The joys and frustrations of a new toy. Somehow when Spring rolls around, my thoughts turn to flower photography. Things start blossoming, colour appears, and sometimes the sun even comes out. (This is the UK after all … anything can happen in Spring) I take myself off to somewhere with lots of flowers, and attempt to improve my technique.
This year, I thought I was prepared. I took an online course on Creative Live, by Kathleen Clemons, who produces some amazing floral photography. One of the things that appealed to me was her use of Lensbaby lenses. Now OK, I presume she’s sponsored to praise these things in seminars, but she does get some gorgeous results with them, and inspired me to get a Composer Pro II with Sweet 35 optic to try out for myself.
So new toy in hand, off I trotted to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 130 hectares of gardens supplying floral paradise to the nation since 1759. You can’t hope to cover all of it properly in one day, so I headed for the cherry blossom trees in all their finery, to try getting to grips with the Lensbaby.
Now I promised myself this wouldn’t become a “camera kit blog”, because let’s face it, there are plenty of gear-heads out there already, and I don’t propose to become one of them; but I can’t talk about my latest attempts at flowers, without at least setting the scene around a Lensbaby Sweet 35. This is a fully manual, fixed focal length lens, so all you get to adjust is the aperture, and where it points. It’s basically a lens on a swivel-ball, and you can swivel it to place the ‘sweet spot’ i.e. the sharp bit, where you want in the frame, while the rest of frame has a pleasant blur effect. The tricks are: knowing where you want the sweet spot; getting the sweet spot over that bit; and crucially – getting it in focus. Easier said than done, in practice.
First issue – being fully manual, my camera stabilisation did not work with this lens. This is the point at which you come to realise how much you’ve come to depend on image stabilisation, and how unstable your ever-getting-older hands have become for very fine-focus work, even with good technique.
Second issue –my focus peaking did not work on manual focus with this lens either, since there’s no electronic connection to the camera. Doesn’t help you see if it’s the focus, or your eyes, which are not quite on the money.
Third issue – where is the flaming sweet spot?! Sometimes I could see it, sometimes I couldn’t. It seems you can move it right out of frame if you’re not careful.
They say there’s quite a learning curve with this lens, and I won’t argue with that!! I wasn’t expecting perfect results first time out the gate, but it was hard to both put the sweet spot where I wanted and get it in focus. It’s also difficult to assess on the camera LCD, so it wasn’t until I got home and viewed images on the desktop that I was able to judge how the day had gone. It was a mixed bag.
Some were just plain out of focus. Bleh. Some were almost in focus, but not quite. Grrr. Some were in focus, but in the wrong place! *%&*^&! This one was meant to have the blossom at top left as the focal point, but it’s not quite sharp, and the focus is actually on the leaf below it; not something I was able to see at the time.
All the variables only came together correctly on two or three occasions. Frustrating, but when it did happen, the effect was pleasing. The centre bloom is the focal point here, and the surrounds blur off nicely.
When it does come together, you can get something really nice, as with this Hellebore:
And if you tweak further in Photoshop, you can go artistically mad! 😀
So my conclusions from the day?
- Yes, there is a learning curve, and real success will not happen without much practice.
- Hand-holding, close up work without image stabilisation is not easy with this lens, therefore using a tripod is probably a good idea for serious work.
- I need to practice more before going into the field again, maybe indoors/tabletop with a tripod.
That said, I see some real potential here for some very nice shots, once the complexities of it are mastered.
Maybe by this time next Spring, I’ll be ready to get them right!