it takes a little time to get used to. Especially if all you’ve ever known or used is auto lens’. When using this in natural light environments its a lot easier to use, as when you select an aperture and focus it changes it there and then so you can see what depth of field and level of velvet effect will be, just by looking through the viewfinder or LCD screen. However, this does pose maybe one of the only issues I found with this type of lens. When shooting in poorly lit environments or stopping down to apertures in the region of f8 and higher, it becomes very hard to see your subject and get them in focus, because very little light is coming through the lens. On days when you have good light or in a studio environment if there is plenty of available light/modelling lamps this shouldn’t cause any issues though. I used this in some really dark locations and found if I wanted a nice sharp spot and keep a velvet glow look, keeping the lens in f4 I was still able to focus without any issues in finding my subject. Granted I may have taken more photos than I normally would but this was to compensate for it being a manual lens, and I wanted to make sure I covered myself in getting a perfectly focused image.
One aspect I didn’t fully test out though on this lens is the macro capabilities, I used it probably a hand full of times to try and get a different perspective of the subject I was photographing. But seeing as I like to photograph whole faces I didn’t really pursue this setting too much. I will say though that it did impress me with how close you could get to something and it be pin sharp from just9 1/2 inches away.
Creating images with Velvet 85 is an absolute joy. Using it in the region of f2.8 to f5.6 your images will have a large enough sweet spot to get a good portion of the focus area sharp. Whilst also maintaining that soft and dreamy velvet look. When working on location, combine this with a blown out foreground or background details and you get gorgeous bokeh as well.
Use it in a studio and crank it to f8 and above and you have one of the sharpest portrait lenses’ on the market today. Plus you can bring a bit of flare to your images with bringing the aperture back down to around f4 again.
In short, this Lensbaby Velvet 85 is, in my opinion, a must have for any creative photographer out there. I can forgive it for being too velvety and soft at f1.8 and hard to see through at f16 in poorly lit environments. Because at the end of the day this lens is a beautiful beast that isn’t just a one-trick pony. It's a sharp, versatile, artistic portrait lens that you will love using at any chance you get. All Lensbaby have to do now is a create an autofocusing lens and then all my prayers would have been answered, and I would potentially never need to change to a different lens.
A big thank you to all the people that helped me with these images