Gear Review: Lensbaby Sol 22 / 45

The Lensbaby Sol 22 / 45 is a selective, manual-focus lens with a sharp, circular area of focus that fades to blur/bokeh. Its tilt feature moves the area of focus around the frame – although not all the way to the edge of the frame.

After taking more than 2000 photographs with the Lensbaby Sol 22, I’m sure of four things: 1) the fun factor is well worth the US$199.95 price; 2) its compact size and light weight make it easy to carry on any photography outing; 3) not all subject matter lends itself to the Lensbaby look; and 4) the combination of manual focus, tilt shift and bokeh blades means more practice is required before I can be confident that photos taken with this lens will consistently match what I envision before pressing the shutter button.

Why Buy?

Years ago, I signed up for the Lensbaby monthly e-newsletter. When we attended PhotoPlus Expo 2014, I came away with a copy of Lensbaby – Bending Your Perspective (2nd ed) that I’ve paged through several times. In 2018, when Lensbaby announced pre-sales for the Sol 22 (the micro four-thirds (MFT) equivalent to the Sol 45), I was ready to give a Lensbaby creative effect lens a try.

I placed my pre-order on mid-August and the lens arrived a month later – just two days before Beakerhead 2018. Knowing I’d want to use the Sol 22 on at least some of my Beakerhead photo assignments, I immediately mounted the lens to my Olympus OM-D E-M5 mk ii and headed out to give it a try. Here’s the first photo taken with the new lens:

Lensbaby-Sol22
The first outdoor shot I took with the Sol 22 gave our sturdy front door a rather dreamy look.

First Impressions

Despite its light weight (165 grams/just under 6 ounces), the lens feels solid – mostly metal and glass). The built in bokeh blades are plastic, as is the inner ring of the tilt shift mechanism. The front element of the fixed 3.5 aperture lens takes up about a quarter of the overall lens diameter (17/70 mm or 5/8 of 2 3/4 inches). With both front and back caps on, the lens stands 5 cm/2 inches tall. A protractor indicates the range of tilt at just under 10 degrees and I’ve found it effective at shifting the area of focus from the center of the frame to roughly the rule-of-thirds intersect points.

The first full day with this lens brought a very low-risk in-the-field opportunity – a sneak peek at a few Beakerhead installations with several other members of the photo crew. I shot with the Lensbaby Sol 22 the whole evening. By the time we called it quits, I realized three things.

First, the blur effect surrounding the sweet spot of focus is very effective at emphasizing or conveying a sense of motion.

Lensbaby-Sol22
The blur on the front end of the lumbering contraption creates the illusion that it’s moving much faster than it was.

Second, the same combination of focused area surrounded by blur is great at drawing the viewer’s attention to the primary subject.

Lensbaby-Sol22
With so much distance between the Sextant Tesla Coils and the Calgary Tower, the sweet spot really helped me create an image that brings the eye to the lightning bolt striking the tower’s antenna.

And finally, I would not be shooting all of my Beakerhead photo assignments with this lens – too gimicky! But I would use it in some circumstances (e.g. multiple photographers on one assignment) and for supplemental fun/artsy photos after I’d nailed each assignment’s shot list.

Three Months On

After another 3+ months experience using this lens for a couple thousand photos and I stand by my initial impressions. In every use case, nailing the focus is essential. In addition to my standard practice of turning on in-camera focus peaking and magnification, I’d do well to take more shots of each scene to increase the likelihood of getting the focus just right.

Lensbaby-Sol22
With the sweet spot focussed on the area at the second corner, the blurred foreground and sides imply moving at speed along the pathway, maybe jogging or cycling?
Lensbaby-Sol22
With the sweet spot aimed at one of the Three Sisters peaks, the soft bokeh implies a stiff breeze moving the autumn leaves framing the scene.
Lensbaby-Sol22
Even using the manual focus aids in my camera (focus peaking, mainly), it’s very easy to miss the intended plane of focus – in this case the minifig face. A slight uptilt to the lens may have helped in this case.

I’ve discovered two other use cases that really suit this lens. One is bringing a resting spot for the eye to a messy subject.

Lensbaby-Sol22
With the sweet spot locked in the centre position for this shot, the surrounding leaves are nicely blurred despite being on the same plane of focus as the centre leaf.
The sweet spot of sharp focus reinforces what the photographer wants you to look at

Another great application is photographing impressions of intimate landscapes.

Lensbaby-Sol22
The unusual mash-up of fall colour and deep, early snow is emphasized by the abstraction produced by the Sol 22.
Lensbaby-Sol22
The blur effect helps reinforce the illusion that this trio of ducks is walking on water!

I can’t decide how I feel about the results when I try to shoot big landscapes with this lens. What do you think? Does it work?

Lensbaby-Sol22
Not a good choice for conventional landscapes/naturescapes, the Sol 22/45 is a good choice if there’s one particularly thing in the scene you’re trying to emphasize. In this case, I wanted to show the snow making machines at work. Too bad I just missed the desired plane of focus!

Bokeh Blades

This lens comes with built-in bokeh blades.

Bokeh blades deployed

Looking through other photographers’ images shot with the Sol 45, it seems that the “bold bokeh” effect is far less pronounced on the Sol 22. I do use the blades to stop down the lens to the equivalent of f5, especially if it’s a bright day and I’m fighting blown highlights. I will keep experimenting, to see if I can come up with another compelling use case for the bokeh blades in the MFT world.

Manual Focus

Manual focus combined with the fairly small sweet spot often leads to results that don’t quite work. For example, I worked hard to get all of Mr. GeoK in focus in this shot, but even with focus peaking and focus magnification turned on and using the tilt feature to maximum range, I was not successful.

Lensbaby-Sol22
Even with a month of practice, I’m still inconsistent with using the tilt-shift feature to aim the sweet spot exactly where I want it. In this case, standing on the level with Mr. GeoK, I was unable to get both his feet and his face in the zone of focus.

Even so, the manual focus is one of my favourite things about this lens. It forces me to slow down and that practice has carried over to when I’m shooting with auto-focus lenses.

Conclusions

Two things about this lens support my continued growth as a photographer: the manual focus and the way it prompts me to look at familiar subjects with a fresh eye. It’s small size and light weight mean I’ll routinely pack this lens when I head out and about. It’s a lot of fun and pushes my creative boundaries!

Do you ever shoot with a creative effect lens? If yes, what other use cases have you got for me? If not, would you like to give it a try?

Final Thoughts (that have nothing to do with this lens)

When I started writing this post, I remembered writing at least one lens review in the past. When I read that old piece of work – looking for guidance on what to include – my first reaction to past me’s writing was pretty negative!

Not only was the content poorly organized and relatively unhelpful, the photos don’t meet the standard I set for myself today. But thanks to a book I recently read, I quickly moved out of gap-focus mode, to thinking about the value of leaving old posts in the public domain: they let me compare my work now to my work as far back as 2008, when I started blogging. I can see how my work has evolved and improved. And sometimes it helps me see things that I stopped doing for one reason or another, and that I’d like to start doing again. 

Whether you blog, keep a journal, have a portfolio of work, a collection of photographs, sections of code, a bunch of spreadsheets you’ve created, an accumulation of recordings or whatever, I’m curious… How do you save/share/curate your creative work? Do you put it out there and leave it there forever? Or take down work that no longer measures up?

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