Review: Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 (Sony E Mount, Full Frame)

When the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 was put into my hands a few months ago, I was really curious about this lens. The previous one coming in at 56mm was incredibly soft. Now, that’s all part of the charm of the Velvet series–but when it’s so soft that focus peaking sometimes won’t even work, then it can be tough to get anything in focus with the lens. But the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 is different in a whole bunch of ways. It’s still soft wide open, but you can make that work for you in a number of ways: one of which is to work with a studio flash system.

With the announcement of the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 available in a number of mounts, this only makes the choice of which 85mm lens to choose for the Sony camera system even more difficult.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Fantastic build quality
  • Super smooth focusing
  • Clicked apertures
  • 12 aperture blades
  • Lightweight
  • When stopped down this lens becomes super sharp
  • Muted colors to help counter the tons of saturation that Sony tends to output

Cons

  • Wish it were still just a bit sharper wide open
  • I personally wanted more lens flare

Gear Used

We tested the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 with the Sony a7r II, Sony a7, Impact Ventre TTL 600 monolight, and the Phottix Luna Octabank.

Tech Specs

  • 85mm focal length
  • f/1.8-16
  • 62mm filter
  • 1:2 Macro
  • 12 blade aperture
  • Focuses from 9.5” from front element to infinity
  • Metal lens hood included with Velvet 85 lenses for mirrorless cameras only
  • Dimensions (DSLR) 89mm at infinity to 132mm at Macro, mm diameter
  • Dimensions (mirrorless without hood) 103mm Infinity to 145mm at Macro
  • Weight ~ 530 grams

Ergonomics

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 is one heck of a lens. To be honest, I want to call this Lensbaby’s best yet and it all starts with the ergonomics. The exterior is all metal; and you can both feel and hear it.

When you look down at the lens, what you’ll first spot is the aperture ring and the focusing ring. The focusing ring is massive and textured. You can see how far away you’re focusing this way, but there is no depth of field scale.

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 has macro close focusing abilities and so this is what the lens looks like when it is focused in the closest it possibly can go. As a result, the lens gets pretty big.

Even if the lens gets large, it’s still overall pretty manageable. In most cases though, we’re sure that you won’t be focusing in super close on a portrait subject.

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 also has a front area that can accept filters like an ND or a Polarizer for even richer color.

Build Quality

Despite the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 not having weather sealing, the lens is made of solid metal through and through. In my few months of testing it’s survived more than one bump. Folks who have held and played with it in my closest circles also like it.

Ease of Use

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 could probably be easily mistakes for a cinema lens more than anything else partially due to how it’s designed. Since it’s a manual focus lens, consider the fact that you’ll be manually focusing a lot and therefore cranking away at the focusing ring. Luckily, the newer Sony camera bodies have image stabilization built in.

Focusing

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 is a manual focus lens. With Sony cameras, you’re best off using it with focus peaking and magnification but even then it can be tough to get something critically in focus not because of the longer focal length, but because it’s just so darned soft wide open.

Here’s a photo of my buddy Jim Fisher from PCMag. Obviously, he could be sharper, but this was shot wide open. That’s arguably also about the sharpest you’re going to get.

Image Quality

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 isn’t really about the sharpness. Instead, it’s about the character, color tones, and the overall look. In that regard, the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 succeeds incredibly well. In the hands of a portrait photographer that knows and understands this, the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 can really sing. If you’re a photographer that likes to hang out in DPReview’s forums or the comments section of Petapixel or even tries to go for a look that’s too clinically sharp, then you’re not going to enjoy what this lens can do.

Bokeh

Shot wide open, the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 will give you some absolutely incredible bokeh due to its close focusing distances. However, you’re also trading a whole lot of sharpness for this in order to get the best bokeh at f1.8. If you want a balance of both bokeh and sharpness, then for for f4 or f5.6.

Chromatic Aberration

Yes, it’s there. Who the hell cares? If anything though, it’s there in the form of flare. There isn’t much of any major problems that I was able to find with fringing although I will surely admit that there are traces of it.

Again though, who cares? You’re getting a specific look that you’re committing to. Modern post-production software can do all sort of tricks to make a photo look sharper after the fact.

Color Rendition

Straight out of the camera, the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 delivers very life-like colors and is fantastic when it comes to skin tones. In fact, if you purchase the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 and don’t shoot portraits with it, you’re wasting your money.

Sharpness

Here’s what the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 looks like when stopped down to f5.6. This is my buddy Byron who runs Sony Mirrorless Pro. In my opinion, that’s a damned sharp lens. Is there sharper? Yes. But again, I don’t want critical sharpness; I never have.

Extra Image Samples

Conclusions

Likes

  • Solid build quality
  • Smooth focusing lets you really work to get the image
  • Beautiful colors, in fact these are the colors I’ve wanted for a while
  • Sharp when I need it to be

Dislikes

  • I wish that it were just a tad sharper wide open.

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 is a great lens in so many ways. It’s surely an improvement over the previous offering and it fantastic for portrait photographers. If you’re a fan of the classic lenses in terms of build quality and image quality, it’s going to be very difficult to get something better than this. Can it be sharper? Sure; but I’ll be the first person to tell you that you can deepen the black levels, boost the clarity and raise the sharpness to enhance overall sharpness in a photo. Almost nothing on the market will give you colors like this though unless you know how to get them. And the honest truth is that you can walk into all these Facebook groups with images that people say look like real film, but they’re really not. This, however, gets close.

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f1.8 deserves and wins our Editor’s Choice award and five out of five stars.