The latest lens accessory Lensbaby pulls out of its quiver targets pickier users who want better build quality and smoother focus and tilt operation than the company's previous products offered. The Lensbaby Composer Pro will come in two configurations: $300 equipped with the Double Glass Optic, or $400 with the Sweet 35 Optic. The older Lensbaby Composer will remain available at a lower price of $250 (with the Double Glass Optic).
If you've never heard of Lensbaby's products, they're adapters for a variety of dSLR and Micro Four Thirds lens mounts which deliver relatively inexpensive manual-focus specialty lenses and special-effects capabilities.
I got a chance to play with the Composer Pro this weekend, and took the Sweet 35 Optic out for a shoot on the Canon EOS 7D. The differences between the Pro and entry-level versions of the Composer are noticeable, not just because of the obvious black vs. black-and-silver finishes, but because of the Pro's much smoother operation in all respects. The rotation feels much more fluid than the rather stiff movement of the earlier model, and the focus ring works far more like a normal lens'--the original was very loose--though still just a bit looser than I like. The upgraded build delivers more precise movement, and the increased fluidity makes it far more suitable for shooting video.
It's still not big on the reproducibility aspect of "professional," however; if you find a particular tilt angle you like, good luck exactly replicating it again. And I wish there were some mechanism or indicator that made it possible to quickly snap back to a position parallel to the focal plane--or at least tell me when it is.
As for the Sweet 35 Optic, it's one of my favorites to date--probably because it's the easiest to use. Unlike the other lenses, you don't have to manually swap aperture rings. You rotate the lens, and feel the distinctive click of the 12-bladed aperture locking in from f2.5 to f22. There are several caveats to keep in mind, though. First, at smaller apertures the optical viewfinder gets very dark and low contrast, even on the relatively nice viewfinder of the 7D, which makes focusing that way difficult. Live View is always an option, depending upon the quality of your LCD. I also found the lens couldn't focus at all at the more oblique tilt angles (the Composer Pro tilts to 17.5 degrees). It focuses only as close as 7.5 inches. And optically it's not a great lens, displaying quite a bit of aberration and never getting as sharp as I wanted. Of course, it's also a lot cheaper than most fast 35mm lenses ($180 standalone).
If you have the extra bucks to spend, the Composer Pro's smoother operation definitely makes it worth it over the original Composer, and if you want to use it for rotation while shooting video, you pretty much need the Pro model. Either way, if you're a creative shooter--or are looking for a gift for one--a Lensbaby certainly increases the experimentation quotient for a reasonable price.