A day shooting with the Petzval lens

By Stacy Patton

I took this lens out for a sunny afternoon with a friend in Southeast London. It had been a while since I'd spent the day with a camera in my hand, and on this day I had a Canon EOS 6D and a Petzval 85mm. And (it bears repeating) a sunny day in London.

So retro.

I sat outside with a coffee while I waited for my friend, shooting a colourful storefront across the street. Like small talk on a first date, the Petzval and I got to know each other without working too hard. The light was a bit bright, and I didn’t get up, just steadied my elbows on the café table. First lesson of the Petzval: remember the manual focus—half-pressing the shutter has no effect whatsoever. The focus knob, positioned at roughly 7 o'clock on the lens barrel, fit easily between my left thumb and forefinger. The knob’s rotation is intuitively limited to a single twist forward to infinity, and back again to close focusing. There’s no rangefinder, though—no bars to line up, no textured circle to make clear, just your eye and the soft centre of the frame. 

The Petzval's a looker.

It’s also a heavy lens, but I enjoyed the feel of it in my hands, and any perceived shortcomings about weight or focusing were quickly overshadowed by the sexy profile the Petzval cut on the street. This lens gets attention. My usual method is to hang in the shadows and crouch in the corners, shooting surreptitious portraits. But as I sat outside the bakery fooling with the camera, I kept catching folks making sidelong glances at my hands. Sneaking looks, scoping out my brassy new friend.

For me, there’s a great deal of joy in well-made machines—old typewriters, manual egg beaters, wind-up watches, and of course, cameras. The Petzval has these qualities and pleasures, with lovely little slot-in apertures, which were fun to fiddle with. But in the end, a bit fiddly. They make a particularly lovely noise (ting!) when you drop them, which I did, often.

But a bit fiddly.

You might have better luck if you're accustomed to carrying your camera around in a case and taking it out only for important photographic moments. Or maybe if you wear it around your neck on a strap. My habit, though, is to hold my camera by its grip loosely at my side, gunslinger-style. Not a great practice for this lens, as the apertures sit loosely in the lens barrel, held in place primarily by the force of gravity. Hold the camera at the wrong angle, and they fall out. Ting! 

But the lens is beautiful wide open anyway, especially as they day wore on and the light softened. Everything you put in the centre of this lens emerges in a creamy swirl of colour. The hues it renders are deep and contrasty, the way I like them. Your subjects—even your banal subjects—just look prettier. But if you're a stickler for sharpness you'll have to look elsewhere.

Steady hands required.

As digital photographers sharpness has become a primary measure of quality in both lenses and images. But crystalline sharpness isn’t this lens’s strength – even at the point of focus, things farther than a few meters away render softly. Which, incidentally, is flattering for faces. I always aim for a sharp iris, and with this lens it's achievable with good light, a steady hand, and no more than three meters distance. But if your hand isn’t steady, and you cannot tolerate a bit of softness in your images, this lens might not be for you. It's a portrait lens, and it does that so beautifully that, even where you're not shooting portraits, it tends to make a portrait of whatever you placed near the centre of the frame.

By the end of the day I wanted it.

And if you like to shoot street portraits, as I do, the Petzval is a great conversation starter, giving you an 'in' with all kinds of strangers. It's sexy and fun, and people will want to talk to you about it. They want to know what is, what it does, and what you're doing with it. They wonder how heavy it is; it reminds them of a camera they had, or that their father had. They will let you take their picture with it. The Petzval is a looker, there's no denying it.

Even after only a couple of hours I felt downright romantic about it – pushing aside the unpleasant thought of its return, daydreaming of a weekend in Paris with it. I'd figured out just enough of its sweet spots to be utterly infatuated, and yet each image in the viewfinder still held the potential to surprise me. As I sit here writing I find myself wishing I had it with me – wishing that it were mine. At £480 Ms Petzval’s not a cheap date, nor is she the kind of girl you're likely to settle down with, given her quirkiness. But when you’re in the mood and the light is right, this shiny brassy lens makes one hell of a hot date.