Mel Brackstone introduced herself as an “old woman with a love of the surreal.” Her energy is palpable; with the soft delicacy in her photos, she comes across as an old soul that sees through young eyes. She is self taught and lives in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, She discovered the Petzval Lens in 2014.
There’s nothing like the feeling of stumbling upon something and realizing how special it is. Mel Brackstone is a self-proclaimed amateur who shoots for the love of photography. She has developed a style all her own, following her eye and making art from her surroundings. She started with her Petzval 85 shooting botanical photos while caring for her aged mother. The time she eked out immersed in nature, watching flowers and catching their silhouettes in careful composition, shows her zest for life and art. She found the Petzval 85 Art Lens and has used it with a confidence many a professional photographer would envy.
Please tell us about how you started taking photographs?
I started taking photographs of my carnivorous plants, I wanted to capture macro shots. Once I realized shooting macro wasn’t quite so simple a thing, and expensive, with learning how to use a film SLR, I managed to get a hold of a Canon G2 camera, which set me off on a faster learning curve. Digital is so simple, and I was able to learn by doing, rather than taking notes and hoping to remember what I’d done by the time the film came back.
I have very little art or photography knowledge, and tend to stay away from mainstream media, so that left me working in a bit of a vacuum. I joined an online camera club in 2003 where I was able to get critique on my works, and the monthly competitions started me working even harder. I was slowed down by the compact camera, and after another compact (Canon Powershot Pro1) I bought a Canon 20D the day they were released here in Australia. With it, I ordered a 15mm fisheye, and a 28 – 135mm lens. I was still letting the camera do most of the work, so not learning much about shutter speeds or apertures, until I bought a Lensbaby 2.0 in 2005. That forced me to put the camera into Aperture mode, and meant it needed much more input from me. A revelation! My learning curve with the manual lens continued apace, meanwhile I’d also begun to practice with infrared, since the G2 was a perfect little camera for that.
I only recently learned about Petzval lenses when I started to dabble in Wet Plate Collodion photography. The swirly bokeh was intriguing, and when I found I could buy a Petzval that fit on my DSLR, I was stoked.
Who are the artists, photographers, public figures, or loved ones who inspire you?
In the last couple of years I’ve discovered Julia Margaret Cameron’s work, and I have to say I love it. I’ve also gotten to know of Susan Burnstine and Susan de Witt, and so I’d say that they’re my heroes these days. Otherwise I was just finding my own way with equipment and inspiration. I love moody, atmospheric, surreal images….and the Petzval helps me attain those.
What was shooting with the Petzval like?
The first few images were taken in my garden, the botanical gardens nearby, and then in Tasmania, where the light is softer, and the rain is pretty constant.
Occasionally I also use my Canon 5D Mk II infrared converted camera with the Petzval Art lens. I had the camera converted so that I use Live View for focus, which can be a challenge out in the sun. I love shallow depth of field, and the bokeh that you get with a wide open lens, and the Petzval Art lens bokeh is beautiful!
I shoot wide open, all the time. I find the aperture disks troublesome, and I lost one the first time I used it, because it fell out as I was wandering around the botanical gardens with my camera hanging from my hand. I have occasionally used them again, but now I carry them attached to a key ring on the Petzval strap that came with the lens. One end is attached to the lens, and one end attached to me. Needless to say, I mostly shoot without them. My Sony A7R brought me a bit of grief with the Petzval, since the lens wouldn’t work with the metabones adapter, unless I was using the extension tube. Eventually I bought a different adapter, a FotodioX Vizelex ND Throttle adapter, which helped me keep that aperture wide, and let me use the lens without the extension tube. It’s also very handy when I’m shooting in the studio with lights. Because the built-in neutral density filter is variable, I can use it in very bright light and not have to worry about blowing out the images. With trial and error I’m starting to hit my straps with the lens in the studio with lights, and the Sony. Since I also like movement, there’s been a bit of hit and miss when it comes to catching focus, and since I’m shooting wide open, that also adds to the fun.
Outside of the back-and-forth finding a suitable adapter to use with the Petzval Lens, what were its pros and cons?
Pros of the Petzval Lens: Bokeh, mood, simplicity, cool brass lens
Cons: Losing the aperture disks, having to cover the Waterhouse slot in wet weather.
If you could take the Petzval Lens to shoot anything or anyone, what would that subject be?
I’m happy to just be able to stand up for more than half an hour to take some shots these days, so anything that takes my fancy in that limited time frame is a bonus. I’ve been lucky to have had some fabulous models come to my studio in the past month, and we’ve had a ball.
Not only are you self-taught, but you also can speak about your life and work organically and eloquently. Any words of advice for other photographers?
I had to stop being so concerned with focus and loosen up a bit… Lensbaby started me on that track, Petzval is keeping me on that track. I even have my own hand made lens that gives me very soft and beautiful images. They don’t appeal to everyone, but I don’t let that concern me. All it has to do is appeal to me. Most important thing to consider is the fact that the lens doesn’t communicate with the camera, so you’re left to your own devices, and that can be either liberating, or incredibly difficult. So many of my friends have bought a manual lens after seeing my work, and 90% of them have put that lens away after a couple of days, and never looked at it again….. I suspect that’s always going to happen, though….