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Lens Character

One of the main reasons I love old lenses is that they have character. A good modern lens will show what’s in front of it pretty accurately. It’ll be sharp. It’ll have plenty of contrast. It’ll render colours accurately. And blurred areas (bokeh!) will have a nice smooth look.

But that’s not what I want.

I want some style.

How much style you want depends on your style. Most people want photos to be quite accurate and sharp. But they often then stick some Instagram filter over them to change the look. I quite like to get some of that look from the lens.

Lenses Known for Character

Helios 44

One of the most famous character lenses is the Helios 44 - or range of lenses, really, as there were a few versions. It’s known for ‘swirly’ bokeh. When things are out of focus, bright spots usually become circles. In a Helios 44, they become kind of squished, kind of elliptical, but they’re squished perpendicular to a line out from the centre point. It’s not easy to explain in words. The result is, if you have some sort of busy background, it looks like it’s swirling around the centre of the image.

If you’re photographing a model, with their face in the middle, the background becomes a swirly circular pattern, framing their face.

There are people who really hate it. I’m not one of those people.


There are people who really hate Lomography too. Any story on DPReview about a new Lomography lens will be full of comments about what an idiot anyone would have to be to buy one. Well, I’m one of those idiots.

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Lensbaby make quite a few different strange lenses now, but the classic Lensbaby is a lens that can be moved around. They have a lot of field curvature, where the focal point varies in a circular pattern around the centre. Assuming the scene you’re photographing is flat, and you focus on at the centre, the rest will be out of focus.

But here’s where the movement of the lens comes into it - move the lens around, and that ‘centre’ point moves. So you can have something outside the centre of the frame in focus, and everything else out of focus. For anything outside the focus point, it’s not even just that it’s out of focus - it adds a strange ‘smeary’ effect.

Even compared to Lomography’s weird lenses, Lensbabies are weird. I love them, but I rarely get good photos out of them. But it’s fun to try…

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