By Ron Dawson
Every now and then you see one of those films that is a total gem. A film that makes your jaw drop in awe and your heart pound in anticipation of watching it again. “Last Day Dream” [below; brief explicit language] by commercial director and photographer Chris Milk is one of those films for me. It was made four years ago for the 42 Second Dream Film Festival and shot on a Canon 5D Mark II with Lensbaby lenses.
Lens-what? That’s what I thought when I first heard the word Lensbaby. Was it a lens for tiny cameras? Was it a sort of training-wheels lens for kids? Most of you reading this probably have at least heard of Lensbaby. The best way I can describe them is as a kind of funky-looking, tilt-shift lens.
Like a tilt-shift, the Lensbaby has a selective focus, creating a dreamlike blur around the perimeter of the focus spot (or sweet spot). It’s a great lens to use if you want to add a dream-like aesthetic to your photography, or if you want to draw attention to a particular part of your image.
Shooting with Video
As you can see from the Chris Milk film, the Lensbaby can achieve an ethereal effect that takes the look of your video to a different level. In using it for video though, keep a couple of things in mind.
First, how does the use of the lens contribute to the story? The selective-focus, dreamy look can easily be over-used and veer into cliché. But as long as you’ve given thought to your story, the Lensbaby can truly enhance it.
Filmmaking story scenarios where you might use the Lensbaby:
Flashback or flash-forward
Showing a character’s imagination or what they’re thinking
An exaggerated shot of character's visual point of view (e.g. a guy in a club zeroes in on a woman he wants to pick up; a sniper on a building top zeroes in on her target)
Illustrate a character’s disorientation
Creating an “otherworldly” experience
The second thing to keep in mind is controlling where the sweet spot is when shooting a moving or tracking shot, or shooting a moving subject. If you’re shooting a still image this isn’t an issue. You adjust your camera settings, find your sweet spot, then shoot. But once you introduce motion into the picture, you as the director need to be mindful of how that motion affects your sweet spot. If at all possible, use an external monitor to facilitate monitoring your image and the sweet spot location.
In-camera vs. In-computer
Some of the effects created with Lensbaby can actually be created in post production—Photoshop for stills or a non-linear editing system like Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere for video. So you may ask, “Why do this in-camera if you can just add it in post?” That’s a fair question. There are three reasons why I think it’s better to create these effects in-camera.
Focus on Story. As I mentioned before, this (or any) effect in a film or video should be done with a purpose in mind. Creating the effect in-camera forces you as the director to be mindful of that purpose and to compose your shots and direction accordingly. If you wait to do it in post, you’re apt to get lazy, or you may discover that you’ve shot it in a way that makes adding the effect in post less effective due to distractions in the shot that take away from the effect.
Realism. I think shots composed in-camera look more realistic than when something is added in post. They have a more organic feel that subconsciously translates to authenticity. I liken it to shooting slow motion. If you shoot at a higher frame rate (60 frames per second) then convert to a slower frame rate in post, your slow motion looks more smooth and realistic than having the computer create “fake” slow motion.
Render time and quality. Last is the practical consideration of render time and quality. If you achieve your effect in-camera, the computer doesn’t have to render it. Also, depending on the computing power and graphics card you’re using, a lot of heavy effects rendering can result in muddy looking video.
It is very important to learn how to use a Lensbaby correctly. The first project I ever used it on was a short, edgy documentary film about celebrity wedding photographer Joe Buissink back in 2010. I was using the Composer and noticed that it came with this little magnetic thingamajiggy connected to a round doohickey. I had no idea what they were for and didn’t bother to find out. So on the day of the shoot, which was a very hot and bright day in Beverly Hills, CA, I started shooting with it and noticed that there was no aperture adjustment on the lens (and naturally you can’t adjust aperture via the camera, which at the time I was used to). So I ended up shooting the Composer scenes wide open and I just increased my shutter speed to compensate. Lucky for me, the high shutter speed combined with the dreamy look actually worked out quite nicely. (It was a perfect example of a happy accident).
Later I opened the round doo-hickey and found a stack of metallic rings with holes in them. The rings were numbered: 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, etc. This is where I slapped my forehead and exclaimed a loud, Homer Simpson-esque “Doh!” The aperture was controlled by dropping the metallic rings into the front of the lens using that metallic thingamabob. Lesson learned.
Nowadays, there is no excuse not to learn all you can about using a Lensbaby. They have a full set of instructional and inspirational videos on their site. After you’ve watched the videos, you should practice. The more the better. It really takes getting used to hitting that sweet spot correctly, especially if you’re going to tilt the lens. With your early tries you may want to avoid the wider aperture settings to keep a deeper depth of field. The wider the aperture, the smaller the sweet spot and the harder it is to find.
The Swivel vs. the Squeeze
There are two primary types of Lensbaby lenses: one where you focus with a traditional focus ring and one where you squeeze the lens. The Composer and Composer Pro (below, with Sweet 35 optic) have the focus ring and are perhaps the most popular. Once you focus, you can move the sweet spot by tilting the lens up, down, or side to side. Once you have your sweet spot, you can lock it in then let go of the lens. So the Composer lenses are great for shooting videos.
The Spark and the Muse (below) are squeeze lenses. You focus by squeezing the lens toward or away from the camera body. Once you get the focus you want, you can adjust the sweet spot by tilting accordingly, but you cannot lock in that sweet spot. You have to manually keep it in place. This may be a good way to grab some quick and experimental still photographs, but it’s a terrible combination for shooting video (unless your story calls for the focus spot to move around sporadically). For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend either of these for video work.
Lensbaby has a whole line of optics to enhance your user experience. While shooting a short film about Jerry Ghionis this past March, I had an opportunity to try the latest Composer Pro using the Sweet 35 optic. Without this optic, the Composer and Composer Pro have a 50mm focal length and you adjust the aperture by inserting the appropriate metallic ring (the optic used in place of the 35 is the Double Glass optic). With the Sweet 35 optic, the focal length drops to 35mm and aperture is adjusted with a 12-blade aperture ring that ranges from f/2.8 to f/22 (in full-stop increments). Remember to keep crop factor in mind if you're shooting a camera with an APS-C size sensor instead of a full-frame sensor. So a Composer with a Double-Glass optic on a 60D, for instance, would have the angle of view of an 80mm lens when factoring in the 1.6X crop.
Depending on the optics you use, with full-frame cameras like Canon’s 5D Mark III or Nikon’s D800, you may get varying results. For instance, with the 12mm fisheye optic, you’ll get a nearly full circular image on a full-frame camera, while on a smaller-sensor camera you’ll get some vignetting around the edges. These two looks would render a very different feel when used in a video. Again, it's about the story you want to tell. I could see using the fisheye lens on a full-frame if you want to emulate someone looking through the peephole in a door. The same lens on an APS-C sensor might create a more dreamlike look and feel.
Motion Picture Mounts
Most Lensbaby lenses come with EF-compatible mounts for Canon cameras and F-compatible mounts for Nikon cameras. Now that more filmmakers are using these lenses, they’ve created PL-mount versions that you can use on digital cinema cameras like the RED, Arri Alexa or a PL-mount version of Canon’s C300.
The Price is Right
Lensbaby lenses are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $80 for the Spark to $380 for the Composer Pro with the Sweet 35 Optic. The PL-mount versions are considerably more expensive though: $1,200 for the Composer Pro PL and $400 for the Muse PL. If you’re only going to selectively use the lenses for various projects, consider renting.
Lensbaby lenses can be a lot of fun to use and—in the hands of a competent director who knows her story, has taken the time to practice, and has a creative imagination—the results can be magical.