The Petzval Lens: A Breakthrough in Optics


Much of what we can achieve today in portrait photography was brought about by a breakthrough idea by a German-Hungarian mathematician, inventor, and physicist in 1840: the Petzval Lens. Read on to find out more about this iconic invention!

Daguerreotype of Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement taken in 1838. via Wikipedia

On January 9, 1839, the French Academy of Sciences announced the daguerreotype process, the brainchild of French artist and physicist Louis Daguerre, which came to be known as the first practical photographic process. However, the process involving a camera obscura and light-sensitized copper plates, proved to be problematic, especially when taking portraits, which took as long as 30 minutes to create.

First photo: Diagram of the Daguerre’s camera and the Chevalier Lens. From Photography by Robert Hunt, Francis Peabody (Ireland) 1853 Griffin & Co. via Antique Cameras; Second photo: Photo of an actual Chevalier Lens from 1849; and Third Photo: Close up of the lens engraving. via Live Auctioneers

With the invention of the daguerreotype came the race to remedy its shortcomings, particularly to revamp the optic work and reduce the exposure time. French optician and microscope maker Charles Chevalier invented the achromatic meniscus lenses for Le Daguerreotype, Louis Daguerre’s first photographic camera. However, aside from the spherical aberrations, its working aperture of f/15 was still not fast enough, especially since the original materials were of low sensitivity. In 1840, Chevalier designed another lens, which he called Photographe a Verres Combine, which was a combination of two cemented achromatic lenses. While he managed to bring down the aperture to around f/5.6 for portraiture, the lens lacked sharpness overall.

Joseph Petzval via Wikipedia

Meanwhile, in the same year in Vienna, a professor named Andreas von Ettinshausen told his mathematician and physicist friend Joseph Petzval about the daguerreotype process, and urged him to develop his own photographic lens. After six months of toiling with complex computations in a workshop-laboratory in Kahlenberg, Petzval came up designs for better objective lenses for both portrait and landscape photography work. He called his invention the Petzval Portratobjektiv.

First photo: Diagram of Petzval’s lens design via Antique Cameras; Second photo: Half section diagram of the Petzval Lens via Camera Wiki; Third to fifth photos: Petzval lenses made by Voigtländer via The Life Time Photography on Blogspot. Petzval worked closely with the firm of Voigtländer and Sons during the time of the designing and building of the lens. Because it lacked the protection of a patent, the successful design was copied around the world. Beginning in 1845, Petzval struggled with entrepreneur Peter Wilhelm Friedrich von Voigtländer over the rights for producing the Petzval lenses.

The Petzval Lens was a double achromatic objective lens that had four lenses in three groups. It had almost no distortion, was about twenty times faster than Chevalier’s 1839 lens, had a focal length of 160mm, and with an aperture of f/3.6, was about a stop and a half faster than the 1840 Photographe a Verres Combine.

The resulting photos taken using Petzval’s iconic invention were very sharp at the center, but had vignetting and significant field curvature; however, these “defects” proved beneficial for portraiture as they helped viewers focus on the crisp central image in the photograph.

The Petzval Lens became known as the first fast photographic lens, and the first made on the basis of scientific calculation, and with it, portrait photography flourished. Much of what the world considers to this day as the best characteristics of lenses for portraiture are based on Petzval’s 19th century optic breakthrough.

All information for this article were sourced from Joseph Petzval on Wikipedia, Daguerreotype on Wikipedia, Petzval Portrait Lenses and Their History on Antique Cameras, Charles Louis Chevalier on Camerapedia, Petzval Lens on Camera Wiki, and Josef Maximillian Petzval on Camerapedia.

The new Lomography Petzval (D)SLR Art Lens is a reinvention of the legendary portrait glass lens that first appeared in the 19th century. Our version is a high-quality glass optic that makes it possible for Canon and Nikon analogue and digital SLR mount cameras to yield the famous Petzval look – sharp focus areas with unique bokeh effects, strong color saturation, and artful vignettes. It’s a distinct look that goes far beyond using photo editing software and filters.

Fund this project on Kickstarter and help us bring back this extraordinary lens for 21st century photographers and filmmakers!

written by plasticpopsicle on 2013-07-25 in #lifestyle #portrait-lens #history #lomography #joseph-petzval #1840 #petzval #photography #portrait-photography #analogue-lifestyle #photographic-lens #19th-century #petzval-lens


  1. bkspicture
    bkspicture ·

    Great article!!

  2. plasticpopsicle
    plasticpopsicle ·

    @bkspicture Thank you, and to @istionojr, @emkei, and @djramsay too for the likes! Glad to know you guys enjoyed reading!

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