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Photog Connection – Lensbaby Velvet 56mm f/1.6 Lens

It may seem a bit odd for us to take a look a camera lens but, in fact, I’ve been working on a series of photography-related articles simply because we shoot a lot of photos for our stories. Add to that the fact that many of our readers also like taking photos of their fat-bike adventures and some insight into the gear and techniques we use might just be useful to some of you fine folks.

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So, while I was working on those articles I got a ping from the folks at Lensbaby asking if we wanted to test out any of their products. The Velvet 56 immediately caught my eye. I’d noticed it in the past but, at the time, they did not support the Micro 4/3 mount that my Olympus cameras use; previously having only been available in a Nikon or Canon mount.

Since the original introduction, the Velvet 56 now supports all the following mounts:

  • Nikon F
  • Canon
  • Micro 4/3
  • Sony E
  • Sony Alpha A
  • Fuji X
  • Pentax
  • Samsung NX

With a list like that most all of the popular Mirrorless and DSLR cameras are covered.

The Velvet 56 is what I’d call an Art Lens. It is a Manual Focus, 56mm, f/1.6 lens with an effective focal length that will vary depending on the sensor size of your camera. On a full-frame DSLR it is pretty close to the standard 50mm focal length. On my Oly it has an effective 35mm, full-frame equivalent focal length of 112mm; putting it in the short telephoto/portrait lens range.

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The Velvet 56 is feels solid in the hand and the body is all metal including the lens cap. Weight is about 410g or 14.5oz so it is a hefty piece! Above is a size comparison with my Olympus 45mm f/1.8 on the left the Velvet 56 in the middle and my Olympus 12-40 f/2.8 zoom on the right.

This is a manual focus lens, and a manual aperture as well, so if you are used to auto focus/exposure there will be some learning curve but at least we are shooting digital these days and experimenting is a lot easier, or at least less expensive, that in the old film days. Basically, I set my Olympus to “Manual” and used the sunny 16 rule you may have learned in photography class. On a sunny day, set the shutter speed to the effective ASA and the aperture to f/16 as a base exposure and adjust from there. Typically, for sunny day shooting outside, this was 1/250 shutter and f/16. Note though that the main optical effect that the lens is used for is a soft, almost dreamy quality so I opened up the aperture and, consequently, was able to shoot at faster shutter speeds.

Here are some example photos from Urban Jungle Cross V. For these shots I pre-focused on a spot on an uphill climb where the riders would be in a pre-determined spot and traveling fairly slowly. Using a traditional lens, these would be tack sharp using the same technique.

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Dream world at f/2.

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Same spot but stopped down to f/16.

The next two photos show the effect of stopping down and the increase in sharpness and the diminishing of the dreamy quality with the subject bike in the same spot.

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Super dream world! Focus was spot on on the down tube decals. The exposure was 1/500th of a second at f/1.6 (wide open).

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The sharpening. Same spot with the aperture set to f/16 with the shutter speed slowing to 1/60 of a second.

A few more shots showing the soft-focus quality of the Velvet 56 at either wide open aperture f/1.6 or stopped down slightly to f/2.

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I’ve been shooting with and experimenting with the Velvet 56 for a while now and I find it most useful for subjects that are not moving and that you have more than a fleeting moment to capture the image. It is great for portraits and the wide open swirly bokeh effect but it is, sometimes, frustratingly hard to get that exactly right when you have a moving subject and are panning with the background. Stopping down the aperture begins to lose the effect fairly quickly but adds sharpness and, thus, versatility. I think the relationship between the subject and the background distance is one of the keys to getting it just right.

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Not a fat-bike, but this is right out of the camera, no post processing for effect and I really like how the soft focus worked on this particular photo.

After shooting this on my Olympus Micro 4/3 I’d like to give it a go on a full frame camera where the unique effects are even more pronounced. I’d definitely want to really plan out a shoot so I could dial in the scene to the strengths of the Velvet 56.

In the end, I think that if you already have a well rounded collection of sharp, shoot ’em like you see ’em lenses, the Velvet 56 would be great addition to your collection for its unique look. It will just take some experience to know how to get the most out of it. Go shoot and have some fun!

The Velvet 56 retails for $499.99 and is available at http://lensbaby.com.

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