The Lomography Petzval lens is a modern-day recreation of the legendary 19th century lens conceived by Joseph Petzval, who used a mathematical approach to come up with a design that improved on the “standard” at the time. By using a double achromatic objective lens that had four lenses in three groups, Petzval managed to create a lens that had almost no distortion, a focal length of 160mm, and an aperture of F3.6 - a stop and a half faster than the 1840 Photographe à Verres Combinés. Thus, the first “fast” lens was born. Lomography’s efforts at reviving this lens started off as a Kickstarter project which was extremely well received, raising over a million dollars - well over the initial goal of US$100,000 - in the time that it ran. Evidently, there is a glut of demand for a lens that offers an old-school experience and a classic look.
The new Petzval lens comes at an 85mm focal length in two mounts - Canon EF or Nikon F. There are no electronics on it at all, and focus is done solely by the focusing knob on the right. Aperture changes are done by switching out the Waterhouse aperture plates provided. We had a set of seven provided by Lomography South East Asia for our testing, and the plates take you from F2.2 all the way to F16. Simply slip in the plate with the aperture you wish to shoot at, and you’re good to go. The lens itself is a solidly built piece of equipment. We personally prefer the brass version because it just adds to the steampunk feel - the brass should age quite nicely with use, adding to the sense of vintage - but there is an all-black version if you should so prefer. Measuring 120 (length) x 85mm (max diameter) and weighing 500g, it balances quite nicely on a full-frame camera, but might be a bit front heavy if you mount it on an APS-C camera or a mirrorless one (using a Canon or Nikon to Micro 4/3 adapter).
The Petzval lens is designed such that you get an area that is extremely sharp over a narrow field at the point of focus, and then progressive vignetting towards the non-focused areas. This basically means depth of field effects are pretty extreme, especially wide open (F2.2), so if you’re thinking of shooting wide open, we recommend that you mount your camera on a tripod.
Otherwise, here’s what the Lomography people recommend: “To help get your subject fully in focus, we recommend to begin with roughly focusing by turning the focusing wheel on the lens. Then, before you take your shot, move your body a bit back and forward while looking through the viewfinder to get fully accurate focusing. This is a technique often used by macro photographers who want to be as accurate as possible with focusing. If you are shooting with a digital camera, we also recommend shooting in burst mode whilst making slight movements back and forth; this will help ensure that one of your shots is razor sharp in the center.”
Personally, I quite enjoyed taking the time to work the gearing to get focus just where I wanted it. Mind you, that’s not always possible when the subject is moving, so patience is almost a pre-requisite for using this lens. Shooting wide open at F2.2 is tricky to say the least - the depth of field is razor thin so the slightest movement can throw you off. Use anything from F2.8 to F5.6 though, and it should be decently easy to get sharp images while still having decent depth of field. One thing to note too: most modern cameras leave the aperture of the mounted lens wide open, stopping down only when you press the shutter. This makes it easy to focus manually, but then you have to hit the depth-of-field preview button to see how much depth your chosen aperture affords you. With the Petzval, there is no such thing as “stopping down” - what you put in is what you get. Pop in the F16 aperture plate, and you’ll notice that your viewfinder becomes noticeably darker, and you’ll immediately see the depth-of-field effect.
So, if you’re shooting in the evening or indoors where the light isn’t as strong, either focus on your subject before you slot in the Waterhouse plate (you can slot in the F2.8 plate or F4 plate first while you focus), or bring a torch light so you can shine some extra light on your subject. Images captured have superb detail, and colors are rendered pleasingly, but the whole point of this lens is of course the 'bokeh', and that’s readily apparent when you shoot at anything wider than f/5.6. Because each aperture plate is a perfect circle, you get swirly, creamy bokeh that really helps to separate your subject from the background.
The Petzval Lens will be available in both Canon and Nikon mounts in brass (estimated delivery date: June 2014) for S$889 and black (estimated delivery date: July 2014) for S$998 at the Lomography Singapore website.
These sample photographs were shot with the Lomography Petzval lens on a Nikon D800E. The originals were shot in raw and processed to taste in Adobe Lightroom 5. They were exported to JPEG in sRGB, and are copyright to SPH Magazines. These photographs are provided for your reference only and we ask that you do not reproduce them elsewhere. Click for the full-resolution JPEG exports.