Review: The Lensbaby Spark Delivers Fun Selective-Focus Photos On the Cheap

Lensbaby’s big announcement at Photokina this year was the new Spark: an affordable plastic lens that offers selective focusing at a low price point of $80. A few weeks prior to the announcement, the company sent us a free copy of the lens to test out.

Here’s what the lens looks like when attached to a DSLR:

The Spark is a 50mm f/5.6 lens that features a plastic build and a spring-like body. You use it by squeezing the lens together like an accordion, which affects the location, distance, and size of the picture’s in-focus area. It doesn’t communicate with your camera at all.

Appearance-wise, it looks a bit like some kind of mutant plastic mushroom. It’s a lens that’s sure to attract some strange looks when used out in public.

The Good

It’s not something that can be quantified, but using the Spark is very enjoyable. It’s a nice break from ordinary photography, and trying to get your subject into a small and narrow circle of sharpness is something that you don’t experience with “real” lenses. If “fun-ness” was a criteria for camera lens reviews, then his lens would undoubtedly score a pretty high mark.

Despite being a plastic lens, its simplicity makes it feel somewhat durable. When you buy an ordinary cheap lens for your DSLR, the combination of fragile guts and plastic build puts it at risk of being destroyed if you ever bump it or drop it.

Not so with the Spark. It’s pretty much a chunk of black plastic with a tiny amount of glass at its core, so it should be able to withstand a good amount of abuse.

The photographs that the lens produces are pretty neat. Faking tilt-shift has been an emerging fad on the Internet as of late, but this lens lets you achieve a similar look without any special digital trickery.

Here are some sample photos shot using the Spark:

The Bad

Getting the lens to focus on the area you want to takes some practice. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get it exactly as you want, since you’re eyeballing the focus while looking through the viewfinder. The lens would certainly be more powerful if paired with live view and focus peaking, but without any focusing aid, it can be a bit frustrating.

The fact that the focus is achieved by squeezing the lens means that it’s difficult to get the same focus for two separate shots. If you spend a good amount of time getting the focus exactly like you want it, but mess up the exposure, you’ll need to re-squeeze the lens and start your focusing process all over again.

Metering properly through the lens is also a bit tricky. I spoke with Lensbaby founder Craig Strong at Photokina, asking him about my metering woes. His answer was that the lens behaves a bit differently on different cameras, with the resulting photos often being consistently over-exposed or under-exposed. You’ll need to figure out the lens’ behavior on your own camera, and adjust your exposure compensation based on that.

Setting my own exposure compensation to under-expose photos by about 1 stop helped immensely.

The Verdict

Let’s be clear: the Lensbaby Spark is a toy lens, made for playing around with non-standard focusing without having to shell out bigger bucks for a tilt-shift lens. It’s not a lens that you’ll be purchasing to upgrade your professional photography kit, or one that you’ll be taking along to important photo shoots, but it’s great at what it’s designed for: fun.

It’s fun being able to narrow your focus to one particular circle within the frame, just like it’s fun to play around with a pinhole lens or attach a vintage lens to a modern day digital camera.

At $80, it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s certainly cheaper than the next cheapest Lensbaby lens: the $150 Muse. Since you can’t use the Spark for anything but selective focus photographs — it doesn’t really take normal photos with sharp focus throughout the frame — you should know that your $80 will be going entirely toward playful photography.

If that’s what you’re after, however, then the Lensbaby Spark is a great plaything to carry around in your camera bag, and a suitable gift for a fun-lovin’ photo enthusiast (that you care a lot about).

Full disclosure: Lensbaby is a long-time sponsor of this website.

  • Shanice

    The cheap looks of the lens fits the cheap look of the Camera

  • Michael Zhang

    Nikonian? :)

  • Daniel

    looks like it’s basically like the original Lensbaby.

  • Matty

    I bet the camera takes cheap photos too.

  • AntonyShepherd

    Pretty much, yeah. I had one of those once but hardly ever used it. This seems to work in the same way.

  • robert norman

    I wonder how this is any different than the very first Lensbaby?— – seems like they just ‘re-imagined’ it…

  • robert norman

    oops – i just said the same thing having not read what you wrote!!

  • And

    I think they were just trying to make it as cheap as possible. I feel a lot of people are interested in the idea, but balk at the price of the original and the muse (not without reason).

  • Scott

    I bought it, used it one day and returned it. Really wanted to like it but results were not good. If it were $20.00 I would probably keep it.

  • Michael Zhang

    Was it the focusing?

  • Jonathan Maniago

    It’s probably best to pair this up with a standard nifty-fifty for a cheap, compact, and lightweight combo for casual shooting. I think it’s decent bang per buck for the variety that one could get with such a setup.

  • Squirrel Killer

    Fixed aperture and supposedly the barrel is constrained a bit to keep your circle of focus from getting too off.

  • Connor Crosby

    The results aren’t very pleasing, in my opinion.

  • Chris

    Just to clarify, as the owner of a LensBaby Composer (which can lock down focus point), the effect is pretty much a one trick pony: throwing sharp focus in one area of the frame while the remainder falls off sharply. It doesn’t have the functionality of a real tilt shift lens or the consistent quality of a 50mm 1.8 or 1.4. That said, the price point is fair compared to a new normal lens.

  • Amanda Coplans

    Sadly, on my iPad, I can’t see the sample photos, despite benig able to see the photos of the lens and camera. Grrrrrr – again Apple.

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for pointing that out. We’re including a link now to the Flickr set that contains the photos.

  • Fred Nerks

    A piece of expensive junk! It’s fun to screw photos up? Not for me! And to compare it with a real tilt-shift lens is an insult.

  • ajbatac

    If it was $30, I’ll get it. But for $80? I’d rather get the 50mm f1.8 for $20 more. My opinion.

  • Matrixbjj

    Surprised at the negtivity in some of the comments. I have a muse, which seems almost identical (but more expensive). Very fun and requires a very different way of composing to get an arresting image. Colour contrast between subject and out-of-focus area becomes very important – something the sample set doesnt really show. Also, when you nail the focus with the glass, your sharp zone is impressively sharp.

    Takes practice and imagination to get satisfying results. Well worth 80 bucks if you are up for that. Or 120 for the muse.

  • Assaf Lavie

    Am I missing something, or can the same effect be done in post-processing for free? Even instagram offers such a focus effect, so why would anyone buy HW for this?

  • Miss T

    Fun toy if you want to blow $80, I suppose. This doesn’t interest me at all….you can get the same effect using Instagram. It’s cute and all but I can’t see shooting a whole set of photos this way without giving myself a headache. Pass.