The Lensbaby Sol 45 is a full-frame, fixed aperture lens that allows some tilt movement to shift the sweet spot around the frame. If you’re in the mood for some fun with your camera, it’s a nice addition to your kit. But if you’re preoccupied with pixel-peeping and ultimate sharpness, it’s probably not for you.
I still have my first Lensbaby. It’s a funny bendy lens made from a what looks like a ribbed plastic pipe. It allows you to bend and squeeze the lens to focus and move the ‘sweet spot’ of focus around the frame. The Sol 45 has a similar vibe but it’s built to a much higher standard. For example, the barrel is metal, rather than plastic.
As you’ve probably worked out, the Sol 45 has a focal length of 45mm. It’s also a full-frame lens but can be used on APS-C format cameras. It’s available in Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Sony A, Pentax K, and Fujifilm X mounts. I used the Sony version on a Sony A7R III and A7 III.
The aperture is fixed at f/3.5.
There are no electrical contacts on the Sol 45, which means it can’t communicate with the camera. Consequently, you need to shoot in aperture priority or manual exposure mode. However, you can set the sensitivity (ISO) to auto.
As I mentioned, focusing is manual only. This is achieved using a ring at the end of the lens. Behind this, closer to the camera body, there’s a larger ring that acts as a grip for tilting the Sol 45. This ring can also be twisted to lock the lens with the focus in the centre.
With a relatively large aperture and a full-frame sensor, it’s worth getting the focus excatly where you want it. The Sony A7-series magnified view and focus peaking view comes in handy here.
If you take a look at the front end of the lens, you’ll find ‘bokeh blades’. These can be rotated and pulled over the front element to add texture to the out of focus areas of the image.
I find it’s best to focus the lens, adjust the tilt to get the sharp spot where I want and then move the blades into place if I want their effect. Then, I check and adjust the focus again using the magnified view.
As you focus the lens, you can see a ring of focus around the centre of the frame. As the subject comes into focus, the sharp area converges into the centre.
The tilt mechanism allows you to shift the sweet sport around the frame. Naturally, when the lens is mounted on an APS-C format camera, the sweet spot can go closer to the edges than on a full-frame camera. With a full-frame camera, find that the images often look best when composed for (and cropped to) square format.
Part of the fun of using the Lensbaby Sol 45 is finding the right subjects. It doesn’t suit everything, but it can produce some very effective results.
The out of focus areas are very soft. And when the bokeh blades are used, there’s a distinct dashed texture to the bokeh. It’s a bit like looking through patterned glass.
At normal viewing sizes, the sharpest parts of the image look acceptably sharp. If you zoom in, however, they’re not exactly tact-sharp. But that’s not really the point of the Sol 45, it’s about being creative and having some fun.
Chromatic aberration is very well controlled. I struggled to find any even in images with very strong contrast edges.
I’ve used Lensbaby lenses on SLRs, but they’re really well-suited to use on mirrorless cameras. The main reason is that you can magnify the focus area in the viewfinder and use focus peaking. This helps ensure that you get the sweet spot exactly where you want it. That’s especially useful when you’re shooting at f/3.5 on a full-frame camera as the depth field is pretty limited.
Given its solid construction, the Sol 45 seems good value for money. It’s perfect for an afternoon of creative photography, but don’t expect pin-sharp results.