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Gear Reviews

First Look at Lensbaby’s New Velvet 56

By Anthony Thurston on April 7th 2015

Officially announced just this morning at Shutterfest 2015, Lensbaby has debuted their latest lens, the Velvet 56. Sporting a maximum aperture of F/1.6, the Velvet 56 is Lensbaby’s take on a classic mid-20th century portrait lens.

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I have been lucky enough to have had this lens for the better part of a month now, and I have been very impressed with its build quality and handling. They just don’t make lenses like this anymore; the entire body is metal, and it’s just a joy to handle and use.

The version you see above, and in the video below, is the special SE edition. There is also a Black Standard Edition. Both versions will be available starting next week.

04-performance-5-stars

The new Velvet 56 is not your garden variety ‘fast-fifty’ portrait lens. As you would expect from Lensbaby, this lens provides a unique and interesting effect for photographers when shot wide open. It is a dreamy, almost ethereal look that will be amazing for photographers looking for that quality in a lens.

Lensbaby Velvet 56mm @ F/1.6

Lensbaby Velvet 56mm @ F/1.6

As you can see above, wide open, the lens produces an effect that may remind you of a 90’s glamour portrait. It is great if you want that sort of effect, not so much if you don’t. That said, since they designed the lens to be that way, I am not going to knock it down for it.

The dreamy effect is quite pronounced at F/1.6, as you would expect, but by F/2.8 the effect is lessened to a point that I would feel comfortable shooting this lens for a more standard portrait look. Once you get past that dreamy effect, the lens is quite sharp too. Even stopped down though, you get a unique look.

Lensbaby Velvet 56

Lensbaby Velvet 56 @ F/2.8

This lens does what is was designed to do very well. I can not fault the lens for the fact that I don’t see myself ever shooting it wide open. It’s just not my style. That said, it may be yours, and if that is the case, you will be very happy with the performance of this lens.

For that reason, I am giving the Lensbaby Velvet 56 a full 5 out of 5 stars for performance.

08-features-4-stars

As far as features go, this lens has about all you could expect out of a niche manual focus lens. A feature that makes it unique from other ~50mm portrait lenses, aside from the dreamy effect, is that this lens also has 1:2 macro capability. This was one aspect of the lens that I found to be extremely enjoyable.

I often go out for walks with my Canon 50mm f/1.2L and while it is great for many subjects, when I want to get close, the minimum focusing distance gets in the way. That was not an issue with the Velvet 56 which makes this lens incredibly versatile for both portraiture and general photography usage.

Lensbaby Velvet 56mm @ F/4

Lensbaby Velvet 56mm @ F/4

The only real thing missing from this lens is auto-focus, and image stabilization. Lensbaby has never messed around with auto-focus, so that is no surprise. But wouldn’t it be neat if a company developed a manual focus lens that also had image stabilization built in?

13-design-4-stars

There is not much I would change about the design of this lens except for one thing. As beautiful and smooth to use as the manual focus ring on this lens is, I almost feel like it is a bit too long. There were times when I had the lens out, and it felt like I had to turn the lens excessively to find my focus.

Other than that, I was extremely happy with the design and build of the lens.

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19-quality-5-stars

Plastic rear cap aside, the all metal construction of this lens is stellar. They simply do not make lenses like this anymore, and that makes me really sad. The aperture ring is a perfect balance of clicky and responsive.

The lens balances well and is not too heavy – despite its all metal construction. If I am honest, I think I prefer the all black version from a style perspective, but the special SE edition that you see pictured in this review is pretty rockin’ itself.

Lensbaby Velvet 56

Probably my one complaint with the lens is the lens cap. The version that I received just comes off a little too easily on its own. I have been told that will be/has been resolved in the production version of these lenses – but still, it should be noted that with the lens I have been working with, the issue is still very present.

22-value-3-stars

Now for the part you will all be interested in, the value of this lens. You are probably wondering why I would give the lens so high of marks in performance, and quality, then give it a 3 for value.

This lens is a niche product. Portrait photographers are not going to be coming out in droves for this lens and the look that it creates. I hate to be a party-pooper, but that is just the reality of the situation. The all black version of this lens will be retailing next week for $499.95 and the SE version shown in this review for $599.95.

Lensbaby Velvet 56

That is quite expensive for a ~50mm lens of any kind, let alone a niche one with an effect that makes it unusable at its brightest apertures in most standard situations. It is a very high-quality lens, built well and performs wonderfully for what it is designed to do. I just feel like the price is pushing it a little for such a niche item. That said, if you are after this look, it’s probably a great deal for you.

overall-score-3.5-starsOverall, I really enjoyed using the new Velvet 56 from Lensbaby. I can honestly say that the look when shot wide open is not something that I would normally choose to shoot, but it grew on me a little bit the more that I played with the lens.

It is certainly not a lens for everyone, and not everyone will be able to appreciate what it produces when shot wide open. But for those who do, and for those who look for a lens with unique qualities like this, then the Lensbaby Velvet 56 is the lens of your dreams.

Here are a few more sample images shot with the Velvet 56:

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As mentioned above, the Velvet 56 will be available starting April 13th. The all black version will be starting at $499.95 and the special silver SE version will start at $599.95. Both versions will be available from B&H (stay tuned for links).

Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Scott Skaggs

    Not going to jump and get one.

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  2. J. Dennis Thomas

    Yeah, pretty much many old 50mm Russian Jupiter lenses can get you this for $50. Or an old Leica Summar for about $200. It’a a shame when lansbabies cost more than Leicas and do the same job but worse…

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  3. Steven James

    Sorry, nothing new to see here, and definitely overpriced at $500 !!!! That’s a gouge. Want some cheap lenses with character? Try these for size: http://sjp.id.au/photography/lensbaby-velvet-56-lens/

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  4. Phil Bautista

    I’m not a fan of the bokeh circles of confusion of this lens but that’s a matter of personal taste. What is a matter of fact is the price of this thing. $500? Rokinon and Yongnuo make a better 50mm for less and I haven’t even gone into the legacy lenses. I see nothing about the look that would make it desirable enough to plunk down $500 but that’s just me.

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      You’re mixing up terms here. Bokeh and “circles of confusion” are not the same.

      A circle of confusion is the smallest point that can be perceived by the human eye as sharp.

      What you are referring to as “bokeh circles of confusion” are diffraction patterns cause by the light right rays nor being focused. And the haze is caused by spherical aberration.

      I’d explain more, but it’s late and there’s plenty out there on Google.

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  5. Graham Curran

    It looks very nice but there are a host of other lenses ahead of it in the queue for my credit card.

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  6. Rafael Steffen

    What an amazing lens! Really love the effects, but if you can create the dreamy effect in photoshop then why spend another 500 dollars.

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    • Stan Rogers

      Soft focus is actually one off the more difficult things to do convincingly in Photoshop. You can easily do diffusion (the equivalent of the old stocking-over-the-lens trick), which will get you some of the halo effect, along with reduced detail, but it’s not quite the same thing (and it’s actually easier to just stretch a stocking over your lens than to do it in post — heck, in the film days I glued on onto the ring of a cheap filter with the filter glass removed). That said, I don’t particularly miss the Rodagon look. But if you’re a working portraitist and the look has come back and that’s what the clients want, $500 once is a lot cheaper than a 5-minute Ps action run a thousand times.

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    • Jerry Jackson

      As someone who has invested stupid amounts of money in old lenses just to get a specific “look” for a still image or video, I absolutely empathize with what Stan is saying about real soft focus versus fake soft focus … but I don’t agree anymore … assuming the editing technique is sound.

      In the last two years I’ve seen some life-changing (or at least technique-changing) work done by several photographers who do post-processing for some big-name clients. I’ve learned enough recently that I could take that second sample photo (the sharper image stopped down to f/2.8) and make it look indistinguishable from the image shot at f/1.6 to get that dreamy look.

      Just to satisfy my curiosity before typing this reply I copied the resized f/2.8 image posted here and I only needed about 30 seconds in CS6 to make a “dreamy look” that closely matches the f/1.6 shot and doesn’t have “obvious” signs of being a Photoshop effect. I could probably do it in less than 20 seconds now that I’ve confirmed the steps I need to take. I won’t publish my Photoshop edit without Anthony’s permission because he owns the original image (and I hate it when people edit my photos and publish the edits without permission).

      However, if you want to see what I’m talking about and Anthony agrees I would be happy to upload my edit to the SLR Lounge forum along with a description of the steps/edits I made to Anthony’s original.

      I’m not trying to say Photoshop can do everything and I’m CERTAINLY not trying to say I’m a Photoshop master (I only learned how to do a halfway decent unsharp mask sharpening two years ago). I am simply trying to argue that the Photoshop tools currently available allow photographers to create much more realistic simulations of soft focus and optical distortions.

      That said, I still agree 100% with Stan’s comment that a one-time purchase of $500 is cheaper than editing 1000 images this way if you’re doing it for a client.

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      “$500 once is a lot cheaper than a 5-minute Ps action run a thousand times.”

      I disagree. It takes a second to press a button to perform a photoshop action. Or if you have to do 1000 photos a couple of minutes tops to run a batch While the batch runs go do something else productive.

      That $500 is well spent elsewhere.

      I’ve got an old Summicron with separating lens elements that does that same effect with more character. I’ll sell it to you for $500. The good thin about the Summicron is that you could still sell it for more for parts when you’re done with it, than that Lensbaby in mint condition.

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      Being touted as a portrait lens, I would have liked to see at least one sample portrait though…

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    • Stan Rogers

      You seem to be underestimating what it takes to create a soft-focus (as opposed to merely diffused) image, J. Denis. The click only takes a second; the multiplicity of lens-blurred layers takes quite a bit longer. And that’s all time you’re spending not shooting. You make money with your camera; you lose it with your computer. (And you can probably get more money for the Summicron in good working order than you’d spend on this lens.)

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      It may take some time to create the action, but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Click and done.
      In any case for $35 and a $5 M42 adapter you can get the same effect from the Zenitar M2S 50mm f/2. Sure it’s not metal, but it’s the effect your after with a lens like this.

      (As far as the Summicron goes, I’ve got dozens of them in various states of disrepair. They can be bought for parts cheap. I buy them, reassemble them with good parts and sell them at a profit. That leaves me with lenses that I sometimes put together with bad parts. Like the Cron with the separated elements. They’re Franken-Crons. I have one that doesn’t have aperture blades in it and it also does a soft focus)

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    • Phil Bautista

      Franken-Crons? It’s aaaaalive! ;-)

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  7. adam sanford

    Anthony, nice review. Seems like at wide apertures, this thing shoots like something from Canon’s discontinued ‘soft-focus’ lenses. When it’s right, I suppose it’s dreamy, but when it’s wrong, it’s Glamour Shots.

    But from what you describe, unlike soft-focus lenses (which can turn that feature on and off at any aperture), this LensBaby effect seems keyed to aperture. This this strikes me as a permanent filtered effect you can only ‘turn off’ by stopping down, which is tantamount to throwing away why you ponied up for a large aperture lens in the first place. I’m not sure how popular of a design call that is going to be.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      I tend to agree with you here Adam. I think this sort of effect would be a much bigger hit if it could be separated from the aperture, and controlled with its own ring, or switch. As is, this lens is unusable wide open for a majority of what most photographer would want to shoot. That said, some people really like this effect, and for them, this lens is probably a dream.

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  8. Sean Goebel

    The technical term for this look is “spherical aberration.”

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  9. Mircea Blanaru

    The price is high but, I think, it is adesirable lens, at least for me. Perhaps in time the price will go down…
    I also think that the bokeh is just great with an almost circular aperture feature.

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    • Jerry Jackson

      If you’re looking for a more economical portrait prime that preserves an almost perfectly circular aperture at all f-stops then I’d highly recommend finding an old Russian Jupiter 9 (85mm f/2 copy of the original Zeiss Sonar 85mm f/2 that the Soviets “liberated” from a Zeiss factory at the end of WWII). There are plenty of sample images from various Jupiter 9 owners on Flickr if you want to see how that lens renders.
      https://www.flickr.com/groups/jupiter9/pool/

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  10. Amanda Jehle

    The look this lens produces when shot wide-open is not really my style, but the effect stopped down a bit is quite nice. However, I can achieve a “dreamy” look in PS without spending $500. One thing about this lens that I really appreciate is the ability to shoot macro with one lens. I love my Canon 50mm, but my one complaint is that I have to swap it out to do macro. It’s annoying on a photo walk to have to cart around my macro lens, too. Of course that’s not a deal breaker, it’s just less convenient. Having the macro ability in my favorite lens would be awesome.

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    • adam sanford

      I love multifunction lenses like you describe. Canon sells three 50-ish lens that I know of that moonlight between being macros and standard lenses (without needing tubes):

      50 f/2.5 Macro might be a good call. 1:2 macro and a nice little sharp standard prime, but you lose USM focusing and it’s a bit slower than Canon’s other 50 primes.

      If you are on crop, the 60 f/2.8 macro is a great call. It’s basically the crop version of the non-L 100 f/2.8 macro. It’s a full 1:1 macro, has USM, and is very, very sharp. But it’s also a very serviceable standard prime for non-macro work.

      Finally, your “macro ability in my favorite lens” comment reminds me of my 24-70 F/4L IS. Yep, it’s a slow zoom, but it’s sharp as hell, packs IS, doesn’t weight a ton, and has a killer 0.7x macro option. It’s a perfect hiking lens when you can only bring one with you. Be advised your working distance is for impromptu snaps of flowers or bugs, it’s not a serious macro tool as you’ll often shade your subject from having to be so close. But it’s an awesome bonus functionality on an already great lens, and I use it often.

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  11. Jerry Jackson

    They want to charge $499 for that!?!

    I will happily admit that I purchased the Lensbaby Composer a few years ago. I don’t use it very often, but I do enjoy the effect of the shifted focus plane from time to time. That said, this lens just looks like a terrible idea.

    What you describe as a “dreamy effect” I would just describe as “horrible optics” or a “Vaseline smear filter effect” at best. You said in the video that this is Lensbaby’s take on a classic mid 20th century portrait lens … but did you actually mean mid 19th century? I’ve purchased almost a dozen used manual focus 50mm and 55mm f/1.4 lenses from all over the world in the past 20 years (including a Soviet-era 50mm f/1.5 Jupiter 3 with terrible coatings made just after the end of WWII). None of the cheap primes I’ve purchased are THIS bad wide open.

    Heck I had an old M42 Pentax 50mm f/1.4 lens with terrible lens fungus that was EXTREMELY soft wide open and had NASTY haze if any sunlight struck the front element … but even that fungus-infested lens didn’t suffer from as much CA and haze as this this “Velvet” lens does wide open.

    I understand the appeal of using lenses with “unique” optical characteristics (that’s why I’ve purchased so many old lenses over the years) but this lens shouldn’t cost more. than $99. You can browse ebay or any online used camera store and find MANY f/1.4-f/2 prime lenses in the 50mm to 90mm range that are MUCH better than this (even the ones with a “soft and dreamy” look wide open) for less than $50.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      Yeah Jerry, It is certainly not a lens for everyone. In regards to your question about my mid-20th century comment in the video, here is a direct C&P from their press release: “Evoking the image style and construction quality of classic portrait lenses of the mid-20th century, Velvet 56 features the heft and smooth, dampened manual focus of these early lenses.”

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