A photo editor friend of mine will often say, “It’s getting harder and harder to make a bad picture.”
It sounds absurd but he is partially referring to technology and how it can remove some of the thinking from photography. Cameras can be set to figure out aperture, shutter speed and, with the touch of a button, do the focusing. You can massage a bad exposure with software or, if you snap photos with your phone, choose apps and filters to effect a variety of looks and feels.
So it’s not uncommon for serious photographers to occasionally reach back for a piece of analog gear to challenge their thinking and reinvigorate creativity.
This summer I reached back to 1840. Well, sort of.
Lomography, known to enthusiasts for manufacturing plastic analog cameras, has reconfigured a 19th-century Joseph Petzval portrait lens for a new design that fits Nikon F and Canon EF bodies.
Photographers who shoot with large-format cameras covet the original Petzval lenses, searching the internet, camera shows and flea markets for the much-heralded glass.
Lomography used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the concept and worked with Zenit in Russia to produce an art lens for DSLRs that looks nearly identical to Petzval’s revolutionary design.
The heavy brass 85 mm lens focuses with a turn knob and its f-stop is set by choosing from a series of metal aperture plates that you insert into the top of the lens. Each plate has a different-size circular cutout to adjust the depth of field and the amount of light entering the lens.
It is considerably faster than the original Petzval lens, with a wide-open aperture of f/2.2, which if used in the right setting renders the out-of-focus portions of your pictures in painterly swirls. Photographers refer to to this quality as “bokeh.”
If your photography has come of age in the 21st century, you may find the Petzval Art Lens initially frustrating to use. The sharpness of your subject depends on your eye and how your brain connects it with the thumb and forefinger working the focusing knob. Start on stationary objects and then challenge yourself to focus quickly on moving subjects.
I took my test lens to a softball tournament, and you can see the results in the gallery above. I had fun shooting faces in a variety of situations, from a formal pose to quick shots of interesting faces in the crowd. I also enjoyed trying to capture quick-moving players. Many of the frames were failures but I admit to being delighted by the ones that came out relatively sharp.
While the lens came with a range of aperture plates, I shot exclusively wide open at f/2.2 for the shallowest depth of field and maximum bokeh. Textured backgrounds and having a good distance between your subject and background makes the bokeh effect more pronounced.
I found myself thinking differently to maximize the effects of the Petzval lens. I started shooting toward the sinking evening sun because I was getting a rainbow flare on these pictures. I know that a rainbow can occur with an unfiltered lens on a digital camera, but each rainbow seemed unique from frame to frame. Rather than turning away from the sun, I wanted to see what I could create by breaking the rules.
As I wrap up this review, I must sadly think about packaging the lens up to return to the generous reps at Lomography.
The practical photographer, especially those with limited equipment funds, will question whether the unique soft-swirl bokeh is worth the $600 price tag (a black version is available at a higher price). Other lenses, especially 50 mm and 85 mm that have apertures that open up to f/1.8 or f/1.4, can produce a similar effect to draw your eye to what is sharp for less money. Lensbaby offers a variety of products that bring creative blur and a tilt-shift quality to pictures, some at half the price.
But if you are a serious portrait shooter with a liberal disposable income, the Petzval Art Lens is a unique and valuable tool worth a spot in your bag or case.
Petzval Art Lens for Nikon or Canon DSLR by Lomography ($599 for brass, $749 for black)