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Lensbaby Velvet 56 review: Dreamy or bold, this lens has it covered

Bringing a subtle but stylish difference to a fast 56mm prime lens, the Lensbaby Velvet 56 is a great addition to your bag.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

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3 min read

Lensbaby, a company known for its special-effects lenses, such as selective focus and fisheye models, gets a little more serious with its new Velvet 56, a 56mm f1.6 manual-focus macro lens that produces a bit more stylistic look than other standard macro lenses.

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8.0

Lensbaby Velvet 56

The Good

The Lensbaby Velvet 56 is well constructed with a strongly dampened focusing ring, and it produces lovely, soft out-of-focus areas with round highlights.

The Bad

It's manual focus only, which may put some people off.

The Bottom Line

An excellent lens for portrait, product, street and similar standard-lens photography uses where you want to inject a little creative twist, the Lensbaby Velvet 56 adds that bit of something extra.

The Velvet 56 will be available for $500 in Canon, Nikon, Sony A and Pentax mounts in mid-April; there will also be a $600 Velvet SE version in silver. Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds, Sony E, Samsung NX and Fuji X mount versions will follow in May. Directly converted, those are £335 and AU$655.

The lens is very nicely constructed. It's completely metal with a clicky aperture ring on the body side. Apertures run from f1.6 - f16 in whole stops (except for the first step, which is 2/3 of a stop). There's also a knurled, strongly dampened focusing ring. The distance range runs from 5 in/13cm, the closest it's able to focus from the front element, up to 21 ft/7m before making the jump to infinity; a full rotation of the lens takes it to 12 in/0.3 m.

The lens' clicky aperture ring and changing field of view during focusing means it's not suited for some types of video shooting. Sarah Tew/CNET

On one hand, the long rotation makes it easy (and necessary) to get very granular focus adjustments at small distances. However, it also means that from beginning to end requires 1.5 rotations, which can be frustrating if you accidentally turn the lens the wrong direction while you're getting used to it.

Since it doesn't use internal focus, the lens extends from its minimum 3.4in/86mmlong to 4.4in/112mm heading from infinity to close up. The mirrorless-mount versions are even bigger, starting at 3.7in/94mm and reaching 4.7in/120mm long. Macro magnification is 2x, and all the versions take a 62mm filter. The dSLR version weighs 14.4oz/408g with both caps. The version for mirrorless ILCs will include a metal lens hood as well.

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This shot was cropped from the inset photo. Note that the inline image will not look accurately sharp. (Canon EOS 5D Mark III, ISO 100, 1/1600 sec, aperture forgotten. Sadly, Lensbaby information isn't passed to the camera and therefore doesn't appear in the EXIF metadata.) Lori Grunin/CNET

While it's not a traditional Lensbaby selective-focus lens, the out-of-focus areas do have the same look as one of those lenses sans tilt. Wide-open shots that aren't quite properly focused display a very interesting glow at 100 percent, and close-ups have a very attractive soft-focus look. Narrower apertures produce reasonably sharp in-focus areas. And there's surprisingly little fringing.

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At f4, your depth of field is quite shallow for macro shooting, at least handheld. Lori Grunin/CNET

Because of the seriously shallow depth of field at 56mm -- on a full-frame camera, at 10 inches you've got a whole 0.06 in to play with at f1.6, which increases a little to 0.4 in on a camera with an APS-C-size sensor -- for macro shooting you'll probably want to stick to f4 or narrower. (This is physics, not the lens.) That's plenty shallow.

Conclusion

It took a little getting used to, but once I did I fell in love with the Velvet 56. For a Lensbaby, which tends to run at most about $300 (£280, AU$475), the Velvet 56 enters new territory. Though it's still not a traditional lens, it's on the expensive side for enthusiasts; a typical 50mm macro runs less than $400, though those lenses tend to have less attractive bokeh than more expensive models. But the Velvet 56 is an elegantly constructed lens that's fun and creative to use for adding a little difference to portrait, product, street and similar standard-lens photography.

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