Lensbaby Velvet 56: A Creativity Reminder

I've been teaching photography classes and workshops for four years now.  One thing I have noticed in those years is the amount of emphasis put on the clarity and sharpness of images. People expect a certain level of sharpness and if it's not achieved, they are left frustrated and disappointed, more often than not. And, I get it.  I do understand the desire for 'tack sharp' and smooth non-grainy images for many situations, but I do think this is more of a recent digital preoccupation than it ever was with film and analog cameras and lenses.  

I learned photography almost two decades ago on an analog film camera, a Minolta SR-T 101 with a 58mm f/1.4 lens to be exact.  I think back to critiques and discussions with my film friends of the day and I know, for a fact, that how grainy an image was or how 'tack sharp' our focus may have been was rarely discussed.  Rather we discussed light, our images' compositions, tones, hues, atmospheric aspects, and the feelings our images evoked.  Of course sharpness had its place, but it wasn't such a major focus as it is today.  There was also a lovely feel in the grain of film prints.  I enjoyed using a high ASA black and white film because I knew it'd deliver more grain, which to me equaled more depth and texture, more atmosphere. But today, software can eliminate noise (AKA grain) entirely, much to the detriment of the atmosphere and mood I enjoyed.  

All this being said, I rarely shoot film these days.  I love my Nikon D810 and wouldn't trade it for the world.  I also love my extremely sharp prime lenses.  But, one thing I have noticed is that through this digital camera age, I struggle more than I ever did with film as far as creativity is concerned.  I think about this a lot and try to pinpoint exactly what it is, and I have a few ideas.  One of those ideas centers around the fact that we are using such incredibly powerful gear and technologies these days that we just may have become hyper-obsessed with technical perfection. We also have programs now that help us to enhance images in a way that was impossible in a darkroom, which seems to compound this as well.  

So, have we become overly fixated with the perfection of the technical aspects of an image due to digital photography?  I think yes, to a very large degree.  

I no longer "shoot from the hip".  I do not take as many creative risks as I once did with film.  I am less apt to experiment, as well.  

Enter the Lensbaby Velvet 56, a 56mm f/1.6 manual focus 1:2 Macro lens.

A description from the website: 

Inspired by classic portrait lenses from the mid-20th century, this manual focus portrait lens delivers a soft, glowing effect at brighter apertures and beautifully sharp yet subtly unique images as you stop down. The gorgeous, velvety- tones give your digital images a film-like, organic quality. This incredibly versatile lens enables photographers to move seamlessly from shooting an environmental portrait, to capturing the finest details with focus as close as 5” from the front of the lens. Velvet 56 features a black all-metal body and smooth, dampened manual focus.

Check out all the specs HERE.

The day this lens arrived I took it with me to a hair appointment.  Vicki Beechler, who deals with my difficult head of hair, has her own small studio and on that particular day she let a couple of her cats in for me to meet. This is the first shot out of my camera using the Velvet 56, of Rambo:


I was in love.  I also immediately fell into some state of nostalgia.  Something about the imperfect manual focusing, the manual aperture ring (be still my beating heart), the quality and feel of the bokeh, the bit of hazy grain at f/2.8, the way it felt in my hands with its heavy metal construction, all just brought me back to the things I miss so dearly about analog film cameras.  

I've now had this lens for a couple of months and have taken it with me on commercial food shoots, photography field trips here in Louisiana, Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, New Mexico, and even the Masai Mara, Kenya in Africa.  I continue to get fun, creative results and it has helped me to break away from the obsession with technical perfection of the digital camera age and exercise my creative visions once again.  When I am shooting with this lens  I can get lovely tack sharp images if I close down on the aperture, but  for me it's more fun to stay between f/2.8 and f/4 to get the look I'm after, the look that none of my other digital lenses will give me.  

I've made a gallery with some of my favorites from the past couple of months with the Lensbaby Velvet 56. All images were taken with either a Nikon D810, D800, or D7100. 

Please view the gallery HERE

In a nutshell, I love this lens. It reminds me of how I approached photography when shooting film, more creatively and less technically. I highly recommend the Velvet 56 for just about anyone from any photography background.  Spend a little time with this lens, and I guarantee you it'll help exercise your creative eye. Find the Lensbaby Velvet 56 HERE