The Lensbaby Velvet 85 is a portrait lens with a glowing personality

Lensbaby, a company specializing in creative effects lenses for interchangeable lens cameras, on June 27 announced the Velvet 85, a full-frame 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens that produces soft, glowing images when shot wide open and tack-sharp detail when stopped down. It is the second lens in the Velvet line, joining the Velvet 56 that was released in April 2015.

Priced at $500, the Velvet 85 will cost exactly the same as its shorter focal length cousin. Both lenses feature a similar construction, are manual focus only, and have the same photographic goal. Unlike most modern DSLR and mirrorless lenses, Lensbaby hasn’t tried to optimize its Velvet lenses to be sharp at wider apertures. Instead, it has done the opposite, dialing in the glass for a specific kind of blur. This creates an ethereal look in portraiture and renders details with a more artistic, almost painterly, interpretation. Subjects exhibit a characteristic “glow” that Lensbaby says hearkens back to film-era optics, although we’d say the effect is more exaggerated here (which isn’t to imply it’s bad; just different).

We have had a preproduction model in hand very briefly and while we have yet to put it through its paces, we can at least comment on its usability. This is a well-built lens with a solid, all-metal body and very smooth manual focus ring. The focus throw is also very long, which is generally a good thing as it allows you to dial in precise focus, but if you’re looking for a fast and easy lens, this isn’t it. This is an optic for people who are ready to take their time setting up a shot.

The ultra-soft look of the Velvet 85 at wider apertures may not be for everyone, but the lens sharpens up considerably as it is stopped down. And thanks to a 1:2 macro mode, it can pull off some incredibly detailed pictures. It is a bit like having two lenses in one. Changing the aperture is more about altering the character of the image rather than controlling the amount of light (although, of course, it does do that as well). The f/1.8 rating may look appealing for low-light use, but that’s not really this lens’s purpose — unless you don’t mind all of your low-light shots being in soft focus.

Compared to the Velvet 56, the Velvet 85 has clearly been designed with portraiture as its primary function. It uses 12 aperture blades, up from nine in the 56mm, for circular bokeh at any f-stop. Additionally, the 85mm focal length provides a flattering compression effect and a shallower depth of field, qualities that have long made that focal length popular among portrait photographers.

Although this lens isn’t meant to compete directly with traditional 85mm lenses, its $500 price tag does put it in the neighborhood of first-party 85mm f/1.8s from various camera manufacturers. It will begin shipping on July 11 from Lensbaby direct and select retailers, and is available in a wide range of mounts for various cameras, including Canon, Nikon, Sony (E and A mount), Micro Four Thirds, Fujifilm, and Pentax.

We look forward to using Velvet 85 more in the coming days and will publish our full hands-on impressions once we’ve had a chance to thoroughly test it.

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