Misty Roses & Other Impressionistic Visions with the Lensbaby Velvet 56

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday August 11, 2016

Misty Roses

You look to me
Like misty roses
Too soft to touch
But too lovely to leave alone.

If I could be
Like misty roses
I'd love you much
You're too lovely to leave alone.

Flowers often cry
But too late to find
That their beauty has been lost
With their peace of mind.

You look to me
Like love forever
Too good to last
But too lovely not to try.

If I believed
In love forever
I'd forget the past
You're just too lovely not to try.

    —Tim Hardin

It's hard to argue with the pretty misty-eyed romance that the Velvet 56 is capable of creating with a simple shift of the aperture ring. The wider that you set your aperture, the softer the images become. I shot both of these at 1/200 second at f/4, just two stops down from the lens' widest aperture of f/1.6. ISO 200.


Creative Effect: Soft focus with “velvety” quality
Focal Length: 56mm
Available mounts: Nikon, Canon EF, Sony E and Fuji X
Color: Available in black and silver versions
Maximum Aperture: f/1.6
Minimum Aperture: f/16
Minimum Focusing Distance: 5” (1:2)
Format Compatibility: APS-C and Full Frame 
Focus Type: Manual
Filter Threads: 62mm
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Elements/ Groups: 4 Elements/ 3 Groups
Dimensions:  3.34” (8.53cm) high x 2.8" (7.2cm) wide
Weight: 14.46oz

The Lensbaby Velvet 56 is available in black, silver or in a special boxed edition. 

Vaseline & Violets

Back in the days before things like Photoshop and digital cameras with built-in special effects, if you wanted to create one of those dreamy soft-focus images that made Hallmark famous there were two paths that you could take. One option was to plunk down the cash for a set of soft-focus diffusion filters. As I recall they only cost about $30 (for the set), but they got the job done. You needed a set because they came in several degrees of diffusion and if you were going to seriously practice the mystical art of impressionism and astound your non- photographer friends, you wanted more than one diffusion option. You were not, after all, a one-trick pony.

The other option (and the one most of us chose) was to take an old skylight or UV filter and smear it with a thin coating of petroleum jelly. Almost every photographer that I knew carried a small jar of Vaseline with them at all times. It was required and essential equipment.  Some photographers even got ultra creative and blended a little pink food or blue coloring into the jelly. Smooth operators. Creating a homemade filter was inexpensive and the results though fairly unpredictable had the potential to be kind of interesting and not knowing exactly what your images were going to look like was kind of cool. And if you got something really ethereal looking, who knows, you might be the next greeting-card Picasso (hey, it paid the bills). One downside was that homemade filters were a pretty messy deal and attracted dirt like a fly trap, so there was also a lot of filter scrubbing involved after a long day of shooting.

One of the more impressive qualities of the Velvet 56 lens is its macro capability. You can focus down to five inches from the lens and record a half-life-size image. If my math is correct, the reproduction ratio is even larger if you're using an ASP-C format camera.

Of course there were no LCD screens in the film days and since we were paying (remember film?) every time we clicked the shutter there really was much praying involved. I also spent a lot of time time standing at the greeting-card racks studying what the greeting card and calendar companies were publishing. And, in fact, the very first photos that I ever sold were some shots of violets in my backyard made with a Vaseline filter.

Walking around with a Lensbaby Velvet 56 mounted on my Nikon (APS-C) body brought back a lot of those petroleum-jelly memories. And since everything in my life is tied to a soundtrack in my head, I recalled that at about the same time that I was shooting violets and waterfalls and woodland views with a smeary filter, I was also listening to the late Tim Harden’s album Tim Hardin 3 Live In Concert (recorded at the Town Hall in NYC). Funny how one memory triggers another. By the way, if you’re not familiar with a that song or if you want to see Tim sing the beautiful song Misty Roses, here’s a rare live clip. Tragically Tim died at age 39 of a heroin overdose and never got to see the profound impact he had on music.

Here's an extreme example of this lens' amazing ability to go from very sharp to very soft. I shot the top image at f/16, the lens' minimum aperture to get maximum sharpness. I shot the lower image at f/4 (not quite wide open) to create the soft version. In order to use the small aperture, I had to adjust the shutter speed to 1/200 second, but to shoot at the nearly wide-open f/stop, I had to almost max out my shutter speed to 1/3200 second. Both at ISO 200.

Smear No More

Then in about 2004 the introduction of the first Lensbaby (I think it was the first generation of the Composer, but not sure) made petroleum jelly obsolete. Not only did it let you create repeatable soft-focus effects, but it allowed you to shift the plane of soft focus. Wild. I bought one almost immediately and it’s been a fixture in my camera bag every since.

The Lensbaby line-up has come a long way since the first generations and the relatively new Velvet 56 is actually quite a sophisticated bit of optics. The lens is in a nice all-metal case and has a nice, heavy solid feel. And, in a way, it’s a kind of a schizophrenic (in a good way) piece of gear: it’s not only a pretty respectable normal lens (slightly longer on an ASP-C body), but it’s also a very good macro lens (with a maximum ratio of 1:2 or half life size) and yes, it’s also a soft-focus lens. More importantly, you can change the amount of diffusion by changing apertures. That’s a lot of lens in one small package.

The lens has a kind of nice bokeh when used at the larger apertures, not perfect, but kind of nice. I shot this at 1/400 second at f/5.6, ISO 200.

Here’s how the Velvet 56 works: The apertures range from a super fast f/1.6 to a minimum aperture of f/16. If you shoot wide open, you get the maximum amount of diffusion. In a lot of situations the diffusion at wide open is so intense that it can overwhelm your subjects. But as you shift to smaller and smaller apertures, the diffusion decreases and the lens behaves more like a traditional prime lens. In fact, by the time that you’re near or at the minimum aperture, it’s actually a remarkably sharp lens.

One of the nice things about being able to shift from sharpness to diffusion just by changing aperture is that you can cast a distracting background into softness instantly. Of course, the entire image goes soft, but it certainly creates a far prettier image using a large aperture.The sharp image was shot at f/11 at 1/20 second (on a tripod) and the bottom was shot at around 1/320 at f/2.8.

During the time that I spent testing this lens I experimented with a variety of aperture and sharpness variations, everything from sharply-focused shots to totally diffused shots. For someone that likes to see the same shot in several interpretations, this lens is a lot of fun. Yes, I can create most of the same effects in post using various blur tools, but it’s not the same as looking through your viewfinder and intentionally adding or subtracting diffusion. Also, at the mid apertures I noticed that images were sharper toward the center (and exaggerated demonstration of what happens with almost any lens) than the edges, so that there is a cool vignetting effect happening as well.

Downshifting into Manual

One of the things I quickly learned while using the Velvet 56 is just how much I’d forgotten about shooting entirely in manual. This lens is 100-percent manual, meaning it doesn’t autofocus and it doesn’t integrate with your meter and, at least in my Nikon body, it doesn’t even trigger the AF assist (so no green light to tell you when things are sharp). Also, your camera isn’t going to recognize what aperture you’re shooting at and it won’t be recorded in your meta data. The aperture ring has pretty good click stops, but you either have to count in your head or look at the lens to be certain of what aperture you’re using.

One method for getting a rough estimate of your exposure is just to use the old “Sunny 16” rule: 1/ISO (shutter speed) at f/16 in bright sunlight. Alternately you can simply mount a “real” lens on your camera, take a selective meter reading of a mid-toned object and then use that as your exposure starting point. You have to work in manual metering mode, of course, and I found that mode worked better than shutter priority.

I had a good time walking around a small formal garden with the lens. I found that for most shots where I just wanted a moderate about of diffusion, an aperture of f/5.6 or even f/8 worked well. I shot both of these handheld at 1/200 second, ISO 200.

As far as focusing goes, Lensbaby suggests that you first check and set the diopter control on your viewfinder with a traditional lens mounted, to be sure that your viewfinder is showing you the sharpest possible image before mounting the Velvet 56. It’s still pretty hard to judge the degree of diffusion in a viewfinder, so I found myself frequently checking sharpness/diffusion on the LCD using a Hoodman Houdloupe (always in my camera bag). If you were shooting with this in the studio I would strongly suggest working tethered so that you could see the images evolve on a larger screen.

Once you’re past the exposure and focusing issues, you simply decide what degree of diffusion you want and then experiment with aperture/shutter speed combinations until you see something you like. I tried to write down aperture and shutter-speed combinations that I could share them in my captions here, but that became tedious and I eventually just tossed the notebook and made mental notes of approximately what apertures I was using—you can pretty much tell by the degree of diffusion in your final images.  

The Velvet 56 makes a nice normal prime lens for general use. Setting the exposure and focus manually is tedious, but you get used to it. Fortunately I already had the exposure set for the background when this gentleman and his dog walked past, all I had to do was focus quickly and shoot. I didn't record the exposure.


As I mentioned above, one question people are sure to ask (including my Facebook friends who already asking) is this: Is it worth buying this lens when you can create the same diffusion effects in post production? One thing to keep in mind is that not everyone edits (or wants to edit) their photos, so for them, this provides access to controllable diffusion effects in camera. But also, it’s a lot of fun to commit to a certain special effect like soft focus in the camera as opposed to creating them after the fact. The lens sells for roughly $500 (street) and that would be kind of pricey if all the lens did was produce diffusion effects, but keep in mind that you’re also getting a very nice quality prime lens and a macro lens in the bargain.

Two of my favorite shots made during the week or so that I tested the Velvet 56. It was interesting to see how quickly I fell back into creating and enjoying those dreamy soft-focus scenes that I used to work so hard to get long ago. Both shots were made at 1/4000 second at around f/4, ISO 200.


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