Photographers spend thousands and lens makers spend millions on lenses which are as optically perfect as possible, and then Lensbaby goes and makes lenses which are deliberately bad.
Or maybe that’s just how it looks. In fact, Lensbaby’s speciality is making lenses that recapture the charming imperfections that we didn’t know we wanted until they weren’t there any more.
It defies logic in one way but it’s perfectly logical in another. It defies logic because – you would imagine – we want our lenses to produce as accurate a record of what’s in front of the camera as possible. You’d think.
But actually, photography is a lot more complicated than that. We engage with photographs on emotional and cognitive levels that run much deeper than any technical appreciation of ‘accuracy’. So Lensbaby’s cheap, oddball, defiantly imperfect lenses do make a lot of sense for ‘emotional’ photographers. And I think I’m going to have to count myself in that category.
Like other Lensbaby lenses, the Trio captures an image that’s part sharp, part blurred. Your main subject is crisp enough in the centre of the frame, but the edges soften and blur into something half-seen and at the same time an evocation of a simpler and more naive style of photography. Striving for technical perfection can distract you from the essence of what you’re photographing, but with the Trio 28 there’s not much danger of that!
How does it work?
It’s called the Trio because it’s actually three lenses not one. They’re mounted on a turret, so that as you rotate the turret, each of the three lenses in turn is positioned centrally in front of the camera’s shutter and sensor.
It only fits mirrorless cameras in the APS-C or Micro Four Thirds format. You can get it in MFT, Sony E and Fujifilm X-mounts – I went for the X-mount because I have a Fujifilm X-A1.
The three lenses all have the same 28mm focal length (42mm equivalent on an APS-C camera) and f/3.5 maximum aperture. They differ only in the optical effect created by the lens design.
The Twist lens produces a swirling bokeh effect just like the old Petzval lens design. The edges of the frame aren’t just out of focus, they have a rotational blur movement that you don’t get from any other kind of lens.
The Sweet lens has a sharp centre that quickly defocuses towards the edges of the frame. It’s not unlike the effect you can get from a digital radial blur filter, but its produced optically instead – and it has a subtle quality that a digital rendition doesn’t have.
The Velvet lens produces a soft-focus effect that’s subtle but visible in the centre of the frame and much stronger towards the edges. It would be great for portraits, but it suits any kind of subject where you want to create an evocative, dreamy effect.
You do have to learn new camera skills. Obviously, these are prime lenses, so you have to get used to using your feet to frame your pictures, not a zoom ring. There’s no aperture control, so everything is shot at f/3.5 and you control the exposure with the shutter speed. With no aperture linkage or electronic connections of any kind, your camera will think there’s no lens fitted, so you’ll probably have to dig around in the custom settings to tell it to fire the shutter even with no lens fitted.
You’ll also have to focus manually, and this needs a little more effort than you might imagine. These lenses are optically simple, but they are pretty sharp in the centre of the frame, and at a fixed f/3.5 aperture setting there’s not much depth of field and no margin for focus error, especially with subject close to the camera. If your camera has focus aids, now is the time to use them. On my X-A1, that meant enabling focus peaking and using the live view zoom to check focus before each shot. It’s a bit of a faff, but you soon get into the routine.
Is it any good?
This could go one of two ways, I thought. I would either think the Trio was an OK idea for those who like this sort of lo-fi lens effect and didn’t mind a bit of fiddling about, or I would think it was just a lot of nonsense that was not worth the money or the effort.
I was wrong on both counts because I just love the Trio 28 and its three lenses.
I love the swirly Petzval style bokeh of the Twist lens, the sharp centre and soft edges of the Sweet and the hazy bokeh of the Velvet. The shots all look much the same on the back of the camera but when you see them on a computer screen the differences are clear.
I didn’t mind having no aperture control and not much depth of field, and I soon got into the rhythm of precise manual focus, and what I loved was how these lenses make you commit to a ‘look’ with the camera, not with software later.
The Trio isn’t made of brass and leather, it’s made of plastic. It’s not a work of art like a classic lens, it’s just an inexpensive and functional device. BUT these are not just cheap, soft lenses that don’t deserve any effort. In fact, they are properly sharp in the centre (OK, well, the Velvet less so) and it’s only when you focus carefully that you see just how sharp they are and get the full visual contrast between the sharp centre and soft edges.
I’ve spent years writing about multi-megapixel DSLRs, professional lenses and pixel perfect image adjustments, and the Trio 28 is the opposite of all of that. But I love it because it reconnects me with the spirit of what I’m photographing rather than its literal appearance, and it restores a sense of mystery and timelessness that I like in photographs.