Gear

Hands On With The Petzval 58mm f/1.9 and Petzval 85mm f/2.2

Early history

The story of the Petzval lens began in 1840 when its eponymous inventor, an Austro-Hungarian optical physicist named Joseph Petzval grew curious about expanding the possibilities of portrait lenses for the Daguerreotype camera.

After only a year of research, Petzval successfully created his first working lens—a compact and exquisitely crafted brass contraption that he called the Petzval Porträtobjektiv.

While rudimentary, this design was one of the first examples of a modern portrait lens, and was used all the way up until the 1920s under various adaptations. It was hugely influential in the development of photography and cinematography, but in the end Petzval never made a commercial profit from the lens, as he was more interested in engineering than selling.

Not only that, but he was constantly dissatisfied with his creation even though it was revolutionary, and soon left it for others to patent and sell.

Petzval eventually sold the rights to his lens without a patent or contract to a Viennese businessman called Peter Wilhelm Friedrich von Voigtländer for a decent but ultimately undervalued price of 2,000 guldens.

Voigtländer then basically reverse engineered the lens and started producing his own prototypes in 1841. He became extremely wealthy from Petzval’s design, and began ramping up production of the iconic brass barrel to sell across Europe.

Even though Petzval was a brilliant engineer, without the sharp eye of a man like Voigtländer, the technology would have never reached a wide audience. Which brings us to another company that excels in marketing…

Lomography

In 2013 Lomography created one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever by securing over 3000 backers interested in reinventing the Petzval lens for contemporary cameras.

Lomography called it the ‘New Petzval 85 Lens’ to distinguish it from any eBay relics, but the construction hinted at more than just a simple homage. Zenit were commissioned to make it (learn more about classic Russian cameras here) in their factory in Russia, and Lomography did their best to mimic the same qualities that made the original Petzval unique.

It turned out to be a great commercial success and Lomography started raising Kickstarter funds for a new version—the ‘Petzval 58 Bokeh Control Art Lens’, which features a switch for adjusting the severity of the out-of-focus areas.

Both are now available on the market, and we received them both last week (a bit late, we know) just to test them out and have a bit of fun with them.

Design

The 2013 Petzval 85mm f/2.2 on a Nikon F2 / Wikimedia Commons

Lomography and Zenit have really done a great job not only with the look of this lens, but also the balance and heft. It feels great when mounted on both my D600, the office 5D Mark III, and my F3HP.

We have to note that the Petzval lenses we received from Lomography were a little worn down and scratched, and even though press lenses do go through a lot of extra wear and tear that an owner might not subject their own lens through, the material itself is quite susceptible to blemishes.

Owners will have to take greater care with these when compared with a modern plastic/metal lens, especially since the bokeh keys are also hard and quite capable of scratching the surface of the Petzval.

That being said, the brass exterior is beautifully industrial and allows photographers to live out their steam punk fantasies in real life.

The focusing knob on the bottom is fun to use, which lest we forget, is a large part of the appeal of this lens.

Bokeh experience

The black one is more discreet and scratch-resistant, but it’s also more boring. Boo.

Photographers can control both the shape and size of their bokeh by inserting “bokeh keys” that are provided with the lens. You can slip them in through an insert (as shown above), and change your bokeh balls into bokeh hearts.

Rita and I took out the two lenses for a spin, and I had the 58mm on my D600 while she used the 85mm on her 5D Mark III.

Do note that Lomography don’t recommend the use of adapters on the 85mm for other mounts such as Sony E or Fuji X, due to potential calibration issues regarding infinity focus. However, Lomography did specifically mention that the 58mm will work with adapters on Sony Alpha cameras for example.

Both lenses also work best with full frame cameras, as the APS-C sensors will crop much of the out-of-focus areas in which the Petzvals distort. However, if you only have an APS-C camera, the Petzvals will still work.

Petzval 58mm f/1.9

The Petzval 58mm f/1.9 is slightly different from the 85mm in that it features a “bokeh ring” along the barrel that goes from 1-7, with 1 showing a weaker bokeh effect and 7 showing the strongest bokeh effect (this is visualised quite well on their website).

It’s harder to tell in real life, but it definitely helps to have as much creative control as possible.

In the image above, I used a standard circular “bokeh ring” provided, and didn’t use the strongest bokeh setting.

Petzval 85mm f/2.2

Rita using the star-shapped bokeh key on the 85mm f/2.2

The 85mm f/2.2 is one generation older than the 58mm, and lacks the aforementioned bokeh control feature. Hopefully later versions (if there will be any) will add this in.

Rita used the a star-shapped bokeh ring, so if you look closely at the background you’ll see oddly harsh out-of-focus elements and a few perky stars.

The hearts and stars are quirky and certainly odd, and honestly I can’t find imagine many photographers would use this feature other than out of sheer boredom.

Conclusion

Rita shot on the 58mm, but the effect isn’t very obvious.

It goes without saying that these aren’t the sharpest or most contrasty lenses in the world, but if you are concerned about such details you are really missing the point.

What matters is that if you nail the focus, the centre will be sufficiently sharp, while of course corners will be dizzingly blurred.

This effect can be mesmerising when done well, and the truth is that both of these two lenses are clearly capable of making uniquely beautiful images. However, they are extremely situational, and oddly only seem to really show their effect properly when shot against foliage.

This effect can be mesmerising when done well, and the truth is that both of these two lenses are clearly capable of making uniquely beautiful images.

Yes that’s correct— if you live in a concrete jungle you are out of luck. The Petzval is dazzing against a forest and really just lacklustre against a busy background. Probably the small wisps of light that go through leaves works especially well in highlighting the bokeh manipulation qualities of the Petzval, while for other backgrounds there just isn’t enough to work with.

So the two lenses, while not for everyone, do work as intended if you find an appropiate background. Still, it’s important to remember that the Petzval effect is most beautiful the first time you see it. Once you’ve shot your 500th kaleidoscopic portrait you’ll look back and realise that most of them are very similar.

Therefore this is a lens best rented, not bought. And while it does do one very specific thing very well, it doesn’t work well for anything else. Trees + Petzval + Portrait = Happiness.

Photographers can certainly accuse Lomography for overcharging for their gimmicky products, but it’s also undeniable that by bringing back the Petzval they’ve brought back a valuable part of our shared history. Nobody is asking you to buy it if you need a proper portrait lens, but the fact is that if you got a few spare stacks of cash lying around, the Petzvals are great fun.