This is not a review of the Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens. I don’t have one and don’t ever expect to use one, so I can’t say whether it’s a poor product or not. I’m writing about it because I think it’s a good example of how hype is used to sell a product. I’ll also suggest four lenses for under $50 each that will offer you similarly unique qualities. By the way, if you like old lenses and cameras, I’d love it if you subscribed to this site by filling out the form below. You’ll receive notifications of all new posts I make, including more on great old lenses. I’d also be happy to hear from you in the comments section.
This is from the official Lensbaby site:
“Our Velvet 56 classic portrait lens gives you a velvety, ethereal start with a smooth finish, from the big picture to the smallest details. Bringing modern-day simplicity to the carefully crafted build and look of mid-20th century portrait lenses, this 56mm f/1.6 manual portrait and macro lens evokes an experience like no other. Embrace the moment as you easily go from capturing gorgeous, radiant environments to intimate details in the same scene.”
It almost kinda sounds like eating turkish delight ice-cream doesn’t it?
Lens specs-wise, it’s a fully manual focus prime lens with a metal barrel, a maximum aperture of f1.6 (for that creamy bokeh all the kids love), a focal length of 56mm (35mm equivalent), and 1:2 macro reproduction at 5 inches. It’s actually a neat little package, but it also costs $500 !
What Lensbaby introduce with this product is the “carefully crafted build and look of mid-20th century portrait lenses“. They’re dipping into the past to produce a modern lens, except that it’s really not so different to the mid-20th century lenses they’re inspired by.
So, if you don’t want to spend $500 on the Lensbaby Velvet 56, what are your options? I’d suggest shelling out for one of those 20th century lenses Lensbaby are using in their marketing. But can you get the same velvety and ethereal look from a cheap lens? Read on…
Petri 55mm 1.8 lens
The Petri is a Japanese made prime lens and will set you back about $30 on ebay. It has the reputation of being very sharp when stopped down (in my tests, sharpness increases significantly after f4), but it actually exhibits some great ethereal softness and halation when used at f1.8. Check out the halation and edge glow in this photo:
Please note that early versions of this lens feature the uncommon Petri mount. I don’t currently know of any official adapters for it for use on modern lens mounts. Later versions of this lens use the much more common M42 mount, and this is the version to seek out!
Fujian 35mm f1.7 lens
You can find the Fujian on ebay for about $20. It’s a cheaply made Chinese C-mount lens and different copies will be hit or miss in terms of quality. If you get a good one, you’ll be surprised at just how lovely and creamy it can be wide open.
The Fujian can make for a great portrait lens and exhibits acceptable centre sharpness that transitions to very soft edges. It’s about as cheap as good bokeh gets !
Michael Lens 50mm f1.6
Yet another Chinese-made C-mount lens, the Michael lens feels like a better made Fujian, and will set you back around $20-$30. There’s nothing particularly special about it in use, but with a maximum aperture of f1.6 it can produce some very smooth out of focus areas.
I used it with a C-mount adapter on my little Olympus E-PM1 Micro Four Thirds digital camera. Even on this smaller sensor, the bokeh in the above photo is really very pleasing and soft.
Fujian 50mm f1.4
Yet another C-mount lens similar to the Fujian 35mm, this one is definitely a hit or miss affair. The first copy I received fell apart in my hands after opening the box! You won’t be able to focus on anything more than a metre away (it could just be my copy of course), but as a soft portrait lens it possesses a property that Lensbaby are hyping as unique to the Velvet 56. Wide open at f1.4, and with plenty of available light, the lens produces a halo or soft glow effect around bright subjects. You can see it around the flowers below:
Selling the Lensbaby Velvet 56 with a Velvet Sledgehammer
If you don’t feel like shelling out $500 for the Lensbaby Velvet 56, why not consider something much cheaper? I won’t pretend that they’ll be exactly the same, but I suspect that Lensbaby are simply marketing optical properties in the Velvet 56 that exist in a multitude of other lenses. I’ve highlighted just four examples with unique properties, but many more such mid-20th century lenses exist.