The Lomography 85mm Petzval Lens

 Review by: Craig C. Houdeshell

Petzval 85

Discussion of the Petzval Lens

The Petzval lens is a very old design going back to the beginning of photography.  Petzval worked for  Chevalier Lens Makers making lenses, improved upon and simplified the design.  He eventually struck out on his own as a lens maker.  Large format photographers seek out and treasure the original Petzval lens.

In 2012, Lomography decided to work on a design of the Petzval lens design for contemporary cameras, more specifically for Canon and Nikon 35mm mounts.  In 2013, Lomography was closing in on the final design with the history Zeinith lens company in Russia and started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the start-up of lens construction.

Somehow I stumbled on the Kickstarter page and was definitely intrigued with the characteristic look the lens offered because I had been looking to return to the shallow depth of focus, old time look of the 1800s portraits without the hassle of wet plate colloidal, or ambrose-type techniques.  While I do want to experiment with large format photography especially wet plate photography at some point, that discussion is for another day.

I casually mentioned a strong desire for the lens being offered by Lomography to my significant other, Jennifer.  I then promptly forgot about it because financial times were hard at our house with three in college and we are still recovering from the economic downturn.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later Jennifer offered me an envelope for my birthday.  I laid it on the table because we were at dinner with other people.  She was insistent that I open the envelope – rarely is she like this.  She is usually very low key.  On opening the card in the envelope out fell a slip of paper which was the receipt for a place in the que for the Kickstarter Lomography Petzval lens campaign.  WOW! What a surprise and a nice gift.  Well, that was July.  The promise was for the company to supply a lens in February 2014, so the waiting began.

Once I was in the que, Lomography really made me feel like part of the family.  There were constant updates about the lens design, meeting with the manufacturer in Russia, how the campaign was going, etc.

Once the campaign “went over the wall” and was funded, it got really exciting.  Clearly there was pent-up demand for such a lens because with an initial goal of $100,000 the project was funded in excess of $1,300,000.  Yes, you are reading this numbers correctly.  Each time a new goal was set and reached Lomography put another little gift or perk in the packages of the early adopters, of which I was one.

Petzval packaging

The lens as delivered in its packaging.

Petzval Mounting

The Lomography 85mm lens on a Nikon D7000

When the lens arrived on December 27th, about seven weeks ahead of the promise, there were lots of extras in the box.  The final package included:

  1. The lens
  2. Two body caps
  3. Six aperture plates
  4. A book about the lens and tips.
  5. A cloth lens bag
  6. A Lomography tote bag.

Getting in on the funding campaign let Jennifer pay $400 for the lens.  Today, the lens is $599.

The Lens in Use

This cannot be said loudly enough, the lens is fully manual and has no electrical communication with the body.  I say this to be clear.  I know with that statement I just lost fifty percent or more of the readers.  If that is true, that is fine because they know the lens isn’t for them.

The brass lens barrel is beautiful.  There I said it. Yes, it is beautiful.  It isn’t lacquered so I am sure it will tarnish nicely, as it ages, like my old trumpet I use to blow back in the day.  The lens bayonet is well machined with no slop on any of the following Nikon bodies: a D610, a D7000, a D90 and an N60.  It is nice the designer and maker took time and care on this point.  On the lens bayonet there is a little red alignment dot, so no one should get lens mounting wrong.

The focus adjustment knob is well machined with just the slightest wriggle in the gears that focus the lens.  The lens is so manual that you select an aperture plate from the provided collection and slide it into a slot on the top of the lens body.  The aperture plates go from f/2.2 to f/16.

As you would expect there are two methods of getting a correct exposure on a DSLR body.  You can use a light meter or chimp, looking at the histogram and snapping images until you are satisfied with the exposure.  On a film body, dig out a light meter.

One other idea I tried was using the light meter in both the DSLR bodies and the film body with an electrically connected lens.  That did not work out well.  I am still scratching my head why it did not work.  I thought I could cheat by figuring exposure with a contemporary lens (after choosing the correct lens aperture) then swap lenses, but that idea was a no go.

The lens is 85 millimeters so it is what is classically known as a portrait lens.  I would like to see Lomography manufacture a 50mm lens too.  I am hopeful they do.

In practice, the lens performs best with a tripod mounted camera.  I as something of a shallow DOF freak, which is why I bought the lens, for shallow depth portraits.  Thus most of the examples I provide with this writing are at f/2.2 and f/4, with a couple at f/8 all tripod mounted which made holding focus at these shallow depths of field easier.   At those shallow depths of field, focus is tricky and I missed focus a bunch of times.  Perhaps if the lens had a finer focusing screw hitting focus on the eyes say, would be a simpler task.  If my technique were more refined, which I am committed to doing, I would be undoubtedly happier.  The photos I show of our old rescue Greyhound, Diana, were shot handheld so it can be done.

The swirling bokeh characteristic of Petzval lens is present in all camera formats (Film, Full Frame and Crop-sensor) is a very unique swirly pattern.  That will make those of you with only crop-sensor equipment happy.  Bright lights (see the photo with the Christmas Tree) demonstrate an bokeh feature of a shape between a football and a sphere.  Some people will like it some will not.

The lens really comes into its own on full frame 35mm equipment, either digital or film, of course.  That is when it is possible to take advantage of full effect of the shallow DOF, but that is true of any lens.  Perhaps it is just me but I found the out of focus areas more pleasant on film.  I know I will be using film more with this lens.


  1. The lens is well constructed and should last a lifetime in all its (future) tarnished best.
  2. The fit and finish, including the bayonet mount and mechanical parts is quite good.
  3. The brass lens cap and plastic bayonet cap fit well.
  4. The aperture plates are a loose collection and therefore susceptible to getting lost, so you will need some arrangement to keep them together and with the lens body.  I am using a ziplock bag jammed down in the lens case, but I plan on finding something better.
  5. The lens seems to have a magenta cast.  Some would argue this is a lens failing, but knowing it is there can be planned for in post proceeding of electronic files.  However, that does leave an issue for color film users.
  6. The lens is a little finicky to focus, but to be fair I have never used a Petzval style lens before and learning good (better) technique is something I am committed to doing for my craft and art.
  7. At this point without more testing (which I plan to do) and refinement of technique I will call the lens a bit “soft”  The center can be sharp when I do my part, but sharpness falls off quickly as you move from the center of the lens.  That is a characteristic of the lens design.  You either like it or you do not.
  8. Of course the 85mm focal length is a perfect portrait length, but with the success of the maker’s project I hope they can see their way to making a 50mm lens too.
  9. If you focus on still life, botanicals, portraits or fine art photography and you want to separate yourself from others with a different in camera look you should pick yourself up one of these lenses.  But be warned, there is a learning curve.

Petzval Amarylis

Nikon D90/Petzval 85mm @ f/2.2

The reason to show this photo is to demonstrate the “circular” bokeh with the Christmas lights.  The focus is on the stamens in the left front flower.  If you zoom in you can see the petals on the two outside flowers have already fallen out of focus.

Petzval Gumby

Nikon D610/ Petzval 85mm @ f/2.2

I wanted to show the characteristic swirling bokeh, of the lens.  Focus in on Gumby’s nose.  Gumby’s right arm is about an inch and a quarter in front of the body.  You can see Gumby’s right hand is out of focus.  The background is about 2.5 feet behind Gumby.

Petzval Diaba BW

Nikon N60/Kodak BW400CN/Petzval 85mm @ f/4

The focus in on Diana’s right eye.  Her right paw is about two inches or a little more behind her eye and is out of focus.

Petzval Diaana Color

Nikon N60/ Fuji X-tra 400/Petzval 85mm @ f/4

Focus is on Dian’s eye.  Her neck and collar are nicely out of focus as is the fabric on the chair she is in.

Petzval Jennifer 2_2

Nikon D610/Desat 95-percent in Topaz Labs B&W Adjust/Petzval 85mm @ f/2.2

Photo was shot from about 6 feet in front of Jennifer and the background is about three feet behind her.

Petzval Jennifer 8

Nikon D610/Desat 95-percent in Topaz Labs B&W Adjust/Petzval 85mm @ f/8

Photo was shot from about 6 feet in front of Jennifer and the background is about three feet behind her.

Note the changes in the hair, scarf and background from the previous photo.  I consider the lens to lose its unique characteristics at aperture diameters smaller than f/8

Jennifer color 2_2

Nikon D7000/Petzval 85mm @ f/2.2

Photo was shot from about 9 feet in front of Jennifer and the background is about three feet behind her.The out of focus portions of the scarf are is about two inches in front of her chin.

Jennifer color 8

Nikon D7000/Petzval 85mm @ f/8

Photo was shot from about 9 feet in front of Jennifer and the background is about three feet behind her.

The out of focus portions of the scarf are is about two inches in front of her chin.

I am happy to hear your comments.  If you have questions or want to express other thoughts I provide an email address below.  I also provide links to my web page and Lomography’s  web page.

[email protected]

The Kickstarter page with Petzval history

The Lomography web page

5 comments on “The Lomography 85mm Petzval Lens

  1. Trevor Whitaker

    The lens itself is beautiful and fun to use, the aperture plates are a complete travesty. Half of mine are so loose they rattle around and fall out if you turn the camera sideways, the other half are so tight the paint scrapes off if you use them, leaving flakes inside the lens.

  2. williamkazak

    Very interesting test and comments. I would like to see more pictures. Are you ever planning to “hand hold” the lens? I am wondering if the black paint version will “hang around” longer than the shiny brass will remain shiny.

  3. Jack

    I happened to see one of these on eBay in Nikon mount with all the goodies at a modest premium, so snagged it for our Yosemite workshop. So far I am more impressed than I expected to be. I have noted that with the f8 waterstop, it performs almost as a vanilla 85. F5.6 shows a slight effect, f4 a little more and f2.8 pretty prominent, with f2.2 very heavy effect. I may drill out the f16 stop to around f3.5 for a better tuned mid effect.

  4. BlinkingEye Post author

    Bob, it is fun but challenging as I say in the article. I wear glasses so having the camera diopter adjusted properly is important. I am still missing focus a bit but it is getting better as I use it more. It will be interesting to read your thoughts when you get your copy. It is fun to use.

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