Lensbaby Spark: Fun Sparky Baby

 
Lensbaby Spark

Lensbaby Spark

The springy bellows and a fixed f/5.6 aperture of the Lensbaby Spark promises to be liberating and a whole lot of fun. K Madhavan Pillai puts it to the test.

Introduced in September 2012, the Spark is the latest, and the most inexpensive, in the line-up of selective focus lenses by Lensbaby. Walking down a busy street with the Lensbaby Spark attached to a Nikon D600 certainly attracts attention. Curious bicyclists and college kids stop and stare as I squeeze the bellows of the Spark, trying to position the circular ‘sweet spot’ of focus over my subject.

It takes about 10 frames and just as many minutes to ensure that I have got the perfect focus and composition. Yet, the effect I get on my image with the Spark is nothing short of pleasing.

Features
This 50mm lens lets a circular part of the frame be in focus, while the rest progressively blurs out. This circular sweet spot can be moved around the frame, and towards infinity or for a closeup, by simply pushing or squeezing the bellows around.

Unlike the Spark, previous versions of the Lensbaby (the considerably more expensive Composer and the Composer Pro) uses a swivel ball to position the sweet spot and a focus ring to get the subject sharp. Once you position and focus the lens, the Composer retains it for the next shot. On the other hand, the bellow of the Spark springs back into its original position once you release it. This makes it quite tough to get a second shot that is identical to the first.

Another big difference between the Spark and the Composer is that the aperture of the Spark is fixed at f/5.6. With the Composer, aperture can be changed from f/2 to f/22 using ‘interchangeable, magnetic aperture disks’ that need to be inserted.

That said, I find the rationale for fixing the aperture to f/5.6 quite sound. It lets enough light into the camera for comfortably viewing either through the optical viewfinder or on the LCD panel. It is narrow enough for the right amount of depth-of field, so that the user can focus quickly. An aperture of f/5.6 is also large enough for relatively high shutterspeeds in good daylight, to freeze motion.

The Spark uses the Lensbaby Optic Swap system. By default, the lens comes with the multi-coated double-glass optical module. However, you can purchase other optical modules (fish-eye, soft focus, single glass, plastic, or pinhole/zone plate) and use them instead for different effects. To swap the optics, you need a special tool, which comes bundled with the optic swap modules.

The filter diameter is 37mm, which is common enough to find creative filters for. Lensbaby also sells a rather interesting ‘accessories kit’ which includes macro filters, wide angle and telephoto converters and creatively shaped apertures.

The image circle thrown by the lens is meant for a full frame 35mm camera. While the lens can also be used with DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors, I find their viewfinders a little too small for setting the focus accurately.

Handling
The Spark is extremely light, but is made of robust plastic, including the lens mount. The front of the lens that holds the optics and filters is metal. The rubber bellow is tough and should see through plenty of wear. I liked the wide plastic flange at the front of the lens. It allows one to use the bellows quite effectively.

It takes a while to get used to handling the Spark, especially if it is the first time you are using a Lensbaby. The camera needs to be used in the Manual mode because there is no information being exchanged between the camera and the lens.

A two-handed, more accurate operation of the bellows also takes time to learn, especially with full frame DSLRs that have larger right-hand grips. However, once you get used to it, handling becomes instinctive and producing good images becomes easier.

My only serious gripe with the Spark is that the front element of the optical module is so recessed, that it is difficult to clean.

Performance
On the other hand, the advantage of the optical module being so recessed is that flare is cut off quite effectively, improving colour contrast and sharpness. I was quite surprised to see a high level of sharpness produced by the rather simplistic double-glass optics. The progressive blurring outside of the sweet spot is well controlled, smooth and looks just right.

Conclusion
Being spontaneous with the Spark takes a bit of practice. But once you get there, it is a lot of fun indeed. What I like most about the Spark is that it is an expandable system, albeit one without the advantage of smaller or larger apertures. This is certainly not a serious shooter’s lens. For those who want more control, the Lensbaby Composer is the next best option.

Yet, the Spark has an excellent price of Rs.6990. If you like optical blurs and can enjoy the quirkiness of a lens on a bellow, the Lensbaby Spark is a good choice.

The sharp sweet spot is  rather nicely complemented  with smooth, progressive  blurs towards the edges. Exposure: 1/25sec at f/5.6  (ISO 1600). Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

The sharp sweet spot is rather nicely complemented with smooth, progressive blurs towards the edges. Exposure: 1/25sec at f/5.6 (ISO 1600). Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Final Ratings
Features
Selective focus, Optic Swap system, bellows
17/20

Performance
Fixed f/5.6, sharp sweet spot, smooth blurs
30/35

Build Quality
Tough despite plastic lens mount and bellows
21/25

Ergonomics
Plastic flange for accurate two-handed use, difficult to clean
11/15

Warranty & Support
Limited number of service facilities
2/5

OVERALL: 81%
Value For Money: 2.5/5

Who should buy it?
Students will find that there is a lot to learn from the Spark. It is also good for anyone who wishes to experiment with selective focus and optical blurs.

Why?
It needs practice and patience, but it is an extremely creative lens. It is also a lot of fun to use.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, better photography, Lens review, march 2013, lensbaby spark, lensbaby review