10 March

Off To See Robin

by Jon Katz
Off To See Robin: Photo By Emma Span

Tomorrow, we get up early and head to Albany to catch the train to New York City and more specifically Brooklyn, where we will spend the day. Coming back Saturday night, a sharp cold wave coming in tonight, I don’t think we will be strolling around New York. I have a sack full of presents that Robin will love and Emma will hate, but that’s the way it goes. I want to see if this kid is as genial and easy-going as her photographs success. I want to see her powerful stare.

Be back soon.

10 March

The Man Behind My Lens: Joseph Petzval

by Jon Katz

Chicken Squabble

When the grey hen and white hen started squabbling on the roost, I got a sense of the possibilities of this lens, once I really learn how to use it. I love it already. The hens were fighting over who could enter the roost first, the white hen won, as she usually does.

I spent some time today researching the story between my Petzval 58 lens and made some headway. Joseph Petzval (Josef Maximllian Petzval) was a 19th century mathematician, inventor and physicist best known for his work in the field of optics. Among his best known inventions were the  portrait lens and opera glasses.

None of my lenses has a human story, but this one does.

The lens I took this picture with is the new Lomography Petzval (DSLR) Art Lens. It is a reinvention of the very famous portrait lens that first appeared in the 19th century at the height of the portrait period in photography. The new version is made in Russia, and of Russian glass, it seeks to duplicate the look that Petzval made famous in the 1840’s  sharp focus areas with unique bokeh  effects, very strong color saturation and artful vignettes and other effects.

Petzval was born in Hungary, earned an engineering degree in 1826 and got his doctorate in physics soon after. In 1837, he was invited to teach at the University of Vienna in Austria, and lectured on mathematics, differential equations, cable vibrations and ballistics.

During this period, he moved into abandoned Piarist monastery on top of the Kahlenberg mountain and built his own glass workshop there. A skilled lens sharpener and precision mechanic, he designed his famous lens in the old monastery. He married his housekeeper, then died in 1891.

The Petzval lens, legendary in its time was forgotten until just a few years ago.

Today, his lenses are being re-marketed in Russia by the Lomography company, and I bought one from B&H Photo Friday at less than half the price of a Canon L series lens, the kind I have been using since the beginning. It is quite everything it has claimed to be, but it’s like getting a border collie. It is surely not for everyone, or even most people.

It does not have any electronic part, no automatic focus or stabilizer to make my work easier. There is a bokeh control dial – I’ve not seen that before –  that meshes with the metal plates but I have no idea how at the moment.

It will take me months to figure out how to use this lens properly, it is the complete opposite of the Canon or Nikon digital experience, where the photographer composes and pushes a button. That doesn’t work with the Petzval. It has a gear mechanism for focusing, metal plates to be inserted every time there is an Aperture change and a manual focus that almost guarantees at least half the shots – more, if today is a judge – don’t work. But the ones that do work are something, the glass here is distinct, unlike any other I have used.

I love the fact that the lens has such an exotic back story, I will think of Joseph Petzval and his optics every time I use it. I’m debating whether or not to take it to New York City tomorrow, I’d love to try it out on Robin, but it’s heavy and we are carrying a lot of stuff.

10 March

Second Portrait, Petzval Lens: Chloe

by Jon Katz
Second Portrait

I might have missed the focus by a hair in this photograph, the gear focus is very new and tricky for me. The odd thing, is I loved the photo very much when I saw it on the computer. It captured a particular feeling that I couldn’t get with any other lens. Chloe is leaving us in a few days, and I want to capture her if I can. As with the Dominick portrait, I love the back ground. The Petzval is all about feeling, it has a very different feeling, I’ll know more about it in a few days.

10 March

First Portrait: Petzval 58. Dominick, Round House Cafe

by Jon Katz
Pizza Night

This was my first portrait with my new Petzval 58 Russian lens, I called Dominick at the Round House this afternoon. It was pizza night, and Maria and I always go order one of Scott Carrino’s wonderful pizzas on Friday night. Dominick often pretends to be someone else when I call and usually completely fools me and catches me off guard. He is a rascal, but we each tap into the rascal in the other.

I told him I just got this new wild Russian lens and I wanted him to be my guinea pig, to stand for my first portrait and he’s used to me by now, and he agreed. Sure, he said, he pays me no mind, also good for candid portraits.

I played with the background focus and I like the way it blurred the sign on the wall and made Dominick’s face clear, it stood out.

In the Petzval manual, it suggests standing back a ways, and I couldn’t do that in the Round House kitchen, I think it will be great in the woods and also for many portraits. This is good for the first day, but I have to say this is a huge stretch for me, there is no image stabilizer, no automatic focus, to change the Aperture setting you have to insert one of seven different metal plates while simultaneously turning the gear mechanism and setting the Bokeh (background) settings.

And you need to do this all at once. I think I lucked out on this shot, I’ve decided not to bring this lens to New York City tomorrow, I just need to get to know and all the plates and gears better. It is exciting to use a lens just as it was designed in 1840 by Mr. Petzval, a photographic legend.The glass and lens were both made in Russia. So were my grandparents, so this feels like blood in a way.

I’m in love with this lens and the possibilities of it, but I will have to work plenty hard to get the kind of photographs I want. I’ll share the process.

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