It’s a bit of a gamble, waiting for something to arrive through the South African postal system. There have been recent strikes and as a result, piles of packages and letters have built up in the sorting stations. Theft is common, so it’s best to have low expectations and put the package out of your mind. The Lensbaby gods must have been smiling down on me when, just two days before we left for a long weekend away in the mountains, my much-anticipated Lensbaby Velvet 56 arrived, safe and sound.
It was a sign. I packed my photography gear and tripods, but silently promised myself that I would dedicate the weekend’s photography to just one lens. The New Guy.
Cedar Peak farm is situated on top of the Dasklip Pass, a few hours’ drive outside Cape Town, on the edge of the Grootwinterhoek Wilderness area. The rock formations, fynbos and quiet make for an idyllic location. We intended to spend time together as a family in the outdoors – hiking, mountain biking and just being in nature. We weren’t disappointed.
From the moment I lifted the Velvet 56 out of the box, I could tell this lens was nothing like anything Lensbaby has produced before. At higher apertures it behaves very much like a ‘normal’ lens, with manual focus. Stop down to somewhere between f/8 and f/11 and the images are crisp and sharp, with a very slight blur on the edges. The focus ring glides smoothly, yet sturdily. I kept it at infinity for most of my landscape shots at the smaller apertures, but later realised that had I opened up to f/4 or f/5.6, I could have achieved softer, more painterly images than these below, captured at between f/11 and f/16.
I’ve always loved macro photography and when I’m hiking in bright sunshine, it’s often the little things that catch my attention. What a pleasure it is to effortlessly transition from landscape to macro, without having to change lenses. I was surprised at how well the lens performed at the other end of the spectrum, with the focus ring turned full circle.
This agama lizard was quite tolerant of me and even though the sun was high in the sky, producing harsh shadows, I was able to capture some good compositions.
Flashes of magic happened when I turned the aperture dial to f/2.8 or f/2. Whoever named the lens, could not have come up with a better description. Blur as smooth as velvet, creating a pleasing haze and softness to the images. It took me a little while to warm to it because I’m used to the feeling of movement created by the Double Glass Optic or Sweet 50 blur. This is very different and although I captured some new images, I think it will take some creative thinking on my part to unleash it’s true potential.
The Grootwinterhoek region (Great Winter Corner) is named such for a reason, so when the weather turned out to be warm and still, we donned our hiking boots and headed off into the Wilderness area for the day. I often take an assortment of cameras and lenses with me when out hiking. I use the opportunity to take creative, arty pictures, but I also want to record the time spent with my family and the things we saw. This wasn’t an issue with the Velvet 56. I was able to capture the family photo, and with a turn of the focus and aperture ring, capture the beauty and light around me, or a tack-sharp macro of the smaller creatures.
Returning to our cottage in the late afternoon, the light and ambience of the restored house paired up beautifully with the soft look of the lens. Had the lens been any longer than 56mm, I may have struggled to position myself indoors, but it was just wide enough to focus on the details. These were taken at f2/0 | ISO 200 shutter speed between 1/80 and 1/320.
We awoke the following morning to misty, overcast skies and the temperature had plummeted. It turned the location into a different world. What looked plain and ordinary in bright sunlight, took on an ethereal feel, shrouded in the mist.
It had been a perfect weekend. Time spent together as a family, enjoying nature and a memory card full of new images and moments. I went on a final stroll through the farm, dodging rain clouds and tucking my camera into my jacket when it got a little too wet.
The Velvet 56 passed the test with flying colours. I hadn’t taken it off my camera for 3 days and was thrilled with the range of images I captured. It holds some secrets I am yet to to discover, I’m sure. The drive home gave me plenty time to think of places which would suit the hazy, soft look and gave me some ideas for new macro work. My only dilemma is that it means my other Lensbaby lenses will be somewhat neglected!
I kept my camera on my lap while we were driving home, just in case. Seconds before we drove straight into a storm, I rolled down the window and captured my final scene of our trip. Thank you, Lensbaby, for surprising us yet again.