We live at a time in which the digital sensor of even the most average entry-level prosumer camera is capable of producing images of truly outstanding quality, especially if compared with similarly priced models from just a few years ago. And when it comes to precision-engineered optics that deliver every time, under any conditions, we have perhaps more choice than ever before. Heck, even our mobile phones now produce passable quality photographs. And yet, do you sometimes find yourself yearning for the endearing imperfections of yesteryear? Do all these pristine captures leave you somewhat cold? Want to inject a little more unpredictability and ‘soul’ into your photography (but aren’t quite ready to go traipsing across the countryside with a bucket of collodion in hand and a black cloth over your head)? One of these lenses might be just what you’re looking for.
Now, the thing is, they call them ‘special effects lenses’ for a reason, so don’t go putting your 24-70mm zoom on eBay just yet – you’ll probably still be needing it. Indeed, while some of the lenses we’ll be looking at are more versatile than others, none is ever likely to become your ‘go-to’ piece of glass. Lenses such as the tilt-shift are of exceedingly high quality and were actually designed for a very specific professional purpose (and come with a correspondingly serious price tag attached). Likewise, the last lens we’ll be looking at was designed with a no less serious professional use in mind, just not for still photography and with rather less exacting demands made upon its optical performance – so it comes in at literally a one-hundredth of the price.
In short, if you’re interested in giving your photography a creative boost, there’s an option here for every pocket. So, when might we want to reach for one of these lenses? Well, despite having underlined the fact that their effects tend to be quite distinctive – thus rendering them less than ideal for more general use – all of the lenses reviewed here could quite conceivably be put to work when shooting anything from portraiture to landscape or still life. Really the only limit is your imagination. So while you might not be pulling them out of the bag every day, at those moments when you want to inject some experimental, artistic flair into your images, you’ll likely find it highly useful to have one or two of these special effect lenses at your disposal.
6 Special Effects Camera Lenses for Great Photos
Lensbaby Velvet 56 via Anne Worner on flickr
Since its inception in 2004, Lensbaby has become known for its small range of quirky, lo-fi, selective-focus lenses that make a feature of optical errors and aberrations in the quest for optimal bokeh (out of focus rendering). Often these lenses have incorporated a flexible barrel, mimicking the bellows of old-time view cameras and allowing for a moveable plane of focus. However, unlike other Lensbaby models, the focusing “sweet-spot” of the Velvet 56 cannot be moved around the frame, but is instead center-only.
Nonetheless, the Velvet 56 is all about selective-focusing and creamy bokeh. Indeed, wide-open, you’ll be hard pressed to find any part of the image that is sharp: all details appear ‘smeared’ under a soft-focus optical haze. This setting will no doubt have it’s creative uses for some people, some of the time, but most photographers will probably not find that shooting at such wide apertures gives them particularly practical results.
However, stop down to 2.8 and the Velvet 56 comes into its own. At this aperture things start to become much more interesting: the very center of the image is now tack sharp but with the focus rapidly falling off into a dreamy blur towards the edges. If you’re looking for a distinctive, yet usable, selective-focus effect that will add real visual interest and atmosphere to a portrait or still-life, then the optimal aperture to work at is probably somewhere between 2.8 and 5.6. So for example, when shooting a portrait a 2.8, you’ll get the subject’s eye pin-sharp, but with their hair and shoulders already dissolving into a kaleidoscopic vintage optical swirl that engulfs the edges of the frame. Or, in the case of a still-life, objects in the background and foreground will be blown out to airy abstract forms while the center of the image draws the eye in to focus on sharp selective detail.
The Velvet 56 is actually a more versatile lens than this though – indeed it’s probably the closest any of the lenses we review here get to being an all-purpose photographic tool – as, stopped down further (f8 and beyond), the lens is actually quite sharp and the vignetted, soft-focus ‘soup’ towards the outer edges becomes less and less pronounced – making it suitable for use in many other contexts beyond just shooting dreamy, psychedelic-tinged quirkiness. Add to this the fact that the Velvet 56 is a solidly built metal lens with a nice tight-fitting mount and a smoothly turning (manual only) focus ring and it’s actually a pretty useful piece of glass to have around.
Rokinon 24/3.5 T-S via Michael on flickr
Okay, so what’s a tilt-shift lens? Basically it’s a lens that mimics the movements of an old field camera’s flexible bellows, allowing both correction of converging parallels and the possibility to move the focal plane onto a different axis.
In practice this means, firstly, that you don’t need to be standing at a ten-story window in order to photograph the twenty-story building opposite from front-on without all the vertical lines leaning inwards as they recede into the distance. Effectively you raise the point of view of the lens so that you don’t need to move yourself or the camera. Alternatively, it allows you to swivel the line of focus at a different angle, so that, for example, you could have everything totally sharp along a diagonal line running from very close to the camera to way off in the distance, but objects even a foot or two from this axis, at any distance from the camera, will be a complete blur.
You’ve seen those amazing videos of cities looking like little miniature models, and all the people like ants? Exactly, that’s a tilt-shift lens.
The problem is that generally tilt-shift lenses are extremely expensive. Samyang have changed that. And despite the huge difference in price when compared with the alternatives, the build quality of the Samyang is actually pretty good. Although, as the barrel is mostly made from plastic, it obviously inspires somewhat less confidence than Canon and Nikon‘s sturdy metal-built offerings. But these also cost twice the price, so you make your choice…
Wide open, the Samyang‘s image quality might not win any awards, however stopped-down it produces consistently sharp images. Indeed, at smaller apertures, any difference in sharpness with the higher-end alternatives is negligible. Meanwhile color rendition is great, displaying almost no chromatic aberration, and contrast is nearly as high as with Canon and Nikon. The aperture and focus rings are smooth and easy to grip. And focus – which, it should be noted, is manual only – holds its ground admirably, without any slippage.
On the less positive side, the lens creates some very slight barrel distortion that would need to be corrected in post. However, without a doubt the greatest irritant is that, when totally loosened, the tilt-shift mechanism doesn’t hold it’s position, but instead nose-dives, necessitating repositioning from scratch. This ‘limp-lens dysfunction’ is the Samyang‘s only serious design flaw. While it by no means renders the lens unusable, it is nonetheless highly frustrating. On a related note, the tilt-shift movement adjustment-knobs are somewhat small, and might prove fiddly for those with overly porky hands.
So while the Samyang doesn’t quite offer the level of quality of a Canon or Nikon, overall the lens is pretty damn good, and costs way, way less than either – making it a much more accessible piece of equipment for anyone wanting to experiment. Even if you’re a jobbing architectural or interiors photographer you could certainly get by with this lens for regular use without any problem – although if budget is not a constraint you’ll probably be happier in the long run if you go with one of Nikon or Canon‘s offerings. However, if you’re not correcting parallels on a daily basis, but rather just looking to add an interesting special effects lens to your armory, there’s little reason to think you’d be any better off after paying out the extra money for a top end tilt-shift instead of the Samyang.
Olympus M Zuiko 8mm Fisheye via Zetton Nara on flickr
Going from one end of the perspective scale to the other, Olympus‘s 8mm extreme fisheye lens for the micro four-thirds format introduces about as much perspectival distortion as anyone could ever ask for: your parallel lines won’t just converge but will bow out in trippy curves. The lens’s 180 degree view not only means that you can fit a hell of a lot in the frame but also that depth and perspective are massively exaggerated.
Closest focusing distance is a mere 12cm – just what’s required for annoying friends and family by taking unflattering, bulbous-nosed portraits of them from a ridiculously close distance. As with any extreme wide-angle lens, depth of field is of course enormous, even when quite wide open. Yet with a maximum aperture of f1.8 it’s probably about the only fisheye out there that will also allow for a relatively small depth of field if desired – opening the door to some pretty unique creative uses. Of course, such a wide aperture also has the advantage of making this lens much more suitable for shooting in low lighting conditions than most of its rivals.
Likewise, the Olympus is unique in the fisheye category in that it offers autofocus. Admittedly, given the extreme depth of field offered by wide-angle lenses in general, AF might not be top of everyone’s list of must-haves for a fisheye. Yet it’s worth remembering that other fisheyes don’t offer such wide apertures: at f1.8, autofocus could suddenly prove very handy – especially when shooting moving subjects. At such a wide aperture, and reduced depth of field, any inaccurate focusing would obviously ruin the effect.
This is a strongly built lens with an all metal body and an ultra-smooth focus ring. The glass is pin sharp in the center, falling off slightly towards the edges. There is also some minor vignetting when wide-open. The lens is billed by Olympus as “Pro”, as it is highly weather and dust sealed and is guaranteed to function in even the most adverse of conditions – thus making it an ideal choice for action shots of extreme sports. It’s also relatively lightweight, so you’re unlikely to regret dragging it halfway up a mountain.
Lomography z230n Petzval 85mm f2.2 lens
Lomography Petzval lens via willteeyang on flickr
This lens was originally kickstarted back into existence a couple of years ago in a campaign that exceeded its initial target of $100,000 by the staggering sum of $2,200,000! Evidently there was a lot of demand for a classic-looking, shallow depth of field lens. While Lomography have of course added many updates to make the lens compatible with modern DSLRs, this remake of the classic 1840 Petzval retains much of the original design and is still very much about the bokeh. Operation is fully manual, with no electrical elements to communicate with your camera, and apertures must be selected by means of the archaic Waterhouse drop-in plate system. The lens mounts tightly by means of a well-designed bayonet.
Whether you consider the lens’s shiny, engraved brass barrel to be an appropriate aesthetic addition to your sleek-black modern DSLR – or instead to be more of an incongruous and conspicuous carbuncle – is of course a matter of personal taste (there is also a black version though, for less extrovert photographers). But we challenge anyone not to fall in love with the delicious swirls of bokeh this lens produces. Contrast and color saturation are fantastic. And while the edges dissolve into the aforementioned flurry of pleasing bokashi, the center is plenty sharp. Very pretty.
Holga DSLR lens via Gustavo Gomes on flickr
If you’ve ever wanted to experiment with a Holga without losing the convenience of your regular digital workhorse, now’s your chance.
Soft, blurry images? Check. Disgusting chromatic aberrations towards the corners? Check. High risk of flare? Check. Outrageous amounts of vignetting (something like a third of the image is just black if you’re on a full-frame camera)? Check. Apertures that are actually a couple of stops under the figures stated? Check.
In short, this lens is of shockingly low quality and will effectively transform your $1,000+ state-of-the-art DSLR into a $15 piece-of-junk plastic disposable camera. Whether or not this is the look your going for, only you can decide. We probably don’t need to say a whole lot more about this lens, but, given that it sells for in the region of $25, if it looks like it might fulfill your requirements then there’s very little reason not to give it a try.
CCTV Lens photo via Lionelinparis on flickr
Does even the price tag of the Holga have you in a sweat? You might want to try a plastic CCTV lens. They’re certainly no worse (or better) than the Holga, they work with the micro four-thirds system and produce surprisingly nice, irregular bokeh with a good amount of vignetting and corner blur. Manual everything. Check eBay: $20 or less.