In a time when even cellphone cameras are being praised for their technical image quality, Lensbaby stands as a photographic paragon of our “keep Portland weird” mantra. They make a lens system that throws caution to the wind and doesn’t care about edge-to-edge sharpness or any of that other nonsense. Instead, their lenses promise to help photographers “see in a new way.” By selectively focusing on a single spot (or stripe) of a scene, Lensbaby’s optics have the ability to isolate subjects like no other lens, creating a stunning visual effect that carries an inherent emotional impact. They are fun, creative, experimental, and offer experienced shooters a chance to feel the thrill of photography all over again. Naturally, we decided to shoot the Lensbaby video almost entirely on Lensbaby lenses, mounted on a Canon C300.
Lensbaby’s unassuming base of operations in SE Portland doesn’t exactly stand out. It would be easy to drive right by without noticing a shred of evidence that one had just passed the home of the photo industry’s most unique brand. Step inside, however, and things begin to change. The bright green walls of the reception area make it clear that this is no normal company. On the tour, I discover a literal rainbow of happy-colored offices—red, orange, purple, blue—as well as a figurative rainbow of personalities. Lensbaby’s differentness is apparent almost everywhere, an obvious example being the chalkboard mural that changes monthly. Currently, it illustrates several “bad jack-o-lantern ideas” (my favorite: “New Mexico”).
Lensbaby grew out of Chief Creative Officer and co-founder Craig Strong’s personal project. A photojournalist by trade, Craig had been making all sorts of tools for himself to aid his photography, from LED focus assist pattern generators to custom off-camera shoe cords. When he started making optics, people took notice, and soon he began making lenses for other photographers. “I realized my photojournalist career was being eclipsed by making lenses for my friends,” he says.
It wasn’t easy turning his side-project into a full-blown business. Craig was accustomed to building one-off optics, always moving on to something new. It was an exciting, continual process of discovery that had to be put aside in order to focus on one product. “It was a huge challenge to say, ‘I”m just going to choose this one lens, and now we’re going to make a bunch of them.’”
Moving to mass-production brought several challenges of its own, but luckily local manufacturers were able to help out. Lensbaby still does a majority of its manufacturing right here in Portland, and Craig is extremely thankful for his in-house team. “They have been such a huge part of what Lensbaby has become. I have people to come together with, as a team, and work together on a daily basis toward a common goal, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Sometimes, that common goal is designing, building, marketing, and selling the latest product. Other times, it’s badminton and hacky-sack. A company who prides itself on making fun products must exist within a fun environment, after all.
I ask Craig what makes Lensbaby, as a company, so different from other lens manufacturers. His response is refreshingly unique, coming from a co-founder. “What we come up with is not bound by perfection. We want to come up with something that’s great largely because of surprises, largely because of what people can discover through our lenses, and what we can discover. Everyone else has said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do that,’ even if that is compelling, even if it’s fun.”
There is certainly no fear of always thinking and working outside of the box, then. Lensbaby and its product line seem, in many ways, to defy logic, but this is exactly why the company stands out. Where most lens makers emphasize MTF charts and their quest for the perfect piece of glass, Lensbaby’s approach is exactly the opposite. They take the (arguably more difficult) route of making a lens that cannot be marketed for its technical specifications. The quality of a Lensbaby lens is an ethereal thing; there is not an objective test to measure it or a fancy chart on which to display it. As cliché as this is, it is truly a product that has to be experienced to be believed.
As for the future, Craig likes to keep an open mind. I ask him if there were any big surprises that came out of Lensbaby, things he didn’t foresee. He laughs and says, joking, “No surprises at all, exactly the way I expected.” In truth, Lensbaby operates without a roadmap that’s set in stone, choosing instead to live in a probability wave of opportunity. Research and development is a constant way of life for the company, but where they go depends just as much on how consumers use their products. Case in point, Lensbaby now offers a kit specifically for filmmakers, and one can even buy PL mount versions of Lensbaby optics. The demand for Lensbaby lenses in cinema was completely unexpected, but after a Lensbaby 2.0 was purchased by ARRI and used in the filming of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was nominated for an academy award in cinematography, Craig and his Portland team realized there was a real opportunity there.
Lensbaby’s unwritten future is an exciting prospect. “I don’t know what’s ahead,” Craig says. “I don’t know what’s next. Let’s go see what that is.”