The Lomography Petzval lens is a relatively new lens inspired by the past but designed to work with modern Nikon and Canon Digital SLRs. It’s totally manual and the images it produces have a dream like quality to them which is down to the super shallow depth of field and circular bokeh (blurring). Anything in the centre of frame will be highlighted by the circular bokeh and blurring patten. The lens is the equivalent of an 85mm on a full frame camera (like any Canon 5D) and its maximum aperture is f/2.2.
The roots of this new lens lies in the original Petzval lens designed by Joseph Petzval in 1840, and although Lomography’s Petzval is technically a little different from the original, they’ve definitely nailed the 1840’s aesthetic. In August 2013 Lomography ran a successful Kickstater campaign to fund the manufacturing of a new version of the Petzval, they smashed their $100,000 funding goal 13 times over. After the Kickstarter backers receive their lenses Lomography are selling them to anyone who wants one.
The Petzval really slows down the process of shooting, which I think is one of its key benefits. There can be a temptation with digital photography to fire off lots of shots in quick succession but the Petzval makes you consider each shot a little more which makes it a bit like shooting with film in that respect. You may think its looks are purely for show but that really helps with getting stranger’s portraits. I spent two afternoons wandering the streets of Brighton and Soho London approaching strangers to shoot them with the Petzval. People were really open to the idea as they where intrigued by the 174 year old inspired design and the results it would give. They might not necessarily have been as enthusiastic if I was shooting with a bog standard canon lens.
When it comes to adjusting aperture we are all used to rolling a dial, rotating a ring or letting the camera do it automatically. This is definitely not the case with the Petzval as you have to physically swap aperture rings and place them in the middle of the lens. If no aperture ring is in the camera the aperture is f2.2. Being able to completely swap apertures enables you to use shaped apertures that will turn the out of focus points into different shape, such as stars. It would also be possible to make your own shapes, which makes the possibilities endless.
Focusing is slow and you have to be careful that either you or your subject does not move closer or further away from each other as the depth of field at f/2.2 is tiny. Focusing is achieved by rolling a small dial on the left of the lens, it really feels different when compared to using a focusing ring. It can be quite difficult to focus with modern view finders because of the lack of a split focus screen, this is not the fault of the Petzval but of modern cameras in general. The focusing issue can be fixed by replacing the focusing screen. This can be done on higher end Canon and Nikon DSLRs. A split focusing screen for the Canon 5D mark 2 costs £30 on top of the £459.00 cost of the lens – it’s not that much and would make using the lens easier.
There are a few methods that can be used to achieve super sharp focusing when using the Petzval, or any other manual focus lens for that matter. I found I could achieve sharp focus by focusing on my subject then pulling back slightly. Then I would start to shoot a burst of images as I moved slowly forward a few centimetres, I could then pick the sharpest from the batch. The Petzval has a distance scale so measuring the distance to your subject works well especially when using a tripod. Just measure from the film plane to your desired focus point and then set the distance scale to match (this is what I do with my Lomo LCA when shooting at 80cm).
There is a always a temptation with any wide aperture lens to shoot with it at its widest but then the in-focus parts of an image might feel a little soft. This over all softness is apparent on images I made on my 5D mark iii, I think this is because I expect super sharp images from a full frame DSLR. To combat this I broke out my Canon Eos 1 film body for the first time in maybe 8 years. I decided to shoot some super grainy Ilford Delta 3200 ISO film (rated it at 1600 ISO). I would advise with a Petzval to invest in a second hand film body that’s going to cost under £100. I really enjoyed the results and the process of shooting film with the Petzval.
In terms of build quality it feels really solid and is reassuringly heavy compared to a normal lens. It’s only got a couple of moving parts: the focus dial and the front lens holder, so I can’t see anything going wrong with it mechanically. About a 3rd of the front of the lens is actually a lens hood, it might have been nice if this was removable so it packs down smaller but I guess to stay faithful to the original aesthetics it had to be that way. One minor complaint is that the lens cap constantly fell off in my bag as it’s just placed on the end and does not clip on in anyway. That said I don’t think the lens will get damaged as it sits about 4 centimetres from the front of lens hood.
It is worth pointing out that whilst you can spend much less and get a prime lens with a wide aperture, the looks of the Petzval makes it a great lens for approaching strangers. I also don’t think you will find a lens from Canon, Nikon or Sigma that will give you this much spherical blurring and bokeh. As I mentioned before it really makes you slow down shooting and makes the process of taking a picture a little more precious.
If you want to be a little more inconspicuous when shooting you could go for the black option, when I was shooting with it lots of people would do a double take which is fine for the most part but if you’re trying to be an observer street photographer the bronze version will not work for you. The black version would appear like a normal lens from a distance. People would regularly say “I love the gold lens”, I don’t think Lomography would have leant it to me if it were real gold but it really helped breaking the ice.
All in all although this lens seems a little on the pricey side I think it’s worth it to someone who wants the make their portraits stand out from the crowd. The Petzval is available from Lomography.com here.