Art: Joanna's Petzval Art Lens

If you have never heard of the Petzval lens, you’re not alone. Honestly, when my husband handed over this wrapped up package on my birthday and I savagely ripped into it, I had no idea what gem (or boulder rather…its really heavy) I was holding.

“It’s an art lens,” he says.

I nod too eagerly and smile too big.

“Just try it. We can always take it back. I thought it would be cool,” he says.

Within in minutes, I was outside with my Nikon D750 and the Petzval in hand, ready to test out this mysterious art lens, and within minutes it was all over. I was smitten.

This art lens is rooted in history, and as a wanna-be history buff I eat this stuff up. You might not appreciate the story behind it, so just scroll past and look at the pictures.

But in 1807, a man named Joseph Maximilian Petzval (let’s just discuss how awesome his middle name is. Considering it for my firstborn…)  was born, squeezing his way into a family of seven. In high school, his strongest courses were in mathematics, which is slightly regrettable (considering I am an English major and highly illiterate to the language of numbers), but his incredible artistry and design forgives him that. Although brilliant, he was not an all out nerd in the academic sense. He showed to be well rounded, enjoying sports, specifically horseback riding , grew a very respectable mustache, and could hold his own in fencing and fighting matches. He went on in his education, becoming an Engineer and earning his Ph.D in mathematics. He took an appointment as the chair of mathematics at the University of Vienna, and it was there that he applied his mathematic engineering to optics and conceived the the Petzval lens.  In layman’s terms, the lens was faster than its predecessors, had little to no distortion, had a focal length of 160 mm and an aperture of f/3.6 (Lomography). This lens was known as the “first fast photographic lens” and much of the characteristics that today’s portrait photographers value in a lens is owed to Mr. Petzval. However, like many beautiful minds in his day, he did not receive due recognition.

But now over a hundred years later, Lomography and Zennit are taking it back, old school style. These two creative power-houses have teamed up and revisited the original 1840 lens to bring this Lazerus lens back from the dead (with some accommodations to modern technological advancement of course).

Jesse bought mine used at Southeastern Camera, and it is not worse for wear, but if you get yours new, it comes to you all the way from Krasnogorsk, Russia. Similar to the original design, the package comes with seven aperture plates, ranging from 2.2 to a 16.


And you guessed it! You actually, physically insert the aperture plate into the lens to adjust your settings for optimal shooting. Focusing is also totally manual. In fact, that little nob you see to the right? That is the focus control.

Truly, this “art” lens is giving me a better sense of the art of photography. It has forced me to slow down and deliberately think of my settings and composure. The slower mechanics emphasizes an articulate, artful process that I am so excited to explore and improve in. And there is definitely room for improvement. You can see that I am still just a tad off in my focal point on the next couple of pictures, but the subject is quite handsome so I’m not too upset about it.

But even with these green hands, I am already in love with the natural vignetting and bokeh that is produced in these images (more on that later) . This is with barely any touch up in Lightroom, and the Petzval nailed it. Through experimenting on this, I am hoping to gain a new perspective to my portraits. I want to take my time to see the picture, to select my settings carefully, and be more artful, more daring and more humble.

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This lens is definitely helping with that. It has shown me I don’t always know what I am doing, not everything comes naturally, and I have to be willing to learn and to fail. Jesse managed to pry the camera from my fingers and snapped a few of me (to my disdain). I actually really liked the chance to see how he approached the Petzval lens. (And the chance to see how I function on the other side.

Clearly, not well…I seriously have a phobia. I call this Joanna’s Blink 182. The caption is up for grabs… But in all seriousness, Jesse used the lens, whether intentionally or not, to take a seemingly blurry image and create an artistic photo full of soft shapes and bleak contrasts.

So here’s to the art of the Petzval lens. Stay tuned for some personal tips and tricks that I am picking up along the way. I am sure there are those of you who know much more about this thing than I do, so I want to hear all about your experiences. Drop a comment, and lets make Mr. Joseph Maximillium Petzval proud.


Jesse, you’re a stud. Thank you for putting up with me and being my last minute model anytime I have a hankering to experiment