When an ancient lens clicked with my modern camera and changed my photography for the better (aka my Lomography Petzval Portrait Lens Project)

A short background to this story

A little over a year ago I decided to support a kickstarter project https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lomography/the-lomography-petzval-portrait-lens from the people at Lomography, http://www.lomography.com.

If you have not heard of Lomography before, they are the people who’s mission seems to be to bring the fun of analogue photography (that’s film to you and me) back to a predominantly digital world. What caught my eye, my wallet and heart about this particular portrait lens was the nature of the design, the images it creates and the significance of the story behind it. In addition, this lens was specifically (but not exclusively) designed for modern digital SLR cameras.

From stiff and slow to fast and flowing

You are probably ahead of me when you recall those early photographic portraits of people who appeared unnaturally stiff and rigid in their picture. The people in those photographs would have been “told” to hold their heads and bodies very still in order to reduce the chance of motion blur from what would have been long photographic exposures. Often the photographer would put a brace behind their client’s neck to increase the chances of the person staying still for long enough for a recognisable image to be produced. Of course, by creating stiff environments the resulting photographs were more documents of record than stories about the people within them.

That changed forever, when in 1840, Joseph Petzval developed a “faster” lens for photographic portraiture. Faster in this case means capable of significantly  shorter exposure times. One of the direct consequences of Petzval’s new technology was to free both the subject and the photographer from the physical and optical constraints that prevailed at the time. In short people could relax, even move in front of the lens. You are very familiar with this freedom when you use your camera or camera phone today to do what you want to do. Prior to the availability of the innovative Petzval lens that freedom wasn’t possible.

The wait was over!

After receiving a notification that the lens was on it’s way to me from Lomography, via Zenit’s factory in Russia, I came up with one of my “ideas”. This particular idea stuck with me for days and I just couldn’t shake it off. So rather than dismiss it, I decided to do something productive and, hopefully, creative with it instead. 

My curiosity was clearly in full flood and I started to wonder:

How could I get to know how to use this lens quickly (and be happy to make lots of mistakes along the way)?
What if I invited some people to help me to get to know my new lens?
How could I make the project interesting for them as well as me?
What sort of environments would create varieties of mood?
Where else might it lead?

Making it happen

My next step was to write a short blog on my website inviting 12 people to step forward for my “City, Coast or Country” project.
(Here is the link to that post http://stephencotterell.com/2014/05/coast-country-urban/ ).

In less than 48 hours after posting that link to my Facebook page all 12 places had been snapped up by friends and strangers alike. The sessions were booked for various days in various places in London and South East England.

Fortunately, I narrowly avoided first-shoot-where’s-the-lens embarrassment when my customised copy of the Lomography Petzval lens arrived a few days before 15th May 2014. The day I had booked to photograph Andrea!

Here is what the Petzval lens looks like attached to my Canon DSLR.
Petzval Lens and Camera

It is already showing signs of wear and tear and, hopefully, it will look less and less like a brand new lens and more like an old-fashioned classic sooner rather than later.

Now that my project is almost over …

The final shoot, number twelve in the project and the fourth by the coast, was due to take place last weekend on 15th July. Unfortunately, that was cancelled. Luckily for me a replacement volunteer was quickly found. The final project shoot will be on 22nd July 2014.

Rather than wait until the end of the month I thought that I would share some example portraits with you now. Obviously, this article will be updated after the final shoot! Please click on the photographs below to view them in a larger size on your screen.

 

The eagle eyed amongst you will spot that there are photographs of thirteen people already! This is because extra candidates for the CITY section of my shoot schedule slipped in upon the recommendation of mutual friends. I’m also hoping to organise a bonus COAST shoot but that is yet to be confirmed. Like photography and the rest of life, some rules are made to be broken.

On being sorely tried, tested and challenged

Unlike modern lenses on modern cameras the controls for using this lens are entirely mechanical.

The control over aperture was very strange to use at first especially if you have already trained your muscle memory to change aperture using your camera dials.

There is a slot at the top of the lens barrel (next to the focussing distance gauge below) where you can easily swap in and out the individual aperture plates. Each plate is stamped with it’s particular f-stop number. However, after a while, it becomes obvious that a large hole means small f-stop.  Obviously the reverse is true; a small hole means a large f-stop. The aperture plates on their own are a great hands on learning tool for those people who might struggle with the basics of photography because you can see exactly what is happening. In no time changing the aperture by “feel” takes on a whole new meaning.

 

IMG_0431 - Version 2

 

The next thing to realise is that the focussing knob or thumbwheel has limited movement. It does not even make a complete turn from it’s closest focussing distance to infinity. In other words prepare to struggle, at least at first. Although it is not obvious here, the “swirly” optics of the lens means that it is easier to hit the focussing sweet spot by placing your subject at the centre of the frame. So if, like me, you wanted to compose off-centre then the process takes some getting used too. Also being more tolerant of a slight softness with off-centre subjects becomes important too.

 

IMG_0432 - Version 2

I’ll come back to my personal difficulties with focussing and the different solutions that I have tried (with mixed levels of success).

 

 

Camera, Lens and Aperture PlatesFrom the photograph above of the camera (used exclusively throughout the project), lens and aperture plates you will probably immediately notice that there are three more unusually shaped aperture plates. These are a star, teardrop and hexagon.

I found myself using the star shape aperture plate more frequently than the teardrop and the hexagon. In addition, I would really make life difficult for myself and shoot wide open, meaning without an aperture plate!

Finally, ISO and shutter speed are controlled in the standard way using the camera’s built-in controls.

In no time at all it became obvious to me that I needed three hands!

It was not just the design of the lens that forced me to reprogram my muscle memory, eye and approach to portraiture. It was also another practical consideration. Usually I photograph with my camera in full manual mode BUT most of the time I rely upon the camera’s excellent autofocus capabilities. This is because I have odd-shaped eyeballs (also known as astigmatism) which makes it faster to autofocus than make best guesses at focussing by eye.

With the Petzval lens, obviously, autofocus is not an option. So part of my learning process during the execution of this project was to develop a working strategy to produce in-focus portraits! This is where I quickly reached the conclusion that I needed three hands.

The obvious answer was to use a tripod (hence the inclusion of a quick release plate in the photograph of the camera above). But a well positioned tripod was not enough. How to solve the critical focus problem?

Here’s what I have tried and am continuing to play with:

1) Asking my subject to hold their position for a while (but no neck braces were used!).
2) Giving up on even thinking about using the viewfinder!
3) Using an iPad with a great bit of kit called the Camranger. In effect this gives a very big view of what the camera sees. After a while I realised it was too distracting for my model to see a bloke trying to hold an iPad in one hand while swapping aperture plates and trying to focus with another!
4) Adding a cheap LCD loupe stuck to the back of the camera. This kind of worked but it broke in my camera bag before it’s third outing.
5) Using the LCD on the back of the camera and zooming to x5 or even x10 in order to get my subject’s eye in reasonable focus. This works as long as the sun is not shining on the screen. I often had to improvise by looking at the screen with a jacket over my head and camera.
6) Installing a third party open source operating system called Magic Lantern because it adds a facility called “focus peaking” to the display.

The moment when “it” clicked!

Towards the latter stages of the project, I dug out my underused remote shutter release cable. Previously I had only used the cable release for some of my specialist macro work and the very rare long exposure project.

So why add another old-style tool to my people portraiture with the Petzval lens? My difficulties in using the “ancient” manual lens with my “modern” digital camera lead me to a very important realisation which was also a kind of affirmation about what’s really important when it comes to photographing people.

This is what I realised.

Using this old-style manual lens, on a tripod (while avoiding the use of the eyepiece) and slowing right down in response to the “difficulties” was adding the positive impact of removing a major obstacle to our natural connection between photographer and subject. This means me and you.

This is nothing new to anyone with experience but this significant benefit of owning and using the Petzval lens was definitely not listed on Kickstarter! If you have yet to experience this, I encourage you to give it a go.

The slower pace of positioning the camera in relation to the person in front of me, composing and recomposing, focussing, changing aperture plates increased the opportunity for us to be enjoying engaging conversations that were full of fun and laughter. In short it made for a great photographic atmosphere.

Hopefully, my portraits of the lovely people who stepped forward to help my learn about this wonderful lens will tell their own story.

What’s next?

This is probably my longest ever post here, so if you have read this far, thank you.

Once this project is officially completed, I shall add a gallery of photographs so that you can see more examples of what this lens is capable of and why I think that it is a very important addition to my portraiture practice. I’ll probably add in some other points about things that I can’t think of right now.

If you want to read about the technical aspects of the lens please refer to the kickstarter link at the top of this post.

Looking forward, I intend to design some aperture plates of my own, so if you know someone who can help make them, preferably in the UK, please get in touch.

Obviously, I welcome all comments, observations, questions and criticisms about this article.

Writing has never been my forte. This is one of the many reasons I focus on doing my best as a photographer of people like you enjoying your unique lifestyle.

Thanks again and I look forward to hearing from you,

Stephen

stephen cotterell photography
07990 525 814
020 8549 3693

http://stephencotterell.com

@stephensmiles
stephen@cotterell.net
photography@stephencotterell.com

p.s. what if you decide to enjoy a Petzval Portrait experience with me and get in touch today?

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  • Bringing people together at the Lomography Petzval Lens Launch Party in London » stephen cotterell photography - […] The final photograph from my CITY, COAST or COUNTRY Petzval Portrait Project (plus some tips) » stephen cotterell photography on When an ancient lens clicked with my modern camera and changed my photography for the better (aka my… […]ReplyCancel

  • The final photograph from my CITY, COAST or COUNTRY Petzval Portrait Project (plus some tips) » stephen cotterell photography - […] stephen on When an ancient lens clicked with my modern camera and changed my photography for the better (aka my… […]ReplyCancel

  • Manfred Winter - Hi Stephen!
    Great results, and (as an owner of the Lomo Petzval I dare say) a great lens.
    I struggled with the manual focus as much as you did, and, after several frustrations where the picture with the best “moment” later turned out to be out of focus because slight movements, I finally gave up on the idea of doing it all traditionally, and got me a Focus Confirm Chip for my lens. That was the best idea I had! Of course it is not perfect, not idiot-proof, but it really improves the focusing, and I can now use the lens with full open F-Stop, to enjoy the unique bukeh and creative quirks this lens is capable of. Stepped down to 5.6 or 8, the lens is IMHO just a mediocre piece of glass, fully open it shines and produces out-of-this-world results!ReplyCancel

    • stephen - Thanks for your comment and valuable tip, Manfred

      Where can we see your photographs?ReplyCancel