Perfect Imperfections: Using a Flawed Camera Lens for Creative Photos

If you were to ask a photographer whether it’s better to invest in a camera or a lens, most would answer lens. After all, no amount of megapixels or camera features can save blurry or ill-rendered images. The lens is the eye of the camera, which is why photographers spend thousands of dollars on them. However, this doesn’t mean that you need an expensive lens to make compelling images.

I, for one, am someone with a limited imagination. What I mean by that is that I need to get my images looking how I want them in camera so all I have left to do is color grade them. So if I want a lens flare or glitch or haziness in my image, I need to introduce that element into my shoot. All that’s to say that recently I’ve spent quite a bit of time scavenging eBay for broken or flawed camera lenses.

I found an old Canon lens that appears to have some sort of fungus growing inside the glass.

The investment set me back $30, meaning I didn’t have much to lose in this gamble. Worst case scenario was that it wouldn’t be anything special, in which case I’d at least be able to take a hammer to it until it produced something interesting.

Once it arrived, I threw it on my Canon 5D Mark IV only to find that the sensors weren’t working on the lens, resulting in a communication error which couldn’t be overridden. I opted to attach it to my Sony a7S II with a Canon mount converter (I have one of the cheap converters which makes me manually focus). This shot of the flowers is an unedited raw file:

The lens fungus was translating into a wonderful haziness. My gamble had paid off.

Once I shot a few images and opened them in Lightroom, I lowered the clarity to help pronounce the haziness and then I dramatically tweaked the tone curves to give the images a solarized feeling. Now that I knew that this beat-up little lens was magical, I was ready to test it on a real person.

Side note: I always do my initial photo experiments with an inanimate object, such as flowers, so that I don’t waste the models time should the images prove to be unusable.

I had a brief portrait session with longtime collaborator Desiree Dahl in which I shot two light scenarios in about twenty minutes. For the first setup I placed a light slightly behind each side of her, aiming back toward the camera, in order to get some lens flare. The lens’ haziness complemented the lens flare rather nicely. For the second scenario I switched to a single, yellow-gelled flash, mimicking morning light through a window. The lens’ haziness, in combination with the yellow light, gave the resulting images a Blade Runner 2049 feel to them that made me very happy.

I had to try out the lens in an outdoor setting. It seems like scenarios with bright spots really showcase the glowing flaws of the lens. I met Malaney at an abandoned overpass not far from my studio and waited for the sun to come back out from the clouds. I shot a range of scenarios, with her facing into the sun and with the sun at her back. My favorite shots were the ones where the sun was the brightest, making the glow the most pronounced.

Consider my appetite for broken lenses whetted. Now I’m off to eBay to resume my quest.

About the author: Nick Fancher is a Columbus, Ohio-based portrait and commerce photographer. You can also find more of his work and writing on his website. His popular books can be purchased on Amazon. This article was also published here.