Petzval Test #2: Low Key Portrait

It is so handy to be able to combine work needs into a single effort.  If you recall I wanted to next test the new old-style Petzval lens at what the original was really designed for: studio portraiture.  And it just so happens that I am teaching a portrait class this semester at City.  Better still, Monday’s itinerary was already planned to do a demonstration leading to an assignment to do a male low-key studio portrait.  Perfect…

So after some preliminary classroom discussion of what low key normally meant, we removed ourselves to one of our studios for the demo.  Jair Flores is one of our students, lab techs, and has assisted me in setting up the studio on numerous occasions for classes and demos and was available to help with this.  He really knows his way around the studio and is an excellent assistant (and good photographer in his own right).  However, to his surprise I also enlisted his help in being my ad hoc subject for the demo.

When I dragged out the Petzval lens to mount on my camera for the demo it suddenly became the center of attention.  I was just the talking head and might as well have been a radio.  This lens does draw that kind of attention wherever it has gone with me.  So I explained a little about it before we started.

I knew this should be an interesting test since earlier in the day Jair and I had done some color temp testing on the Photogenic flash units in that studio.  To use the Petzval at a wider aperture I needed to drop the power settings almost to bare minimum and I was curious what that would do to the color temp of the flash.  It turns out it was the least of the issues since every light in the studio, at full power, was flashing at a different Kelvin temp and ALL of them were way below the normal color temp of electronic flash.  I made a point of telling the students to ALWAYS use a neutral target card in their shoot sequence and ideally, to do a custom white balance.  (Sure enough the final files were all noticeably warm but well within range to correct in the RAW converter.)

Jair has a nicely chiseled face so I decided to use a ¾ lighting style but with a couple of “kickers” or accent lights from the back and sides to help delineate his features.  Here is a light plot of the set-up used.  The background was black seamless and he was seated in a swivel chair.  The camera was mounted on a camera stand for stability to help me see if it made a difference of not relying on my old bones to hold it in focus.  Here is the studio set up:

Plot of the lighting set up for the low key demo.

Plot of the lighting set up for the low key demo.

Demos are always rife with opportunity for things to blow up in your face and seriously test your ability to roll with the flow.  I used to come in early and work out all the kinks so when the students got there everything went smoothly.  It made me look like a genius but it was not realistic and it did not give them a chance to learn about recovery from unexpected problems.  So now I do them cold and other than have Jair or another lab tech make sure the stuff I need is at hand, I start and proceed as they will have to do when they sign up for studio time to do their assignments.

As the mountain men used to say, sometimes you eat the bear… sometimes the bear eats you…

Everything was ready, I focused in on Jair for shot number one, pressed the shutter release confidently… and… pressed again… and… nothing happened.  I looked at the camera LED panel and it was blank.  I thought the batteries must have died though that made no sense since they were showing full charge in the morning when I packed the camera and lens to bring in for the demo.  But things are as they are so I went to the equipment room to borrow batteries from our checkout cameras… and the lab techs could not find a single one.  Good grief!

So I took the camera off the stand and when I turned it back to the horizontal position it came on.  Hmmm…  In vertical it was off, in horizontal it was on.  What???  I later learned I simply had not tightened the battery grip on the 5DII — in fact never thought of it.  My 1DsII has a built in grip so never needs tightening but when that moment’s panic of having students watch you like a hawk to see what YOU will do when things do not work, there was no time to track down the real problem. So I simply mounted the camera back on the stand in horizontal (landscape) orientation and went on with the demo.  Fortunately I was not going to need large output so the crop this necessitated was not a big issue.

Focusing with that lens is still an issue.  I used the f4 Waterhouse Stop to gain a little depth of field and I knew that in the studio there was no background detail to show off the “swirly” bokeh. I had learned from the flower shoot that the f2.2 tab gave me beautiful bokeh but incredible narrow depth of field at this range and here I was looking for the old time depth of field from nose to ear.  However, with the f4 aperture tab in place the image has dimmed a little and now it is even more difficult to see.  I used the old macro technique of moving backwards and forward through the focus I wanted and stopped in the middle… or so I hoped.  The focus target was Jair’s near eye.

I took about 5 images slowly rotating Jair into the position I liked.  The final shot below is from the 5th and final frame.  I saw it come up on the monitor and knew that was it so we stopped.  And here it is:

Low Key Demo shot for portrait class.  Model: Jair Flores.  Camera: Canon 5dII.  Lens: Petzval 85mm at f4

Low Key Demo shot for portrait class. Model: Jair Flores. Camera: Canon 5dII. Lens: Petzval 85mm at f4.  You can click on it to enlarge it to better see the diffusion and depth of field effect of this lens.

This final file has minimal retouching.  I toned down the kicker highlights a little, cleaned up his eye and removed some stray hair caught in the accent lights, and applied a vignette around his face to concentrate on that area, especially his eyes.  If you click on the shot to enlarge it, you can see the narrow depth of field and how it give roundness and depth to the image by making his head and hair from the ears back start to go out of focus.

This really is a good recreation of the old styles. But of course they did not have the vivid color available to us so I also made a version reminiscent of some of the albumen processes.

Albumen style version of the shot of Jair above.

warm-toned/Albumen style version of the shot of Jair above.  

Next up in a week will be a demo for a high key female demo so I’m really interested in seeing how it will work for that.  But as I am getting more and more comfortable with the quirks of this lens the more I am liking it.

(And if you are coming into this blog with this post, note that test #1 of this lens is the previous post.)


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Petzval Test #2: Low Key Portrait

  1. Jeffrey Forrest, Ph.D. says:

    That’s really cool! Great portrait!


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