I love old school photography.  Big old brass lenses and huge cameras and chemicals that stain your fingers and make you pass out if exposed to them for too long.  The real alchemy of photography. Wizards mixing chemicals and freezing time onto glass or tin with flash powder and long exposures.

I’ve always loved that particular look and feel and style of photography.  The palpable visual history that you can see.  Lots of decently sharp subjects, or motion blurred people with weird swirly backgrounds that can sometimes make you feel a little uneasy and turn your eyeballs into pretzels.

Our forefathers were crazy.  God bless them.

When I got married back in the fall of 2011 I commissioned a tintype photographer named Yige Wang to take huge, lush, 20×24″ tintype portraits taken of my wife and I. Yige had these large, beautiful, giant Petzval lenses he was using for these portraits, and they produced such a wonderful image, especially at such large sizes. He showed me an entire cabinet full of various sized Petzval lenses made in the 1800’s  that he has collected over time, and they really are these beautiful brass sculptures – loaded with history.  Some of these lenses are monstrously large.  The lenses he used for our 20×24” were like warp-pipes from Super Mario Brothers – you could almost climb into them.  For all of you out there that obsess over something like the Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens, that is nothing compared to these massive brass pieces of heaven created in the late 1800’s.


Last year Lomography, the company that seems to have revitalized the whole plastic camera craze (and also being dubbed something of a “Hipster” fad), decided they wanted to revisit old Petzval lenses and see if they could create a similar style lens for DSLR cameras.  They launched a Kickstarter campaign looking for about 100k in funding.  When all was said and done, the Kickstarter generated over a million dollars and gave them more than enough to jump into production.  I got excited.  I really wanted one of these lenses to try out. I wanted to see how the “Petzval look” would translate to a much smaller, 35mm sized image.  Could it really come close to the same kind of looks that those old-school wizards got back in the day?  The building my studio is in no longer allows harsh photographic chemicals to be used, so I was taken with the idea of producing digital images that had similar traits to tintype photography without all the dangerous chemicals.

A weird happenstance of events led Lomography into contacting me asking me if I would be interested in being gifted a test copy of the lens to shoot with, test, and provide feedback.  It was like they were reading my mind.  I over excitedly said yes, and I began to lick my lips in hungry anticipation.

I’ve been in possession of the lens since March of 2014.  Every chance I get I’ve been taking this with me to shoot and really try to get to know this lens.  It is definitely a mixed blessing, and it absolutely has a very limited ranges of uses.




The first thing that needs to be gushed over is the actual build of the lens.  I’ve got to give props to Lomography and Russian manufacturer Zenit who built the lens.  It is a nice, meaty, heavy brass housing.  It has good weight to it: perhaps about the same or a little more than the Canon 135mm f/2.  The brass hood screws on to the front and is removable so you can access and unscrew the front element if needed.  The test lens I received shows lots of wear on the brass, but I kinda like how it already has some “age” to it.  The retail versions of the lenses are clean and gorgeously polished.  I was instantly a fan when I took it out of the box.  It is a beautiful homage to a classic, elegant lens design from the past, and I think it adds so much to the design that it was made out of brass.  If it had been made out of more current standard lens parts, I don’t think I would be drawn to it in the same way.



The New Petzval is an all manual, fixed 85mm focal length on 35mm sized sensors.  It has a rack and pinion geared focus knob.  Focusing the lens is done by turning the gear forward or backward until the subject is in focus. The lens comes in a Canon EF mount or a Nikon mount.  Shooters with other types of cameras will want to find some kind of conversion adapter ring to hook it up to their bodies.  The good thing is that this lens is all manual, so everyone is on an even playing field.




The lens comes with waterhouse stops to change the apertures.  These little metal “teardrop” looking plates have corresponding aperture holes in them.  Each plate has the f-stop number on them.  There are plates that go from f/2.8 all the way to f/16.  There are also a few “special” plates that are cut out into design shapes; a star, a water droplet, and and octagon.  Without any waterhouse plate in the lens, the aperture is f/2.2.



The first thing I did was take the plates and toss them in my camera drawer.  You really won’t need them once you start getting the hang of this lens.  To be honest, if you are like me, you’ll want to be shooting this lens wide open, the way it was intended.  I can’t think of any reason I’d want to be shooting at f/11 or 16.  It defeats the purpose in my opinion.

Also, people that own the lens have been noting instances of the powder coating that is on the waterhouse stops rubbing off as they put the aperture plates into the lens and it creating dust inside.  I haven’t used the plates that much so I haven’t had that issue, but I do take a piece of gaff tape and cover up that opening.  Actually, I’d say cover that little section anyway just to prevent crap from getting in there.



It’s pretty obvious that this lens is *not* for a casual shooter.  It’s all manual.  It really needs to be massaged and finessed to get a good shot to come from it.  This is definitely not a “point-and-shoot” kind of lens.  I can see casual shooters getting frustrated and not willing to give the time or patience needed for this lens.  Keep your light meter handy, or be prepared to do plenty of test shots to figure out exposure.

On my test copy, focusing is a bear.  The rack/pinion focusing is loose and I found that focus was constantly slipping even with the slightest tip of the camera.  I’ve mentioned this to Lomography, and they’ve told me that all retail versions of the lens have been corrected and feature a much tighter rack/pinion focusing mechanism.  I’ve asked around on some Flickr groups and over at Fred Miranda and those users have confirmed that the focus is nice and tight – you find focus, and you can leave it there without it sliding out of focus.


On my personal copy though, this sucker will slide out of focus if I’m not especially careful. Even tilting slightly forward or backward will cause the internals of the lens to fall to the front or rear.  When I use this lens it completely changes the way I shoot.





Subjects need to be dead-center in the frame.  Because of the way this lens is built and works, the dead center of the lens is the “sharpest”. Then it starts to fall off pretty fast.  To really get the effect from the lens, you need to have your subject dead center and you need to have something in the background that will really showcase the effects the lens creates.  This conflicts with the way I usually shoot and at first I was really battling with how I was composing my shots.  But then I had a revelation that totally made me appreciate using the lens in a whole new way:  use it like a view camera.

The best way for me to use this lens is by setting my camera up on a tripod, using live view on my camera, and using a hood loupe.  The tripod gives you extra steadiness.  With the hood loupe, I can use the live view feature to zoom in on the subjects eyeballs and carefully get them in focus and then take the shot.  The first time I tried this the subject I was photographing said “Oh, look at that – you look like one of those old photographers with a sheet over your head” and she nailed that observation.

Using this lens helps me put my mind back in the way they *used* to photograph.  By slowing down. By taking my time.  By figuring out where the subject should be standing.  By figuring out what the background distance should be.  It forces me to take it slow when composing and creating an image. Like I was using my 4×5 field camera.  Deliberate.  It is really easy to blow focus and blow the shot, but when you do nail focus correctly the image looks incredible

It is fantastic.

Some of you might moan over the thought of having to lug around a tripod (which I hardly ever use any more since using DSLR’s) and a light meter and a viewing loupe, but I found it totally refreshing. Plus, I do this because of my loose focus.  The retail copies of the lens have corrected the focus issue, so you might be totally fine hand holding and nailing focus.  My copy doesn’t do very well with hand holding.

Here is me trying to shoot this handheld: 


It’s a little cumbersome; I’ve got the loupe jammed into my eyeball.  I’m trying to focus with the loose focusing and I’m trying to tighten up my fingers to prevent the focus from rolling.  I’m trying to zoom the Live View in on the subjects eyes.  There is a lot of tension going on from my eye socket to my two hands.  It can be uncomfortable.  Plus, I’m one of those guys that if my eyeball is jammed into the loupe for too long, the whole thing starts to fog up.  Ugh.  I’m basically a hot mess when trying to shoot this handheld.

People that are looking to use this lens for things other than portraits might have problems with it or get frustrated.  Lots of people that have bought this lens through the Kickstarter seem to be angry that they can’t take good product photos with it.  Or they aren’t getting the swirly background for their attempted macro photography.  Or landscapes.  Look, this is basically a portrait lens.  That’s it.  It’s made for head/shoulders portraits.  I think these people that are getting angry because they can’t get the lens to do things it wasn’t intended for is kinda silly.  This is a very specific lens for a very specific purpose: portraits.  If you are trying to do portraits on a black background in a studio and you are getting pissed that the crazy swirly background isn’t showing up, you need to return the lens and maybe slap yourself for not doing enough research first.



I think the biggest algorithm to figure out with this lens is the relationship of the camera to subject and the subject to background distance.  There are a few different “sweet spots” you can find, so finding *your* favorite sweet spot will take some time.  In the side-by-side image below, you can see two very different “looks” and all that I did was move closer or further away from the subject.  Some people might like the first image with a larger, softer swirl pattern in the background.  Some might like the second image where the swirls become tighter and smaller.  Both of them give such a gorgeous unique look it’s hard for me to decide what is my favorite way.  I’m still learning what is the best algorithm in regards to camera to subject distance and subject to background distance to get the maximum “effect” from the lens.


I have found that shooting subjects against a background that is “dappled” with light is pretty amazing.


There is also the “Ooooh, shiny lens!” factor that you will face when shooting with this lens.  There hasn’t been one time that I’ve been shooting with it in a public area where someone hasn’t come running up asking what this “golden lens” is.  For people that don’t like that kind of attention, there is a painted black version of this lens, although it’s going to run you even more money.


The normal gold brass version of this lens, Canon or Nikon mount, is $599.  If  you want the painted black version of the lens, kick that price up to $699.

That is a pretty serious roll of cabbage for a lens that has very limited usage and purpose.  I have to be honest, I couldn’t afford this lens.  If Lomography hadn’t contacted me, I’d still be pining for this lens dreaming of a day I could find one for a reasonable price.  When I think about this lens I think about all the times I’ve run into people who were obsessed with fish eye or tilt-shift lenses.  I’d say “why do you want to pay so much for a lens that you will only use a handful of times.  You *can’t* shoot everything fisheye, and if you do you’ll get bored of that “look” really fast.  There is so much more you could buy with that money that a one-trick pony like a fisheye”.  And I realize that the New Petzval is kinda the same one-trick pony like a fisheye.  Or a lensbaby.  If I had the 600 clams would I buy it? Absolutely.  So, I’m going against my own advice.  Arrgh!  Such internal conflict.


Some people on the interwebz have speculated that the New Petzval is really just a Helios lens with a brass housing.  Zenit, the makers of the Petzval are also the makers of the Helios 44-2 and other Helios lenses.  A quick Google image search shows that the swirl certainly looks pretty similar.  It’s quite possible that the guts of the Helios were just dropped into the Petzval.  I don’t own a Helios, but you can sometimes find them on eBay for ⅕ or less of what a petzval lens cost.  Here is a diagram from Lomography of what is inside the Petzval lens:



This lens is a little bit of everything for me.  Why do I love it?  I love it as a complete package; the tribute to an older time of photography.  I love that it’s all manual and made from brass.  I love that crazy swirl look.  I love the mindset that it puts me in when I use it.  It slows me down.  It changes the way I normally shoot.  It makes me act like I have sheet film instead of unlimited digital shots.  I love the results.  I love the look of the images.  I’m sure people think it looks gimmicky, but I just love it.


My advice?  Be patient with this lens.  It’s going to piss you off.  You’ll swear at it because it won’t be as sharp as you want it to be. I can see lots of photographers getting frustrated because of all the things it won’t do, but what it does do is really exceptional and beautiful.  Those of you who are used to shooting with electronic focus lenses who let the lenses do all the work are in for a big surprise.


This lens is a throwback to how they first photographed people when photography was still finding its legs. Put your head into the same space as all those large format photographers do. Slow down. Be calm. Take time. Don’t worry about getting tons of images. Just concentrate on getting that one amazing shot. This lens will put up a fight with you, but if you take the time to learn it inside and out, it will be a beautiful marriage and help you make images that will take your breath away.


I love this lens.  I hate the price.  Rent one first and play with it for a number of days.  Really spend some time with it to determine if it will add anything to your arsenal.  Even after having this lens since March, I haven’t used it for every session I have.  I don’t want to burn out too quickly using it, and I recognize that I don’t want my images starting to turn into a one-trick pony show.

But, dammit, do I love this lens. has a great page on the history of the Petzval lens. Take a spin over there if you want to brush up on what this particular lens is all about.

Lomography’s Technical Data sheet blah blah blah

Even more technical info from Lomography

Moar pictures:




Sid Ceaser

Sid Ceaser is a commercial, editorial & fine art photographer based in Nashua, NH and is a monthly contributor to DEDPXL. In addition to shooting he also teaches workshops and runs a podcast with designer Dave Seah.

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  1. Jim Robertson

    Great work, Sid! I love what you’ve done with it. I deeply wanted to buy one myself but couldn’t justify the dollars for this wonderful but one trick pony. I can get more variety out of my Lensbaby gear, at least with that I can angle the plane of focus. But I love that Petzval swirl and still want it, maybe at half the price, someday.

    • Sid Ceaser

      Yeah. I love the lens, but the price. . . ugh. $600 is steep. If it was $300 I’d jump on it without a second thought. Plus, those Helios lenses are reasonably priced and pretty much have the same look. I keep thinking that the guts are the same, but people keep pointing out that the Petzval lens elements are built just like the old lenses. Which is cool. But that price, man.

      I wonder what the markup is like on these lenses.

      I do have to confess that there was one part of the review I wanted to do but didn’t get to: I wanted to do a side-by-side shoot with someone with a larger format camera with a real petzval lens so we could do the shoot and then compare the shots side-by-side. I mean, if this lens is trying to recreate the look of those old lenses, what better way than to shoot right next to it in real time?

      I still hope to once it gets warmer. New England sucks right now with snowmageddon.


  2. c.d.embrey

    I keep seeing “Makes me slowdown” applied to many things that are Not-the-Normal. Film, for instance.

    I see ads for 5,000 shots for US$99.00 Wedding photographers. But I’ve never seen an ad for a “Spray-and-Pray” portraitist. Aren’t portrait sessions always somewhat slow ? Even shooters who do Editorial Portraits (5-15 minuets with a celebrity) spend an hour or two setting-up. A semi-broken press-fleet lens may not be ideal, but it’s no reason to “dis” the lens.

    Nikon’s “King-of-Bokeh” AF DC-NIKKOR 135mm f/2D is US$1.300.00, so the Petzwal for only US$600.00 seems like a bargain to me.

    BTW I’d have liked to see a vertical/portrait-orientation shot cropped to 4×5.

    • Sid Ceaser

      Here is a vertical, but not cropped to 4×5, and the example isn’t very big. But:

      I say it “slows me down” because since I’ve been shooting digitally, even though I don’t have my finger down on the shutter non-stop, I’m still shooting faster, getting more frames than I did when I was shooting medium and large format. For my current sessions, for, say, a musician, for one look I might get about 50 shots. That, to me, seems like a lot of shooting. I’m talking and shooting and talking and shooting and shooting and talking and talking, etc. But when I’m culling images in the edit, I’m shocked to see that my finger has pressed down on the shutter more than I recall.

      When I shoot with my Hasselblad, I’m spending far more time on the composition. Even when I’m shooing a person with film, I might shoot less than 12 frames and know that I’ve got the shot.

      So, no, I’m not prayin’ and sprayin’ with my work, but slapping this lens on the camera definitely slows me down more. I’m popping it on a tripod. I’ve got my eye jammed in the loupe and I’m on live view and I’m looking for a composition and I’m trying to make sure the subjects eyeballs are good. Then I’m trying to make sure nothing moves on me, because with this copy of the lens, the minute something moves forward or backwards a tad the focus is lost.

      I like that it makes me feel like I’m shooting with my Toyo field camera. I miss shooting with that sucker. I want to get a fujifilm pack back for my Toyo and find a compatible 4×5 petzval lens so I can start ripping polaroids with my 4×5.

      I think I miss the act of ceremony that comes with setting up a field camera and going through the motions to get my exposure. I’m sure that might sound dumb, but I miss it. It was more personal when I shot with film. I had to touch and finesse the camera more. I felt more connected to it. I love my digital stuff, but when I go to focus in on a subjects face with this Petzval, and suddenly their eyes come into focus while I’m twisting that knob, a warm happy feeling washes over me that digital hasn’t replicated.

      I’m sure you don’t want to read me getting all touchy-feely about why I love to shoot, but I definitely thing it slows me down, even slower than I normally shoot. Which is weird because I could be shooting with this one day and the next be doing a normal headshot session in my studio with my normal lenses, and that feeling doesn’t wash over me often, despite using the same camera body. So it has to be a mental thing then, right?

      I count every penny I have at this point in my so called “career”. That $599 to me is used in all kinds of other silly stuff like promos and business cards, etc. And I do cash & carry with all my gear. I know a lot of guys that go slow and steady and eventually they’ll save up for it. Comparatively it’s less than that $1,300.00 Nikkor lens, sure. If you have the cash and want it, go for it. It wouldn’t be hard to get an extra gig for the cash for the lens, but I’m trying to approach the price with other people who keep costs on the mind.

      But, brass, baby. This little gem is so pretty! 🙂


  3. Chris

    Hey Sid, do you have any examples you could show of the lenses limitations? You mentioned needing to place your subject right in the centre of the frame – what happens if they are on the edge or at a third?

  4. Ian

    SID!!! You’re letting the cat out of the bag!!!! This lens is sweet. I have the nikon version and one thing that is really nice is screwing it onto my older film cameras because they have the split focusing screen in the viewfinder. It is extremely easy to focus when you have that. Also, my version’s focusing screw isn’t sloppy at all. It very well may loosen up over time (who knows how much use your lens has seen??)

    Otherwise, yeah, Live View for digital cameras.

    Here are a couple different shots with it, the blurred background definitely can take many different characteristics.

    One thing I really love about it is when you do get the focus nailed, it is extremely sharp.

    • Sid Ceaser

      Note that this version they gave me was a “test” copy. It’s all beat to hell (which I kinda dig) but the rack/pinion is ridiculously loose. I’ve told them a bunch of times about how loose it was, and they kept telling me that the final, retail versions of the lens don’t have that issue. When I ran into them at PhotoPlus this year, they asked me if I took the lens apart to fix the loose focus, but I don’t want to risk wrecking it if I dare try to fix it. So for me, I need to be extra slow and careful when shooting with it, hence the tripod constantly.

  5. Bernard

    Good work Sid,

    There is a rather nice quality to what that lens produces, but yes, definitely a little pricey.

  6. Ed Waring

    TBH the look of the photo really reminds me of the kind of swirly bokeh I got from a super cheap CCTV ebay lens… (Not my pic but this kind of look was exactly the kind of vibe I was getting –*swirling-bokeh-(Helios-c-mount-etc-)&p=2329675&viewfull=1#post2329675)

    The U shaped plane of focus is fun to play with as well. The CCTV lenses are lot of fun tbh and lots more affordable to play with (mirrorless only as far as I know)/

  7. Adam Favre

    So, would you use an adaptor and try this on an MFT or do you need one designed for that style of camera. I am think equivalent of 170mm? Don’t think I can make that work…

    • Sid Ceaser

      Heya Adam!

      The Petzval is made in two flavors: Nikon mount and Canon mount. But I’ve seen plenty of guys and gals getting adapters for their Sony’s and Fuji’s and etc. I’m sure there is some kinda of xx-to-xx mount out there.

      Maybe if you had an adapter mount plus some kind of extender to get that reach?

  8. Erika

    I have a question. I have a graflex super D and would like to put this lens on it. Is this possible? and how do I do it? Or do I have to look for the vintage ones?
    Appreciate any input

    • Sid Ceaser

      Hi Erika!

      You’ve got a lens board on that bad boy graflex, right? You’d probably have to create a custom mount board, then maybe find a way to connect the lens to the board. Maybe something like a adapter ring of some kind?

      The only thing I’m unsure about is how the lens would act on a Graflex. If you had some kind of adapter ring glued to the mount board, would that create distance issues? I’m not sure how that would work.

      It might, in the end, be better to find an old used Petzval that would attach to the mounting board on both sides. You could probably find some good old petzval’s that would come in cheaper than what the Lomo Petzval costs.

      I keep looking for Petzvals to fit my Toyo 4×5 field camera on eBay and Etsy. At some point I’ll find one.

      Lemme know what you end up doing. I’d love to see your results.


  9. Deirdre

    I’ve been drooling over this lens. It reminds me to slow down and really look at everything. Someday……

    • Sid Ceaser (@sidceaser)

      Keep your eye on eBay; they have a new version of the lens that just came out, and some people are dumping the 85mm version for the new 52mm (or whatever focal length it is).

      It’s limited, but it’s oh-so fancy.


  10. Brandon

    Thanks for your input here Sid. Have you use the Petzval 58 1.9? Thanks.

    • Sid Ceaser

      Heya Brandon!

      I haven’t used that new 58mm yet. I reached out to Lomography about a test copy but they had handed them all out already.

      I will say, though, I’m not a big fan of the swirl in that lens. It looks more fabricated and fake. I guess some people would say the same thing about the 85mm Petz, but the 58 in particular looks really fake when you “dial” that swirl all the way in. It looks like a bad photoshop filter turned to 11.

      I’d still like to try one out, but from what I’ve seen online of it, I’m not a fan.

      Thanks for posting a question! I’m still here reading comments, and hopefully DEDPXL will be back up and getting more new stuff soon! 🙂