Lensbaby has developed a cult-like following for their line of special-effects SLR camera lenses, which allow shooters create gauzy, selective-focus images. It's pretty cool (and pretty gimmicky). Being the camera geek I am, I've considered buying one several times, but the price (ranging from $150 to $400) has always held me back. It just seemed like a lot of money for such a specialized lens.
But recently, the Portland, Ore.-based company introduced a new, entry-level lens, the Lensbaby Spark (Est. $80). I dashed off an email to the company, and a few days later a Spark showed up at the ConsumerSearch office, ready to be tested. To see how the Lensbaby works, watch our video review at the end of this post, and read on for some additional impressions.
On paper, the specs suggest that the Spark would be fairly versatile: fixed focal length of 50mm, fixed aperture of f5.6, tight focal range of 13 inches to infinity. The one-piece lens is easy to attach to a Canon or Nikon DSLR camera body (in my case, a Nikon D90), and despite being made of plastic and rubber, it felt solid. No matter how much I squashed, stretched or bent the lens, it never felt flimsy. And the sample photos on the Lensbaby website sure do look cool.
But to be honest, the Lensbaby drove me batty. Because the lens is completely manual, you have to use trial and error to adjust the shutter speed and get the correct exposure. That's a little annoying. But bending and flexing the lens in order to find the precise focal sweet spot you want can be truly tedious. You have to squash or stretch juuuuuuuuust so.
That's not so bad if you want the center of focus to be in the middle of the frame, but trying to fix on a point on the edge of the frame takes a lot of patience. And even though the Lensbaby Spark's lens is made of glass, the images it produced looked like they came from a cheap point-and-shoot, not a $1,000 DSLR. I spent a fair amount of time using Adobe Lightroom, trying to improve the color, contrast and clarity of my images.
I've used higher-end Lensbaby products like their Composer (*Est. $200), which produce much better images, and I know photographers who swear by them for creating highly stylized pictures and videos. But the Lensbaby Spark didn't feel like a tool; it felt like a toy. If I were serious about selective-focus photography, I'd steer clear of the Spark and put my money toward one of Lensbaby's pricier lenses.