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Want to surprise yourself? Try putting a crappy, plastic lens onto your high-end digital camera.
We call these artistically ironic adapters “toy lenses,” and the hard-to-control analog results are often quite startling and serendipitous. By contrast, grunge-ifying your photos with software (think Instagram) is both repeatable and predictable.
The latest toy lens comes from Japanese company SLR Magic. Here’s what it does, plus a look at a few other purposely junky lenses.
SLR Magic Toy Lens
This lens even looks like a toy, and comes with a bagful of brightly-colored plastic rings that can be slid onto the barrel for extra grip. Its specs are a lot more interesting, though: 26mm ƒ1.4. The lens fits only Micro Four Thirds bodies, so that gives it a 52mm (35mm equivalent) focal length.
Unlike many “toy” lenses, the elements are multicoated glass, and the results show it. You certainly get some odd color-shifts, and the image quality falls off fast towards the edges, but the lens can bite some sharp detail from the center of the frame.
Here’s a slideshow from the SLR Magic group on Flickr.
The hitch? The lens costs ¥9,800, or around $120, plus shipping from Japan. Fear not, though. This lens appears to be little more than a rebranded c-mount (CCTV-camera) lens with some fancy-colored plastic rings and a new lens-mount added. Made by Feihua (also branded Fujian), these lenses can be picked up from Ebay, complete with a Micro Four Thirds adapter, for around $40, or even cheaper if you already have an adapter.
The LensBaby is, despite its infantile name, the spiritual daddy of the deliberate-blur scene. First conceived as a simplified, plastic-lensed alternative to the crazy-expensive tilt-shift lenses used by architectural photographers and co-opted by creative types, the LensBaby has spawned a whole family of optics.
Now there are fisheyes, adapters that let you use Nikon lenses on Micro Four Thirds bodies – complete with tilt – and interchangeable, drop-in optics. But the real heart of the range is the Composer.
It works like this. You focus the lens on the spot you want sharp. A flower in a field, say, or a model’s eye. You then twist the front of the lens, which moves the glass elements so they are skewed away from the film-plane. This moves the “sweet spot” to wherever you like in the frame.
Recompose to put the flower or eye back in this sweet spot and you have a unique effect: One, off-center spot is sharp, the rest disappears into a surreal and dreamy blur.
I bought myself a LensBaby a few years ago (best birthday gift I ever received) and I love it. However, it’s not cheap: The Composer with the Double Glass optic is $250. Consider this to be the entrance fee, however, as you’ll soon be shopping for the accessory drop-in optics.
LensBaby Composer [LensBaby]
At the other end of the quality scale is the Diana Fisheye lens, which can be mounted via an adapter onto most bodies. The Diana itself is a medium format film camera, which means that its lenses suffer from a crop-factor, even when used on a full-frame SLR. This stops it from being a proper fisheye, but you’ll still get strongly-curved distortion at the picture’s edge.
The $45 lens is, in short, junk. Somehow the distortions and color shifts that look so good on film look terrible on a digital camera. Fastened to my full-frame Nikon D700 the results were disappointing. The lack of contrast, ugly chromatic aberration (when the lens focusses different colors of light in different places, resulting in fringing) and overall effect made me think “cheap digicam” rather than “cool Instagram.”
Even if you’re really on a budget, you should avoid this lens. Worse, the adapter gets stuck fast to the lens, so you can’t even reuse that.
The 20mm Diana F+ Fisheye Lens [Lomo]
Here’s the perfect antidote to the Diana. Low-tech and possibly free, depending on how fancy you get, the pinhole isn’t even a lens. It’s just a hole, meaning, if you discount the material holding the hole, you’re taking a photo with nothing. Did I just blow your mind?
A pinhole camera focusses light by making the aperture so tiny that it effectively gives an infinite depth-of-field. Spectacle wearers can check this effect by taking of their glasses and peering through a tiny hole (make one by curling a finger if you like). You’ll see that you can make out distant objects much better than with the naked eye.
The lack of glass means you don’t get such a sharp picture as you would with more sophisticated light-bending, and the tiny apertures let such little light through that exposures are necessarily long, but pinholes seem perfect for digital cameras because of the instant feedback. You can make mistakes and correct them immediately, instead of waiting a week to get the film back and finding everything is black.
The easiest way to get into pinholes is to make one with black card perforated with a sewing needle. This is almost free. Or you can get fancy and try out something like the Pinwide, a wide-angle pinhole for Micro Four Thirds cameras.
Hands-On With the Pinwide Wideangle Pinhole for Micro Four Thirds [Gadget Lab]
Household Junk and Other Hacks
You’ll also find plenty of other neat “lenses” in your house. Try shooting through the bottom of a bottle or glass, snapping photos using mirrors to distort things.
Another old favorite is the ghetto macro lens, a great trick if you’re not scared of dust. Take the lens off your camera, flip it around and hold it backwards in front of the lens-hole. Moving the whole rig backwards and forwards to focus on your subject, you should be able to shoot as close as a few centimeters. Believe it or not, there exist adapters to let you this. They’re called “reversal rings,” and they still work out cheaper than a proper macro lens.
Any other tricks? Leave them in the comments.
- The $50 Hole: Photojojo’s Body-Cap Pinhole Conversion
- Instagram for iPhone, Like a Lomo-Twitter for Your Photos
- Hands-On With Lensbaby Fisheye and Soft-Focus Optics
- DIY Fisheye Made From Broken Lens
- Panasonic Adds 8mm Fisheye to Micro Four Thirds Lineup