Taming the Lomography Petzval Lens


Taming the Petzval Lens:  Part 1 - Introduction and basic techniques

I am a portrait photographer.  I love the Lomography Petzval 85 lens.  But like many great relationships, this one has taken a lot of effort to make it work.  That effort has all been worthwhile for me because the Petzval has allowed me to photograph what I have long seen in my mind.  This lens also surprises me at times.  That funky, unpredictability is a big attraction for me.


Let me tell you what this is NOT about.  I don’t care much about bokeh, be it “swirly” or otherwise.  I glaze over when I hear lengthy expositions about bokeh.  Likewise I don’t care whether a lens looks cool or whether it looks like it was dragged behind a truck on the New Jersey turnpike for an hour.  What I do care about it that it has a very pleasing combination of sharpness and softness that creates an aesthetic that pleases me.

My Petzval lens sits on my Canon 5d Mk iii. (http://shop.lomography.com/us/lenses/brass-petzval-canon-mount)  That is an interesting combination of old and new technology.  I bought the lens on impulse in Paris last year as I was getting ready for several shoots.  That was not smart but it worked out okay.  Since that time I have tweaked my technique to allow me a much higher incidence of properly focused images.  This is the first of a few blogs which will share my techniques in hopes they will be helpful to others.

My Aesthetic and the Petzval

I like selective focus.  It is big part of my portraiture.  So I shoot wide open.  On the Petzval, that translate into maximum aperture of f/2.2.  The lens comes with removable aperture plates that allow you to stop it down.  Mine are still in the box.  This means that the lens is quite fast but the depth of field is very narrow.

1840 Lens Technology means manual focus and frustration on a DSLR

The basic lens design dates back to 1840.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Petzval   At the time of its invention the Petzval lens revolutionized portrait photography.  It dramatically reduced the amount of time that a sitter had to remain before the camera.  But it was then, and is today, a manual focus lens.  This was a challenge when mounted on an 8 by 10 view camera, and it is an even larger challenge to anyone trying to achieve good focus on a DSLR.  I have friends who have given up on this lens because they can’t focus it.  Don’t despair!  This blog is written for you.

Optimizing the camera for the lens

For me, the greatest challenge has been to optimize the wonderful Canon 5d miii in a manner that maximizes it ability to focus the lens.  This requires a bit of work but hey, if it was easy it would not be fun!

Here is how I do it:

(a)  Shoot in Live View.

 If you don’t know how to do that, read the manual.  It is a very important feature of the camera.  It gives you a far bigger area to work with than the small view finder.

(b)  Use an LCD viewfinder.  

This is a simple device that lets you clearly see the full LCD screen in live view.  It also lets you focus even in bright sunlight.  You can spend a lot of money on these but I bought the KAMERAR QV-1 on Amazon for $89.00 and it has worked extremely well for me:   

(c)  Install MagicLantern on your 5D Mk iii.  

If you don’t know about MagicLantern you should take some time and read about it.  http://www.magiclantern.fm/  “Magic Lantern is a free software add-on that runs from the SD/CF card and adds a host of new features to Canon EOS cameras that weren’t included from the factory by Canon.”  Read about this carefully both on the MagicLantern (“ML”) website and on other sites you will find through Google.  This is not for wimps and there are risks in doing the installation.   However, from what I have read most of the problems in the past were with earlier versions of ML.  I installed it on my camera about 9 months ago and I have had no problems.  I love it.

So why bother with ML just because you have bought a Petzval lens for your 5D Mk iii?  Because among its many other features, it allows you to see a small magnified view of your subject through the Live View window (the “Magic Zoom” feature).  I am able to focus very precisely on an eyelash and get just the focus I want.  I have not been able to do that consistently any other way with this lens.  Moreover, ML will give you the options for “zebra stripes” that tell you when an area is in focus (the “Focus Peeking” feature). http://wiki.magiclantern.fm/_media/beertje6.jpg.  A description of the settings for these features is beyond the scope of this blog but there is a wealth of information on line and it is worth your time to do a bit of research.  I don’t know why Canon hasn’t bothered to incorporate these features into its standard software for the camera.  There are an armload of other handy features in ML that are missing in the Canon standard software as well.

PS:  ML is free.


The Petzval 85 from Lomography is a terrific lens but it takes care and attention to get the best results.  For less than $100 you can optimize your camera to take full advantage of this marvelous 1840 technology.  Your time will be well invested.

I will have a follow up blog soon on others tips on using the Petzval.  Stay tuned and have fun.