Hands on: Lensbaby Velvet 56

Forget the Vaseline, Lensbaby's Velvet 56 lens makes everything gorgeous

If you’re willing to be patient and try different settings, the results from Lensbaby’s Velvet 56 lens can be stunning.

As a long-time photographer, I can say without reservation that we live in an era of untold riches when it comes to capturing the world around us. Cameras have gone from heavy, unwieldy, complicated devices operated by enthusiasts to no-think miracles on every smartphone. How do they make lenses and sensors that small?

Remember the miracle of Polaroids? Yeah, whatever, I just took 300 snaps of my dog with my DSLR. Next, I’ll apply a half-dozen filters to the best shot using Photoshop or Instagram or Pixlr, touch-up that annoying blemish, and then share my perfect shot with the world, all in about 30 seconds (please click “like”).

Twenty years ago, most of the things we take for granted today were absolute fantasy – a distant dream of instant “photogratification.” But if you came from that not-so-long ago time when a camera was an expensive, heavy, and sophisticated instrument, you may occasionally miss the slower process, the feeling of precision, and the actual work that goes into taking a quality photo.

Back to the old school

Last week, Lensbaby lent me their newest creation, the Velvet 56. The Velvet 56 – officially unveiled today, on April 7, 2015 – is not an “add-on” lens like many of their specialty lenses for shooting creative photography like tilt-shift. This is a full-blown, metal and glass 56mm, f/1.6, 1:2 macro lens that attaches right to your Nikon, Canon, Pentax, or Sony A-mount camera. Versions for mirrorless cameras are in the pipeline.

Unlike modern lenses, the lens contains zero electronics. It’s manual focus, manual aperture, manual everything. Your DSLR may have the most advanced autofocusing and image stabilization systems, but they won’t work here. The aperture ring has detent steps at the major stops from f/1.6 to f/16, but you can stop anywhere on the scale to get the perfect exposure.

And about that “Velvet” moniker? As the aperture opens below about f/5.6, the lens begins to impart a softness effect that in years past was achieved by putting a special filter, pantyhose, or a bit of Vaseline on a front UV filter. The name describes that “look.”

Through the lens, softly

Depending on what f-stop you dial up, the effect can be subtle or pronounced. It’s like a mechanical Instagram filter. In our current paradigm of instant results, the Velvet 56 encourages you to slow down and experiment. You’re probably not shooting film, so why not? Above f/5.6 or f/8, the lens behaves like a proper 50mm (or 56mm) macro, albeit one you have to focus by hand.

If you’re willing to be patient and try different settings, the results can be stunning. A pinecone shot from a few inches away turns into a wintry artifact, while a dog snoozing on the couch becomes a hazy portrait of rest. This is not the kind of “softness” or “bokeh” you get from shooting something out of focus. It’s much more akin to the filters that are now included with many digital cameras, except it’s more adjustable and satisfying.

The lens’ large focus ring turns with that buttery smoothness you only find in certain top-shelf pro gear, but the unit I was working with had the tiniest bit of rotational free play when turning the focusing ring. It was a small annoyance and not one that affects your images. I was also using a pre-production unit, so that issue will likely be addressed in production units, which are assembled at the company’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

Conclusion

The Velvet 56 comes in a very cool box and retails for $499 in black and $599 in satiny silver, which is what I was using. It looks expensive and feels like it too. It also gets attention: Everywhere I was shooting, someone asked about it. Most thought it was vintage kit, since it looks very Leica-ish in silver. Everyone loved the velvet effect as well.

At five (or six) bills, the Lensbaby Velvet 56 is not cheap, but it’s pretty much in the ballpark for a dedicated macro lens. Is it worth the cost? I’d say so, but its audience might be limited by the manual operation it demands in an automated world. Consider the velvet effect a bonus feature, and enjoy mixing old-school manual creativity, workmanship, and style with your digital device.

Highs:

  • Very high-quality design and optics
  • Velvet effect is adjustable and just plain cool
  • Excellent macro abilities – very sharp above f/8
  • Wide variety of mounts now and in the future

Lows:

  • Expensive, but not out of line with the competition
  • No electronics means no lens EXIF data or RAW lens correction
  • Those raised on AF/Auto lenses will have a learning curve (not really a bad thing)
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