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Many photographers desire to reproduce the world around them, not in exacting sharpness, but in a more ethereal and dream-like manner. To do this, you can spend hours post-processing an image, or you can expose your film or sensor through the unique glass of the Lomography Petzval 85mm f/2.2 or the Lensbaby Velvet 56mm f/1.6.
Sharpness is often the combined goal of the photographer, lens, and camera. When a new lens is released, the first question people ask often is: "Is it sharp?" Good lenses are awarded with sharpness superlatives like "tack," "razor," etc. Blogging photographers talk sharpness. Lens-test websites talk sharpness. Between bokeh and sharpness, very few aspects of a lens can get a word in edgewise when photographers gather around the office water cooler and speak of lenses.
On the other side of the tracks, there exists lens, camera, and photographic experiences in which sharpness has taken a back seat to creativity and the aesthetic. It is in this region of the photographic world where these two lenses thrive.
The Lomography Petzval Art Lens 85mm f/2.2
There is modern retro and there is just plain retro. The Petzvel Art Lens by Lomography is just about as old school as you can get in photography, as it is an elegant copy of a lens first made in 1840. The original design was crafted to mate with large format film cameras of the era, but the new lens is designed for the modern SLR, with Nikon F and Canon EF mounts available with gorgeous brass barrel. There are rumors of other mounts that may available in the future.
Photographs by Todd Vorenkamp
Tat Tso, head of Asia Operations for Lomography says, "If you walk around the Vienna flea markets, you get to see many old photos with a unique bokeh effect. This is something which always attracted us. And when we heard the story of Professor Petzval, who lived in Vienna and who developed the first light-sensitive lens in history, we were very intrigued by the idea to develop the Petzval optic for the 35mm format."
In the mid 1800s, when photography was in its infancy, many exposures took more than 10 minutes—completely impractical for portraits. The goal behind Petzval's design was a lens that would allow enough light in to create portraits, and he ended up making his now-famous 160mm f/3.6 lens for large format cameras. You can find more information on Professor Joseph Petzval (1807-1891) and his lens design on the Lomography website.
Lomography, known for its unique medium format and 35mm film cameras like the Holga, LC-A, and Diana, used Kickstarter to fund the development of the Petzval Art Lens, and has raised more than $1 million dollars through the campaign. Partnering with Russian camera and optical company Zenit, the new Petzval lens was designed, constructed, and put into production. As the original Petzval was designed for large format photography, recreating the optical characteristics of the 175-year-old lens for a smaller format was a design challenge for the Zenit team. But, as you can see from these images and other examples online, they pulled it off.
When your Petzval arrives, you will find beautiful packaging that rivals, and even surpasses, the packaging experience of other camera lens manufacturers. The Petzval arrives in a luxurious box, tied closed with a ribbon. Open it to find a Petzval book, leather tote bag, cloth lens bag, front and rear lens caps, six Waterhouse drop-in aperture plates, and the brass lens reminiscent of a small brass seeing glass from the age of sail. The lens's body is beautifully engraved and its markings include a unique serial number and the words: "Manufactured in Krasnogorsk, Russia." There is no focus or aperture ring on the Petzval. Focus is controlled by an external geared brass knob connected to a rack. This system is more suggestive of a telescope than a camera lens. The topside has an engraved focus distance scale marked in meters with a brass slider moving inside of a track and sporting a red line to indicate the focus distance. Aperture is controlled by the aforementioned Waterhouse drop-in aperture plates, ranging from f/2.2 to f/16. Available separately are specialized plates with tear drop, star, and hexagonal openings for creative effects.
At first, I thought the focus system would be cumbersome and foreign to use. In reality, it was quite pleasant with a smooth response, perfect ratio for quickly going through the entire focal range, and perfect dampening to allow precise focusing when needed. One could argue that the gear-and-rack focus system has some advantages over the modern helicoid mechanical focus system.
The Waterhouse drop-in plates are not designed for convenience or speed, but the flexibility they offer, as well as the super old-school experience, makes them interesting to use. The biggest drawback is the fact that you need to bring them with you unless you plan on just shooting the Petzval wide open all the time. The plates will not weigh down your camera bag, by any means, but they do need to be accounted for and I am sure more than one photographer has misplaced a plate, run them through the wash when left in a back pocket, or had them strewn through different compartments of their camera bag. If you are going to be a Petzval shooter, mentally prepare yourself for dealing with the logistics of the Waterhouse aperture plates and accept that it is just one part of a unique shooting experience.
Once you get past the decidedly manual Waterhouse experience, shooting the Petzval is very enjoyable. This is not a tack-sharp lens, nor is it bristling with high-tech electronics and gizmos. There is no image stabilization or anything that would require electricity. It’s just a lens and that makes the photographic experience ultra-pure in many ways. It is solid and beautifully made and the images you can produce with it are distinct.
One last thing to mention: I figured walking around a crowded public venue at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Times Square with a shiny brass lens projecting from the front a modern digital camera would attract a lot of attention, and not all of it welcome. I don't know if it was the blasé attitude of New Yorkers to the world around them, or the fact that it wasn't as obtrusive as I thought it would be, but the lens only created a few second looks and a couple of nice conversations with photo enthusiasts who were curious about it. My guess is that the more innocuous black version of the lens will let you hide among the crowds a bit more discreetly but, from my experience, don't sweat bringing a lot of attention to yourself with this lens.
Lensbaby Velvet 56mm f/1.6
If you lurk in the online photography world (if you are reading this, it is likely you do!), or read the latest photo periodicals, you know that the unicorn lens that many of us seek is the super-wide portrait lens that has an aperture large enough to shoot inside of a candle-lit coal mine while remaining tack sharp, even at its most gaping aperture.
It is a quest we constantly pursue, although no one lens manufacturer has made it come true—except for maybe Leica with the Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH (I guess I could look at the MTF charts for that legendary lens)—but that glass sets you back more than the monthly rent on a four-bedroom apartment in Chelsea.
Well, unicorn hunters, Lensbaby did NOT pull it off. But don't worry, and don't stop reading; they weren't trying to make the new Noctilux. I think they were trying to make a Lensbaby for the masses, and they accomplished that quite nicely.
The history of the Lensbaby line is that of very cool optical lenses that allowed creative selective and soft-focus shots. We have all seen the results, and it is fair to say that "The Lensbaby Effect" is not for everyone. However, in the world of this type of photography, Lensbaby brings a terrific product to its customers that seems to be getting better and better all the time. One drawback to the Lensbaby experience has been that, in most cases, if you affix a Lensbaby product to your camera, you are only going to get the Lensbaby aesthetic until you switch back to a “conventional” lens. The Velvet changes that.
The new Velvet 56mm f/1.6 is Lensbaby's second lens designed for mainstream photographers in so much as it has a very conventional and attractive design with a barrel shape and rotating focus and aperture rings. It is available in silver or black and comes in Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, and Sony A mounts. It looks like a normal lens and, unless someone sees the Lensbaby logo on the barrel, you'll probably not even know it was third-party glass. Speaking of focus and aperture rings, you can tell that quality was infused into this design, as they both have a deliberate feel. The focus ring was a bit too heavy for my tastes, especially noticed when trying to focus quickly. Also, because this lens has very nice close-focus capability, the focus ring throw from infinity to the minimum focus (5" from front element) was just shy of a full orbit around the lens. The aperture ring has nice clicks, but could have been a bit heavier for me. It wasn't so light that I accidentally changed aperture, but I am just sharing my opinion here on the feel of the lens.
One last point on the design before I talk about the experience: the Velvet is not an internal focus lens, so it changes length when focused. The focus ring is about 2/3 of the body of the lens and, when the Velvet is focused near infinity, the aperture and focus rings sit very close together. When shooting, this is a non-factor, but when you want to remove the lens from your camera, you will notice that everything you can grasp on the lens turns. This can make it tricky to remove the lens when it is time to change glass, depending on which way you have to turn the lens to unmount it.
So, what is the Velvet and what does it bring to your camera bag? Versatility is what you get with the lens. At 56mm, the focal length is great for portraits, especially on APS-C bodies where the equivalent focal length is 84mm (APS-C 1.5x) or 90mm (Canon APS-C 1.6x). For full-frame sensors, the Velvet's true 56mm is a nice normal lens. Not only do you have a portrait machine in your quiver, you also have a capable macro lens with a 1:2 reproduction ratio and a very small 5" minimum working distance. At the other end, the manual focus Velvet features a hard stop at the infinity mark.
Portrait lens? Macro lens? Normal lens? It is all of those. Stopped down, the Velvet is respectably sharp and it behaves and feels like a high-quality prime manual focus lens that can be used for a great many images. Open up the aperture and your world starts to melt attractively into something ethereal and more peaceful than it was a moment ago.
I shot the Velvet stopped down more than a few times, mostly for comparison shots, and was happy with the results but it was the wide-open effect that gave me a really enjoyable creative experience with the Velvet—especially when photographing flowers at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. With the macro capability, and the soft-focus effect in which floral shots seem to thrive, the lens was very much at home strolling through the blooming spring gardens. I test-drove the lens at night in Times Square, as well, maybe the polar opposite of the sunny walk through the botanic garden, and found it a bit more out of its element until I opened my mind for some creative shooting. Looking around at the dozens of cameras drifting around Times Square, I was fairly certain I was capturing the city lights in a way that no one else in my vicinity was. It was an enjoyable experience, especially when adding its macro capabilities.
In summary, the Velvet gives you a normal or portrait field of view with commendable sharpness when shooting away from the wide open apertures, a nice macro lens with 1:2 magnification, coupled with a short minimum focus distance and, when shot at its largest apertures, a distinct soft-focus effect that you could never really simulate accurately in post processing.
A Pair of Creative Tools
The Lomography Petzval and Lensbaby Velvet are two distinctly different lenses that give photographers two distinctly different shooting experiences. Both lenses excel in what they were designed to accomplish technically, and more importantly, they encouraged me to push my creative boundaries and step away from my normal photography to walk away with images I never thought I would find myself capturing before I had these two lenses in my camera bag. Fun stuff!