Lensbaby Composer

I have two favorite lenses, my 90mm macro and a Lensbaby Composer. For me, these two lenses act like a painters paintbrushes.

Each lens has a particular feel and I use them in different ways, depending on the image I want to capture.

Like Joe and his amazing vintage lenses, I like having a lens that can add imperfections into my photos. Modern lenses are designed to minimize lens flair, have less distortion around the edges, be fast in low light and to reduce or eliminate vignetting. More expensive lenses even have built in image stabilization to minimize vibration that occurs in hand held photography.

All of these attributes are wonderful if you’re photographing sports, fashion, studio or many other styles of photography where accurate representation is important. Perfectionism isn’t really a factor with toy photography so why not have fun and experiment? You can explore vintage lenses like Joe, or try a toy camera lens like the Lensbaby Composer.

Lensbaby Composer

The Lensbaby Composer is different from a vintage lens who’s aberrations are often created in the manufacturing process. The Lensbaby Composer works more like a tilt shift camera. By twisting the front of the lens you move one of the two glass lenses and skew the focal plane. You decide where you want your focal point (sweet spot) to be. You can also determine how much blur you want around the edges depending on your choice of aperture.

The Lensbaby has a truly funky aperture system based on magnetics. You’re given a set of aperture discs that you swap out manually when you want to change your aperture. The disks range in size from f2.8 – f22. More than enough range for the most discerning photographer. The larger your aperture (f2.8) the more blur. The smaller the aperture (f22) the less blur and distortion.

I will fully admit I’m addicted to the dreamy and often surreal blur created by the lens. I think it adds a nice touch to toy photography, especially if I’m looking for a hint of movement in my image.

Side by side comparison

As you can see from this side by side comparison there are subtle but meaningful differences between these two photos. The image on the left taken with my state of the art Sony lens is crisp, clear with beautifully round bokeh. While the same set-up taken using the Lensbaby Composer has a dreamier feel. The radial blur around the edges points back to the subject, while the frozen grass is blurred as if its moving in the wind. Even the bokeh is stretched into an elliptical shape.

Because I like to photography with a very short depth of field my background almost always turns into a soft blurry color field. I like using the Lensbaby because it can bring interest into these areas beyond a pretty blur of colors. I often feel my images take on a dreamlike feeling and I want to emphasize that. My tag line has always been “The Secret World of Toys” and I want to create an other world experience.

A feeling of motion

I’ve had my Lensbaby Composer for about four years. During that time I’ve come to rely on this lens to bring a sense of motion to my static images. There is something about the edge blur that can add a sense of movement. This is easier for me than having to resort to practical effects or Photoshop. I enjoy the challenge of creating my images in the camera without a lot of fuss. I don’t enjoy working in Photoshop, nor do I like to drag around my tripod.

Here are a few examples of images taken with the Lensbaby Composer that I feel bring a sense of motion or surrealism to the image.


Toy Photography doesn’t have to by accurate; we can bend to the rules of realism. We’re taking photos of bits of plastic and we can create images as fanciful as we can imagine. I think toy, plastic, vintage and specialty lenses can help to create unique images that work well with the world of toy photography.

If you’re interested in checking out a Lensbaby they’re more expensive than Joe’s vintage lenses; a new one will cost you around $300US. But if you keep your eyes open, you can pick up a used one for under $100US.

There is a real joy to switching up your lenses. Each lens in your collection will have its own feel and give each image a unique look. Its fun to move outside those super crisp state of the art macro lens and see what else you can capture. There is often a serendipitous nature to your results when using a specialty lens like a Lensbaby. You never quite know what you’re going to capture. And isn’t that part of the magic of photography?

What is your favorite lens to use? Have you tried a vintage lens or a Lensbaby? If you have, what did you think of the results?

~ Shelly

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  1. This is awesome Shelly! That lens looks wonderful! I did get a couple of very cheap toy lenses but I couldn’t work out how to use them when I got them a few years ago. Had to shoot on manual and it just confused me! Maybe it’s time to give them another go!

    • Thanks Lizzi! Im glad you liked this post. Its been percolating for awhile. I really do dig this lens. Not for everyday, but sometime….

      Manual is ok, and I know some people swear by it, but I like aperture priority myself. If you’re interested in the Lensbaby keep your eye out for a used one. It might be a good way to did your toys into the water for not a lot of money.

  2. I’ve been fascinated by Lensbaby lenses ever since seeing your photos with them. Since I’m always shooting indoors, in a relatively small space, I feel like I have to stick to the macro lens so I can keep my scenes small. A wider angle lens just means more background that I have to build, create and light. I think it’s perfect for your shots though Shelly! I love the sense of motion that comes from the blur.


    • Lynn, you can get a inexpensive macro attachment for the lens. Sort of like an extension tube. I have it but found it got me too close to the subject for the work I want to create. But it would be stellar for you! When I first purchased the lens I used it for studio photos. It created some bizarre and interesting effects. I would never recommend it for an every day lens, but I would love to see what effects you could create with the gymnasts.

  3. Shelly, thanks for the insight. When I went through your photoos before reading the entire text, I thought: motion! The lensbaby’s blur has just the effect you describe!

    I’ve always pondering working with a lensbaby (or pinhole lenses for that matter). I never saw the point when I did other images than toy photography … but now you made me see the appeal of toying around with lenses. Cheers!

    • Tobias, if anyone should be messing around with vintage and legacy lenses its you. Sorry, but your work taken with a vintage lens would have an authenticity to them that you could never achieve with a tack sharp state of the art lens. I would love to see what you could do with a lens with aberrations in your low light. Luckily none of the lenses where talking about are so expensive that you couldn’t experiment. If you do, let me know how it goes. πŸ˜€

      • Good point, Shelly! I’ll keep my eyes open … The lens I am shooting almost all my toy photos with is the trusty Micro Nikkor AIS 55/2.8. I guess it is some 15 years old – and optically (but not mechanically; notorious for sticky blades) a great lens even by today’s standards. Focusing sometimes seems to take ages… But I’m getting used to it and it is indeed fun.

  4. Hi Shelly,

    What a timely article! I was just recently thinking about exploring creating the sense of motion in my images. I know how to do it with real time moving subjects but not in post-production nor with toys. I love the amazing motion streaks you’ve created in the images posted.

    I currently use a Tamron 2.8 24-75 which is mainly a portrait lens and I’m certainly keen to check out the Lensbaby budget permitting!


    • Janan, we have an article in the works that is about creating motion in camera. I think this lens and a few tips and tricks from your fellow photographers you will be creating motion images in your amazing style. Check out Koncrete_Bricks on G+. He creates some great images in camera with lots of movement. But whatever you decide, having a couple of lenses at your disposal is great for your creativity. Luckily with toy photography, they don’t have to be expensive ones!

  5. Nice post Shelly. Perfection through imperfection πŸ™‚ I feel it’s often the imperfections that make a photo unique.

    I don’t have any experience with a lensbaby but on a related note; I am looking into getting a wide-angle lens (15-30) do you have experience with those for toy-photography?

    • Hey Dwaas! The way you put it ‘perfection through imperfection’ is very wabi-sabi (a concept i am in love with). Maybe im getting closer to my own internal vision / voice?

      I personally do not have any experience with photographing wide-angle macro. But I do know that Balakov (Mike Stimpson) uses a wide angle lens for his photos. His work is AMAZING! You will obviously end up with more background which you can either make use of or edit out. Before you purchase can you rent the lens? If not, make sure they have a great return / exchange policy. I always rent before parting with my hard earned cash. Ive never regretted a lens purchase yet. I hope you find this mildly helpful πŸ˜€

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