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Why your next camera lens should come from the 19th century

Lomography's Petzval lens is straight out of 1840

If you’re one of those for whom photography is as much about the journey as the destination, you’ll have a lot of fun with Lomography’s new Petzval lens.

Lomography got its start selling ‘80s-era Russian film cameras, but the Petzval lens takes things to a whole new degree of retro. It’s a recreation of a design first created in 1840 by Joseph Petzval, an optical pioneer from what is now Slovakia. Lomography used Kickstarter to fund a modern revival of the lens, and it’s available now for Nikon and Canon SLRs.

lomography petzval lens

The original Petzval lens was one of the first fast lenses designed for portrait photography. "Fast" in this context means that by letting in more light through a wider aperture, the photographer can use a quicker shutter speed; 19th-century technology usually required longer exposure times. With the Petzval lens, it became possible to capture crisp, sharp images of people.

The Petzval lens looks like it’s been wrenched from The Titanic

But that’s not exactly an impressive target these days. Why would you want to use a lens from 1840 in 2014? Well, one side effect of the Petzval lens’ wide aperture and portrait-style focal length is its capability for background separation, or throwing everything but the subject out of focus. Again, that’s a common capability now, but the Petzval lens’ optical design allows for unique bokeh — not just how much something is blurred, but the quality of how it’s blurred. The lens sometimes renders reality in a surreal, swirly manner, with backgrounds appearing to melt behind the subject.

Before you take any photos, however, you’ll be struck by the Petzal lens’ immense physical presence. Cast from brass, it looks more like it’s been wrenched from the engineering deck of the Titanic than purchased from a camera store. It’s available in its natural brass finish or a more subtle black version; the former will certainly stand out more, while the latter will match most cameras it can be fitted to.

lomography petzval lens

The Petzval lens is completely manual in operation, with no electrical contacts to send information to the camera. Many SLR users will be somewhat used to manual focus, but the Petzval lens also requires you to set the aperture by slotting in little discs with different-sized holes in them (the widest one is f/2.2). Some of the inserts include unusual shaped apertures, too, letting you render out-of-focus highlights as teardrops or stars. The system is a fun, tactile novelty, but can be annoying in practice — it’s sometimes a little difficult to remove and insert the apertures, and you probably won’t want to carry around several metal discs for casual shooting. I really loved manually focusing the Petzval lens, on the other hand: rather than a traditional focus ring, there’s a little dial below the lens barrel that looks odd but is actually very smooth and natural to use.

Your manual focus mileage may vary based on your camera, however. I used my review unit on the only Nikon camera I own, the F80 — a wonderful automatic SLR from the year 2000 that I bought last year for about $50 with a lens. It uses 35mm film, so the Petzval lens works at its full 85mm focal length, and projects a clear image through the optical viewfinder. But I don’t think the experience would be as good with an entry-level DSLR — the smaller APS-C sensor would crop the image to a less versatile 135mm-equivalent view, and it’d no doubt be harder to focus with the cramped viewfinder.

I also used the Petzval lens with my Fujifilm X-T1 after buying a simple Nikon F- to Fuji X-mount adapter for around $20. The X-T1’s huge electronic viewfinder is great for manual focusing, because you can set it up so that there’s a permanently zoomed-in area alongside the regular live-view image. And, while you do have to deal with the 135mm-equivalent field of view, the X-T1 meters for the lens perfectly, selecting the appropriate shutter speed and ISO. With the F80, I had to use a separate light meter — in my case, an iPhone and a Lumu — to calculate proper exposure, because the lens itself doesn’t send any information to the camera. Overall, there are pros and cons to using the Petzval lens with either a 35mm film SLR or a mirrorless camera; a full-frame DSLR would offer the best compromise.

lomography petzval lens

But if you’re the kind of person that owns a full-frame DSLR, you’re probably most concerned with image quality. In this regard, the Petzval lens is clearly not up to the standard you’d expect from modern optics — it’s hard to create very sharp images, especially when shooting with a wide aperture, and the bokeh effect isn’t what many pixel-peepers would consider objectively "good." That’s not really the point, though. The Petzval lens’ charm comes from its ability to paint pictures you wouldn’t really get from a traditional setup. Its appeal is subjective, not objective. And that's okay.

The Petzval lens' appeal is subjective, not objective. And that's okay

That’s not to say that every photo you’ll take will be interesting, or even distinguishable as something shot with unusual equipment. It’s actually pretty hard to get the swirly bokeh effect — you usually need the right combination of background texture and distance from subject. And, while you can take sharper photos by selecting a smaller aperture, that'll make it even more challenging to achieve a shallow depth of field. But when a picture does come off, you’ll be glad you used the Petzval lens to take it. The resultant images are dreamy in all the best ways, with beautiful color rendering and gorgeous out-of-focus backgrounds.

Ultimately, it’s hard to recommend the Petzval lens to the average DSLR owner, especially at $599 — both Canon and Nikon offer 85mm options that are faster, smaller, cheaper, and sharper, with autofocus and electronic contacts. But, as with most Lomography products, the decision to pick up this one will be based on emotion rather than cold, hard logic. The Petzval lens gives pleasingly unpredictable results, and the experience of shooting with it is unlike anything I’ve ever had.

See below for a selection of photos taken with Lomography's Petzval lens.