The Lensbaby Obscura 16 ($249.95) is a made-for-mirrorless pinhole lens, released at the same time as the Obscura 50 for SLR cameras. It takes advantage of the shorter distance between sensor and lens mount to enjoy a wider angle of view, one that’s considered ultra-wide on full-frame systems. It’s a better fit for landscapes, and compatibility with EVF cameras means you won’t have to deal with a darkened viewfinder, an issue when using pinhole lenses with SLRs. As is the case with the Obscura 50, some may hate the look of pinhole images—the Obscura 16 isn’t likely to change your mind there—but for fans of the look, it may find a special place in your camera bag.
Takes Advantage of Mirrorless Design
The Obscura 16 is a slim lens, certainly small enough to qualify as a pancake—it doesn’t extend past the handgrip on the Sony a7R IV, the camera we paired it with for evaluation.
The lens measures in at 0.9 by 2.9 inches (HD) and weighs about 5.3 ounces. It’s a pure mechanical lens, with a fixed focus design and no electronics, and no dust or splash protection. Front and rear caps are included, along with a small zippered carrying case.
Construction quality is basic, but of strong quality. The barrel is machined aluminum, with a tapered front that’s a little wider than at the mount. It makes for a tight fit between lens and camera grip with some combinations, something to think about if you’ve got large hands, or have a camera with little clearance between lens mount and handgrip.
Lensbaby offers the Obscura 16 in several mounts: Canon RF, Fujifilm X, L-Mount Alliance, Micro Four Thirds, Nikon Z, and Sony E.
The focal length of a pinhole lens is determined by the distance between the lens and image sensor. SLR cameras have a decent amount of space there, necessary for the mirror box and optical viewfinder assembly, resulting in pinhole lenses with a narrower 50mm angle of view.
The Obscura 16 puts its imaging plane closer to the image sensor for a wider view, one that enters ultra-wide territory on full-frame cameras, and is still wide-angle on APS-C (24mm equivalent) and Micro Four Thirds (32mm equivalent) systems.
Three Pinhole Looks
Most pinhole lenses have one setting and one setting only, so you’ll need to swap out lenses if to move go from a single pinhole to a more complex zone plate. The Obscura 16 (and Obscura 50) has three settings—Pinhole, Pinhole Sieve, and Zone Plate. It’s easy enough to swap between them—the inner portion of the lens rotates, and clicks into place when properly set. A white line indicates the current view.
The classic Pinhole option captures photos using a single, tiny opening, punched with precision in the protected metal sheet at the heart of the Obscura. Its f/90 aperture means that you’ll want to use it in bright daylight or on a tripod for long-exposure work. Pinhole images are generally soft—textures fade away, offering a generally blurred, soft view.
The Pinhole Sieve uses a more complex pattern of small pinholes, with a slightly larger opening at the center. Its effective f/45 aperture lets in more light, and light passing through multiple pinholes gives highlights a visible glow, for a halo effect.
The Zone Plate option uses larger openings, concentric with the biggest at the middle, for f/22 results. This setting nets the softest, most abstract photos. The Zone Plate also draws the most visible halos, especially if you work the sun into your shots—you’ll note a rainbow flare surrounding it.
We used the Obscura 16 with a full-frame camera and the resulting images show a very strong vignette. The effect will be lessened if you pair the Obscura with an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds mirrorless—their smaller sensors only capture the central, brighter area of the Obscura’s view.
For Pinhole Fans Only
It should be obvious that if you’re not a fan of the soft, dreamlike photos a pinhole lens captures, the Obscura 16 is a lens you can skip. For fans of the discipline, though, it’s an intriguing new tool, one that puts three different pinhole looks into one lens, and takes advantage of mirrorless camera design to see a much broader angle of view than an SLR.
It’s one of the reasons we’re rating it a little higher than the Obsucra 50, Lensbaby’s take on the pinhole concept for SLRs. It’s not nearly as good a choice for big sky landscapes, especially when paired with a consumer-grade APS-C SLR. And its dim aperture makes for a dark, murky viewfinder. The Obscura 16 sidesteps the dim viewfinder—it works with electronic viewfinder, not optical, cameras—and is a slimmer lens to boot.
It’s a pricey option if you’re just starting to dabble with pinhole photography, though. There are cheaper alternatives out there—the Thingyfy Pinhole Pro S is a $69 option for Fujifilm, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony, and Pinhole Resource offers Zone Plate caps for several mirrorless systems for about the same price.
You’ll miss out on aluminum construction, the three-in-one design, and the protective cover glass included in the Obscura 16, you still do get what you pay for to a certain extent. There’s no question that Lensbaby has put its designed-in-the-US engineering muscle behind the Obscura, but for the price, this one is best for the pinhole crowd.