It's funny; we live in an an age when phenomenal photographic performance is available at prices so low that even the average consumer can afford a tack-sharp DSLR and a bagful of lenses – and yet the success of iPhone apps like Hipstamatic shows us that sometimes, sharp images and accurate color capture simply can't create the feel we used to get from working around the inadequacies of our old point and shoot rigs. Vignetting, discoloration, distorted optics, soft focus … all signals that something in your optical chain is sub-optimal, and yet all can add an amazing feel to an image if used creatively.
These sorts of effects are certainly possible to apply to an image during post-processing – but as in all things photographic, you're much better off achieving as much of an effect as possible in-camera. Also, being able to see your lens effects through the eyepiece can open up creative shooting options you might not think of.
And so to the Lensbaby system. In some ways it seems ridiculous to take a multi-thousand dollar DSLR and screw such an odd, lo-fi lens system into it – and yet this bizarre, highly manual and relatively cheap optical system would appear to give the average DSLR a whole bunch of new effect possibilities that can be used to great emotional effect.
The newest lensbaby lens is the Composer Pro, but before speaking too much of it, you need to understand how the whole system works. When you buy a lens, it doesn't come with optics per se. So the Composer Pro doesn't actually have a focal length to speak of, or a maximum aperture value. It's just a lens body, with a tilt ring and a focus ring.
Into your lens you drop one of a number of thimble-sized optics. You can get optics for 50mm, 35mm, fisheye 12mm, plastic optics, soft focus optics and others. As far as aperture goes, only the "Sweet 35" optic has an aperture control ring on the lens itself. For the rest, you drop a small ring into the lens to set your aperture size. It's about as manual a process as it gets.
Once your lens is on, you've put an optic into it and an aperture ring, it's time to go shooting. And even if you've put a relatively standard double-glass 50mm optic in, things can still get very strange – because the Composer Pro lens body is designed to tilt away from perpendicular, in such a way as to throw the focus plane out of its normal alignment.
So you end up with a "sweet spot" of sharp focus, surrounded by some pretty crazy blur, depending on which aperture you've chosen. All this odd bending and focusing of light can produce some beautiful, creative and evocative images well outside the box for what you'd expect on a modern DSLR.
The Composer Pro ships for US$300 with the double-glass 50mm lens, or US$400 with the Sweet 35 optic, equipped with a manual aperture ring instead of the drop-in aperture discs. Alternative drop-in optics range from US$40 for the highly distorted plastic optic to US$180 for the Sweet 35.