A New Old Lens

Giving Lomography's Petzval lens the full Photo Geek treatment.

Like a lot of photo history buffs, I’ve been quite excited about Lomography’s new iteration of the Petzval lens in 85mm focal length. For those of you who don’t know Petzval and his lens, I wrote about it a few years ago. It really has a rather a fascinating story.

Since then, I’ve been rather obsessed by this lens. I own several of them, made in the late 1800s, but I haven’t been able to adapt them to work on a modern camera. Now Lomography has reproduced the Petzval lens in a nice brass housing, with either Canon or Nikon mounts, and I was among the first to put my order in.

The new Petzval is quite a handsome bit of kit.

The new Petzval is quite a handsome bit of kit.

It truly is the classic design, complete with Waterhouse stops to control the aperture and rack-and-pinion focusing. None of your fancy iris apertures or focusing helicoids for this lens.

Now most of you, when you get a shiny new lens arriving, run outside and start taking pictures. But that’s not how we roll here at Lensrentals. (For those of you really interested in this lens, there are already dozens of people posting their images online.)

What follows is just wrong.

But just wrong seems so right sometimes. We decided some new 175 year-old technology needed to meet some new 6 months old technology.

So the first Petzval got put up on the Trioptics MTF bench.


While the other one got slapped on Olaf, our 5-micron pinhole tester.


Obviously, this 175 year-old design isn’t supposed to compete with modern lenses for resolution or aperture. It provides a classic dreamy look. But hey, we test lenses, so guess what we’re going to do?

OLAF actually is more fun here, showing a lot about what this lens is about. The spherical aberrations should make the out-of-focus areas smooth and pretty.


In case that isn’t enough for you, Lomography includes, in addition to the standard Waterhouse stops at various apertures, some very fun cut-out aperture stops: a teardrop, hexagon, and a star.


They have some interesting effects on OLAF’s pinhole light. I can’t wait to see what they do with actual photographs.

The hexagonal aperture isn’t all that strange:


The star aperture should make nice star points with light sources in night shots:


But it should also make for some interesting effects with out-of-focus areas:


The teardrop aperture looks much like a decentered lens on OLAF when properly focused:


But becomes more interesting when the lens is out-of-focus:


Of Course I Tested It

As I’m sure you know, the indispensible Kingslake’s History of the Photographic Lens points out that the Petzval design “uses overcorrected astigmatism to flatten the tangential field . . . giving excellent definition in the center of the image deteriorating rapidly towards the edges.” I was quite pleased that the MTF bench showed the new version does exactly that. Note that once you get away from the middle 1/3 of the image astigmatism is, well, pretty damn impressive.

Red–10lp/mm; Green–20lp/mm; Blue–30lp/mm – you get the drill.

Red–10lp/mm; Green–20lp/mm; Blue–30lp/mm – you get the drill.

What the MTF charts suggest we’ll get is exactly what Petzval lenses are supposed to deliver; a fairly nice centered portrait with the outer half of the image significantly blurred. Even in the center, though, the lens doesn’t resolve very well by modern standards wide-open. The frequency graph of the center of the lens emphasizes this.


I know what most of you, at this point, are thinking, “Sure, Roger, we expected these results. But can’t you please show us the field curvature, too?” Fear not, my friends. I can and I will. As Kingslake said, the astigmatism of the lens flattens the tangential lines pretty well, but the sagittal lines have some wicked field curvature. Although in this case that’s a good thing, since a major purpose of the lens is to blur everything off-center.

Field curvature. Red shows the sharpest area. “0″ on the vertical access is the plane of focus.

Field curvature. Red shows the sharpest area. “0″ on the vertical access is the plane of focus.

Yes, I Sort of Took Some Pictures

It’s ugly and rainy here, and the two copies we’ve received are on their way out the door, so I had no chance to exhibit my superb photographic talents. (Which is good, because I really don’t have much in the way of superb photographic talent. I’m a Photo Geek, not a Photo Grapher.)

But I did discover a few useful things. First, you are not going to want to shoot landscapes with this. It’s so soft at infinity that at first we thought it wasn’t reaching infinity focus. Not to mention that all the King’s Photoshop Horses can’t make the edges sharp.

But one thing I found while trying this is, on a Nikon D3x at least, the odd-shaped apertures really mess up the camera’s autoexposure. The image on top is with the f/4 Waterhouse stop in place, the one on the bottom with the Star Aperture, otherwise they were identical although both autometered.


The effect can be kind of cool, though, close up. The top image is shot wide-open, the second with the Star aperture (can you tell I like that one?) and exposure bumped up in post. I should also mention that I’d shoot raw with this lens. Color seems to change with aperture a bit and almost every shot either needs to be white-balanced individually or corrected in post.

Wide open. Even shrunk down for web display, the softening of the image away from center is quite apparent.

Wide open. Even shrunk down for web display, the softening of the image away from center is quite apparent.


The major use of this lens, of course, is fun. But it originally called the Petzval Portrait Lens, so a portrait seems in order. Since my usual swimsuit models and studio lighting weren’t available at 7 a.m., I made do with Corey, the only person who managed to be at work on time, light by the soft, romantic glow of a test chart.


Now, I’ll have to end my little post, as the packers have come and ripped the last copy from my hands. One or two other things I noticed that those of you thinking about the lens might want to know before we close, though.
The rack-and-pinion focusing is quite accurate, but rather clumsy to do while you’re looking at the LCD to Live-view focus. I’d really recommend a tripod if at all possible.

I’d really avoid any crosshatched backgrounds. Or maybe go find them. The astigmatism makes them look odd, but whether good-odd or bad-odd is probably in the eye of the beholder.

I mentioned the lens is pretty soft at long distances, but it seems to do quite well close up.

You aren’t going to replace any of your current lenses, with this one. But for some of you, it might be a fun addition that gives your portraits some really different looks.

About the author: Roger Cicala is the founder of LensRentals. This article was originally published here.

  • Sid Ceaser

    I dug all the technical stuff you did. Good job!

    I received a test lens a few months back and have been trying to use the lens as much as I can for a review I’m working on for it. One thing I’m telling everyone that wants this lens is that it isn’t a go-to-for-all-things lens. This pretty much has a specific purpose, which is portraits. I’m still in the phase of discovering what the most optimal subject-to-background distance is for this lens. Don’t get this lens hoping it’ll do wonders to your landscapes, or event photography or product photography – this lens is meant to have a person standing in the center of the frame, at a good distance from the background to give it that crazy-wonky-motion-sickness swirl.

    The test lens I received has a hyper sensitive focus rack; even the slightest movement will rack it out of focus, and I’ve been told that all retail copies of the lens have had this corrected. As it stands, my lens has me changing how I shoot and shooting as if I was using a 4×5 view camera; on a tripod, with a lens loupe, using live view on my camera. When I blow focus, it shows, but when I nail focus, it makes all the missed shots worth it for that one gorgeous shot.

    Thanks for sharing your info!


  • joshsouzaphotos

    I get the effects won’t be the same, but if you are using a crop sensor camera, the effect from one of those 25$ CCTV lenses isn’t terrible off from this and you’ll save yourself a ton of money for something that isn’t likely going to be used very often.

  • Sid Ceaser

    I’ve seen people comparing this to a Helios lens. I don’t have a Helios, but the similarities are there. It almost feels like they took the guts of a Helios (is that made by Zenit?) and tossed them in here.

    I get that lots of people are happy to coin this lens a “Hipster” piece of trash, but the actual lens is really beautiful; it is all brass, you can remove the top element for cleaning, it has good girth and weight to it – it’s actually a really gorgeous lens, and I think they had the best intentions making it.

    I get that it won’t have the exact same effect as a vintage petzval on something like an 8×10 or larger camera. But, man, if it doesn’t make some pretty unique and pretty effects.

    I don’t like the price. It’s pretty expensive. I wouldn’t have bought one, despite how badly I wanted it, if Lomography hadn’t offered me a copy to use. But, on the flip side, you can get a petzval lens for your Nikon or Canon DSLR; both film and digital. Instead of paying crazy money for a lens for my 4×5 camera, I now have a lens that I can put on my three DSLR bodies and my film body, if I choose too. So, that’s pretty cool. Is it $600 worth of cool? Maybe. If I had the cash.

    I hope when I finally get the review up and done, Petapixel will be okay with me sharing it. I’ve got a few ideas that I want to implement while reviewing it, so I’ve got a while before everything falls into place.

    I don’t want to sound like a Lomography shill, because I’m not, and as someone that really wants to get into wet-plate photography (but can’t because of my studio’s location and rules), this is an excellent product that can tide me over until I start.


  • whoopn

    Not trying to be a butt, but I think you got autocompleted/autocorrected:

    “Obviously, this 175 year-old design isn’t supposed to complete with modern lenses for resolution or aperture.”

    Pretty sure you meant “compete”.

    Cool article, can you take more shots with the lens in better conditions? I would love to see how this thing really performs. Perhaps with full size samples?

  • Sid Ceaser

    I’ve been using it for a few months now – I can’t post a link because Petapixel thinks it is a bot, but head over to my Flickr page (flickr dot com / photos / ceaserfineartphotography) and I have a set/album full of Petzval shots.


  • whoopn

    Thank you! Holy cow, they’re gorgeous! Bokehlicious even!

  • Sid Ceaser

    Mmmmm, bokehlicious. Goes great with a tall glass of cold milk.

  • joshsouzaphotos

    Sure but my point is … this (not my photo) flickr dot com photos/ cajamian/ 14201301285/ is taken with a lens you can buy for 25$-35$ , is it worth spending $600 vs the $25-35 .. in terms of improvement on the effect, not in my opinion.

  • Birear

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    Allison recently got a nice 6 month old Jaguar by working from a macbook.this website C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

  • Sid Ceaser

    That is pretty crazy! Though, I’d have to buy a 4/3rds camera to work with that lens, right? And i agree – the price is high. I think it’s the one big negative to it. I’d like to see it cost less and be in the hands of more people :)

  • joshsouzaphotos

    No, the CCTV lenses work on APS-C bodies, now you might have some slight vignetting , but seriously go look around Flickr. They’re popular on NEX/E-Mount cameras because they’re actually pretty damn solid lenses for the price. I would assume there are mounts for Canikon too.

  • Stephen S.

    But the final photograph isn’t the only part of process worth considering. People buying this lens are looking to have fun with, and to be inspired by a twist in, the process of photography. I’m not a customer for this particular lens, but I totally get the appeal. If you like this sort of thing, working with a Petzval seems like it would be really, really fun.

  • joshsouzaphotos

    I’m pretty sure you buy it for the swirly bokeh , otherwise your just buying a 35$ cctv lens in a bronze body with a fancy name from a company who tugs on the heartstrings of being different and hip.

  • Stephen S.

    Meh. Like I said, I’m not a customer for it, but I can manage to appreciate others’ indulgent prerogatives without being uncharitable. Some would say that’s what the Internet is for, though. Agree to disagree. :-)

  • JustFedUp86

    I was able to do the “swirled background” effect using a lens assembly from an Argus C-4 and a lot of epoxy into a Nikon lens cap. It works, just isn’t as flashy and brass.

  • joshsouzaphotos

    Sure, that is fair. I was mainly trying to point out that there is a pretty solid alternative for 550$ or so less that many people probably don’t even know is an option. Plus once you get a CCTV lens adapter, you open a whole new line of lenses to play with for your camera.

  • kathleendtucker

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    Riley got an almost new red GMC Canyon just by some parttime working online
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  • Sid Ceaser

    Every time I see someone walking around with one of those “Icelights” I want to smack them. IMHO, it’s the biggest waste of money on something that has come out in the last few years. Hell, I could buy four SaberStrips for the price of an Icelight. Or I could take a large poster shipping tube and with a few hours make a DIY one.

    I love my Holdfast MoneyMaker strap. It was stupid expensive. It’s two belts attached to each other. But damn if it doesn’t work perfectly. I’ve watched some guy over on a Fuji forum basically complain on the price, and go through three revisions (so far) of making his own. And you know what? I think it *looks* awesome. I could buy a Rapid Strap for much less, but I don’t want to look like “Call of Duty”. I want to look like Steve McQueen.

    People pay ridiculous amounts of money on Think Tank bags. On camera straps. On lenses. I know people that pay insane money on thimbles, or comic books, or out of print dvds.

    There will always be a cheaper alternative. Sure. I ripped out an old lens from some crappy 35mm camera I found at a flea market, attached it to an empty toilet paper tube and glued it to a canon body cap with a hole drilled into it just to prove to someone that you can take cool pictures with the cheapest, dumbest methods.

  • Sid Ceaser

    Bah, I have a whole giant reply and can’t post it because Petapixel thinks I’m a bot. C’mon, let me enter my replies!