Petzval: Something Old Becomes Something New. Part 1

Prior to 1840 the lenses used in the embryonic field of photography were so “slow” (poor at light transmission) that even bright outdoor exposures could be from 30 minutes or more.   That was not a problem for landscapes (except perhaps for here in California) but it was a real problem for portrait photographers.  Even with the help of posing clamps — medieval torture devices used to clamp heads, arms, hands, etc, into position so people would not move during the long exposures — it was difficult and resulted in a lot of what the Doctor loves to call “discomfort.”  No wonder many of those old portraits show very dour faces and no smiles; they were in pain.

But in that auspicious year, 1940, Joseph Petzval, a Hungarian Physicist and mathematician, while teaching and working in Vienna, invented a new lens designed especially for portraiture that allowed for reasonable exposure times.  The basic Petzval design of two doublets with a tab-based aperture between them, was an immediate hit and was so successful that it is still used as the basis for a number of modern lenses.  It was characterized by a very sharp central plane of focus but with rapid fall off of focus.  This effect was enhanced because the lens made no effort to straighten out the normally hemispheric “plane of focus” both in the real world and inside the camera at the image plane.  The result was rapid fall off of focus away from the center and a diffuse vignette background with an interesting swirling sense to the bokeh.

That was perfect for the portrait aesthetics of the day.  But time and styles march on…

Improvements in coatings, the inclusion of modern many-bladed iris apertures, and major improvements in lens element design and manufacturing have minimized the primary optical issues of distortion, sudden depth of field drop-off, halation, and various other aberrations that were characteristics of those old brass-barreled lenses.  The march toward technical perfection has created some astonishingly capable lenses for the modern photographer.  But….  But…

The problem is that not all technical improvements result in aesthetic improvements.  For portrait photographers who really like the traditional “look” of some of those old photos (such as me), it turns out, ironically, that it was what most “normal” modern photographers see as defects in the lens that created that look.

The narrow depth of field that isolated the subject and the lens distortions that created a background bokeh that was not just soft and creamy in its tonalities but that had a sense of rotating motion to further distinguish it from the crystal sharp main subject was a hallmark of the Petzval design.  Sometimes it can be roughly simulated in digital editing, and I’ve written about it here and produced a technical handout on the procedures to do it.  But it is just not quite the same.

I long thought of prowling antique stores and getting an old lens then fabricating an adapter for it since I thought I was the only one who bemoaned the loss of how it saw the world.  But it turns out I was very wrong.  A company out of Vienna called Lomography (, using a Kickstarter approach to fund their company, have revived the old design but made it mountable on modern DSLR bodies.  The optics are produced by the Russian lens manufacturer Zenit which make very high technical quality optical products and I could hardly wait to get my hands on one.

When it arrived I was simply stunned.  Wow, it came in a fitted box with a leather wrap, the Waterhouse stops, and a hardback book showing examples, talking about Petzval the inventor, and providing instructions.  It was a beautiful package reminiscent of the old days when a new lens arrived in a custom made, velvet lined box.

The contents of the Petzval package.  Shot with Canon 5DII and 50mm lens

The contents of the Petzval package. Shot with Canon 5DII and 50mm lens

The lens itself is beautiful.  Rich brass, hand engraving for nomenclature, brass lenshood and lens cover, all contribute to old-world elegance and pride of workmanship.

I love that it comes in a brass barrel like the old originals.  It even has a gear focusing mechanism like the original.  Here is a closer shot of the lens and the tab stops.

The new Petzval lens showing the focus wheel and the opening for the Waterhouse stops.  Shot with Canon 5DII and 85mm lens.

The new Petzval lens showing the focus wheel and the opening for the Waterhouse stops. Shot with Canon 5DII and 85mm lens.

But the real question is, what do the photographs it make look like? A number of review sites have waded in on the lens and as might be expected for such an unusual piece of equipment, there are mixed reviews out there.  Some of them are stylistic in nature and from photographers who far prefer the modern lens’s crispness for everything.  Some criticisms are logistical and emphasize that the lens is difficult to use in the field compared to the digital do-it-all-for-you lenses they are used to.  Others assert it is very cool for portraits but is otherwise a “one trick pony” that is cool for narrow focus styles of location portraiture but has no real use in other genres of imagery.  While others love it without condition.  So what is the real story… at least from my perspective?

Well, since you insist I’ll just have to go out and do some shooting to see how it performs and what it seems to be able to do well and what it might be (how should I say…?), awful at doing.  Imagine how I hate that…

The lens was originally designed as (and the new one is sold as) a portrait lens.  A normal reviewer might start there.  Ha… normal?  Anyway there are so many published portrait shots from this lens design from over 150 years of use for all types of portraiture I really have no qualms about it there; that can wait.  Don’t worry, portrait testing will be covered in a subsequent post.  But for now, does it work for other purposes or is it truly a one trick pony as one reviewer said?  Does it work, lets say, for nature details such as flowers or even architecture?  And how hard is it to actually use the lens?

So test scenario number one was conducted at the Mission de Alcada de San Diego, the first mission in the area.  This old mission is still a functioning church as well as an archeological site and museum.  I was told tripods were not OK so that added some additional test issues I had not planned on.

The most noticeable thing about the lens is the focusing wheel on the side.  Being used to film and video lenses this was not a major hurdle for me though this one is relatively coarse threaded and moves the focal point very rapidly.  More noticeable in terms of a paradigm shift was using old style “Waterhouse” stops.  We forget how easy it is for us these days to simply turn a lens ring or camera dial to change the camera aperture: everything is now self-contained.  But with this modern Petzval lens, as with the original, aperture is changed by swapping out these tabs with varying sized openings.  I’ll avoid talking about how easy it would be (for a klutz like me) to lose one of them or drop them in the dirt fumbling around for a shot.

Shooting with a tripod holding the camera would have been a lot easier.  In fact after a couple of early shots swapping tabs, I decided to complete the test shots at the mission using only the largest aperture tab (f2.2) since this should yield the greatest of the lens’ effects (or defects, depending on your point of view…) because with everything else being considered I did not want to leave a tab somewhere.  Additionally, I thought, the wide aperture would let me shoot at fast shutter speeds and perhaps avoid camera shake.  It really was a good plan… well… sort of…

Here is an early frame I shot from the driveway with a sculptural Friar and the bell tower in the background.  It was shot with the f4 tab in place.  To me, it looks very much like any 85mm lens at f4 might look except the focus vignetting has an unusual look to it.

 Statue of Friar in from of Mission de Alcalde de San Diego.  Canon 5DII with PEtzval 85mm at f4

Statue of Friar in from of Mission de Alcalde de San Diego. Canon 5DII with PEtzval 85mm at f4

It’s minimal effect was why I decided to do the remaining shots with the wider tab.  There are flowers all around the exterior of the mission and its grounds so that seemed like a place to start.  I tried to vary the relative distances between camera and subject and background to get a feel for the effect on depth of field of these changes.

Flowers in front of the mission.

Flowers in front of the mission.

Especially in the out of focus foreground you can start to see the “swirl” effect of the lens’s distortion.

Here the spatial relationships do not create the swirling bokeh but the out of focus parts are still very smooth and beautiful.

Here the spatial relationships do not create the swirling bokeh but the out of focus parts are still very smooth and beautiful.

The background in the above shot is closer than it should be for the swirling effect but it is still soft and beautiful

This shot shows how depth of field can be controled.

This shot shows how depth of field can be controlled very tightly.

I think the lens certainly qualifies as having potential for this type of shot but it is clearly a lens designed for very deliberative shooting.  It is not an easy lens to use, that part of the reviewer’s comments is true. The short gear track and the very, very shallow depth of field can make it very difficult for critical focusing.

The first mission shot above (the Friar sculpture in front of the bells) is sharp and indicates the lens’s ability to render a sharp image.  But that was at f4 braced against the car for very careful focusing.  When trying to hand hold the camera, the incredibly narrow depth of field makes it difficult to find and hold the point of focus when both you AND the subject is moving around.

Here is an example.  I asked Cynthia to act like she was taking a shot of a flow but to keep moving around and “working” the shot.  A pillar was in the way of the perfect composition but this allowed me to play with the concept.

Shot of Cynthia showing issues of trying to focus and handhold a shot with everything in motion.

Shot of Cynthia showing issues of trying to focus and handhold a shot with everything in motion.

This is the first time I’ve ever thought auto-focus would be handy…

So what did I learn from this first test?

  • The modern lens, as were the originals, is handier to use for me when on a tripod to allow for careful composition and focusing.  Perhaps as I get used to it I will have less of an issue with that.   But after all of one test run, this lens is for very deliberative shooting.
  • The swirly bokeh is quite dependent on the spacial relationships between camera, subject, and background.  But even when the spatial relationships do not create that sense of movement, the bokeh is still extremely smooth and comes on so suddenly, especially if the subject is fairly close, it is easy to isolate the subject from the background.
  • The flower shots showed that when close enough for a head and shoulders portrait it is quite possible to predictably get the narrow traditional depth of field limited to the area from nose to ears.
  • Color is rich with good contrast.
  • It is not much of an architectural lens but that is mostly due to it being 85mm.  It would be interesting to see a Petzval 24mm or 28mm…

So the next test/review of this lens will be a portrait session.  I also want to test out an idea for a modification that might be able to use it as a base lens to recreate the look of the famous Rodenstock Imagon lenses.

Meantime the logical question is now that I have played with it, even with just a few shots and for something it is not really designed to do, would I keep it?

Oh yeah, I’ll keep it.  Besides that, it is a real show stopper…






About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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