Thursday, November 27, 2014

Tech Review: Lomography Petzval Art Lens

When asked to review the Lomography Petzval Art Lens, I quite quickly said yes, without too much thought about what would be in store for me. I've toyed (hurhur geddit) around with Lomo products before, and as a digital photographer accustomed to minimal chromatic abberations, tack-sharp images, clearly-distinguishable bokeh and other clinical perfections achievable with the single click of a button in Lightroom, even my most twisted frame of mind had trouble making me let go of the fact that I have all but lost precious control of my aperture, shutter speed, focus and ISO.

For the record I still feel comfortable with a manual SLR. But Lomography's artistic concept is quite a different ball game, oftentimes leaning heavily on the highly forgiving nature of photographic film to capture otherwise ruined shots (and celebrating said near-destruction as art).


In the past year, Lomography has turned its focus towards engaging the digital photography market, with the Micro Four-Thirds Experimental Lens Kit for mirrorless systems, the upcoming New Russar+ for L39 and M mounts, and the Petzval lens for Canon and Nikon DSLR systems. This represents a slight change, or at least deviation, in direction for them, aiming to make unique, optically idiosyncratic lenses available to digital shooters instead of drawing them back to good ol' analogue photography..

 At a focal length of 85mm (often considered the most flattering focal length for portraiture) and a maximum aperture value of f/2.2, let's be clear about one thing - the Petzval lens isn't your typical plaything from Lomography. Without the luxuries of electronic apertures, auto-focus or even focus confirmation, users in my opinion will require adequate experience in aperture management and a keen eye to lock focus optically while capturing moments. If you don't already have a full frame DSLR body, I would recommend thinking about that first before spending on this lens. APS-C cameras will result in focal lengths of 127.5mm or 136mm (Nikon/Canon respectively) and unless you somehow feel comfortable working within that range, I imagine it will be quite the nightmare to operate snappily. I also believe full-frame cameras will more effectively bring out the unique optical features of this lens. While it isn't impossible to use this lens for street photography (by which I mean un-posed pictures), it will definitely be a heck of a greater challenge to use day-to-day than the more conventional 35mm or 50mm lengths.

Aperture size is controlled by a series of old-school-looking brass plates that frame the aperture hole nicely in the center of the lens. The plates start from the lens' maximum aperture of f/2.2, then move up to the conventional value of f/2.8, through to f/16 in 1-stop increments. After you get used to operating the lens, there's something quite therapeutic about palming an aperture plate (or two, if you're awesome like that), to have options on hand without having to fish out and sort through the whole carabiner of plates everytime you wish to switch. In my sessions with the lens I've alternated between f/2.8 and f/4, and f/4 and f/5.6. As far as my limited time with the lens could show, these were ideal aperture values that brought out the best of the lens. I also had the chance to mess around with the Petzval Special Aperture Plates, which feature unusual shapes that will show up in your background's bokeh. Great for concept stuff, but perhaps not for everyday use, in my opinion.

If an image shot with the Petzval were to be immediately recognized, it would perhaps be because of its swirling, arcing bokeh patterns and soft, misty feel, which I expect would usually prove a source of anguish and despair to aforementioned digital photographers, but otherwise has a rather dreamy and artistic effect to it. This is where aperture comes into play - too wide and the bokeh smudges into a huge singular blur; too small and the bokeh closes down, minimizing the swirly effect. On sunny days, on-focus images shot at f/5.6 onwards are guaranteed to produce painfully sharp shots. Indoors where more light input is required and larger apertures are in place, the focal sweet spot becomes paper-thin and misty images are not uncommon (or it could be my unsteady hands. YMMV~).


As far as the lens itself fares, it lives up to its inclusion under the Lomography brand: a slightly unpredictable, not-always-easy-to-use lens that you'd do well to just go on a journey with, and discover a new dimension of photography with. But perhaps the golden question boils down to this: is your photographic journey worth S$998 for a large, heavy, manual lens?

Wait, how much?!
 Yep. S$2 short of a whole grand. That's the price you will pay for a Petzval. As a photographer not naturally inclined towards portraiture, this frankly isn't a lens that I would consider purchasing. I always recommend my readers to try the product in question for themselves - I am after all just a single point of view. Failing that opportunity to do so, the most telling question I would say you should ask yourself is be your natural affinity towards portraiture. As with all things analogue, the lens will make you slow down and consider the value of your shot before taking it. After all, you will be quite obviously crouching or bending, trying to get the focus right. This exercise will very likely bring about a more thought-out shooting process, slowly improving the effectiveness of your photos.

So how much is your photography worth?
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