The Lomography New Petzval Art Lens is not your typical new camera lens. It's a brass-barreled manual focus prime, with no electronic contacts, and aperture that's controlled by dropping a selection of little plates into the barrel. After being funded on Kickstarter, the quirky lens has now made its way into the real world, and Gizmag recently got a chance to go hands-on with one.
The Lomography Petzval is a modern-day recreation of an iconic 19th century portrait lens and comes in either Canon EF or Nikon F mounts, meaning it can be used on many analogue or digital cameras. When it was launched on Kickstarter it quickly flew past its US$100,000 target and a total close to $1,400,000 was pledged by photographers wanting a retro experience and old-time look to the images from their modern cameras.
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While the lens features premium glass optics engineered at the Zenit factory in Russia, it's not intended to compete with most other modern lenses on the market. It's an 85-mm portrait lens (roughly 130-mm equivalent on a crop sensor). When shot wide open, it has a very thin depth of field and a unique swirling Bokeh characteristic, giving a dream-like old world image.
Picking up the heavy brass-crafted lens feels like holding a piece of photographic history. Yes, you know full well it's new and has been manufactured in the last couple of months, but the design and feel seem so authentic that if it didn't mount so easily to your DSLR, you'd be inclined to question its age. Because of the size and weight of the lens, it feels better suited to use with medium and large DSLRs than smaller entry-level ones where it wouldn't balance as well.
Using the Lomography New Petzval lens, you're instantly reminded how much we as photographers have come to rely on modern technology. Suddenly confronted with a lack of autofocus, no ability to quickly dial in your aperture and (depending on your camera) possibly no in-camera metering, you're forced to slow down and think about what you are doing. This can be a good thing, and it's photographers wanting exactly this sort of creative and artistic experience which has made the lens so popular.
Manual focusing is controlled via a large-headed screw towards the bottom of the lens barrel (rather than a typical ring around the lens) and it operates smoothly with what feels like very precise control. Depending on your eyesight, and the quality of your viewfinder, you might find using the rear monitor of a DSLR more accurate, though I'm aware this idea is almost sacrilegious to some Lomo fans.
While most SLR and DSLR users probably have experience of shooting with manual focus, the way the New Petzval deals with aperture is likely to be very different to what you're used to. The lens has a maximum aperture of F2.2 and different settings can be selected by inserting one of the included aperture plates – which each have different sized holes – into the lens barrel. I personally found this a fun novelty, but did experience an issue where upon tilting the camera, the aperture plates wobbled, and in one instance fell out.
Obviously you need to make sure you've got all of the aperture plates – which include four experimental shaped ones to produce different Bokeh styles – to keep your shooting options open. Unfortunately, our testing at The Photography Show in Birmingham, UK, was hindered somewhat by most of the aperture plates having gone walkabouts from the Lomography stand … though why anyone wanted one without the lens is anyone's guess.
As said before, the New Petzval lens isn't aiming to compete with other modern lenses when it comes to raw image quality. But, while the exhibition hall wasn't the ideal testing situation (nor was the lack of aperture plates or the lens being mounted on a crop sensor camera) we were impressed by it as a fun lens. The New Petzval is undoubtedly sharp in the center and with strong color saturation, vignetting, and that swirling Bokeh, it produces distinctive and interesting images.
This lens is by no means suitable for everyone. Pixel-peepers and those people who spend their weekends shooting images of brick walls to test the quality of their lenses should walk away now. But as an environmental portrait lens, for people who want a quirky photographic experience, and to shoot something a bit different, the New Petzval can be great fun. It's a lens that feels like it shouldn't exist in 2014, but we're glad it does.
The Lomography x Zenit New Petzval Art Lens is currently shipping to Kickstarter backers and is available to pre-order for US$600. Potential buyers who don't want a constant stream of people asking them about their shiny brass lens might want to consider the slightly more discrete black option, which will also be available shortly for $700.
Product page: Lomography New Petzval Art LensView gallery - 15 images