This photo, a simple shot of two candles, has not been Photoshopped. It was taken with the help of the Lensbaby Creative Aperture kit.
Nobody knows blur like Lensbaby. Invented by a wedding photographer who wanted a way to get impressionistic, selective focus images, it quickly established the paradox of a bunch of photographers with $8,000 cameras putting what was essentially a plastic holga lens on the front of their camera, and learning to focus by squishing.
The Lensbaby is as manual a lens as possible, and the only way to change the aperture is to manually drop a disk with a smaller hole in front of the lens. Someone at Lensbaby eventually said "Hey, who said these have to be round?"
The kit comes with a few aperture holes stamped with common shapes like a star and a heart, and a few more blank ones waiting for you to cut your own designs (also an easy way to go totally, insanely manual and make yourself a Lensbaby pinhole camera.) Since it functions as an aperture limiter, the Lensbaby-designed plates will drop your lens aperture by two stops, and you'll have to calibrate your own designs carefully.
These shapes will affect you bokeh -- the out-of-focus rendering of a lens -- at all times, but in most cases it will just leave different sort of streaks. Where they'll stand out is when your image contains multiple, out-of-focus points of light -- candles, Christmas lights, backlit foliage. That's where the shapes come in.
Let's see how this works in different situations. First, you're going to want the desired bokeh to be significantly out-of-focus, or the shapes won't look right. In most cases, that means the background -- or you'll get something like this:
Not as exciting.
This shot, from a wide-open Lensbaby (no aperture ring) shows how the Creative Aperture kit has all the normal effects of a smaller aperture, such as increasing overall depth of field:
Finally, what does lit look like in a real-word situation? Again, in most cases you're going to have to find yourself some foliage, unless you life in a place with lots of Christmas lights.
Smokey, my captive model.
Verdict:The Lensbaby Creative Aperture kit is a fun way to get unique photos that cannot be easily replicated in Photoshop. There are opportunities to use this to great effect for a shot or two in a wedding album, for instance. But remember that this is a gimmick placed on a gimmick, and will be best in very small quantities. Because of that, I wouldn't pay more than $20 for this. Luckily it only costs $9.95. If only for the mantra -- often forgotten among dSLR users -- that photography equipment can be cheap, I recommend picking this up to try a different way of seeing.