The Most Innovative Pinhole Yet. Lensbaby Obscura Review

For more stories like this, please subscribe to the Phoblographer.

It’s an intriguing concept that Lensbaby deserves multitudes of praise for. A tilt-shift pinhole optic? Indeed, the Lensbaby Obscura is truly a first of a kind. When our team was first pitched about the idea of a pinhole, we were told that it would work with the Lensbaby Composer Pro II system. That’s where I raised my eyebrows. The idea is cool, and there is also a version that’s a straight plate for your camera. But if you know anything about pinhole photography, that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Pinhole photography is shot at super narrow apertures. In fact, the aperture for the pinhole is f161. And though the Obscura can do a few other apertures beyond this, they’re honestly pretty useless.

Too Long, Didn’t Read.

The Lensbaby Obscura is a fun-to-use pinhole optic. We tested the version that’s designed to be used with the Composer Pro II. Tilt-shift pinhole is really fun. We used it Leica L mount. It’s very fun to use, but it also comes with a lot of annoyances.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Fun to use
  • A few different apertures
  • I like the fact that it can sort of be a tilt-shift pinhole

Cons

  • The only real aperture you’d care about is f161
  • I wish the optics weren’t as well coated or supersaturated
  • Probably would’ve been better as a straight optic. The other variant is a 16mm optic. And this should’ve been around 30 or 28mm instead.
  • Your sensor will get dirty from the Composer Pro. Lensbaby says that it will show off how dirty your sensor is. But there’s no way that after multiple cleanings that my sensor was still dirty.
  • It’s really about time that the Composer Pro system gets weather resistance.

Gear Used

We used the Lensbaby Obscura with the Leica SL2s.

Innovations

The Lensbaby Obscura optic is the first to receive tilt-shift capabilities with the Composer Pro system. Not many pinhole optics are made, to begin with. But the fact that this is being made is pretty darn cool!

Tech Specs

Here is a blurb from Lensbaby’s Launch Copy

A pinhole is not, technically, a lens but is a clear, round hole in a thin piece of material, usually metal. A pinhole sieve is a field of pinholes with the center pinhole being the largest and increasingly smaller pinholes radiating away from the center. A zone plate is a series of clear circular rings surrounding a center hole with each of the clear zones equaling the area of the pinhole in the center resulting in increasingly thinner zones as you move away from the center of the zone plate.

Most pinholes, unlike the Obscura’s imaging elements, are very delicate and easily damaged, typically being produced as small holes in thin sheets of metal with knife sharp edges at the edge of the holes required to efficiently focus light. The Obscura’s pinhole, zone plate and pinhole sieve are made up of three layers of chrome with a total thickness of 0.00014mm deposited on 1.5mm thick glass before anti-reflective coating is applied. With a resolution of 128K dpi, this photolithography process not only makes true zone plates with excellent light transmission, it produces perfectly round pinholes and precision zone plate zones. Photographers can clean the Obscura’s glass as they would any camera lens, without fear of destroying and of the three imaging options.

Ergonomics

First off, the Lensbaby Obscura comes in two formats. There is a flat plate lens that can be mounted to a mirrorless camera. But the one we tested was the Lensbaby Obscura optic for the Composer Pro II system. It’s a 50mm optic, which is far longer than I think it should be. 

Take a look inside, and you’ll see the aperture settings. You need to twist this to get the specific look that you’re going for.

Being a part of the Composer Pro, the Lensbaby Obscura optic can focus using the system. Well, it can sort of focus. Everything will be in focus and soft anyway. 

As you can also see, it’s a very big optic. Instead, most of the mass will be for the Composer Pro II.

Build Quality

There is where you can be genuinely torn about the Lensbaby Obscura. This version is designed to be used with the Composer Pro II. Lensbaby says that the narrow apertures will show you how dirty your sensor is. Of any working journalist in the photography-niche world, I think I pride myself on being able to clean a sensor. I’ve done multiple videos on it before. I’ve used both a Rocket Blower and an Arctic butterfly. But no matter what, the sensor because dirty again. I at first thought that maybe I missed something. But when using the Arctic Butterfly’s light, I found a super clean sensor. To boot, I’m using the Leica SL2s. This is one of the most durable and weather-sealed cameras on the market. In fact, it’s one of the few IP-rated ones available. Many lenses for the system are also super well built. 

But when I put the Lensbaby Obscura and the Composer Pro II on the camera, the sensor kept getting dirty. This annoyed me when I went to change lenses. However, you can make another argument. The dirty sensor could just be part of the charm. That indeed happens with real film pinholes. I’ve shot lots of them on Fujifilm peel-apart film and others. Your film is bound to accumulate dirt and dust. That’s just something that adds to the cool factor of a pinhole. 

And indeed, you can make that argument. But the argument ends when you want to go back to using normal lenses. For that reason, I sincerely believe that the Composer Pro II system needs a weather-sealing revamp. Indeed, the Lensbaby Obscura still uses glass and an incredibly narrow aperture.

In fact, the most fun time to use a pinhole is with bad weather. But you can’t do that here.

Ease of Use

The Lensbaby Obscura has three settings. There is an f32 (Zone Plate), f64 (Zone Sieve), and f161 (Pinhole). To change the aperture, you need to reach inside the optic and turn the aperture setting. It’s a bit annoying, to be honest. And it makes me only want to use and care about one setting. The zone plate has a curved field of focus, while the others are just flat pinholes. Combining these with the Composer Pro system makes it a tilt-shift pinhole lens. With that said, the Lensbaby Obscura is also pretty awesome. However, I also believe that they shot themselves in the foot. For pinhole photography, I sincerely believe that 50mm is way too long. 24mm, 28mm, or 35mm would’ve been ideal here. 

Further, I think that the Lensbaby Obscura optic would be best served on the Fujifilm X series system. It renders the most analog look you can get. Leica doesn’t really do that.

Focusing

With all honesty, the Lensbaby Obscura doesn’t really need focusing. Everything will be in focus, but nothing will be sharp. The lo-fi look is all part of shooting pinhole. You can sort of shift the focusing. And when you do, you’ll notice that the back element of the Lensbaby Obscura optic won’t even cover the entire full-frame sensor. Basically, I feel it’s futile to even worry about focusing. Just focus it so that the rear optic is closest to the camera sensor. Then using the tilt-shift setting as much as you can.

Image Quality

We’re not going to approach this in the typical way that we do our other lens reviews. Color Rendition, bokeh, sharpness, and lens character all don’t matter here at all. Instead, know that you’re going to get a very muted, soft pinhole scene. It’s fun, and Lensbaby says you should point the Lensbaby Obscura at high contrast subjects. 

I’m one of those folks who doesn’t feel like he can do a good color pinhole image. A master of that is Kenneth Leishman. I’ve interviewed tons of pinhole photographers for the site. But I always warmed up more to black and white. Admittedly, I found the Lensbaby Obscura not fun to create imagery with because the focal length is so long. If it were wider, I think that I’d be in heaven.

From day one, the Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. You’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a whole section in our Extra Image Samples area to show off edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.

Edited

Unedited

Conclusions

Likes

  • Lensbaby tried something new, and it’s a cool idea

Dislikes

  • Lensbaby could’ve gone into the f200 aperture range
  • I like the idea of a tilt-shift pinhole, but it needed to be wider on the composer system
  • Your sensor is going to get very dirty.

I sincerely really think that the Lensbaby Obscura is a very cool idea. But there are a load of problems. For starters, I wish that it went into the f200 range like many other cool analog pinhole cameras. I also wish the Composer Pro II system prevented any dust from hitting my sensor. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Further, this should’ve been a wider optic. 50mm pinhole optics make no sense to me. The coolest pinhole photos are vast and wide. You don’t create a Solargraph with a 50mm lens at all. 

If you’re considering the Lensbaby Obscura optic for the Composer Pro II, take a pass. I haven’t tried the plate optic yet, but I’m hoping it’s better despite only going down to f90. 

The Lensbaby Obscura receives two out of five stars. Want one? Check them out on Amazon.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.