Looking Through the Lensbaby Velvet 56

Lensbaby has created a portrait lens with macro capabilities, the Velvet 56. This manual focus 56mm f/1.6 with 1:2 macro lens creates images that are radiant and ethereal, or sharp yet velvety, depending on the aperture setting. The Velvet 56 has a sturdy, black metal body, with manual focusing and aperture rings, and feels solid in your hand. The aperture ring moves with a light touch and I did unintentionally bump it out of place a couple of times, so be aware of where you place your fingers! The lensbaby_velvet-56 is available with mounts for several cameras, now also including some mirrorless cameras. There is a special edition version, the Velvet 56 SE, which has the same functions but instead comes with a chrome finish and is only available in Canon and Nikon DSLR mounts.


f/2 1/80 ISO 800

Using the Velvet 56 is easy and fun. Its creation was inspired by classic portrait lenses, and while it operates like other primes, the results are much more surprising and unique because of the velvety effect of this lens. The images it produces have a bokeh that is distinctly “Lensbaby.”


f/2.8 1/800 ISO 100

The center of the frame is the first part of the image to come into focus. Unlike other Lensbaby lenses, where the selective focus can be moved, the sharpest area of the Velvet 56 is always in the center. As the aperture is opened and the depth of field decreases, the soft vignette that swirls around the edges of the frame grows into a glowing haze that covers the entire image.


f/1.6 1/1000 ISO 100

The Velvet 56 takes beautiful portraits that transition from ethereal when shooting wide open to dreamy as the aperture closes and the swirls of softness recede. Closing down the aperture on the Velvet 56 not only increases the depth of field but also reduces the extent of the velvet effect so that you can determine how much of the effect you want for your subject’s portrait. The unique bokeh of the Velvet 56 gives images a very distinct look. It makes any portrait stand out from images taken with a traditional portrait lens and the potential for variation in the resulting images makes this lens really fun to shoot with.


f/1.6 1/100 ISO 3200

The Velvet 56 makes this image dreamy and beautiful. The background quickly fades into softness and the laughing subject is brought into a world of her own.

The limitation of using this lens is that you can’t control its velvety effect without also changing your exposure. Aperture controls both of these; they are not independent of one another. Of course you can balance exposure with filters or with your shutter speed and ISO, but remember they are linked and consider that so you can get the final effect you want. While not a major issue in most lighting situations, you may have to slow down your shooting pace to consider exposure versus the strength of the velvet effect you desire for your image. If you want the hazy glow, you’ll have to open your aperture, but if you’re shooting in strong sun, exposure compensation must be done with your other camera settings.


f/2 1/100 ISO 800

The fact that this lens can also do macro is an awesome bonus and really does add to its versatility. It’s like having two Lensbabys instead of one. The close focus on the Velvet 56 is an impressive 5 inches. It’s perfect for capturing the unique traits of a model, small details in the natural world, or product shots.


f/2 1/100 ISO 100

In case you are wondering what else you could use this lens for, I did experiment with action and landscape shots to see what the results would be. While some of the results are interesting, this lens really is designed for close-ups. It only focuses at infinity when its aperture is stopped down pretty far, which also limits the effect of the bokeh. (Clarification from Lensbaby [September 2015]: This lens will focus to infinity at any aperture; however, it can be harder for your eye to precisely focus if you’re shooting wide open and trying to judge if something at a far distance is sharply focused or not.)


f/2.8 1/400 ISO 100

The lens is set to infinity focus, but at f/2.8 the fence is in focus and the house beyond is not.


f/16 1/200 ISO 400

When the aperture is closed, the lens will focus at infinity and the image becomes sharp all the way to the edges.

Action is tough because finding sharp focus with this lens is not easy, especially on the wider apertures. Remember, there’s no auto focus so it’s all up to your eye! It is difficult to really nail sharp focus with this lens until it’s closed down to about f/2.8, and this is especially true if your subject is moving.


f/1.6 1/50 ISO 6400

I really love this image even with the softness and motion blur. The particular softness and glow of the Velvet 56 adds to the festive atmosphere in a way that other lenses could not.

The Velvet 56 is a well-made lens that produces beautiful images and is really fun to experiment with. Almost anyone can use it because it is available in mounts for several cameras including both mirrorless and D/SLR. Its major drawback is that it is expensive for a lens that cannot be used for all occasions or images. While it is one of the most versatile lens offerings from Lensbaby, it is still a Lensbaby and its bokeh is distinct. You have to want that ethereal, velvety look when using this lens, and you probably will not want that 100% of the time. Lensbaby lenses are really fun to use and they produce gorgeously unique images. This one is on the expensive side if you are a hobbyist who will only use it occasionally. Lensbaby retails the lensbaby_velvet-56 for $499.99 and the Velvet 56 SE for $599.99. However, if you’re a professional who shoots a lot of portraits or macro, adding this lens to your kit will add versatility and excitement to the photos you produce!


Talia Krohmal has a degree in photography from Marlboro College and currently works in the film industry.

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    • I would - as an alternative - recommend the Mamiya 645 145mm Softfocus lens (adapters are available for most cameras). It has 6 selections for softness that remind me of the 1970s era Senior girls portraits I took for yearbook & Prom. This manual focus 145mm f4.0 lens also can create images that have that (from my generation) Farah Fawcett Majors soft and dreamy.

      It is available with mounts for several cameras. The center of the frame is the first part of the image to come into focus. The sharpest area of the lens is always in the center. As the aperture is opened and the depth of field decreases, the soft vignette that swirls around the edges of the frame grows into a glowing haze that covers the entire image.

      The limitation of using this lens is that you cannot control its velvety effect without also changing your exposure. Aperture is used to control these - they are not independent of one another. While not a major issue in most lighting situations, you might need to slow down your shooting pace to consider exposure versus the strength of the velvet effect you desire for your image.

      In case you are wondering what else you could use this lens for, I have experimented with Macro flower and butterfly shots. While the results are interesting, the use of this lens for close-ups is a matter of taste and preference. I like it but YMMV.

      Remember, there is no autofocus so your manual focus savvy must be on track. it is all up to your eye! It produces beautiful images and is really fun to experiment with. Almost anyone can use it because it is available in mounts for a variety of cameras.

      Derek

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    • $500 seems a rather exorbitant for a lens like a Lensbaby. Like all other Lensbaby's, this lens comes off as pretty gimmicky to me. Another alternative is Minolta's 85mm f/2.8 Vari-Soft, which varies the amount of spherical aberration to soften the image. It may not have the versatility when it comes to adapters to fit other cameras, but it is a far better made lens that can be used as a normal 85mm lens if the Vari-Soft setting is set to 0. There is not a plentiful number of them around but they can be had for about the same as the Lensbaby.

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