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.
LET’S GET SHOOTING:
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.
THE SECRET SAUCE:
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.
AntiqueCameras.net 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