Lensbaby Obscura Review
Review Manufacturer: Lensbaby
Price when reviewed
$179.96 / $249.95 / $279.95
A pinhole optic seems such a natural product for Lensbaby to create that I’m surprised that has taken so long for the Obscura to be introduced. However, it’s great to see that the company has given its production so much thought, made it relatively robust and enabled three variations with each of the two optics.
There are many Lensbaby devotees, but there are also plenty who just don’t ‘get it’. Even some of the Lensbaby faithful are likely to be perplexed by the Obscura, but others will love it. I find the diffusion created by the zone plate and zone sieve settings too strong for my taste, I’d prefer to have two alternative ‘regular’ pinholes, but it’s a very personal thing and it also depends upon the scene.
Although using the Lensbaby Obscura calls for a tripod or high ISO settings in many instances, there’s no need to worry about focusing or which aperture to select. This frees you to concentrate on the subject, discovering what works well with the optic, and then the composition.
Three effects from one lens Easy to use Compact
Requires high ISOs or slow shutter speeds and a trio Not weather-sealed
What is the Lensbaby Obscura?
Lensbaby makes two versions of the Obscura, a 50mm pinhole/zone plate/pinhole sieve optic for the Lensbaby optic swap system and a 16mm pinhole/zone plate/pinhole sieve pancake lens for mirrorless cameras.
Each optic gives you three ‘lenses’ in one. The pinhole element has a very small round hole through which the light passes while the pinhole sieve has a collection of pinholes with the centre one being the largest. The zone plate is a series of clear circular rings surrounding a centre hole and each of the clear zones equals the area of the pinhole in the centre. This means that the zones are thinner the further away they are from the centre of the plate.
Lensbaby has created the Obscura’s pinhole, zone plate and pinhole sieve from three layers of chrome with a total thickness of 0.00014mm. This is built up on 1.5mm thick glass before an anti-reflective coating is applied.
This is done using a photolithography process with a resolution of 128K dpi to ensure a high level of light transmission, perfectly round pinholes and precise zone plate zones.
Because the pinholes are supported by glass, the Obscura can be cleaned, if required, without damaging their normally delicate structure.
The 16mm Obscura has markings of f/90 (the pinhole setting), f/45 (the zone sieve setting) and f/22 (the zone plate setting). Meanwhile, the 50mm Obscura’s pinhole, zone sieve and zone plate settings are marked f/161, f/64 and f/32 respectively.
Build and handling
While the 16mm Obscura standalone lens mounts directly onto a camera with the appropriate mount, the 50mm version is compatible with Lensbaby’s optic swap system. This means that it can be mounted within a Lensbaby Composer Pro II, Spark 2.0 or the straight lens barrel that is often sold with the Twist 60 optic.
Each of the Obscura optics has three settings, you select the one you want to use by rotating to the correct position. With the 50mm Obscura, this means reaching inside the lens barrel or optic housing and rotating until the relevant setting marking is visible. There’s a subtle click-top, that is sometimes discernable, but in many cases, I need to check I had the correct position selected.
According to Lensbaby, at the Pinhole setting, the best image is theoretically achieved when the Composer Pro II or other housing is holding the optic at its closest possible position to the camera’s sensor. Focusing further forward from this does not noticeably shift the focus but there’s a slight (1.2x) zoom.
Similarly, the Zone Plate and Zone Sieve are both theoretically sharpest at infinity (when the optic at its closest possible position to the camera’s sensor. Focusing the Obscura when in Zone Plate or Zone Sieve modes gives theoretically better focus down to 37.8 cm from the front of the Obscura, but the depth of field is such that the improvement in focus is not obvious.
I experimented with focusing the 50mm Obscura using the focus ring of a Composer Pro II and it was impossible to see a difference on the camera’s screen, even magnified, or in the subsequent images.
I’ve been shooting with the 50mm Lensbaby Obscura in a Lensbaby Composer Pro II on a Sony A7R IV. Shooting at an aperture of f/161 means using high ISO settings or long exposures with a tripod. Despite approaching the point at which the sun is at its highest in the sky in the UK, shooting on an overcast day with the sensitivity set to ISo 100, or thereabouts requires an exposure time measured in whole seconds. That means that all of my pinhole images were shot with the camera mounted on a tripod.
Using the Obscura’s f/64 or f/32 settings gives a little more scope for hand-holding the camera – especially as the Sony A7R IV has good in-body image stabilisation. However, the very diffuse glow produced with the Zone Plate and Zone Sieve settings don’t suit every scene. I like it with gardens and flowers where there are some bright colours, but I prefer the slightly clearer results obtained in the Pinhole setting.
Naturally, shooting at f/161 captures huge depth of field but the impact of diffraction is also very apparent, giving the image a soft appearance.
Shooting with the camera on a tripod removes some of the spontaneity that I’ve come to associate with Lensbaby photography, but it also has a way of drawing you in and making you consider the scene more carefully.
In some cases, the Lensbaby Obscura may produce pleasing results in camera, but many of them benefit from a tweak to the contrast and saturation or their associated parameters (whites, highlights, blacks and shadows etc). I also enjoyed experimenting with subjects that you wouldn’t traditionally photograph with long exposures, such as swans on or beside the river.
One thing to keep in mind with the Obscura is that it highlights any dust marks on your camera’s sensor. Black spots and in some cases circles around them, stand out boldly from the soft images. Consequently, unless you’re sensor is spotless, you need to spend a little time spotting out marks post0capture.
Lensbaby Obscura sample images
Follow the link to browse and download full-resolution images from the Lensbaby Obscura 50mm on the Sony A7R IV.
Lensbaby Obscura 50mm Image Gallery
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