review

My First Impression of the Lensbaby Velvet 56 by Todd Henson

The Lensbaby Velvet 56 f/1.6 Lens

Such a beautiful lens! That was my first impression.

I’ve always been curious about the Lensbaby line of lenses and often thought about purchasing one. This year I finally did, choosing the Lensbaby Velvet 56. This particular lens creates a soft, glowing look to photographs. When you stop down the lens all the way (close the aperture to its smallest setting) you will minimize the softness. But as you open the aperture the lens begins to add a really nice soft, ethereal effect which gets softer the wider the aperture.

A red rose photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a smaller aperture to lessen the soft, ethereal look.

The lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.6, which allows it to create some very nice bokeh (the beautiful out of focus areas). I’ve included several pairs of sample photographs in this post, one created with a more open aperture than the other to better show some of the effects you can create. Click on any of the photographs to see a larger version.

A red rose photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a larger aperture to increase the soft, ethereal look.

As can be seen in some of these photos the Lensbaby Velvet 56 is also useful for shooting macro. It has a minimum focusing distance of 5”, letting you get fairly close to your subject. And you can always use extension tubes if you want to get even closer.

A red rose photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a very large aperture to really increase the soft, ethereal look.

I will say it can be a challenge learning to use this lens. It is a fully manual lens. There is no autofocus. You manually change the aperture on the lens (as used to be the case for all lenses, back in the day). And there are no electronic contacts on the lens so the camera doesn’t know what aperture you’ve set.

A pair of pink dianthus photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a smaller aperture.

A pair of pink dianthus photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a larger aperture.

I have found, at least with the Nikon D500, that I can often use the lens with the camera in Aperture priority mode. The camera doesn’t know the aperture the lens is set to but it can usually meter through the lens, choosing a shutter speed to match the aperture. However, sometimes this fails and I need to switch to Manual mode, setting both the aperture and shutter speed myself. This seems to happen most often in low light situations.

A group of gomphrena flowers photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a small aperture to create a sharper image.

A group of gomphrena flowers photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a large aperture to create a softer image.

As mentioned there is no autofocus with this lens. You must focus manually. This is not as easy with today’s digital cameras as it was with some of the nice focusing screens in the older film cameras. But as with all things you will get better at this the more you practice, so keep trying. It’s well worth the effort.

A blue balloon flower photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a small aperture.

A blue balloon flower photographed with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 using a large aperture.

Some of the effect this lens creates might be possible through software in post-production. And you may be able to replicate some using props, such as tulle or other fabric held over the lens. But it’s very convenient and enjoyable creating these effects with so little effort using just the lens. Not to mention how much more reproducible the effects will be.

A large aperture on the Lensbaby Velvet 56 created a soft glow around this yellow maple leaf.

I will share more photographs created with Lensbaby Velvet 56 in future posts. And I look forward to working more with the lens, exploring what I might be able to create with it. I have some ideas, but no clue yet how they might work out, if at all. That’s part of the fun using a new lens of this sort.

A small aperture on the Lensbaby Velvet 56 allowed me to keep most of this red hibiscus bud in focus.

Have you ever used the Lensbaby Velvet 56 or its longer focal length sibling, the Lensbaby Velvet 85? If so let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

Pistils of a red hibiscus flower, using a small enough aperture on the Lensbaby Velvet 56 to keep the tips of the pistils in clear focus.

Using a wider aperture on the Lensbaby Velvet 56 created a soft glow to the pistils of this red hibiscus flower.

If you purchase a Lensbaby Velvet lens be sure to get the correct version for your camera’s mount. They make them for Nikon, Canon, Sony, and several other brands, as well.

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The Art of Wildlife Photography with Tom Mangelsen by Todd Henson

This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. This is at no extra cost to you.

The Art of Wildlife Photography  with Tom Mangelsen . Image credit: CreativeLive

The Art of Wildlife Photography with Tom Mangelsen. Image credit: CreativeLive

Wildlife photography is an activity that brings me so much joy. I love getting out in nature, hiking the trails, observing animals, learning their behavior, working to capture some of what I see with a camera, and then sharing those images with others.

I think there is so much to learn by getting outside and practicing, learning through experience, by trial and error. But I think there is also value in learning from others. Books can be great sources of education. Or you could find a mentor who could teach you one on one. Or perhaps you can find and take a workshop with an expert in the field. Another great alternative I often use is watching online classes through CreativeLive.

I found this young Red Fox kit just outside its den. Shortly afterwards it curled up and fell asleep.

The Art of Wildlife Photography is a CreativeLive online class taught by Tom Mangelsen, a well known wildlife photographer. It was originally streamed live over 2 days, and includes almost 11 hours of video of both classroom discussions and video of Tom and several students in the field, photographing landscapes, elk, river otter, moose and more.

You really get to know about Tom in this class, where he came from, how he got into photography, and how passionate he is about the wildlife he photographs. And you get to learn some of the lessons he has learned over the years photographing wildlife all over the world. He talks about how to approach wildlife, how to read their behavior, and how the well being of the wildlife is always more important than the photograph.

An American Pika I photographed on the edge of a rock in Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of the elements of this class I most enjoyed were the videos of Tom in the field with students. I enjoyed seeing how Tom approached a scene, what he looked for, and how he adapted to the scene as things changed, whether that be lighting or wildlife moving around in the background. You could see how over the years he has learned how wildlife behaves and can often anticipate their movement allowing him to better position himself for an artistic wildlife image.

His experience photographing a very large family of river otter brought back fond memories of an experience I had in Maine with my father. We also ran into a family of river otter, granted, much smaller than the one Tom and his students found. But it was such a joy photographing them, and such a joy to watch his excitement as he photographed them with the class.

Four River Otter I photographed in Acadia National Park, along the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine.

Most of my wildlife photography could probably be labelled as wildlife portraiture. I tend to focus on single animals at as close a distance as possible, filling the frame with the animal and throwing the background into a pleasant out of focus blur. I really enjoy this style of photography, and it is something Tom has also done.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher I found sitting on its nest.

But Tom’s greatest works seem to be larger environmental landscapes where wildlife is integrated into the scene. These are often panoramic images of beautiful landscape backgrounds with wildlife as a subject in a key location. I would very much like to use his examples as a starting off point for myself, and try to explore creating these wider images of wildlife in their environment. I think these can help tell a larger story and really draw the viewer into the photograph.

I saw this Coyote out in a field and photographed it looking over its shoulder.

If you are passionate about wildlife photography and want to learn from one of the best in the world then check out CreativeLive’s The Art of Wildlife Photography with Tom Mangelsen. It is one of my favorite classes that I’ve purchased over the years. I hope you enjoy it, as well!


A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt by Todd Henson

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A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel  by Annie Griffiths Belt

A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel by Annie Griffiths Belt

Annie Griffiths Belt spent much of her life as a National Geographic photographer, traveling the world, telling stories about the peoples and places she visited. In A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel she tells her story. She tells of growing up in the Midwestern US in the 1950s and how early on she had no thoughts of being a photographer; she didn’t even own a camera until her junior year in college. She thought she’d be a novelist.

But the job that might have begun training Annie for her eventual career with National Geographic was that of a waitress in a small town. She felt that job taught her more than any classroom ever had. She learned how to relate to people, how to communicate and get along, the gift of gab and putting people at ease; great skills for a future journalist.

When she did finally buy a camera in college Annie was hooked. All she wanted to do was shoot assignments for the university paper. After college she worked for another paper, one where she was largely on her own to find and tell stories, with little oversight or direction. This was perfect training for National Geographic.

One day while working at the paper Annie answered the phone and found herself speaking to Bob Gilka, the Director of Photography at National Geographic. He was looking for hail damage photographs and knew her area had just experienced a large hail storm. And so began her relationship with National Geographic. Within a year she was working her own assignments for them.

It was also at National Geographic she would meet her future husband, Don Belt. He was a writer for the magazine, and they would eventually go on assignments together as much as possible. When they had kids they decided to take them along, as well. This proved a fantastic education, allowing the kids to see the world, learn about the cultures, people, and places firsthand.

National Geographic sent her all over the world. She visited many of the countries in the Middle East, learning about the different cultures and making friends with many people. This was an interesting time. There is so much tension between so many of the cultures in that part of the world, yet she was able to befriend people everywhere she went. She eventually travelled to other parts of the world: New Zealand, Australia, England, Morocco, Japan. She visited South America, Europe, Africa, every continent but Antarctica.

Each section of the book tells a part of her story and showcases photographs from that period of her life. Scattered throughout are also short pieces about specific stories, describing her experiences and displaying photographs from that story. Many of them are very personal or emotional, as is often the case with National Geographic stories, taking you into the lives of the people.

The book is full of photographs from all over the world. Most are her photographs shot while working various assignments. Some are of her family while with her on these assignments. If you’ve read National Geographic then you will be familiar with this type of photography. These are story-telling photographs. Ones that draw us into the lives of others.

This is a book that not only tells the story of Annie Griffiths Belt, but also tells the story of the cultures of the world. It demonstrates it is possible for people of different cultures to get along, to even learn from one another if we stay open to it. The book seems especially relevant today, with so much hatred and violence in the world, so much misunderstanding, so many people judging an entire race or culture because of the actions of the few. This book is evidence it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to learn to respect and appreciate those who are different than ourselves.

As a photographer I have learned that women really do hold up half the sky; that language isn’t always necessary, but touch usually is; that all people are not alike, but they do mostly have the same hopes and fears; that judging others does great harm but listening to them enriches; that it is impossible to hate a group of people once you get to know one of them as an individual.
— Annie Griffiths Belt

I hope you will seek out a copy of this book and read through it. Maybe you’ll get something out of it, as I did.