The final photograph from my CITY, COAST or COUNTRY Petzval Portrait Project (plus some tips)


As one door closes, ten thousand will open …
Yesterday, 22 July 2014, I travelled to Brighton to meet up with Johannah. We had never met before yet she had kindly stepped in to fill the last slot in my long running CITY, COAST or COUNTRY Petzval Portrait Project. After a chat over hot drinks on what turned out to be a very hot and sunny day we set off to find various backgrounds against which I would photograph Johannah with my now familiar, customised and much loved Lomography Petzval Lens. As this was the last shoot of the project it was import to me that the COAST aspect of the shoot was captured and presented in the last photograph. For those of you are not familiar with it; you can see the iron skeleton of Brighton’s distinctive but slowly disappearing West Pier in the background. The distinctive pattern in the out-of-focus areas of my photograph of Johannah comes from the start shaped aperture waterhouse plate that comes with the lens.

However, none of that is as important as the beautiful Johannah and I hope that she will forgive me for this slightly soft portrait of her!

Now that the door has closed on this project I am looking forward to opening more doors to create ten thousand, or more, portraits with this lens.

Tips and suggestions for an aspiring Petzval “Pro”

If you have not done so already I suggest that you read my earlier article about my experiences of using the lens and getting used to the best way to use it and, surprisingly, how it adds something to people on both sides of the camera.

1) Go Fully Manual

Be ready to abandon all of your camera’s automatic settings including shutter priority, aperture priority, auto ISO, focus selection points and, obviously because the lens does not have an internal motor and electronics, auto focus. For those of you with digital cameras that have never moved away from their fully automatic setting this might seem a bit too scary but please read on.

2) Photography is photography

Expect to relearn the basics of photography. Even though I have, at last, become very familiar with this lens and how it interacts with my camera (I only ever used it on a Canon 5D mkII DSLR) my copy of Lomography’s Petzval Lens made me to revisit the basics much more than when using even my Canon 5D mkIII with its array of expensive, hi-spec and professional lenses. By this I mean that aperture control using the drop in plates is just not the same as spinning a dial. Setting exposure has a lot more to do with surveying the scene by eye than rely upon the easily fooled built-in exposure meter (maybe this is a by-product of the what the Petzval lens is, but I’m just guessing here). I have written before about the need for three hands which is why having a sturdy and flexible tripod is a must. This means that every shot is much more considered than even when using a conventional film camera. There really is no point in relying upon the spray and pray techniques that some digital photographers use in hard-to-get-the-shot conditions.

3) Compositional compromise
The sweet spot is the sweet spot and everything else isn’t. If you want to read a technical/geeky third-party about why this is then I commend this article on the Photofocus website to you. If you choose an off-centre compositions your main subject will be anything from a little to very soft (depending upon your choice of aperture plate). My photograph of Johannah has been cropped from a larger frame which had too many distracting elements on the right hand side of the picture.

4) Some aperture plates are more equal than others

Some aperture plates will suit you more than others. Even though the lens came with a range of plates I found myself favouring shooting wide open or close too it (i.e. using the largest hole ,meaning no aperture plate) or sticking in the range of f/2.2 to f/5.6. About 80% of the photographs produced since 15th May, the first shoot in my project, used these plates.  Of the three special shapes I used the star aperture plate most (although I started to love the bokeh caused by the teardrop aperture plate when composing in landscape orientation. Portrait orientated shots using this plate just turned out “wrong”). I don’t really see the point of the hexagonal plate because it is not distinctive enough.

5) Manual lenses need electricity too

Pack extra batteries ahead of your shoot because if, like me, you end up relying upon live view for focussing (I have stopped using the alternative methods described in my earlier post) then it’s surprising how quickly the power remaining indicator shrinks in size. On the subject of live view, bright sunny conditions are not conducive with being able to see the finer details when focussing. In my head I have designed an over the head black cloth to remove this problem. This is such an old-fashioned solution that maybe I ought to build a wooden tripod too!

6) Creativity and fun are the happiest of bedfellows  

By taking yourself too seriously you are definitely limiting creativity. This lens is no substitute for professional modern portrait lenses and the major reason for using it.

By the way, when I ordered my copy, Lomography were calling it a Petzval Portrait lens. Now they call it their Petzval Art lens. Here is their website with more details. In my opinion Lomography have chosen a better description by replacing the word portrait with Art because it creates distinctive, magical and creative photographs with beautiful backgrounds and it will save you hours in the digital darkroom because there is no need to apply any special effects!

Please share your thoughts, ideas and questions and I’ll do me best to help out.

When you want to experience a fun portrait or corporate photoshoot sessions with my lenses, experience and me then simply get in touch.


stephen cotterell photography
07990 525 814
020 8549 3693


p.s. The logic and rational of why art is of crucial importance to success in any of life’s attempts is explained in Seth Godin’s book, “The Icarus Deception”. Let me know what you think about your art.

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