Lensbaby hits your phone camera's sweet spot (preview)

Lensbaby brings the company's special-effects lenses to Apple and Android mobile devices, via Kickstarter. We got to play with a prototype.

Lensbaby Creative Focus lens prototype
Lensbaby Creative Focus lens prototype Sarah Tew/CNET

Lensbaby is taking its signature special-effects lenses for interchangeable-lens cameras (like the Spark and the Edge 80) and shrinking them down to phone size. Now a beyond-fully-funded Kickstarter project, the company plans to ship the Creative Focus Lens for Mobile Phones to iOS backers in July and make it publicly available in August. Meanwhile, the Android version will go out to those backers in October, sooner if the app's completed. While the hardware for the two platforms is the same -- an adhesive metal disk that you attach around your phone's lens and a roughly 17mm-equivalent lens magnetized on both ends -- there's an app that goes with it that provides a much better shooting experience. Funders will get the lens for about $50, while it will cost about $70 for regular buyers. Based on my experiences with a prototype of the lens (on an iPhone 5S ), I think it will be quite a neat accessory for the creatively inclined photographer and filter-obsessed phoneographer.

Lensbaby provides its own camera app which, among other things, flips the images which would otherwise be upside down. Lori Grunin/CNET

The Creative Focus Lens (CFL) for mobile produces Lensbaby's signature effect of a "sweet spot" of focus surrounded by a highly exaggerated blur. While you can get similar effects digitally, as far as I can tell no one has quite replicated the blur that's produced by real optics, even with the defocus algorithms built into many recent cameras and phones. With the CFL, you get an effect that's very similar to the one you get when zooming a lens while shooting, a combination of motion blur and depth-of-field blur.

In conjunction with the lens, Lensbaby's camera app offers the basics. You can select to have the area of focus in the center or move it a bit off-center; control exposure and metering; apply a black-and-white or sepia filter; and shoot video or still photos. A slider down the side of the screen allows you to adjust how much sharpening gets applied to the sweet spot.

I really enjoy using the CFL. It's especially neat for video, and I like setting a focus area and seeing what happens as objects and people move in and out of it. Because Lensbaby plans to sell additional lenses that will be able to magnetically attach to the base lens for combination effects, it shouldn't lose its novelty terribly quickly.

However, it's not without its problems. First, at least with the iPhone 5S, images look fine scaled down but the inherently bad image noise of that camera becomes amplified when adding a lens (which reduces available light) and performing extra processing on top of the already-processed data that the app receives from the operating system. That's not Lensbaby's fault, though. I'd be interested to see how the system worked with, say, the raw data that, say, the Nokia Lumia 1020 can pass. It doesn't look like Windows Phone is slated for support yet, though.

There are some annoyances in the system. While the adhesive on the magnetic disc isn't designed to be removed repeatedly, it theoretically can handle at least a few re-placements. But I found after only two removals it tended to slide a bit on the phone. (I had tried it initially on the camera case, and while it worked, I felt it was losing even more light.) The kit will come with two discs, but they're tiny and easily lost -- I lost the second one within a few days. I also found I wanted to be able to adjust the size of the focus area to better cover the subject. Finally, the lens would occasionally detach and hang down partially, which admittedly introduced an interesting vignette effect. It's a testament to the magnet that it didn't fall off entirely, though.

That said, the kit will be reasonably priced when it ships, and I think Lensbaby will work -- or has already worked out -- whatever kinks are left. I'll check back when the final version's available.

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