If you’re looking for a conversation starter to attach to your camera, you won’t do much better than the Lensbaby Omni Creative Filter System ($99.95). It’s an attachment system that screws into the filter threads of your lens, and includes a number of magnetic wand attachments to bend light and create other artistic effects. I’ve had a lot of fun testing it out, and am happy enough with it to call it a PCMag Editors’ Choice. If you’re interested in adding some interesting optical effects to your images, you should certainly give it a try.
What’s That On Your Camera?
The Omni’s main component is a big, round metal ring that goes around your lens. Lensbaby sells it in two sizes, a smaller one for lenses with filters from 49 to 58mm, and one for larger lenses with thread diameters from 62mm to 82mm. We tried both with a few different lenses.
The ring is enough to hold a pair of magnetic attachment points. Each has two connection points, so you can directly attach one of the wands if desired. The basic starter kit also includes a pair of extension arms, so you can put more distance between the wand and front element. Everything is held in a gray felt pouch, with velcro strips so you can attach it to the interior of your camera bag if desired. Lensbaby also includes a plastic filter wrench, used to remove the filter or a step-up ring if either gets stuck on a lens.
The starter kit comes with three effects wands. From left to right in the image above, they are Stretch Glass, the Crystal Seahorse, and Rainbow Film. The Stretch Glass and Seahorse can be employed in a variety of ways. You can use them to add flare and reflections, or change the character of bokeh. The Rainbow Film adds rainbow streaks to your photos.
If you want more, there are a pair of expansion kits available. The Crystal Expansion Pack ($49.95) includes three new wands—Crystal Spear, Triangular Prism, and Scalloped Window. For $59.95, you can add the Color Expansion Pack, which includes Teardrop and Crescent Multicolor Crystal wands, Crisscross Rainbow Film, and more than a dozen additional color film gels, as well as a wand to hold one of them at a time.
Experimentation Pays Off
I’ll admit, when I opened up the Omni kit, I wasn’t how exactly sure I was going to use it, or what I’d get out of it. I spent a day at a sculpture garden with the starter kit and Crystal Expansion, using them mainly with the Sony E 30mm F3.5 Macro, a standard-angle lens with 1:1 focus.
It didn’t take long to get some good shots—though I’ll admit that there were many more throwaways than keepers. But after a little while I found what worked and what didn’t. Macro shots of flowers were easy enough—I was able to pair the Rainbow Film and Crystal Spear together to capture multiple reflected ghosts of a water lily, above, and adding a bit of rainbow flare livened up still-life shots.
I got very different types of shots when I paired with a wider lens with a much bigger front element. The Sigma 35mm F1.2 DG DN Art uses 82mm filters, the largest you can use with the Omni without buying additional step-up rings, and snaps wide-angle shots with a very narrow depth of field when used with its aperture open.
It was a little more challenging to use the wands with such a big piece of glass. I took a different approach, reaching to Stretch Glass to obscure defocused areas of the frame, giving the bokeh a very different look. But it’s still a little tricky—for a long exposure shot of a subway train pulling into the station, I used the glass to reflect the passing train onto the static station floor. But I didn’t quite get it covered entirely, as you can see in the uncropped photo above.
It was the only time I found the wand not quite up the task of perfectly covering up the front of Sigma’s huge 35mm F1.2. I wanted to try one of the color gels included in the Color Expansion Pack to give the rather dull water bordering lower Manhattan a more colorful look. I didn’t quite manage to cover the entirety of the frame—you can see the black plastic causing a vignette at the bottom left of the frame below, and on the right you’ll notice that the gel didn’t quite reach the other end of the lens.
Not everyone is going to use the same lenses, of course, and a 35mm F1.2 is an absolute outlier; most lenses use smaller filter sizes. But it’s something to think about if you do gravitate toward larger lenses.
I should note that I paired the Omni with mirrorless cameras in the field. If you’re an SLR owner, your experience will be a little bit different. When you view the Omni effects through an optical viewfinder—I tried it out with the Canon EOS 5DS R and EF 50mm f/1.2 lens—you won’t see an actual preview of your final image, as you will with an EVF.
This is because the optical focusing screen doesn’t give you a preview of your final image the same way an EVF does. You’ll get a very good idea of how the Effect Wands are modifiying your image, but not the same actual image preview you get with an EVF. I recommend SLR users try the Omni with their camera’s Live View system, especially when getting a feel for what the different wands can do.
Photographers with an artistic bent should take a look at the Lensbaby Omni. Its modifiers work to add some spice and color to images, change the quality of bokeh, adjust color tones, and more. Because everything included is an optical effect tool, you get to see the effects in-camera.
There’s a lot I like about the Omni system. It’s well designed and constructed, for one. The basic starter kit gives you the filter rings and a few Effect Wands to get started, and if you fall in love with the kit, you can supplement it with additional wands. Photographers with a DIY spirit may even find themselves inspired to make their own attachments.
Regardless of whether you confine yourself to the starter kit or go whole hog with expansion packs, the Omni is a tool that encourages you to be more creative with your photography. That’s enough to make it an Editors’ Choice.