July has been spent test driving – or shooting with, rather – a brand new Lensbaby creation: the Sol lens. It comes in two versions, Sol 45 for fullframe and crop sensor cameras (DSLR/ mirrorless), and the Sol 22 for micro 3/4. With a crop factor of 2x, this means the lens’ focal length is the equivalent of a 44 mm mounted on a fullframe. I have an Olympus EM-10 (mirrorless micro 4/3) and was thrilled to be among the very first testers of the lens.

Olympus sol22

This is pretty much how the lens look – I have a different model Oly, though

Build and features

The lens is super simple, yet recognisible to Lensbaby aficionados. It has a focus ring in front, and an inner ring which tightens the “tiltability”. The lens’ tilt can easily be locked in a neutral position – no more fine tuning and squinting. This would be immensely useful for the Composer Pro with the Edge and Twist optics!

I have been shooting with Lensbaby lenses for over 8 years now, and have become accustomed to fully manual settings and manual focus. I actually shoot fully manually even when not using Lensbaby lenses, and change camera settings without looking. I instinctly know what happens when I turn the dials for ISO, shutter speed, or aperture – as I look through the viewfinder and compose my image. When shooting with newer Lensbaby lenses and optics, I seldom look at the aperture ring to confirm which way to turn. With all that said, using Sol is a walk in the park and I found it extremely easy to learn. No pondering which aperture to use – after all, that’s taken care of, fixed at f/3.5. I only had to focus (pun intended!) on composing, focusing, and clicking the shutter.

Focusing is easy, and focus peaking makes it a joy

Focusing is a breeze! The focus ring can be operated with one finger only – thumb and index fingers gripping the tilt ring, and my ring finger has become the focus master.

It should be pointed out that focus peaking as well as focus magnification, either on screen or in the viewfinder, are very handy features when shooting with a sweet spot optic.

What to photograph with a Sol?

Although the lens operation is instinctively and easily learned, I spent a few days finding motives which would work well with the sweet spot and the surrounding blur. The Sweet series were never my favourite Lensbaby optics, but using Sol has somewhat renewed my curiosity for them and what I may create with them. I have found that the lens lends itself to pretty much every subject you’d want to photograph, but it’s possibly performing best when there’s a distinct main subject protruded from a background. You know, like portraiture, flower photography, and still life images. It’s ace for dreamy landscapes, too!

I believe the Lensbaby crew had already covered the genre of flower photography through other test shooters, and I was asked to take all kinds of photos but flower photos. I do however see myself doing more of that after the test period is over. I also keep talking about doing portraits – not headshots or anything serious like that, but the more artsy kind – and I definitely believe the Sol will be a perfect tool in that regard (my choice of lens for this would otherwise be the Twist 60). Even for street photography, I find the Sol a perfect choice.

Will I keep using the Sol? Should YOU?

I did mention it above – I have had problems liking the Sweet optics. I do like blur, but oftentimes find the blur of the Sweet 35 to be overwhelming. With Sol, my claim is that the balance of sweet spot (area in focus) and the amount of blur is better, and that the appearance of the blur is easier on the eye. It’s more cotton like, and not as motion blurry. My work colleague has never been able to appreciate my Sweet 35 photos (“I get nauseaus by looking at them”), but he did actually like my Sol images. It could of course be that I’ve become better with time at judging which subjects to photograph with a sweet spot optic and how to set the focus, but I believe his reaction supports my impression of the lens.

I did spend a little time getting used to Sol. Since I don’t do sweet spot optics, and prefer a slightly narrower aperture, my first couple of photo walks with this lens were not as successful as I would have liked them to be. I simply felt too confident beforehand – you know, being an experienced LB shooter and all that. Once I got a better understanding of how to best use the lens for different situations, it started feeling more like second nature to get at least a couple of good photos of each subject. Now I find myself looking forward to the daily challenge of making every possible subject work, and not just the ones mentioned above. So yes, to answer my own question: this lens stays put on my Oly; the 17 mm f/1.8 I originally purchased for street photography rests at the bottom of my purse. Follow my progress on flickr.

I would imagine this lens to be a good entry level lens for anyone wondering if Lensbaby’s sweet spot series of optics are for them. It’s also an affordable tool for any experienced photographer wanting to shake it up a little, and break free from the pixel perfectness expectations laid upon them by clients – or themselves. Disrupt, focus, shoot!