Photography Guide

Lensbaby Velvet 85mm Lens

I love working with new technology when it comes to photography. With the advent of mirrorless cameras and all the advanced features now available to consumers at a relatively affordable price, it might seem like backwards thinking to shoot with a fully manual lens in 2018. Companies are pushing for higher megapixel sensors, faster AF, in-body stabilization, focus-peaking, assist features, and video capabilities.  This is actually the perfect time to experiment and work with manual lenses if you haven't already. Having focus assist and exposure simulation on cameras like the Sony A7 series has really benefited us photographers. 

As a portrait photographer, I have always welcomed an assortment of focal lengths to use on my job. Lenses are tools with varying characteristics so when Lensbaby reached out to me to test their Velvet 85mm lens I was super curious how this would perform. I already had two 85mm lenses in my arsenal and didn't actually have a need for another, but I was already in love with their Sweet 50 optic in my gel work. I knew that the Velvet 85mm would be different in its rendering capabilities. 

Canon 5d Mark III and Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens.

Canon 5d Mark III and Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens.

The Velvet 85mm lens has a manual aperture and focus ring. The construction is metal and feels absolutely solid in the hand. The only caveat I would have is handling the lens in extreme cold, but I have yet to run into any issues with the build quality of the lens. Another worthy mention is the long throw of the aperture and focus ring, something that videographers will surely appreciate in their work. At its most wide open setting of f/1.8 the lens creates a distinctly soft halo effect. For my own work and personal taste I found this to be too strong for my liking, but once I stopped down the lens to f/2.8 it was much better. I will typically use this lens at f/4.0-5.6 for portrait work where I found the sharpness to be exceptional and there is still a unique rendering quality that sets it apart from my other lenses. On the contrary, the soft focus halo effect is perfect for videography if your scene requires an ethereal look and feel. The rendering is literally perfect for such a circumstance. 

Canon 5d Mark III and Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens.

Canon 5d Mark III and Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens.

Another area that I enjoy using this lens is in beauty photography. 85mm is a flattering focal length and works quite well for headshots and beauty. You will have to make sure that your camera's viewfinder is adjusted properly using the diopter. This will help ensure that what you see through the lens is what you get in regards to focus when you use a traditional SLR camera. On mirrorless cameras you can enable focus-peaking if its available in your function menu. With beauty photography the attention is on the details, and with the macro capability of the Velvet 85mm lens I found detail and texture to be excellent, with a beautiful smooth transition to the out-of-focus areas and bokeh. 

Beauty photo captured using the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens.

Beauty photo captured using the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens.

Overall, I've found the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens to be uniquely different from other 85mm lenses on the market. The soft halo effect of the lens at wider apertures along with the  rendering characteristics and smooth bokeh make this piece of gear a pleasure to use. I find it helps set my work apart from other photographers while also providing a fun challenge in its fully manual operation. For videography work it is exceptional, providing macro functionality and an ethereal look and feel wide-open. The long throw of the focus ring also helps build trust that your focus is tack sharp, and with the aid of mirrorless cameras you can rely on such a lens for your professional work.  

For myself as a hybrid stills and video shooter, I plan on using the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm lens on a regular basis and have found myself reaching for this lens first when I need the 85mm focal length.

If you enjoy my work I highly recommend you give Lensbaby lenses a serious consideration.



Favorite Lenses for Portraits

Commercial shoot for Tribetats and Blenders Eyewear shot on Canon 24-105 f4l lens.

I have people ask me which lenses I use for a particular shot. I don't necessarily have a specific focal length that I always reach to-- really depends on the situation, but most importantly what I like to refer to as the 'working distance' to a client. How comfortable you are as a photographer with people, and knowing how to pose them in a way that appears natural and inspires confidence is really the key element.  

For some people that might be a 24-70 zoom lens, an 85mm prime, or a 70-200 telephoto zoom. All of these focal lengths can take amazing photographs if you capture the right moment. Having quality equipment, maintaining it, and knowing how to use it properly to create the aesthetic you are going for is mostly experimentation in the beginning, but once you familiarize yourself with your gear the next step is to create a connection with your subject.

Personally I like to work at a very casual 'talking distance' with my clients. That means I am at a distance where we can have a natural conversation without either of us speaking overly loud, or missing what the other person said. For me this can be in the 35mm to 50mm range. 

When I first started out taking portraits I read articles online advising the 85mm and/or the 135mm focal lengths as perfect for portraits.  Naturally curious, I tried both lengths and quickly learned that although they can both create amazing images due to compression (Google lens compression if you don't know what that is), I was so far away from my subject it felt very impersonal. 

I'm not saying you should never use those lenses-- that would imply removing good tools from your toolbox. What I like to do is start with a focal length that creates a healthy starting 'working distance' with your client. From there learn to intuitively gauge the distances you can both work at comfortably, find the crop distances that your subject likes, and experiment. I might start with a 50mm and find that I could move to a 35mm or backup to a 100mm depending on the crop and how much rapport I have built with my subject. 

There's no baseline, right or wrong method here. Everybody is different and how comfortable you make them feel is really going to make the biggest impression on their images. 

That being said, if I could only have one lens it would be a 24-70 f2.8 zoom :)