My review of the Lomography Petzval Art Lens is not going to be the typical lens review covering its technical capabilities like sharpness, chromatic aberration, or of pictures of grids under controlled lighting. This is a review of the experience I had while photographing with the Petzval lens while on a trip to Moab, Utah (read our guide || join us on our tour). Sure I can get into all the details of the lens like its minimum focus range but you don’t buy a lens like this for those reasons. You buy a lens like the Petzval for only one reason, the look it produces when you take a picture. It looks sexy on your camera and grabs all kinds of attention in the field but when you really use this lens with an open creative eye, you can get some spectacular results.
Finding the Past
I first came across the Petzval lens on a blog when it was a Kickstarter project and it seemed like a bit of a gimmick following a lot of retro styled gear. Sure they’re trying to recreate something old but when you get into the real workings of what they’ve re-created with its optics its really an homage to a man who helped progress the science of photography in the early 1800s when it was in its infancy. Joseph Petzval was an inventor, mathematician, and physicist in Vienna who was challenged by friends to develop a better lens for portrait photography in 1840 that would decrease the exposure time which was currently in the realm of 10 minutes for an exposure. He met the challenge and designed new optics for a lens that was used by many for over 25 years. Because of some issues with only holding the copyright of the lens design and not the rights to reproduce it he didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his invention and over the years was largely forgotten in his time. Today, even though Petzval is not around, his name is gleaming on the barrel of this beautiful brass lens and his spirit is alive in every frame I take with it.
The Dreamy Look
Of course I could use this lens in any aperture setting from f/2.2 to f/16 by sliding out one of the diaphragms of the waterhouse aperture system but photographing with this lens at f/16 is like driving a Porsche 911 GT3 to the grocery store to get milk, why do it? Getting the soft edges and swirly bokeh in your pictures is exactly why you would buy this lens. Most beginning photographers don’t understand that to get unique looking photos you really need a unique lens. You can take a photo of a subject at 85mm with a 70mm-200mm f/2.8 zoom, an 85mm f/1.4, an 85mm f/1.8, and the Petzval 85mm f/2.2 and they will all look different. Its not just the aperture, camera, or focal length that makes an image look a certain way, its the glass and optics which make it look special. This is what makes the Petzval lens so unique. It replicates of the optics created by Joseph Petzval in 1840 to create a one of a kind look you can’t get in any other way except with this lens. With that in mind, I took all these photographs at f/2.2 with my Nikon D800 adjusting only shutter speed or ISO.
The Petzval lens definitely has its unique qualities. When you photograph at its widest aperture of f/2.2 the pictures you get look moody, dreamy, and ethereal depending on your subject. At f/2.2 you will get a very small area in the center of the frame in focus then it gets soft as it moves away from the center. It also has a somewhat heavy vignette and a slightly punch in color. It also has its famously unique bokeh which can be characterized as swirly when the right patterns are out of focus in the background. Normally these things would be discouraging remarks when talking about a lens but this lens is not for taking crisp pictures with no vignette or distortion. These are the characteristics that make it unique and interesting. These are the characteristics of the Petzval lens. Enough of the technical aspects of the lens, lets get down to what its like to photograph with it.
Out in the Field
I was teaching a photography workshop in Moab this past Spring and thought it would be a great experiment using this lens, which is meant for portraits, to photograph the landscapes of Utah. While most will go to a destination like this to get the classic photos of these amazing icons, I decided to use only this lens and force myself to look through a different optic.
Photographing the Utah landscapes with just one lens forces you to look at everything differently. Its a great exercise for any photographer to spend time with a prime lens because you have no zoom you have to move your feet, and see everything with a specific eye. It can be challenging but it can also be liberating. To put aside the need to get certain photographs, like your typical wide angle landscape photo, makes you abandon the typical photos you might take when out in a National Park. It forces you out of the habits you’ve created or adopted from others when taking landscape photos and you get to exercise those creative muscles that get atrophy when placing a camera on a tripod in the same place as everyone else. When I explored the landscapes with the Petzval lens I had to look at everything with new eyes again. It was very exciting and surprising at the same time.
One of the surprising aspects of the lens is its not a WYSIWYG lens. What you see in the viewfinder is not what you get in your photograph. The pictures were quite often better and more moody than what I saw in the viewfinder. This made me experiment more and take risks with pictures I normally wouldn’t take just to see what I would end up with. I was constantly chimping out in the field to see what I had captured and was almost always surprised. Vignettes would appear where I didn’t see them. Color and tone was different than what I was seeing. It was like opening a new present with each photo I took revealing a picture I did not expect.
Working with Your Hands
The pictures were surprising but there were challenges too. The focusing mechanism is a manual knob at the bottom of the lens that must be turned by hand. Using this focusing knob is obviously a new talent to develop but it has a tactile feel that makes you feel like you are adjusting the image to perfection like a ham radio operator tuning in a clear signal. When turning the knob it has a short range of movement when focusing from near to far which makes it hard get an accurate focus on semi-distant subjects. You also better have your diopter adjusted perfectly for your viewfinder since you will get no help from the advanced focusing capabilities from your camera. You have to get it right in the viewfinder and you better hope your subject is not moving fast or at all. Old habits are hard to break and I found myself quite often waiting for the camera to focus when pressing the shutter button then realizing I had to reach down and twist the knob to focus my image. I will say though, when you use the shallow depth of field effectively, you get some very cool looking photos.
There were many times I wish I had a wider lens to photograph a subject that was just too close or big when usings the Petzval lens but with no alternative I had to resort to different compositions I normally wouldn’t look for when making a photograph. When I was at Delicate Arch I couldn’t get any further away from the arch to get it comfortably in the frame. It was a bit tight for the 85mm lens. It forced me to look elsewhere and see what other things were happening around me. It allowed me to take my attention away from the obvious photo of the arch and to see what was actually there and happening in the moment. I began to see special details in the clouds, a bird floating in the air, and a section of the arch that I would not have photographed if I had a wider lens. I’m not saying you should visit these places with just an 85mm lens but you can certainly learn a lot by forcing yourself to stick to one lens and work with seeing compositions only within that frame.
Rain or Shine
The last morning of the workshop we found ourselves in light rain on top of the Dead Horse State Park canyon rim. Normally we are met with a gleaming sun shining across the landscape revealing the beauty of the lighted canyon walls but that morning it was dark and gray. It was gloomy and wet and some of the students were not getting motivated by the bleak views of the canyon. When I took my first frame with the Petzval lens I saw a magical moody scene on the back of my camera like the image was filtered by some cool Instagram storm filter. I was immediately taken back and wanted to get more images like it. Once again, it showed me that what I see is not necessarily what the Petzval lens sees. I started to take more photos of other areas just to see what the lens would see and I found some magical scenes. It turned out to be an amazing morning which I will never forget.
So after spending a weekend with the Petzval lens would I suggest this lens to others? Absolutely. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. There are many unique lenses out there and this one certainly stands out in the field and well as the photos you take with it. I got many comments about it over the weekend and even ran into David Tajada who was also teaching a workshop and he couldn’t take his eyes off it. Its definitely a talking piece among photographers. This is an amazing lens and It was liberating and refreshing to look through it for the weekend not only to exercise those compositional skills but to also see a familiar place with new eyes. If only Joseph Petzval could see what I’ve seen with his lens.