Lenses designed for specific uses have become increasingly common. Defying this trend is Lensbaby, which for years has produced innovative products that open creative avenues for photographers.
The latest from Lensbaby is the Velvet 28 f/2.5. This lens marks the third in the Velvet line, joining the Velvet 85 f/1.6 and Velvet 56 f/1.6, and adding wide-angle coverage for landscape, travel, and street photographers.
What distinguishes the Lensbaby Velvet lenses from other modern glass is their ability to produce sharp images at wide apertures with a soft glow. The effect is reminiscent of that popularized by the pictorialist school of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when large-format lens design resulted in uncorrected spherical aberration.
I tested the Velvet 28 on my Nikon D780 and Z 6 cameras. The lens is available in specific models for DSLR and mirrorless bodies. I used the DSLR version on both Nikons, using the Nikon FTZ adapter on the Z 6, which turned out to be my preferred setup. The lens for the Nikon Z bodies differs from the DSLR version with its longer length, which maintains the correct distance between the optics and the sensor.
The Velvet 28 is available in mounts for a wide range of additional cameras, including Canon EF (DSLR), Canon RF (mirrorless), Fujinon X (mirrorless), Micro Four Thirds, Sony E (mirrorless), and Pentax K (DSLR). There is no model for L-mount mirrorless cameras, although you could use a Canon or Nikon Velvet 28 with the appropriate adapter.
Lensbaby denotes the maximum aperture of the Velvet 28 as f/2.5, but in reality it’s a third of an EV larger (f/2.2), indicated by a + on the aperture scale. At f/2.2 the glow effect is slightly more pronounced than at f/2.5, and the 12-blade diaphragm is not used. As the diaphragm is closed down, the glow disappears at f/5.6. To take advantage of the wider apertures for long exposures or video, you’ll need 67mm neutral density filters to screw into the lens.
The 12-blade diaphragm, as opposed to the 9-blade design of most optics, is worthy of mention. With it, the Velvet 28 produces beautiful, round highlights at all apertures. You can feel distinct clicks as you rotate the diaphragm through the stops. I wish the aperture ring were a little larger or had a different feel than the wide and smoothly turning focusing ring. The focusing ring itself takes getting used to as it requires turning through more than 300 degrees to go from infinity to closest focus.
With no electrical connection between the lens and the camera, the Velvet 28 is entirely manual. No aperture information is communicated to the body and no EXIF information is recorded. This required the use of my Nikons in aperture priority or manual modes. Using aperture priority, exposures with both cameras are consistently accurate. With the D780 in manual mode, the exposure indicator in the viewfinder works fine. With the Z 6 in manual it’s necessary to judge exposure visually.
While determining accurate exposure is easily done without electrical connections, determining accurate focus can be more difficult, particularly at wide apertures. With the soft glow delivered by the Velvet 28 and its wide field of view, determining the exact plane of focus generally requires stopping the lens down to f/5.6 for focusing and then opening it for the exposure. In most cases, a static subject and a tripod-mounted camera are needed for best results.
Since both the Z 6 and D780 have a peaking highlights custom function in live view, I was able to use this to determine focus. With peaking highlights (also known as focus peaking) enabled, a bright highlight is displayed outlining the point of focus. The ability of the Z 6 to display the points of focus through the viewfinder with the Velvet 28 at its widest f/2.2 made the Z 6 my choice of camera with this lens. The D780 required me to stop down the Velvet 28 to f/5.6 before the peaking highlights or the viewfinder focus assist would activate.
In addition to its soft glowing renditions, the Velvet lenses focus to half life-size. While I made use of this in my testing of the Velvet 28 because I love close-up photography, it places the lens within a couple of inches of the subject.
With bright sun to take advantage of glowing highlights, it can be a battle to keep both your own and the lens’ shadow out of the frame. I prefer the Velvet 56 with its even wider maximum aperture and greater working distance for this type of work. However, the uniqueness and versatility of using a wide-angle macro soft-focus lens has opened my eyes to interesting creative possibilities. The Velvet 28 is the only lens I’m aware of to ever offer this unique set of visual characteristics.
At a time when photographic lenses are highly specialized in function, a lens as versatile as the Lensbaby Velvet 28 can open creative possibilities. With its homage to century-old optical technology, it also opens the ability to explore an era of photographic history without resorting to software tricks and simulations. The Lensbaby Velvet 28 is $549.99.
Stan Sholik is a photographer and writer in San Clemente, California.