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 intoΒ  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

Petri 55mm 1.8 lens
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:

Petri 55mm lens - edge glow and halation
Petri 55mm lens – edge glow and halation

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.

Fujian 35mm lens - soft portrait lens
Fujian 35mm lens – soft portrait lens

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 !

Fujian - pleasing bokeh
Fujian – Maple syrup bokeh

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.

Michael Lens 50mm f1.6
Michael Lens 50mm f1.6

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:

Fujian 50mm 1.4 versus Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens
Fujian 50mm 1.4 versus Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens

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.

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Lensbaby Velvet 56 : classic hype and four alternatives
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29 thoughts on “Lensbaby Velvet 56 : classic hype and four alternatives

  • March 17, 2016 at 2:35 pm
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    Great article. Happy to come across your site, and I’ll be revisiting!

    Cheers

    Reply
    • March 17, 2016 at 10:45 pm
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      Thank you Fred. I appreciate you taking the time to read and visit. I hope to see you here again soon!

      Reply
  • March 2, 2016 at 12:46 pm
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    Thank you for this article – lots of great info.! While I am still curious to try the Lensbaby Velvet 56, I’m also curious about the Fujian 35 mm lens you mentioned. The question I have is, do you know what kind of adaptor that would require (If there is one) to work on the Canon EOS series? (I have a 5D MIII). I cannot find the information I am looking for as to adaptors. Most of them seem to be for the mirrorless series. Thank you!!!

    Reply
    • March 2, 2016 at 1:36 pm
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      Hi Lindsay. Thank you for taking the time to add your thoughts. There is an adapter for the Canon you mention, but there is a catch. Unless you are using one of the Canon mirrorless models where the register distance to the sensor is pretty short, you will only be able to use macro mode witht he Fujian. Your 5DIII uses the regular mirror box where the register distance is longer to the digital sensor (like the Nikon), so any C mount movie lens will not be able to focus to infinity on it. This is why most of the C mount adapters you find are for mirrorless cameras. Without the mirror, the digital sensor can be much much closer to the lens mount. This means that a wider variety of old lenses can be used. My Nikon D7100 is hopeless for legacy lenses. Not a single one of them will focus to infinity unless they are Nikon mounts!
      Anyway, you can find the relevant adapter here: http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/C-Mount-Movie-Film-Lens-to-Canon-EOS-EF-Adapter-Macro-Shooting-Ring-70D-T5i-T4i-/230867117482?hash=item35c0c0a5aa:m:mJDA9wJ6JPjX_2T61pjC0yg

      Or here: https://www.fotodioxpro.com/c-mount-movie-lens-to-canon-eos-camera-lens-mount-adapter.html

      I hope that this helps! I know the adapter is limited, but it does allow macro to be used with this lens, which could produce some interesting results.

      I am going to update this post soon with some more lenses that will work on 35mm digital cameras specifically, so please check back soon.

      Reply
      • March 2, 2016 at 1:50 pm
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        Thank you so much for the info. and for your quick response!! I’m always looking for affordable macro options and love the idea of trying out some old inexpensive lenses. Great information – thank you so so much!!

        Reply
        • March 2, 2016 at 2:07 pm
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          No problems πŸ™‚ I’d love to see some photos from it when you get the chance! I’ve not tried it as a macro myself.

          Reply
  • February 11, 2016 at 5:32 am
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    I don’t mind paying a bit more ($200-$300), but are there any other lenses that you could recommend for a Canon EF/EF-S mount that can exhibit these sort of optical qualities? The four lenses that you mentioned here sound like a hassle to be mounted onto my Canon 700D.

    Reply
    • March 1, 2016 at 2:14 am
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      Thanks for reading. The main stumbling block is that most modern lenses feature multi-coating and correction for some of the optical aberrations discussed in this post. That said, you will find something like a newly minted Petzval lens from Lomography – http://shop.lomography.com/en/lenses – to be of interest if a unique retro look is your cup of tea. Sadly, it’s well out of the budget you mention and is rather like the Velvet 56 in that it is just a modern made reproduction of an older set of optical configurations;ie, Petzval lens types that produce swirly backgrounds and a sharp centre.
      You will find that many old lenses will have a nice soft painterly quality at wider apertures. As well as the Petri 55mm lentoned, quite a few cheap Soligor lenses (135mm 2.8 for instance), Peerotar lenses, and other similarly inexpensive Japanese made lenses made in the 50s and 60s do display lovely soft wide open qualities. There were so many produced that finding one is often a mixed bag of success, but in general, the cheaper single coated optics produce some soft images wide open. But expect aesthetics to vary widely. In other words, it’s a crapshoot. It is possible to modify older lenses to emulate swirly backgrounds and appealing softness wide open similar to the Velvet 56 lens I discuss in this piece. In fact, I can do it myself rather quickly and easily and it produces beautiful dreamy results. In general, your best bet is getting these cheaper old lenses and simply adapting them for your canon. Unless you want to shell out for the Velvet or the Petzval, there are not a lot of modern options out there at the moment, but that will likely change as the bigger companies go all retro. I hope this helps.

      Reply
  • January 6, 2016 at 6:35 am
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    Hey Steve β€” Do you know if I can mount the Petri 55mm M42 on a Fuji XT-1? Not finding much on a Google search. Thanks!

    Reply
    • January 6, 2016 at 6:47 am
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      Hi there! Yes, you sure can. The Fuji has an X mount right? If you go to ebay, just type in “m42 to fuji xt adapter” and you should find plenty πŸ™‚ If you get one, let me know what you think of the lens.

      Reply
  • September 3, 2015 at 5:22 am
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    Well… you gave one alternative that would work on a 35mm camera. There are plenty of old, uncoated lenses that can be bought for less than $50 though. This Lensbaby reminds me of the Pentax K 85 f/2.2 which is also really, really soft wide open.
    http://kmp.bdimitrov.de/lenses/primes/short-tele/K85f2.2-Soft.html

    The lens is definitely too expensive for me but I don’t think I’m the target audience. I do think they should be a little more technical in their description and say if the lens has any coatings and how many elements it has, etc.

    Lensbaby lenses have always been specialized and not really comparable to normal, modern lenses.

    Reply
    • September 3, 2015 at 6:10 am
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      They all work on a 35mm camera. It just depends on how you’ll adapt them and what size image circle you can live with. Of course, the C-mount lenses will work just fine on crop sensor digital, because I don’t just talk about the 35mm frame here. I use APS-C and M43 myself. That said, there are plenty of other lenses that produce soft images wide open; remembering that the Lensbaby has been manufactured deliberately to do so. I’ve not even gone into the great number of old meniscus lenses that produce similarly soft velvety images either, but again, you have to adapt them.
      Of course, you illustrate the point nicely when you say that the lens is too expensive. I agree, hence the alternatives. It’s definitely not a master list though, and maybe as I discover them, I can list more in a new post. There are plenty of ways to adapt old lenses, microscope glass, 100 year old meniscus elements (etc) for me to give Lensbaby too much credit for recycling the technology of the past; a past that is still preset if you look for it.

      Reply
  • July 25, 2015 at 7:19 pm
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    I have an old Asahi Takumar 50mm f1.4 in M42 that shows the exact same softness and bokeh when wide open. I have the multi coated version, but the older single coated version has lovely amber flares as well. A bit more expensive than the lenses listed here, but still much cheaper than the Velvet 56

    Reply
    • August 5, 2015 at 8:40 am
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      Good tip πŸ™‚ You know, I bought an old Takumar 1.4 cheap on ebay last year, but the seller stiffed me. My fault for not following up soon enough really. I did recently pick up an old Porst (Tomioka made) 55mm 1.4 that has quite a reputation.

      Reply
  • May 24, 2015 at 11:05 pm
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    Another really great old lens with lots of glow and nice bokeh when shot wide open is the Pentacon 50mm F1.8. It has a very unique signature that some love and some hate. I like it.

    Also if you want a more perfect portrait lens as far as smoothness of bokeh and sharpness wide open but still has a ton of glow then the Pentax SMC-A 50mm F1.4 is an amazing lens with a classic low contrast look. It glows a lot at F1.4 and when stopped down to F5.6 is super sharp.

    Reply
    • June 13, 2015 at 5:12 am
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      Thanks for the tips @steven πŸ™‚ I have the Pentacon you mention and did notice the glow. It’s pretty soft wide open isn’t it? I’ll have to test it out again. I’ll keep a look out for the Pentax 1.4. I actually really need a good 1.4 for the M42 mount. The one I was supposed to get never actually arrived πŸ™

      Reply
  • April 18, 2015 at 6:11 pm
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    Picked up the Petri 55mm 1.8 dirt cheap, and ordered an M42 to EOS adapter. The EOS adapter fits my 5D MII camera just fine, but the M42 side doesn’t fit the lens. I thought M42 lenses were threaded, but this one is not. Someone has a YouTube video up that looks exactly like the lens I have – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbVvWgcaias

    Any thoughts? This is my first attempt (that’s probably obvious) at getting a vintage lens to work on my DSLR.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • April 19, 2015 at 3:31 am
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      @dave I know we’ve chatted by email about this, but just for the benefit of other visitors here, the mount you have is a Petri mount. It’s the proprietary mount they used before switching to the more common M42 mount. It’s not very common and I don’t know of any official adapters for it that make it easy.
      I’m going to add a line to the article concerning this issue. Thanks for getting in touch! I hope to see you around again.
      If you do manage to sort out an M42 version for yourself, please get in touch and let me know your experience with it.

      Reply
      • April 20, 2015 at 11:11 am
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        Hi Steve i managed to pick up a m42 version on ebay for $26 …it was one of those moments when the adaptor was the same price as the lens ..anyway i have it working on My BMPC 4k and it’s a really interesting lens i haven,t had much time to play with it but what i have done after drop a quick grade on it just looks lovely when i get a chance i will pop something on vimeo…..so thanks for the original article really useful ..i really need to fine some quite fast and cheap down in the 20 to 25mm area as with the camera crop of 1.7 i,m getting a 93mm equivalent with a 55mm i would like something that is nearly a 55mm after the crop any advise that would be great

        Reply
        • April 22, 2015 at 12:38 pm
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          Hi @gavin . Good to hear from you ! Yes, please send me the Vimeo link when you can. I’ll be keen on the results. As for the wides you are interested in, anything below 28mm tends to be much sought after and relatively pricey. Tgere are heaps of 28s around and I could name plenty. If you want something cheap in the 24mm and under range, I will suggest Vivitar, Soligor and Hanimar brands.
          Now, the situation gets a bit murky, because they all tend to be rebadges of Japanese made lenses. And all could have been made by dozens of different companies! I have a 23mm Hanimar lens from the late sixties, and though I have not yet tested it (I need to), I have seen to go cheap. Itc an be a bit touch and go with that brand, but I’m hoping it was made before the slide to using PVC tubing in the lens consruction! The heavy barrel would have me believe there’s some quality potential in it anyway.
          What’s your budget?

          Reply
  • April 10, 2015 at 5:04 pm
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    Steve this a great article do you know a good m42 mount adaptor that will allow me to put one of these lens on a canon camera with a EF mount well actually i was going to have play with putting the petri on a BMC 4k if i could get one

    but i have read there are a few issue with some of the adaptors any help would be great

    Reply
    • April 11, 2015 at 6:14 am
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      Hi @gavin ! Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughts. All of the adapters I’ve come across are made in China and are very cheap. Quality does vary, but I have foudn that Fotga adapters seem to perform pretty consistently. They are also cheap. Make sure you get an M42 adapter that has an internal flange so that M42 lenses with an auto/manual aperture pin work correctly. The flange inside the adapter mount should be able to depress the aperture pin at the base on the lens so that the aperture can be controlled manually.
      This is the main issue I am aware of. If you are concerned, I would simply buy a couple of adapters from different vendors.
      Do you have the Petri lens yourself? It would be interesting to see how the Petri resolves detail on a BMC 4K. It is renowned as a very sharp lens with stopped down past f5.6, and my limited testing confirms this. I’d like to know how it performs with a high res modern digital sensor.

      Reply
      • April 11, 2015 at 5:25 pm
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        Hi Steve thanks for your help well i took the plunge and ordered an m42 adaptor and a petri 55mm 1.8 so i will let you know how i get on i love the idea of using these types of lens for video

        Reply
        • April 12, 2015 at 4:25 am
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          @gavin Great ! Yes, please do let me know how you go. I’m keen to see how it performs on a state of the art modern sensor. Luckily, there are a lot of old M42 lenses out there with some great character. The Helios 44 is another that produces very interesting images.

          Reply
  • April 9, 2015 at 3:44 am
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    Followed your link over from Fstoppers. Would love to see more articles like this. Most photography articles seemed to focus on ‘budget’ or ‘moderately priced’ $400 – $1000+ lenses. I have a shelf full of vintage lenses usually old Minolta Alpha mount or M42 mount that I’ve bought and never paid more than $50 for after some smart buys. I even got a fujinon 50mm f/1.4 for $5 doing a “will you throw in that lens for $5?” at a garage sale :). I’ll take a look at these truly budget friendly lenses and see what I find!

    Reply
    • April 9, 2015 at 6:39 am
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      Good buys @sam ! I suspect a lot of people into photography are more interested in new shiny stuff, like the Velvet 56. The thought of using a lens from the 60s or 70s might even be offputting for them! For you and I, it might just be glass, but I think there’s a funny sort of mystique around new products like the Lensbaby that provoke awe from potential buyers. I guess that’s why marketing works! Given your own lens collection, what are some of your favourites?

      Reply

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