I was asked to pre-test the newly reinvented 85mm Petzval Art Lens for Lomography. This legendary, 19th century lens, was financed by the support of over 3300 backers on Kickstarter and having raised almost $1,300,000 (!), it´s one of the most successful projects on the crowd funding platform ever. So I thought, why not test this little golden gem out at a concert with my buddies of Portugal. The Man? Read on to hear my thoughts on it.
Reinvent the golden age
If you have never heard of the Petzval portrait lens before then don´t worry too much. When the people of Lomography asked me to pre-test the lens I’d never heard of it either. So, let me introduce you to what we’re dealing with: In 1840, Joseph Petzval, a Professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna (which also happens to be my hometown), introduced his portrait lens. It had a huge impact on the development of photography. At this time, lenses were designed to work with old, analog, large-format cameras and the Petzval lenses were characteristic for their sharpness, strong color saturation, swirly bokeh effect and an aperture of f3.6 for a narrow depth of field. So, it’s no wonder that this lens became the go-to lens for professional portrait photographers at this time. Nowadays, it´s almost impossible to find original Petzval lenses that are compatible with 35mm cameras. So the guys at Lomography had a brilliant idea and reinvented the Petzval lens together with the optics specialists at the Zenit factory in Russia and made it compatible with today’s analog and digital SLR cameras (Canon and Nikon mount).
The New 85mm Petzval Portrait Lens
The first thought I had when I unpacked the lens was, “Oh man! It´s golden, how rad is this!”. I mean, I’m really not into luxury stuff like golden rolex watches and the like, but a gold colored lens on my camera would be very cool! I attached it to my digital Nikon D800 SLR camera and it balanced perfectly. This lens is not a block of plastic like most new lenses, it´s crafted from brass (unfortunately not real gold even though it shines like gold!). Please note that this lens is fully manual. This means you’ll have to set your aperture, shutter speed and focus by hand. A really cool thing about the Petzval lens is that it works with the traditional “Waterhouse” aperture system. You get different metal sheets (diaphragms) with drilled holes of varying sizes. These sizes correspond to the f-stops ranging from f2.2 – f16. So, let´s say you want to shoot with an aperture of f2.8. Just grab the f2.8 aperture diaphragm sheet and insert it into the aperture slot. Apart from the aperture, you’ll also have to set the focus manually using the focusing knob on the underside of the lens. If you’re a Nikon shooter, you can take advantage of the internal focus control (in the viewfinder, bottom left hand corner). Use the single autofocus point in the middle of the viewfinder and adjust the focusing knob until a green dot appears in the viewfinder. This indicates that the subject is in focus. As the lens has no other electronic communication with the camera body, you have to use your camera in manual mode. If you aren´t using your camera in M mode, then this lens is a great reason to start doing it. So, let´s say we use an aperture diaphragm of f2.8. Then you’ll have to set your ISO and shutter speed on your camera accordingly. When using the Petzval lens on a digital SLR camera, simply check the Histogram on your LCD monitor to adjust your shutter speed/ISO settings. If you’re using the lens on an analog camera, you’ll need an external light meter to get the right exposure. 85mm reflects the perfect portrait focal length on a full frame camera body and will be about 130mm on a crop sensor camera body.
Portugal. The Man meet Petzval lens
My buddies of Portugal. The Man were playing a concert at the Posthof in Linz recently. It was the perfect chance to test the Petzval lens in the rough conditions around a concert stage. I have worked with the guys of Portugal. The Man a couple of times before, shooting both concerts and portraits and it’s always been fun. It feels like meeting old friends and it was a blast seeing them again. My girlfriend and I went backstage where we met Zachary (Bassist) who was in a good mood, although a little bit tired from the long car drive. I didn´t know, but Zach is a passionate photographer too and he showed me his bag full of analog gems, like a Lomo Compact automatic, Canon EOS 3, Polaroid SX-70 and a Fuji Instax mini. He got very excited when I showed him the Petzval lens. Being thrilled about what a lens looks like is not the most important point for a lens, that’s for sure, but if you can get people to rave about your gear it´s definitely a good start! I always get this when I shoot portraits of artists with my analog Hasselblad too. It wasn’t only the band members who were wondering what kind of lens this was, but the audience was also looking rather skeptically in my direction.
The Petzval lens concert action
I decided to shoot the complete concert of Portugal. The Man using just the Petzval lens. So I only had a fixed focal length of 85mm, an aperture of f2.8 and manual focus – that’s it. Sometimes, I really enjoy setting myself limitations and I strongly believe that this forces me to become a better photographer. As I was using a lens with a fixed focal length, I had to move around on stage a lot. If I wanted a portrait of the drummer, I had to move to the middle of the stage behind Kyle (Keyboard). There’s something magical about working together with a band for an evening on stage. It´s not like being in the photopit for the first 3 songs with a lighting technician who just seems to be out to make your life difficult. It´s more being part of the band for a short period of time and giving your best to achieve outstanding shots that reflect the atmosphere of the concert. And the Petzval was a great companion on this quest. I could totally concentrate on my craft as a photographer without any distractions using zoom lenses, 51 Autofocus points and other techy stuff. This was photography in it´s purest form. Shooting a Portugal. The Man concert is always a challenge. The low-light situation on stage and fast moving artists will test your work as concert photographer to the limits. After the concert, I already knew that I had some really great shots and that the Petzval lens would deliver outstanding photos. Take a look at these photos from the concert and judge for yourself:
I especially liked the look and feel of the Petzval lens on my Nikon D800. It´s a joy to use and the photos speak for themselves. If you hit the focus correctly, this lens will deliver great results. However, as a beginner in concert photography, I would suggest getting a 50mm f1.8 lens which has autofocus and is still sharp at f2.8. The Petzval lens is a specialist lens which is fun to play with. As much as I love the analog feel of it for concert photography, I guess this lens shines most when shooting portraits in natural light, and for this, I’ll definitely be trying it out again very soon.
Have you ever shot a concert with a manual focus lens?