Review: Lensbaby Composer

Lensbaby Composer + Optics

Back in April the kind folks at Lensbaby were nice enough to send me a Composer as well as two extra optics for review in my specialized and growing field of live music photography. My original plan was to shoot for a month and then write the review. Shooting almost every night at The Firebird allowed me to use the Composer frequently, but balancing that with real life made it hard to pin down that experience and present it in a proper, critical fashion. However, as this year of awesome shows has come to an end, I’m happy to say that I am making good on my intentions.

Note: I’m going to be covering the application and use of the Lensbaby Composer as well as the double glass, single glass and plastic optics in the field of live music photography and similar situations. For the sake of not repeating others, to get a more general and technical review of the Lensbaby System check out the one posted by The_Digital_Photo.com. I’ll be touching on some of the same topics, but I want to be able to pay attention my specialty. All photos were taken with a Sony a850.

Out Of The Box

When opening the colorful green box of the Lensbaby Composer the first thing you see is a tiny square manual that says “Mama?” and below “Congratulations! It’s a Lensbaby” on its cover. It’s a small touch and definitely a well-placed, humorous signal to start off what will become a strange and stimulating journey with a very unique piece of gear.

My first impression as I pulled the Lensbaby Composer out of its cradle? “Wow, I thought this was going to be smaller”.

Lensbaby Composer + Mino 28mm f2.8

About the size of a Minolta 28mm f2.8, the Lensbaby Composer at least looked smaller in pictures. Either way, it feels good in hand. Once I got over that I had an hour of childhood glee with my new toy, doing what I imagine many new Lensbaby owners do: photograph a plant.

Lensbaby test shot
Plastic optic at f5.6, 1/320, iso 200.

Focusing takes some time (adjusting your diopter is a must) to get used to, in part to the selective focus nature of the lens. Once you get your bearings with focusing the Lensbaby Composer feels good when you adjust and move around the “sweet spot”. You can loosen or tighten the locking ring near the base of the lens, giving yourself the right amount of play to dial in your focus, or to keep the sweet spot in the desired part of the frame.

Given enough time, focusing and framing may not come off like an exact science but it will feel natural and organic.


Breaking Down The Optics


Double Glass
– This is the default optic that ships with every Lensbaby lens (except for The Muse and the newly announced Scout). It’s the sharpest available optic and the easiest to dial in the focus and sweet spot. It’s good for crisply isolating specific parts of the frame yet still vibes well if your focus isn’t spot on or if you’re shooting with a large aperture. Considerably no-frills compared to the single glass and plastic optics, it’s the workhorse. Reliable and functional in almost any situation in and out of the club.

Flesh Vehicle

Single Glass – The single glass is, simply put, pretty lo-fi. Prone to flare, ghosting, and all manners of strangeness while still maintaining reasonable sharpness. This is my favorite optic for getting creative shots from the stage. You never know just how much an LED or a reflection off a chrome tuning key will dirty up the shot and all the while, you feel a good amount of control in regards to those variables.

Fun.

Plastic -Initially, this was the optic that I was the most excited about messing with. If you love that lo-fi Holga vibe, this is essentially that toy camera aesthetic appropriated for the Lensbaby System. However, the plastic optic can be extremely hard to focus in low light (in part to its lack of sharpness) and the ghosting can be overwhelming. This makes the lens very difficult to use in situations where the subject is in direct light as any definition you had can/will be compromised by ghosting. Amazing photos will take patience and a bit of luck but I can promise that they’ll be incredibly satisfying.

Indian Jewelry

Out In The Wild

Once you get used to what the Lensbaby Composer can and cannot do, it really becomes a nice thing to have in your bag. For someone like myself who is constantly shooting but not always needing to have the cleanest, sharpest photos, it is a boon and at times a savior. Some subjects, like singer songwriters and DJs, can be hard enough to wrangle compelling images from on a good day. With the Lensbaby Composer, however, it becomes much easier to capture the moment by directing the eye via the sweet spot to a point of interest.

DJ100DB

Moments when you lack the dynamics to really pull from the subject as you would with a conventional lens are times when the Lensbaby Composer can really shine. From the lighting to the mood of the music, you can still come through without getting bummed out or frustrated. In the photo below of Lawyer Dave (who plays with the amazing Holly Golightly) I was in a situation where the the only lighting I had to work with was a red wash coming from behind the subject.

Holly Golightly

For a photographer, shooting such a duo in a situation like that can really be an exercise in frustration. However, because of the Composer I was able to make due and in the end I came walking out with a few really nice shots.

However, there is one quirk to take into consideration when shooting live music. Even without an aperture disc (thus shooting at f2) on the optic it feels like you have to shoot with a slower shutter speed to get the desired amount of light to hit the sensor. So in situations where you could get away with shooting 1/50 at f2 with a fast 50mm prime, you’re looking at going to 1/30 and possibly even bumping up your ISO to make up the difference. Depending on the subject matter, this can be an issue. A workable issue that no doubt has a simple explanation, but something worth considering. Can you still shoot a hardcore band from the side of the stage?

Cobrangutan

Yes, you can.

But it is worth it?

That’s a tough question. The $270 price tag has made some folks skeptic. You could get a fast Sigma/Tamron zoom for relatively the same price. However, I can say that if you have the lenses you already need for what you’re doing as a music/entertainment photographer then the Lensbaby Composer is a great alternative to that $2000 piece of glass that you’ve been eying. Since you can switch out the optics, you’re given a wide variety of ways to get creative and interesting shots. You may keep your Composer in the bag if you’re shooting for the local newspaper or Village Voice publication but if you’ve already gotten the photos you need with your normal gear it’s a great way to enjoy the rest of the set. Personally, I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it and have gotten dozens of photos that I know I couldn’t get with traditional optics.

Fun.

With every other music photographer out there lamenting that everyone else is getting the same shots at every tour date, the Lensbaby Composer just might be the ace up your sleeve.

Get This Fool Some Books
When I’m not getting ready for the next show I like to sit down with a good book. Help support www.ishotguydebord.com and my reading habit through my Amazon wishlist. You can always order a print from my large archive of awesome rock shots if you need something rad on your wall.

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Questions, Comments?
Do you have any questions, comments, or feedback? Leave a comment below and let me know.

One Response to “Review: Lensbaby Composer”

  1. William Haun says:

    I always throw in my Lensbaby Muse & Composer in my camera bag when I cover shows. Over the past year I’ve been shooting videos with my Canon 7D and the Lensbaby Muse. Makes for a killer look. Here’s a whole playlist of shows I’ve video’d with the Lensbaby.

    http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=B2BCB06549483A52

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