Nine Shutterstock photographers discuss their unusual lens choices—both vintage and modern—and the creative process behind these lenses.
With the right lens, you can transform reality, changing an ordinary street scene into a still from a film noir or turning wildflowers into painterly swirls. Depending on your choice, you could make a dark forest explode into a kaleidoscope of color, or you can make rows of life-size buildings look like elaborately constructed dollhouses.
With influencers like Mathieu Stern, an experimental photographer with more than 300,000 followers on YouTube, making unusual lenses more accessible, it’s never been a better time to hop on eBay or visit the vintage section at your local camera shop in search of unexpected treasures.
We asked nine photographers from the Shutterstock collection to tell us about some of the most unusual, creative lenses they’ve used over the years. They recommended a vintage experimental lens by Helios, a famous Canon telelens from the 1980s, and plenty of more modern creations that are still being made today by creative effect lens manufacturers like Lensbaby.
We also included some of our own favorites. While many are (very) easy to acquire today, a handful are collectors’ items that have only been used by a lucky few.
1. Canon EF 200mm f1.8 L USM
“The Canon EF 200mm f1.8 L USM Lens is a legendary lens also known as the ‘Eye of Sauron’,” photographer Lambros Kazan (who’s based in Greece) tells us.
“This 200mm f1.8 lens only saw 8,000 produced during its run from 1988 through 2004, and there should be fewer than 2,000 pieces left in the world. I chose this lens because it is the fastest lens in the world at 200mm and one of the sharpest lenses I have ever worked with. I also love the stunning quality of the bokeh it produces.”
Two challenges posed by this lens are its size (it weighs in at 6.6 pounds) and the shallow depth of field. But, in regards to the latter, Kazan still recommends shooting wide-open for that characteristic bokeh.
“Shooting a portrait five meters away from the person at f1.8 on a full-frame camera, you are working with only a 6.3cm depth of field, which makes it rather difficult to focus,” the artist says. “Fortunately, the focusing system is very fast and accurate. When you combine it with the latest generation cameras (Eye AF), you get almost every shot tack-sharp.”
2. Meyer-Optik Trioplan Gorlitz 100mm f2.8
Roman Rys chose this lens to capture the delicate, ethereal quality of a tulip opening in springtime. To get the look of this classic lens, most notably its signature “soap-bubble bokeh,” you can try the new version, the Trioplan 100 f2.8 II, which was successfully brought to life via a Kickstarter campaign a century after the release of the original.
Shot with the Meyer-Optik Trioplan Gorlitz 100mm f2.8. License this image via Roman Rys.
With 15 aperture blades, this lens allows you to create that smooth, creamy bokeh. As Rys’s work can attest, it’s perfect for nature photography, as well as portraits. Look for backlighting during the golden hour for that dreamy, out-of-focus background. You can even combine the Trioplan with macro rings to get close to tiny subjects.
3. Lomography Petzval 85mm
“For this photograph, I used a Petzval 85mm lens, chosen for its wonderful circular bokeh,” the artist Rebeca Bongiovanni tells us.
“This lens is entirely manual. Focusing is done by turning a small knob located on one side. The diaphragms are external and interchangeable, ranging from f2.2 to f16. When you choose the one you are going to use, you place it in a slot at the top of the lens.”
Known for its color saturation, as well as its bokeh, this lens is ideal for portraits, though you can use it for painterly nature photos as well.
“What I like most about using this lens is looking for optimal backgrounds to achieve that signature blur because it only happens if certain conditions are met,” Bongiovanni says. “The first thing I do is to place the camera on a tripod and look for the perfect background, ideally with foliage that lets some light pass through its leaves and branches.”
4. Jupiter 9 85mm f2
This portrait lens, designed after the Carl Zeiss 85mm f2 Sonnar (for a fraction of the price), has 15 aperture blades for a dreamy bokeh effect when wide open. Even when you stop down, those rounded blades make for nice, smooth highlights.
License this image via Yevhen Prozhyrko.
5. Helios 85mm f1.5
This classic short telephoto lens is famous for producing silky, painterly bokeh when stopped down, making it a popular portrait lens. Look for highlights in the background (e.g. sun-dappled trees) for great results.
Shot on Canon 6D camera and Helios 85mm f1.5 lens. License this image via mallaigne.
You’ll find that some of the strongest images made with this lens, including the above from the Shutterstock Contributor mallaigne, were made during walks in the woods. Keep in mind that due to light flaring, your images might need some tweaks in post-production to avoid looking “washed out.”
6. Holga Lenses
Holga, the brand behind the iconic toy 120 film camera, also makes lenses for digital cameras so you can get that lo-fi, retro look on a DSLR. Igor Golovniov used a Holga to create this classic vignetting and soft focus, transforming a simple shot of a clothespin into something more artsy and intriguing.
License this image via Igor Golovniov.
You can get a 60mm for under $16 on Amazon. While it won’t deliver super polished, high-tech images, it’s a blast to play with.
7. Helios 44-2 f2 58mm
This classic lens has a giveaway—an instantly recognizable swirling bokeh effect you can’t get otherwise.
“The lens has been nicknamed the ‘swirly bokeh’ for this reason,” Italian photographer Chiara Cattaruzzi says. “I wanted to try this lens to get a very different effect from my usual lenses and to test the softness of the focus and blur.
“The first few times, I had some difficulty controlling the direct light and focusing, but you learn by making mistakes. Only by clicking over and over is the desired result achieved. The ‘swirly bokeh’ can only be obtained by shooting with the sunlight in front, using certain elements, such as trees, leaves, or branches partially covering that direct light.”
8. Canon 50mm f0.95
25,000 of these “dream lenses” were produced in the early 1960s, with the main selling point being how fast it is. At the time, they offered the widest aperture available.
License this image via Witaya Proadtayakogool.
The drawback that comes with all that light is the potential for lens flare, but in the right conditions, it’ll deliver a highly-coveted creamy background.
9. Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0
While Leica also has an f0.95 version, which is arguably more famous, this f1.0 lens is generally more affordable (and smaller). With that being said, it’s neither a cheap nor lightweight lens. As it’s a fast lens, you can use it even in low-light situations or indoors.
License this image via K-CY.
When using this lens, you’ll end up with highlights that take on a soft, glowy appearance, transforming otherwise ordinary scenes into something a bit dreamier.
10. Super Takumar 50mm f1.4
Introduced by Pentax in the 1960s, this vintage manual-focus lens is another nifty-fifty, offering lovely bokeh for an affordable price. Some of these older lenses have some yellowing, attributable to the presence of radioactive Thorium. While some photographers like this warming effect, you can counteract it by shining a blacklight on your lens.
License this image via Kalderaprojectt2021.
11. Lensbaby Composer & Composer Pro
The photographer Istvan Csak opted for the Composer—a creative, 50mm equivalent, fixed focal length lens from Lensbaby—to capture this scene in Nice.
“I chose this manual focus lens to make selective focus images,” he says.
Another popular option is the Lensbaby Composer Pro. This lens body/housing uses a ball and socket design and can be paired with Lensbaby optics for a variety of focal lengths and effects. That is, the body is only one component of a working lens and must have an internal optic “popped” to place.
Let’s see how the Pro works with a variety of optics.
With the Sweet 35 Optic
To create this photograph of the woods in autumn, Roman Antonov paired the Composer Pro with the Lensbaby Sweet 35, a 35mm optic known for its lovely, romantic blur.
“There was one moment when I decided that nowadays, lenses are too perfect,” photographer Roman Antonov remembers. “I wanted to add some mystery and magic to my images.”
With the Edge 50 Optic
Francisco Duarte Mendes chose to combine the Composer Pro with the Edge 50 Optic to capture an area of detail surrounded by dreamy blur.
“I like to explore focus and blur planes, the effect of movement, or the sensation of passing through the frame, drawing the eye to the subject,” he says. “Working with manual exposure and focus with the different focus plane changes can be a challenge, but when it goes well, it’s a great feeling.”
With the Edge 80 Optic
AnastasiaNess went a little longer with the Edge 80 Optic while shooting Gorges du Verdon canyon in France.
“The Lensbaby Composer Pro tilts on a ball and socket, giving you the option to create a tilt-shift effect,” she says. “This allows you to create unusual portraits with soft focus and can bring your landscape photography to the next level.
Shot with the Nikon d810 and Lensbaby Composer Pro + Edge 80 at f2 with a shutter speed of 1/640. License this image via AnastasiaNess.
“In this image, the lens helped to create a toy-like view, transforming this giant river canyon in France into something that looks tiny and kind of surreal, especially with these tiny little boats and catamarans.”
12. Lensbaby Spark 2.0
This lens has a flexible body with focusing and tilting features. Zdenek Ryzner used the Lensbaby Spark 50mm f5.6 Selective Focus Lens to create this image in colorful Burano. While that lens is no longer available, you can get the Lensbaby Spark 2.0, a lens body that’s compatible with multiple Lensbaby optics.
“I was looking for a tilt-shift kind of effect when taking the Burano picture,” Ryzner says. “The lens has a very compact size, so it can fit into any photo bag and it allows you to achieve selective focus without post-processing. One doesn’t usually carry around a tilt-shift lens on travel trips (unless you are a pro architecture photographer), so I see Lensbaby Spark as an affordable and compact way to boost the creativity of your images.”
13. Lensbaby Muse
Described as a “hybrid between a bellows camera and a tilt-shift camera,” this lens—also from Lensbaby—can be used for any kind of photography, and Sorin Vidis used it to give his street shots a noir-style aesthetic.
“You can twist the bellows to get an off-center focus and distorted bokeh,” the artist tells us. “One can definitely get some eerie images with it. It’s like adding a layer of otherworldliness to an otherwise dreary reality. The distorted and even smudged out-of-focus look adds a sense of vertigo and drama, and draws attention to the subject.”
14. Laowa 24mm f14 Probe
Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, this strange-looking macro probe lens from Venus Optics is known for its signature “bug’s eye” view and relatively wide depth of field. The wide angle also means that photographers can include more of the surrounding context within the frame.
With a 2:1 maximum magnification, it captures even extremely small subjects. You’ll know the long, tiny barrel when you see it. It was designed this way to allow you to photograph small subjects, like bugs, without disturbing them.
License this image via geogif.
15. Zeiss Hologon 16mm f8
The predecessor of this lens, the Zeiss 15mm f8 Hologon, was the widest-angle lens of its time when it hit the market in 1969. The 16mm followed in 1994, and you can still find them today.
License this image via Witaya Proadtayakogool.
With a fixed aperture of f8, this lens is on the slower side, requiring the photographer to play around with exposure time to get everything right. Expect some characteristic vignetting at the edges of your frame.
16. Nikon 6mm f2.8 Fisheye
True, few people will get to try this ultra-rare lens, but one can dream! In recent years, these lenses, which were introduced in 1970, have been purchased for anywhere from around $60,000 to $160,000, on the rare occasion they do appear on the market.
License this image via yousang.
This coveted lens, spotted here in the Nikon Museum in Tokyo, is known for its astonishing 220° field of view, which allows you, as the photographer, to see behind you.