Lensbaby Edge 80 Optic Review
Lensbaby is a company out of Portland, OR that has resolutely decided that the chasing of ultimate sharpness and resolution not only is a foolish quest, but that it isn’t much fun either. The Lensbaby products have always been created with the “fun” of photography squarely in mind.
What is a Lensbaby lens?
Here is what I wrote in my Lensbaby system-overview article: “Lensbaby Composer, Muse, Optic Swap System Review”
The quickest way to explain what exactly a Lensbaby is is to listen to what the company itself says about the lenses:
“The Lensbaby is a unique SLR lens that has a sweet spot of focus with blur all around the sweet spot. Unlike a tilt-shift lens, which has a flat field of focus and a slice of of focus from end to end, the Lensbaby field of focus is curved, producing a circle of focus.”
Essentially, the Lensbaby lenses combine the soft focus, glowing, dreamy qualities of a Holga and combine it with the shifting focus of a tilt-shift lens. I suggest reading the aforementioned system-overview article for a more information.
What is the Edge 80 Optic?
The Edge 80 is a non-focusing (as are all Lensbaby Optics) 5 element 4 group 80mm f/2.8 lens. It has a bayonet on the back that allows it to be mounted into the Lensbaby Composer Pro, Composer, Muse, Scout and Control Freak “lens bodies”. Focusing is done on the “lens body” just as with all the Lensbaby optics. The Edge 80 has a minimum focus distance of a little over three feet. However, the optic hides a pretty nifty built-in “extension tube” of sorts. With a simple pull, the barrel extends and reduces the minimum focus to around 19 inches (though you lose infinity focus). While it’s not enough to make the Edge 80 a true macro lens, it’s still a pretty clever bonus.
The original Lensbaby optics use aperture discs that need to be switched out by hand every time a new aperture was required. While not difficult, this is much slower than the lens-ring-controlled diaphragm that most of us have gotten used to. In addition, the Edge 80 doesn’t require any sort of “unmounting” tool as the more standard Lensbaby optics do. You just align a few marks on the lens and the body and twist. It can take a little practice, but it is still much faster than the method that the Double Glass, Single Glass, Pinhole, etc optics use.
As with any Lensbaby optic, you tilt the body and then set the focus (or blur) where you want. Only with the Edge 80, unlike the other Lensbaby optics, instead of a sweet “spot” you have a real plane of focus to play with. That means that you can have things that are at different distances from the camera in focus at the same time. More importantly, you can do so while keeping a nice out of focus blur on other areas of the image. This is something that you can’t do if you stop down to increase depth of field and it is on of the main reasons that some photographers use tilt-shift lenses in the first place.
Obviously, the Edge 80 optic is manual focus, as are all Lensbaby lenses. Being a moderate telephoto at 80mm and a moderately fast lens at f/2.8, the Edge 80 can be tricky to focus. It’s not the fault of the optic, it is more that most of us are out of practice with manual focusing and are further hampered by the fact that today’s DSLRs are not built with the type of focusing screens that assist in manual focusing. DSLRs are designed to successfully autofocus, manual focus (if it is thought about at all) is a minor concern on the part of camera companies. I am not going to lie, I wasn’t particularly quick with my focusing and any number of times I wasn’t accurate either. But that sort of thing improves with practice, and I’ll admit that it’s been a long time since I have done much MF work. One thing that did seem to be a significant help was to use the camera’s “Live View” to focus. Most of the time, the in and out of focus areas were easier to discern on the LCD than they were through the viewfinder.
Being an 80mm lens, I see the Edge 80’s real strength as being a portrait lens. To be sure, artistic portrait ideas that make use of the tilt features come easily once you start to brainstorm. But the optic is also at home as a candid lens (if you can focus quickly enough) or a close up lens (if you aren’t trying to do macro work). I shot some of all three types of images and got some shots I liked from each. Still, I stand behind my statement that, for me, the Edge 80 is best used as a portrait lens. That is actually saying something, as I don’t consider myself much of a portrait style of photographer and I rarely get excited about making portrait images. Along those lines, don’t sleep on the fact that, used without any tilt (or in the Scout lens body) the Edge 80 is quite a nice optic as a standard 80mm lens. It’s not quite as exciting to use it that way and I can’t imagine many would buy it just for that purpose. But it is a tool in the toolbox that shouldn’t be ignored.
As with all Lensbaby lenses, you are going to have to fiddle with your meter to get some consistency in terms of exposure. Most of the time this just means dialing in some over or under exposure compensation. But there were other times when I just had to go to manual exposure because the meter just wasn’t getting it and I assume was too fooled by the changing image circle when tilting the optic. Don’t put too much stock into this as a drawback of the Edge 80, as most of the types of work that one would do with this optic allow for a slower pace of shooting. But I will say that a few of the candid images I shot were messed up by my moving too fast and not checking exposure when I moved to a different position from where I had been shooting previously.
Finally, it is important to note that the Edge 80 is not a real tilt/shift lens. For one thing, it can’t “shift” at all. The Edge 80 is a “tilt only” optic. But more importantly, there is no way to set exact and/or repeatable movements with it. You can’t be anything more than “eyeball” sure that you are tilting on a horizontal axis, for one example. Nor can you tilt a specific number of degrees for one image and come back to repeat that exact amount of tilt for a second image. If you need that kind of precision, you should be looking for an expensive tilt/shift optic or a large format camera. The Edge 80 is for selective focus creativity, and it does that job very well. Just don’t expect a $300 lens to replace one that costs thousands.
The Lensbaby Edge 80 optic is perhaps the best product Lensbaby has produced so far. While the original Lensbaby optics were (and still are) fun with their low tech, toy camera appeal, the Edge 80’s ability to act more like a proper tilt/shift lens (minus the “shift” of course) takes things to a new level. Instead of searching for the ‘sweet spot’ as with the traditional Lensbaby optics, the fact that the Edge 80 has a true plane of focus opens up a lot more creative paths for the photographer. Oh the typical Lensbaby fun is still there, but the Edge 80 also has true sharp focus in its bag of tricks. Selective focus is a really fun and powerful tool that previously was only available to people with fat wallets. For me, the Edge 80 is a lens that really fufills the potential that was first seen in the original Lensbaby optics. Speaking of those original optics, let’s not forget about the joy of having a true adjustable aperture, rather than the discs that need to be added and removed. That alone is reason enough to make me choose the Edge 80 as my favorite Lensbaby optic.
This lens won’t be for everyone. Some won’t understand the joy of making effects like these using true optics rather than photoshop tricks. Some will be annoyed at the manual focus and stop down metering. Some will simply require the more expansive capabilities of a “real” tilt-shift lens. But I think that many people, once they get this lens in their hands, will understand just how fun the Lensbaby style of photography is. Perhaps more importantly, more than any of their products so far, the Edge 80 and its sister lens the Sweet 35 have made the transition from “fun distraction” to "serious art making tool. I would encourage anyone to give one a try.