Lensbaby has gone back to the earliest forms of photography with its latest artistic lens series. The Obscura 50 ($279.95) is one of a pair of pinhole optics, and can swap between traditional pinhole, pinhole sieve, and zone plate looks. It’s meant to evoke the soft, surreal look of a camera obscura and lends itself well to abstract imaging. It could be a hit for the right photographer, one looking to explore a new creative tool, but it’s certainly not for everybody.
A Pinhole for SLRs
The Obscura 50 is made for SLR cameras, specifically those from Canon and Nikon. Mirrorless system owners should look at the Obscura 16 instead; its wider view, slimmer form, and lower $249.95 asking price are all advantages. But if you’re hanging on to a Canon Rebel or 5D, or Nikon D7000 or D780, the Obscura 16 won’t fit your camera.
The lens barrel is aluminum, finished in black, with a manual focus ring. The Obscura 50 itself is removable—it’s part of Lensbaby’s long-running optic swap system. The same straight-barrel ships with older lenses like the Twist 60 and 12mm Fisheye, so if you already have a compatible lens barrel, you can get the Obscura 50 optic on its own for a more palatable $179.95.
The Obscura isn’t a lens in the traditional sense. Instead of using optical glass elements to capture an image, pinhole photography lets light pass through a very tiny opening (or openings) in a sheet of metal. The Obscura uses higher-precision methods to make the pinholes, not a simple punch in sheet metal like you get with most. A thin layer of optical glass is added for protection, so you don’t have to worry about damaging the pinholes.
With full-frame cameras, the Obscura matches the angle of view of a 50mm optical lens. It’s tight if you’re thinking about using the lens for dreamy cityscapes. If you have an APS-C sensor model, the type used by Canon EOS Rebel and Nikon DX format cameras, you’ll be stuck with an even tighter, short telephoto angle of view.
Use Your LCD
Despite its made-for-SLR design, this is a lens where your camera’s live view function comes in very, very handy. Put a full-frame optical viewfinder to your eye, like the one used in the Canon EOS 6D with which I paired the Obscura, and you’re greeted with a dim, murky view of the world on bright days.
If you’re under overcast skies, the viewfinder can appear almost black. I can only imagine it being worse with Canon Rebel and Nikon D3000 and D5000 series bodies with smaller sensors and dimmer pentamirror optical finders. We didn’t have an EOS Rebel on hand to try with the lens.
The Obscura is easier to use in live view. You’ll get a clearer idea of what the lens is seeing, and how it will render a scene. It works a bit differently than traditional lenses, so its f-stop has a big bearing on rendering.
There are three capture modes available, an f/32 Zone Plate, an f/f64 Pinhole Sieve, and an f/161 Pinhole. Swapping between them is simple enough—just reach inside the barrel and twist to swap modes. The pinhole openings are protected by a layer of protective optical glass which, along with the ability to swap looks with a twist, sets the Obscura apart from more rudimentary pinhole body cap options.
The Zone Plate option uses a group of larger pinholes to gather light, for an effective f/32 aperture. Photos show more detail at the center than the other two settings, but are generally soft around the edges, and brighter portions of the image are surrounded by visible halos.
The Pinhole Sieve option has more than 500 tiny pinholes, the largest in the center, for an effective f/64 aperture. It’s also capable of showing the same halo effect as the Zone Plate, but it’s not quite as pronounced.
Finally, you get a traditional Pinhole, a single f/161 opening. It renders photos without much fine detail—texture washes away into nothing. But you get a clearer idea of objects, there’s more depth of field, and there’s no soft halo effect.
These very small apertures call for longer shutter speeds or high ISO settings when working handheld. Today’s digitals are up to the task, and really there’s no reason not to use the highest ranges of your camera’s ISO with the Obscura—it’s not like there’s a lot of sharpness from which to detract.
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For long exposure scenes, a tripod is still handy. The 6D doesn’t have a tilting rear display, and I wanted to see how the Obscura 50 handled on a mirrorless camera, so I swapped it to the Sony a7R IV (using a Fotodiox adapter) for some tripod work. It worked just as well as the 6D in live view, and has an EVF for better eye-level use as well.
Only as Good as the Photographer
I’ll be the first to admit, I struggled to get images I like from the Obscura 50. Pinhole photography has never been a personal passion. Photography is a diverse medium, though, and others may absolutely love pinhole shooting and all that it entails.
For that set, the Obscura 50 is a quality entry, but you do have to pay for it. The $279.95 asking price is steep, especially when generic pinhole body caps and more carefully crafted options from Rising can be had for much less, as little as $30. You’re paying for more precision here, along with a swappable set of pinhole openings, and a protective glass finish.
If you’re a pinhole expert and rely on a Canon or Nikon SLR as your camera, the Obscura 50 is an intriguing entry from Lensbaby, a company that continues to deliver off-the-beaten-path photo gear for creative types. Mirrorless system owners interested in this type of imaging should look to the Obscura 16 as an alternative.