Framework

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The Dundas Square shopping area of Toronto photographed with the new Lomography Petzval lens. A wide aperture of 2.2 allows for lower-light shooting and the construction of the lens creates a natural vignette and "swirl" at the edges, helping focus your attention to the center.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Flags honor those lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the grass in front of a Buffalo, N.Y., Red Cross office. The structure of the Lomography Petzval lens, with an aperture of 2.2, creates a vignette and blur at the edges, helping focus the viewer's attention on the middle of the frame.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

The scene outside a Mercedes Benz promotion during the Toronto International Film Festival with a faux red carpet background, where the edges are naturally blurred and vignetted by the new Lomography Petzval lens.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

At the Toronto International Film Festival, in addition to portraits lit with strobes, I used a second camera body (Canon 5dMarkII) with the Lomography Petzval lens to shoot an ambient portrait of Jake Gyllenhaal utilizing available window light with a background that shows off the swirl effect caused by the structure of the lens.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Taking the new Lomography Petzval 85mm lens outside always yielded the best results, allowing for subjects to be placed in front of textured background that lend to the swirl effect of the lens' structure. The natural vignetting and swirl of the lens added to the impact of this portrait of Diane Paul, who is succeeding David Bohnett as board chair of the L.A. Philharmonic, photographed outside Walt Disney Concert Hall.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Anahit, left and Ararat Mirzayants of Glendale have wedding photos taken at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The swirl effect of the Lomography Petzval lens is best seen in a textured background, as these trees provided.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

The wide aperture (2.2) of the new Lomography Petzval 85mm lens creates a natural blur and vignette at the edges in this photograph of Hermosa Beach.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

A young girl walks through the plaza in the Dundas Square shopping area of Toronto. The wide aperture (2.2) of the Lomography Petzval lens creates a natural vignette and swirl at the edges, helping guide viewers' attention to the center.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio sits for a portrait in Toronto's Soho House while promoting his new film, "Visitors," at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. At 85mm with a wide (2.2) aperture, the natural vignetting of the new Lomography Petzval lens adds a blurred edge around the frame, adding to the ambiance of the portrait.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Shooting with a 2.2 aperture leaves little wiggle room for focus with the new Lomography Petzval 85mm lens, helping create more dramatic images with a natural vignetting, like in this architectural image of Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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Putting the new Lomography Petzval portrait lens to work

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Putting the new Lomography Petzval portrait lens to work

By Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times

It was a fun surprise when I received an email from Lomography asking me if I would like to borrow a prototype of their yet-to-be-released Lomography Petzval portrait lens, which is designed to work with Canon EF and Nikon F mount cameras. I was excited to play with the 35mm DSLR version of the lens I fell in love with during the summer of 2012 when I shot several portraits of Olympic athletes.

I received the lens just before leaving for the Toronto International Film Festival and quickly put it to use shooting travel pictures and celebrity portraits, including one of Jake Gyllenhaal, which was published on Sept. 15.

2013_jlc_framework_petzval_pics_11b

The new Lomography Petzval 85mm lens, bottom, with a vintage Darlot Petzval lens, mounted on a Zone VI 4×5 field camera. The Darlot Petzval lens was purchased on EBay for $760, while the new 35mm Lomography lens for Nikon and Canon DSLRs is set to retail for $499 and ship sometime in 2014. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The lens is an 85mm, a more classic portrait lens than the standard 50mm many photographers use when they are learning. More importantly, the small size enabled me to walk around Toronto with it on my Canon 5d Mark III. Unlike when shooting with a large-format camera with sheet film, I was mobile and had more or less an unlimited number of frames to work with. I was able to explore multiple angles in a very short amount of time.

The biggest draw to the lens is the natural fall-off of focus and vignetting at the edges of the frame. From my experience, to best see the “swirl” of the lens’ optics at the edges, often referred to as “bokeh” in Lomography’s promotion of the lens, you should keep your subject at the center of the frame and have a textured background. The effect is well seen in the Gyllenhaal portrait (gallery photo #4) and in the outdoor portrait I did (gallery photo #5), but you’ll notice the “softening” in all your pictures as you move away from the focused spot in the frame.

This lens does a good job duplicating the “swirl” of the classic Petzval, but I have to admit, shooting this lens is very similar to shooting my Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens, with a wide-open aperture. With my Canon lens, the focus falls off very quickly at the wider apertures (anything below f/2.8) and it isn’t as sharp as their L series lenses, like the 85mm f/1.2L. So this would be a big consideration when weighing the planned Lomography Petzval retail price of $499, versus the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM for around $360, which has auto-focus and electronics linking it to your camera.

Additionally, the manual focus takes a little getting used to. Holding the brass focusing wheel and rolling your picture into focus has a satisfying feel, much more so than using one’s thumb for that famous “back button” on the Canon. The major downside with manual focusing: My eyes are not what they used to be! In formal portrait situations I definitely worked a little harder finding the focus.

When the lens ships for general purchase it will come with a set of Waterhouse apertures, which are basically thin pieces of metal with round openings that act as your apertures. My particular lens had the widest aperture, at 2.2. This did not leave much wiggle room in my focusing.

After seeing several things soft or just out-of-focus, I started adjusting and shooting several bursts at a time. While some subjects may have been moving during my time on the streets, the majority of my shooting could most easily be classified as portraits, where subjects were still and attention given to my direction. Even when “focused,” these were not the sharpest pictures I’ve ever shot in my career.

In the lens’ defense, I was using a prototype that had been on several cameras before mine, so there was a good amount of movement in the lens, most notably in their designed “gear rack focusing.”

I think this lens could be a fun addition to your camera bag, allowing for some in-camera creativity that can help slow down the process, in a thoughtful way, while honing your manual focusing skills. Lomography has said it hoped to ship supporters of their Kickstarter project lenses by the end of the year, with general purchases available sometime next year. They also plan to include a photo book, showing old and new Petzval shots, some background information on the history of the lens and some tips and tricks on shooting with the lens.

Follow Jay L. Clendenin on Twitter @LATimesJLC

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