So let me start by saying this lens isn’t for everyone. If you are looking for the sharpest, most perfect lens with autofocus and all of the latest bells and whistles – this isn’t it. But if you are looking for something fun that may push you into shooting differently, then read on.
I’ve never owned a Lensbaby lens until now. I’ve always wanted to try one out, and I’m not afraid of crazy bokeh or different looks from different lenses. I own and have shot extensively with the 58mm Helios M44-7 and M44-2 lenses with their crazy swirly bokeh, and the older Nikon NIKKOR-S 50mm f/1.4 with its somewhat distracting odd-shaped bokeh. So when the new Lensbaby Sol 45 was announced, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one.
Now that I’ve had a few weeks to shoot with it I can say that I have really enjoyed shooting with it. I’ve shot it on a D500 (crop), A D750 (full), and an F5 (35mm film). All have given different yet similar looks. Note that on the D500 you lose some of the out-of focus area due to the crop, but the flip side is that you can get the in-focus area nearly all the way to the edge.
As mentioned before, the lens is manual focus. If you are a Nikon shooter like me, then you can take advantage of the small in-focus dot in the view finder along with the arrows that tell you which way to turn the focus ring. Note that this is a non-native lens, ie not Nikon, and the arrows are backwards in regards to what direction you need to turn the focus ring. Don’t worry, you get used to it. Be certain you also have your diopter set correctly for your eyesight so that you can also visually tell that you are in focus. I shoot a lot of older medium format film cameras so I feel right at home with manual focus.
Speaking of focus; the out-of-focus areas are nice and not too busy, and the DOF isn’t bad for f/3.5. Its also very liberating to shoot with – no worrying about f-stops since its fixed at f/3.5. I just set the camera to A-Priority and set the min shutter speed and go, only worrying about composition and what’s in/out of focus. The lens, in the areas where it’s not bokeh’d out, is surprisingly sharp.
Also, I’ve read where some call this a tilt-shift lens; let’s get this clear - its not. It has tilt, but no shift. So you can’t re-correct your buildings to be straight. If that’s what you are looking for, better off spending some big $$ on a proper tilt-shift lens.
As it is, the lens is nearly all metal and feels good in the hands. No cheap rubber focusing ring – just glorious knurled metal. It has a nice heft to it, but is fairly small on the camera so it doesn’t take up much room if you throw your camera in your bag with the lens on it.
It should be obvious by now that I really like this lens. It’s made me get out of my comfort zone while at the same time allowing me to look at some of the things I’ve shot many times before in a different way. I really want to do some more portrait photography with this lens and will keep it in my bag to have when I need something “different”. I also like that the end of the lens is threaded, so that I can do some interesting long exposures with some ND filters.
OK, what don’t I love about it?
I’m not really a fan of the “bokeh blades”. I think they make the bokeh very distracting and choppy. I probably won’t be using that feature very much. Someone mentioned to me that it may be interesting for architecture or maybe night imagery, so I might try it for that. We’ll see.
The outer ring on the tilt section is fairly wide, and on the F5 it strikes the part of the camera under the “NIKON” logo on the upper front, not allowing for full tilt upwards. But it works fine on the D750 and only interferes a little bit on the D500.
Lastly, the lens cap is fairly cheap and finicky – sometimes is hard to get clicked back on all the way and I know I am going to lose it. No worries, when that happens I’ll buy a better one.
For only $199 it’s a lot of fun and definitely worth adding to your bag of tricks. Yes some will argue that you can get the same effects by post-processing, but I would argue that the bokeh and look this lens creates isn’t exactly easy to reproduce. As new lenses go that’s a pretty cheap price, and based on what I’ve seen older Lensbaby lenses go for on the used market, you’d probably not lose much $$ if you bought one, used it for a while and then decided to sell it. But I bet you’ll keep it.
If you aren't looking for the tilt feature and are trying to keep the budget low, check out one of the Helios lenses I mentioned early on in this review. They can be had for less than $100 usually on ebay and have some very swirly out of focus bokeh.
If you are interested in learning more about the Sol 45, check out the Lensbaby website.
Thanks for reading!