Lensbaby Velvet 56: Step Into the Pictorialist School
By Stan Sholik
Everything old becomes new again, and with the new Velvet 56 lens from Lensbaby that is a very good thing. Long before computers were used to design lenses and long before aspherical lens elements, camera lenses were fairly simple combinations of convex and concave lenses. These lenses tended to exhibit a high level of spherical aberration resulting in soft images and blooming highlights at large apertures, but excellent sharpness when stopped down.
The Pictorialist school of photography, which ruled the photographic world in the first decades of the 20th century, used lenses of this type to show that photographs could produce images of great beauty and expressiveness. As lens design and technology, and photography itself advanced, the f.64 Group revolted against the Pictorialist school and changed photography forever by favoring sharp images with great depth of field.
Now, Lensbaby, well known for their innovative lenses that allow photographers to see in new ways, has created a lens that lets us see in an old way—the way of early portrait and Pictorialist photographers. This new lens is the Velvet 56, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.6 that is available for Canon, Nikon, and Pentax full-frame and APS-C DSLRs.
Utilizing a lens design that consists of four elements in three groups that does not correct for spherical aberration, the Velvet 56 produces beautifully soft images with glowing highlights when used at f/1.6, and crisp, sharp images at its minimum f/16 aperture. Between its maximum and minimum apertures, images smoothly transition from soft and ethereal to sharp and contrasty, but with a smoothness to the tonality that is uncharacteristic of modern lenses designed for digital cameras. By choosing the appropriate aperture you are able to photograph a dreamy backlit photo of the bride and an ultra sharp photo of the wedding party without changing lenses. Soft photos of a new mother with her baby and sharp photos of executives are equally possible with the Velvet 56. And the middle apertures with their smooth tonal gradations are ideal for smoothing skin tones in portraits, minimizing the time needed for later retouching.
©Victoria Hederer Bell
An added bonus in the Velvet 56 is the ability to focus to half life size, giving the choice of dreamily soft close-up photos with very shallow depth of field, strikingly sharp images of the same subject with far greater depth of field, or something in between according to your vision. Simply having this capability in one lens has prompted me to experiment with new approaches to some of my close-up images.
The Velvet 56 focus to 1/2 life size enabling glowing close-up photos wide open, velvety-smooth photos at medium apertures, or sharp captures at f/16. ©Stan Sholik
There are two models of the Velvet 56. Both feature all-metal construction. The Velvet 56 is finished in black; the Velvet 56 SE is silver. Other than the finish, the two are identical, although the SE is not available for Pentax. I tested the SE model on several full-frame Nikon bodies, primarily a Nikon D750.
Using the lens is not without its operational quirks. Accurate focus is the main one. Both Velvet 56 models are manual focus and focusing is no easy task given the softness of the lens at its wider apertures. This makes focusing something of a hit or miss affair, with a lot of misses at the wider, softer apertures where contrast is low. On the other hand, those final images were interesting for their impressionistic qualities, with emotional response trumping technical considerations.
Even when your focus is not perfect at f/1.6, the impressionistic result can be satisfying. ©Stan Sholik
At moderate apertures such as f/5.6, the result is somewhere between sharp and soft, but the tonality is beautiful. ©Stan Sholik
Nikon bodies must be switched to manual focus mode in order for the focus indicator in the viewfinder to confirm that the area of the subject under the focus point is actually in focus. And since the focus ring rotates in the “Canon” direction, focus direction indicators in Nikon bodies show the opposite direction you need to rotate the focus ring to bring the subject into focus.
The lenses are also manual aperture. Stopping the lens down to take advantage of its sharpness darkens the image in the viewfinder, adding another complication if the sensitivity of the camera’s focusing system is not great enough to confirm exposure.
Setting exposure can also be an issue. Nikon photographers have the choice of using the lens in manual or aperture priority mode. On Nikons, aperture is set using an aperture ring like the one found on pre-G series Nikkors for manually setting the aperture, not by using the sub-command dial on the camera body. Fortunately for Nikon users, the aperture ring rotates in the same direction as pre-G series lenses, but opposite to that of older Canon lenses. Unfortunately the aperture value is not displayed in the viewfinder, nor is the aperture recorded in the EXIF metadata. However, exposures in aperture priority mode were consistently accurate as they were using the exposure indicator in the viewfinder in manual exposure mode. Canon photographers are limited to aperture priority exposure mode only using the exposure ring.
The black Lensbaby Velvet 56 retails for $499.95 and the silver LE edition for $599.95. At a time in photographic history when modern lenses and high resolution digital sensors are designed to show the finest detail in our subjects, perhaps it is time to step backward and reinvent part of our imaging style by using a look from the past that served photographers well in the early years of photography.
Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, “Shoot Macro” (Amherst Media), is now available.