Sid Ceaser is a portrait photographer who specializes in studio and location work for bands and musicians who are in need of images to use for publicity, press kit, cd/album artwork, and promotional purposes. His work is clean, crisp and compelling. Through this interview, he shares his experience with the Lomography x Zenit New Petzval Lens.
Location: Nashua, New Hampshire
Used camera: Canon EOS 5DMarkII and 5D
Hello, please tell us about your work. How did you start as a photographer?
I am a photographer that specializes in promotional, press kit, publicity and cd/album artwork for musicians and bands, as well as head shot photography for corporate, business, actors, models, musicians, etc. I am also a fine art photographer and my personal work centers around portraits of toys and pop-culture.
I’ve been using cameras most of my life; both film and digital. I have been trying to make it my profession since I graduated from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2004. I have had a studio in the historical Nashua Millyard since 2004.
You specialize in taking photographs of bands and musicians. Why do you love this so much?
I love music. LOVE. MUSIC. I can’t play a single note, but since I was in grade school music has always been playing in the background no matter where I am. I collect vinyl and cd’s. When I finally sat down to figure out what I really wanted to focus on with my work, it only made sense that I want to create images that help serves musicians. I’m not that big into photographing live and concert shots, I love working one-on-one with musicians to create compelling portraits that help elevate their visual identity. I just love working with people; learning their stories. You never know who you are going to meet. You never know what you are going to learn day to day. Even when I’m working on my fine art personal projects, I photograph toys in a portrait style. Even when I’m not photographing real people I’m photographing things that look like people.
How did you find out about the Petzval Lens and why did you decide to try it?
I’ve worked in the past with handmade photographic processes, and when I got married back in the fall of 2011 I commissioned a tintype photographer to take huge, lush, 20×24″ tintype portraits taken of my wife and I. He had these large, beautiful, giant Petzval lenses he was using for these portraits, and they produce such a wonderful image, especially at such large sizes. The photographer had an entire cabinet full of various sized Petzval lenses, and they really are these beautiful brass sculptures – loaded with history. When Lomography first launched the Kickstarter I paid close attention. Petapixel ran a feature on my wedding tintypes and Lomography contacted me shortly after asking if I would be interested in testing the lens out. I excitedly said yes. I wanted to see how the “Petzval look” would translate to a much smaller, 35mm sized image. I was really impressed that Lomography and Zenit were making brass Petzval’s in the same style as the originals. I also was very interested because the building my photography studio is in, no longer allows harsh photographic chemicals to be used, so I was taken with the idea of producing digital images that had similar traits to tintype photography without all the dangerous chemicals.
How was your experience with the lens?
So far my experience has been very interesting. The brass lens itself is absolutely beautiful, and the ability to take the lens apart for self-cleaning is really nice. I love that it has this very sculptural quality while at the same time being a lens that produces a very unique, specific look and quality. One thing I’ve discovered is that you really need to have patience when using this lens. This is completely manual – you need to figure out your exposure times as this camera doesn’t have any way of communicating with the camera. Get out your light meter or take test shots to reach proper exposure.
I’ve found the best way to use this lens is to treat it like it’s large-format film brothers of the past: Put your camera on a tripod. Use a hoodman or other DSLR viewing loupe on the back of your camera, and use your camera’s Live View feature. Zoom in on the subjects eyes and carefully get them in focus and then take the shot. The tripod will keep the camera from tilting forward or backwards. As someone that used to shoot with a 4×5 camera, it was like coming home again by slowing down my shooting and using a tripod and viewing loupe like I used do to when shooting with my view camera. I personally thing it’s nice to be able to slow down and really get know your camera and new lens by taking the time to go slow and be as accurate as possible. It is really easy to blow focus and blow the shot, but when you do nail focus correctly the image looks incredible.
I’m also still learning what is the best algorithm in regards to camera to subject distance and subject to background distance to get the maximum “effect” from the lens. If you put a subject too close to the background you won’t blur the background as much as you might want. There is a “sweet spot” that gives the best optical blur. I’m still learning what that is.
Please share your favorite photo from the ones that you shot with the Lomography x Zenit Petzval Lens.
I shot some portraits yesterday of my friend Nikki, and this gives a good example of that “spiral” effect that the background does when it goes out of focus. I also took a picture of my wife standing in front of some trees that give a good example of that effect. I’m anxiously awaiting for all the snow here to melt and for it to get warmer so I can start using this lens more and more.
What advice would you give to those who are still new to using the lens.
My advice for new Petzval owners: be patient. Those who are used to shooting with electronic focus lenses who let the lenses do all the work are in for a big surprise. The Petzval lens is 100% manual and it will take some time for you to learn its intricacies. This is a very specific tool that gives very specific results, but it won’t be a very good “shoot everything” lens. The focal length is idea for portraits, and that is really where it’s qualities shine. I can see lots of users getting frustrated because of all the things it won’t do, but what it does do is really exceptional and beautiful I think you’ll get mixed results trying to shoot with this lens handheld. Instead, pick up a tripod and definitely get a hood loupe so you can put it on the back of the camera screen and see things a little larger. If you have Live View on your camera, use it. Zoom in on the subjects eyes and make sure you nail the focus. Otherwise you’re going to be doing a lot of guessing and probably blow a lot of the shots. Just be patient. This lens is a throwback to how they first photographed people when photography was still finding its legs. It’s all manual, baby. Put your head into the same space as all those large format photographers do. Slow down. Be calm. Take time. Don’t worry about getting tons of images. Just concentrate on getting that one amazing shot. This lens will put up a fight with you, but if you take the time to learn it inside and out, it will be a beautiful marriage and help you make images that will take your breath away.
You also work with lighting workshops, can you tell us how the Petzval helps to reinforce the background lights?
I teach lighting workshops for photographers looking to get introduced to off-camera flash and incorporating off-camera lighting into their lives I’m really excited to start using the Petzval lens at these workshops and also in my commercial work – I’m really looking forward to seeing how this lens will, along with controlled lighting, create unique images that cause future clients to do a double-take.
What will be the perfect occasion for you to use the lens?
Once New England gets out from under all this snow and it becomes warmer, I’ll be bringing this lens with me on every shoot; be it personal or client-based work. What I’m really looking forward to is next fall, when all the leaves turn colors and fall to the ground – having portrait subjects standing amid all the color will really produce a fantastic result from this lens. I’m hoping to shoot images that will basically envelop the subject in swirls of movement and color. But most importantly, each day that goes by that I own this lens is one more day I get to learn a little more about it and how it works. I’m looking forward to having a long, beautiful relationship with this lens. I love that it causes me to slow down again with shooting, and I love that it is all manual. It can be very finicky, but with patience the results will be well worth the time you take to really learn how to use this lens properly.
What comes next for you?
Lomography provided me with a Petzval lens to test, and I intend to fully put this lens through its’ paces in the spring and summer and do an extensive test and review of this lens. One of the things I hope to do for reviewing this lens is to work with the tintype photographer who took my wedding portraits and do a side-by-side shootout and comparison. What better way to test this lens – by shooting alongside a real Petzval lens made in 1860, and taking images at the same time and then comparing the results. I’m really hoping I can create an extensive review that I can share with future Petzval purchasers.
On top of that, I fully intend to use this lens as much as I can with my client-based photography and also my personal work.
Lomography have created a really elegant homage to the classic Petzval lenses of the past. I’m excited to be able to integrate this lens into my shooting and I’m very anxious to see the unique results.