The Lensbaby 3GPL is a unique prime lens designed for dreamy film and video compositions. Its distinctive blurry, sobering look was used in the acclaimed film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to capture the viewpoint of a hospital patient coming into consciousness. The lens ships with eight aperture discs that the cinematographer can place using a magnetic dropper. Upon first sight, you might assume that the apparatus is a prop from a 1950s sci-fi film, complete with a wobbling plastic body transmitting signals from three silver antennae. But as soon as you realize that it's actually a selective-focus film lens, you can start producing footage that looks just as strange and interesting as the lens itself.
The 3GPL is the brainchild of Craig Strong, who birthed its older siblings, including the Lensbaby 3G. The 3GPL features the freely movable "barrel focus" that Lensbabies are renowned for. This feature allows cinematographers to spontaneously compose the same washy, emotive images that photographers have been experimenting with since the original Lensbaby's debut in 2004.
The 3GPL also possesses the "focus and lock" trait of the 3G-an attribute that otherwise left out would yield a total black sheep in the family. Why? For those not too familiar with it, the Lensbaby produces an uncommon image. Creating distorted periphery, spherical blurs are at the hands of the artist-spontaneous and disorienting. And this is just one frame. Multiply that by 24 frames a second. A medium close-up can become a nauseating first-person view. Although the lens can create hazy tunnel-like perspectives, my tests proved that it can also be one of the most adaptable lenses in a cinematographer's toolbox.
In essence, the 3GPL is a 3G with added support for film. It can also be connected quite easily to a video setup by using one of many 35mm lens-to-video adapters available. This means that it can generate wistful B-roll for a million-dollar film or equally serve as the only lens on an HD indie short. [Editor's note: it can also be used during a wedding video shoot or for commercial footage-hence its review in Studio Photography.]
In my tests I used the lens for the latter. The 3GPL was locked onto a Letus35 Extreme, which reflected my experiments into a Panasonic HVX200. With most lens-to-video adapters, the framed subject is monitored upside-down. I couldn't imagine trying to focus a Lensbaby while monitoring an inverted image-nausea would ensue. Luckily, this isn't the case with the Letus35. On the downside, all 35mm-to-video adapters lose an inevitable half-stop of light. This is because the subject is gradually being diffused through five or more pieces of glass. This forced me to brave the cold weather to capture sufficient lighting.
Lensbaby 3GPL / Letus35extreme / HVX-200 from Studio Nine on Vimeo
The Sweet Spot
After the test setup was calibrated, I took the camera to the roof, where my test subject was well lit and in front of a wide skyline. My cat was being fairly persnickety and camera-shy, so I had to determine the usability of this lens when not locked onto a tripod. I started on aperture f/2.8. By "started," I mean that I fished the magnetic disc out of its capsule and carefully dropped it onto the front glass of the 3GPL. Yes, this lens is 100 percent manual. The supplied aperture discs range from f/2 to f/22. I rarely used an aperture smaller than f/4.
Going from a stock lens on the HVX to the 3GPL gave me a sea change of focusing. As the cat meandered in and out of focus, I quickly learned that the focal plane was tighter than expected. However, by focusing the barrel ring I was able to dramatically change the depth of field. The sweet spot on the lens can't be beat. With patience, one can achieve expressive compositions based on subject and light. As the cat sat along the edge of the roof looking down, I pivoted the barrel housing to achieve a muddled "swing" effect. This same technique works wonders if you're filming macro shots with a shallow depth of field (preferably on a tripod). I rarely adjusted the fine focusing posts by hand. In conjunction with locking the focusing collar, the posts may prove to be imperative in highly controlled filming environments (product close-ups, interviews, tracking shots for CG).
In my experiments, the 3GPL was just plain fun to use. Although its effectiveness depends on many outside variables, the lens itself has an inspired, playful feel. Craig Strong definitely designed this lens to be able to make compositions on its own. With so much variability influencing the 3GPL's compositions, the intrinsic flatness of digital video gets disguised with an "analog" aesthetic. Quickly moving subjects (such as persnickety cats) aren't ideal for locking in on the "sweet spot," but it's likely that when a brilliant moment comes into focus, all the waiting is justified.
ALEX TYSON is a visual director and musician, often producing works that combine both disciplines. His directing credits include travel documentaries, projections for live theater, an instructional DVD series, and multiple short films. He currently manages Video Production at Studio Nine Photography (www.studionine.com) in Philadelphia, PA.