If you find yourself in a creative rut or you just want to think about taking photographs differently, check out Lensbaby's line of lenses, optics, and accessories. The "Lensbaby Effect" is generally considered as a sweet spot of focus surrounded by progressively strong blurring. Ironically, this is not unlike how humans actually perceive the world, as opposed to planes of focus like what you get with traditional lenses.
The Lensbaby product line is quite diverse and complimentary. Recently, Lensbaby has done a great job of increasing the quality of their optics and build of their lenses. They've gone from less serious in performance and build, like the original Lensbaby lens, to legitimate, hard-working tools, like the Composer Pro. Where there was once simply a plastic optic housed in a plastic, articulating accordion-style body now there are high-quality, multi-coated optics comprised of many glass elements with integrated aperture blades housed in metal ball-and-socket lenses with focusing rings. And with the introduction of the Edge 80 optic we might have to rethink what the "Lensbaby Effect" really means as this new lens doesn't have a sweet spot but instead a slice of focus that you manipulate and move about. Indeed, the Edge 80 isn't the first Lensbaby lens without a sweet spot of focus - others without are the Fisheye optic, Pinhole/Zone Plate optic, and the Soft Focus optic.
Lensbaby's latest two lenses do not have drop-in aperture rings either, which were the norm for previous optics. Instead, the Edge 80 and the Sweet 35 have integrated 12-bladed apertures similar to traditional lenses. Unlike traditional lenses, however, you still have to manually dial the aperture setting as there is no communication with the lens and your camera. Usually, when you look through the viewfinder you are looking through the lens with its aperture set to its widest and when you press the shutter, the instant before the picture is taken, the camera quickly stops the lens down to the target aperture setting. This means when you look through the lens the image is the brightest it can be, which aids in focusing and composing. However, manually set apertures, like the Lensbaby, means if you focus and compose with the aperture already stopped down it may be hard to see in the dim viewfinder. This can make focusing difficult. If you are using a tripod you can compose and focus first then insert/adjust the aperture before calculating the exposure and taking the picture.
Those with full-frame cameras have an advantage when dealing with manual lenses as the viewfinder is much larger than with crop cameras. Larger viewfinders make finding focus easier. Make sure your diopter is properly adjusted for your eyesight. Your camera's autofocus system doesn't need the diopter to be exact to accurately pinpoint focus, but your eyes sure do!
If using Lensbaby lenses with a Canon, Sony, or Pentax camera, set the camera to Aperture Priority mode and manually adjust the desired aperture. The camera should come up with the proper shutter speed. If it doesn't it should be close and you can fine tune the result with a bit of exposure compensation. Live View will offer the most accurate metering and couple it with the zoom to focus. If you shoot Nikon the camera will probably have to be set in manual mode. Use the integrated meter to adjust exposure and fire some test shots.
The downside to the new integrated aperture blades is that you cannot use custom aperture shapes like what's available in the Creative Aperture Kit. The above image was a concept I thought might work well for a Christmas card cover. I ended up going with something different for the family card but I was satisfied with the effect of the heart-shaped lights - it struck the holiday mood I was going for.
It's a good rule to not rely on the Lensbaby to "save" an image - ideally, the image should be able to stand on its own without the selective focus and blurring effect. Done right the Lensbaby should enhance an image.
The dramatic blurring effect can surprise you. Often you can get unexpected results with the highlights deep into the blur region. These are strings of Christmas lights wrapped around wire reindeer. The appearance of the subjects become more and more surreal, becoming simply suggestive by the time they reach the edge of the frame.
I find myself primarily using three of the optics most - in no particular order, the Double Glass, Sweet 35, and Edge 80. I use the Double Glass instead of the Sweet 35 for a more normal field of view, it's roughly a 50mm optic, and when I want to use creative apertures. I probably use the Sweet 35 the most as I really like the quality of sharpness in the sweet spot, especially at f4 plus. Don't stop down too far, however, or you'll get less intense blurring. I use the Edge 80 for portraits for its compressive focal length and high quality optics.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to shooting with the Lensbaby system is it forces you to think differently. With traditional lenses you manipulate a plane of focus back and forth from the sensor. Lensbaby lenses and optics are predominantly about moving a sweet spot around the image. However, with the Edge 80, Lensbaby's most popular non-sweet spot lens, you are forced to consider an extra axis of movement and focus (most similar to the tilt feature on tilt/shift lenses). It's an exercise in alternate creative expression, if not creative freedom.
For pixel-peepers, unrestrained by the shackles of MTF charts and the chains of critical sharpness, Lensbaby may be your ticket to rediscovering the magic of enjoying the image for the image's sake.