Hands On with the LensBaby SOL 45

LensBaby have released a new model in their range of special effects lenses. This one, the SOL 45, has a focal length of 45mm and combines selective focus and tilting. Here's my review and some photos taken with it.

LensBaby has been around for quite a while now. They became famous for their creative lenses that were inexpensive alternatives to tilt-shift lenses and view cameras, with an emphasis on selective focus and exaggerated bokeh.

They’ve recently come out with a new one, the SOL 45. It’s a 45mm focal length with a fixed aperture of ƒ/3.5. The folks at LensBaby and B&H Photo sent me one to try out. I’ve been using the Nikon mount version.

The effect of this one is to a roughly circular sharper area in the middle of the frame with blurred edges. You can tilt the lens a little to move the sharp area around somewhat. It’s manual focus, has a fixed aperture, and has some manual blades you can use for bokeh effects.

The overall effect isn’t true tilt-shift that you’d use for miniature faking, but it’s somewhat similar to that in that it’s a very narrow selective focus. But rather than manipulating the focal plane, as you would with tilt-shift, this one tends to work on a part of the frame (ie. the center).

What it Does

There’s not much point judging this on the usual things you’d judge a lens on. It’s not very sharp, it’s not very fast, and the edges are extremely blurry, but that’s the whole point of the lens. It’s for special effects only, and if it’s not the effect you’re going for, it’s not the lens for you. And rather than try to describe it, here are some practical examples I shot with it.

It’s not true tilt-shift miniature faking, but you can get a somewhat similar effect, especially when shooting from an elevated vantage point. This example is inside the British Museum on a busy afternoon.

Another shot from a slightly elevated viewpoint for a look that’s similar to miniature faking, this one looking down the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington DC. This is one of two shots on this page I have with a similar scene. In this one, the focus is on the people on the close end of the Reflecting Pool. The other moves the focus to infinity to the Washington Monument in the background.

Even zoomed into 100 percent, it’s quite sharp on Lincoln’s head.

My personal preference is for using with simple or geometric subjects. Without something to make stand out, the shot can get rather cluttered.

Angling either up or down tends to make it more reminiscent of a miniature.

This was using the tilt, moving the sharp area towards the top of the frame.

Special Effects Lenses (Not Filters)

If you’re never used one of these before, something to note is that they are lenses, not filters. What that means is that this goes on instead of your regular lens, not in addition to it. So when you look at the bottom of it, you’ll see a standard lens mount. In this case, it’s the Nikon F-mount. You’ll need to get one with the correct mount for you camera body, just as you would with any other lens.

The end that mounts onto the camera. In this one, it’s a standard Nikon F-mount.

In Use

With a lens like there, there’s really no right or wrong way to use it in the sense that the results are entirely a matter of your creative tastes. No-one is going to be looking at the images it produces and be commenting on the usual optical flaws found in lenses such as sharpness or vignetting or chromatic aberration.

That said, there are a few moving pieces you can use to change the effect. Aside from where you actually point the camera (ie. composing), they fall into focusing and tilting.

Focusing. This is a manual focus lens, so there’s no autofocus. And with the whole point being to create a small focus area that brings a narrow point into focus while leaving everything else wildly out of focus, you have control over exactly which element in the frame you want sharp. In practice, it works best when that sharp element is right in the middle of the frame.

With the SOL 45, the minimum focus distance is about 14 inches (36 cm).

When focusing, the central barrel moves in and out. In this case, it’s retracted.

And in this case, it’s focused in.

Tilting. The second thing you can do is tilt the lens element. First, you need to make sure the lock dial is rotated to the unlocked position, and then you can rock the whole lens. It’s nothing like the kind of massive title you can get from a high-end tilt-shift lens, and I found the effect to be surprisingly subtle, but it does help you move the focal plane around the frame.

An illustration of the mechanics of the tilt.

Bokeh Blades. You can shoot with just focusing and tilting, but there’s another feature built in that gives you even more creative control: the bokeh blades. These are two small plastic arms that swing out in front of the glass element. Normally you don’t want anything blocking the image, but these work in such a way that they can help you shape and give some texture to the bokeh. The effect is quite subtle, and it works to add stylized lines to the blurred light. This isn’t something I’ve found myself using much, but it’s there if you want it.

Using it is low-tech—you just move them manually with your fingers (taking care not to accidentally touch and smudge the glass under it), and it stays in place.

With the bokeh blades folded away and not engaged.

With the bokeh blades across the lens’s viewport.

Adding Filters. The SOL 45 has a filter thread on the front, so you can attach standard filters. It’s a 46mm lens diameter, so you’ll need to use a 46mm filter or an appropriate step-up or step-down ring.

Final Thoughts

As impressive as some of the software filters are these days to look “real,” it’s hard to beat the authenticity of getting it right in the camera. You do lose some flexibility doing it this way–there’s no undo function, and if you get the focus point wrong there’s not much you can do about it in post. But these are very much in the fun category. There’s really no right or wrong way to use them.

The results might be particularly well suited to posting on Instagram. You could also get some interested results using it when shooting time-lapse.

Where to Buy

The Sol 45 comes in version with various mounts, including Nikon F, Canon EF, Sony E, Sony A, Pentax K, and Fuji X. One thing to note is that some of the versions are quite a lot taller than the others. The Fuji X and Sony E versions, for instance, are considerably longer than the Nikon F version pictured here.

You can find them at B&H Photo.

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