Specialist Portland, Oregon, lens maker Lensbaby has sought to bring some of the best of the past into the present with its amazing new Velvet 56 manual portrait and macro lens, modeled on mid-century portraiture optics.
The 56mm f/1.6 1:2 macro magnification lens promises to bestow a velvety glow on the skin of your portraits subjects while dissolving backgrounds into silky bokeh when in extreme close-up.
The more things change…
The more things change the more they stay the same. Well almost. There is a twist on that ancient adage. It goes like this. The more that moviemaking and stills photography become almost exclusively things of the digital realm, the more that moviemakers and stills photographers long for some of most expressive qualities of the analog era.
And so it goes with lenses. Camera makers have revived the stills megapixels arms race that seemed to go dormant for a while after 20+ megapixel sensors arrived, and cameras made more for movies are settling on 4K as the new normal though with eyes on 6K and 8K for the future.
Such amazing definition demands extraordinary optics to get edge-to-edge sharpness and avoid the distractions of distortion. Some lens makers are rising to the challenge with fast zooms and primes with unprecedented edge-to-edge sharpness. These lenses are becoming the new normal that other lenses will be measured against and they will be more than good enough for most of our daily needs.
Character and expression over sharpness
But other manufacturers are going in the opposite direction, one of character and emotion, and some photographers and cinematographers are rewarding their efforts. I have been looking to join them in doing so since starting to look for a digital analogy to the analog era portrait style I created when shooting for glossy magazines and newspaper color supplements before succumbing to chronic photochemical dermatitis.
I won’t be able to reproduce the exact same style in digital that I had in film and I wouldn’t want to anyway. My style, or styles really, were based on 4”x5” sheet film, 120 roll film, big cameras, Polaroid instant negative film, long lenses and medium wide-angles with moderate maximum apertures.
Environmental portrait or intensely emotional big close-up, I had assembled the right combination of media and hardware to get the best out of each. Now that those cameras and that film have almost entirely vanished, to be replaced by small digital hand cameras, the struggle is to find other ways of creating emotional intensity.
One way forward appears to be with lenses. During the last year or so, some amazing new lenses have been appearing from outside the big camera and lens companies, from limited-run manufacturers, small optics makers in China and Japan or specialists in rebuilding old lenses into something more contemporary yet with olde world traces.
A pleasant surprise from Lensbaby
Now this wonderful surprise has appeared from Lensbaby. I cannot wait to try one out and I probably stand a far better chance of seeing their Velvet 56 in my new hometown, Sydney, than one of the other macro or wide aperture lenses I have been covering for planet5D.com. [bctt tweet=”Lensbaby introduces amazing Velvet 56mm f/1.6 lens for high speed portrait-cum-macro beauty shots.”]
Lensbaby’s all-manual Velvet 56, a 56mm f/1.2 lens will initially be offered for full-frame DSLR cameras, according to their product pages. I no longer rely on DSLRs for my work. DSLMs – mirrorless – is where it is at for me now. I was pleased to see that Lensbaby will release versions for Micro Four Thirds (MFT), Sony’s E-series mirrorless cameras like the A7s, A7R and A7II, the Samsung NX1 and Fujifilm’s X-series interchangeable lens cameras early May.
Lensbaby, please put me down for a serious tryout of the MFT version and one in black, not silver. The last thing I need is my subject being distracted by too much shine while I am trying to induce a mood of deep contemplation.
A portrait style odyssey
My portrait style odyssey began when teaching photography in an art school equipped with Nikon SLRs and Linhof view cameras. Back then my favorite manual 35mm portrait lenses were Nikon’s Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 and Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/4. Lensbaby’s Velvet 56 might be considered an alternative to the 55mm on full-frame cameras and to the 105mm when used on MFT cameras.
Or I could follow the adapter path with the Canon EF version of the Velvet and attach a Metabones Speed Booster for something closer to the MFT equivalent of 55mm and a Metabones Smart Adapter to double the effective equivalent focal length to 112mm.
The question remains though. Will stopping a Velvet 56 down towards the f/16 end of the aperture scale produce sharpness enough in the most essential details like an eye or the shine on a lip to counterpoint all that velvety soft bokeh fore and aft? So far Lensbaby’s photo gallery doesn’t convince me that it will. I will need to try it out for myself to be sure.
But then there is another promising macro-cum-portrait lens out there in the Laowa 60mm f/2.8 Ultra-Macro by Chinese lens maker Venus Optics. That optic may be suited to the Speed Booster/Smart Adapter treatment too, for two effective focal lengths from the one lens and two adapters on an MFT camera. We do live in interesting times!
Lensbaby Announces Velvet 56 – The Most Versatile Portrait Lens Ever Made
Via Canon Rumors:
PORTLAND, OR and ST. LOUIS, MO–(Marketwired – Apr 7, 2015) –(ShutterFest 2015) — Lensbaby, providing creative effects lenses to photographers that ignite their creativity and expand their unique visions of the world, today announced the Velvet 56, a new high-end classic portrait lens. Velvet 56 will be on display for the first time during ShutterFest 2015, being held April 7-8 at St. Louis Union Station, St. Louis, Missouri.
Velvet 56 is a 56mm f/1.6 SLR and mirrorless camera lens with 1:2 macro capabilities. This “new classic” portrait lens delivers a velvety, glowing, ethereal look at brighter apertures, and beautifully sharp but subtly unique images as you stop down — with gorgeous, velvety tones that give digital images a film-like, organic quality. Incredibly versatile, Velvet 56 enables photographers to move seamlessly from shooting an environmental portrait, to capturing details in a subject’s clothing or jewelry. Nature and macro photographers will find its close-focus capabilities, combined with effects varying from impressionistic to just a touch of velvety smoothness, provide a set of visual tools that will expand their vision of the world.
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. Velvet 56, with an all metal body, will be available in two colors: traditional black, plus, Velvet SE, a special silver edition. Velvet SE will feature a beautiful clear-anodized finish, along with engraved aperture and focus markings.
Velvet 56 Specs and Features
* 1:2 Macro
* 62mm filter
* Focuses from 5″ from front element to infinity
* Metal lens hood included with Velvet 56 lenses for mirrorless cameras only
* Dimensions (DSLR) 86mm at infinity to 112mm at Macro, 71.96mm diameter
* Dimensions (mirrorless without hood) 94mm Infinity to 120mm at Macro
* Weight ~400 grams
Velvet 56 retails for $499.95 (MSRP) and $599.95 (MSRP) for Velvet SE. The lenses will be available in Canon, Nikon, Sony A and Pentax mounts beginning 4/13/15 at lensbaby.com, B&H, Adorama, and from select specialty photo stores worldwide. Mirrorless mounts including Micro 4/3rds, Sony E, Samsung NX and Fuji X will be available in early May 2015.
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(cover photo credit: snap from Lensbaby)