View Full Version : Civil War Era Lenses?

7-Jan-2009, 13:36
Does anyone here use lenes from the Civil War era?

Over on the lenscratch blog, theyposted some portraits shot by a photographer who they say uses 'civil war lenses'. They give the portraits a great look, but I'm wondering how much of the look acheived is in the lenses. I'm also wondering where do you even find lenses like that or even know where to begin what to look for?

Anyone know?


7-Jan-2009, 13:46
Those would be Petzval lenses. Try doing a search on "Petzval" here and over at APUG. The vignetting and swirly bokeh edges come from using a Petzval lens that's a bit short for the format--maybe 4-6" for 4x5. You can find the lenses on ebay and sometimes on this forum or over at APUG.


Ole Tjugen
7-Jan-2009, 14:23
They might also be Landscape lenses (Achromatised meniscus behind a small hole) or even "Nameless Symmetricals" (like a Rapid Rectilinear, only opposite order of elements). Or single meniscus lenses, or even Periskops, although not the double symmetrical meniscus of 1865 - there were lots of earlier forms.

But Petzvals are a lot more likely. In their heyday one would use a 12" Petzval for 4x5", which doesn't give the swirly edges that are the modern fingerprint of these lenses (pun intended).

7-Jan-2009, 14:54
Most civil war photography is not swirly so they were probably using meniscus or doublet lenses. I don't believe the petzval swirls was considered desirable even in portraiture, it was generally disguised by placing the subject in the center 20 degrees of the lens.

7-Jan-2009, 15:32
It's called artsy-pfartsy, and I'm darn tired of it.

7-Jan-2009, 15:34

Here's the location of the pictures I was refering too:


It's the pictures by Erich Hoeber that I was refering too. They're quite lovely.

Dan Fromm
7-Jan-2009, 16:36
It's called artsy-pfartsy, and I'm darn tired of it.Bill, I looked at the Hoeber shots. What he does is called lens abuse. Not my thing either, and he combines it with lighting that's not to my taste.

In the spirit of live and let live and being fully aware that disagreements between the pictorialist (ancient and modern) and f64 schools will never be settled, I think its best to let the antagonists go their sometimes different ways and be happy. If you can get the effects you want, great! And if the OP can get what he wants, great again!



Emil Schildt
7-Jan-2009, 16:40
It's called artsy-pfartsy, and I'm darn tired of it.

I don't know about the artsy-pfartsy part (not quite sure what it really means, to be sure...), but could you explain a bit?

My "problem" with these petzvals, used in this "modern" way, is, that people seems to look for the swirlyness, and tend to forget the motive...

A lens - any lens - is only a tool, and if the "effects" (hate that word, but can't find a bette one) are the sole point of using these lenses, then I agree, that the image has somewhat failed..
(If an image is praized almost only for its sharpness, then I get darn tired of it...)

However, I have seen images made - in this case - with these swirly petzvals that are quite amazing.
When the photographer knows how to use his tools, then it can work (?)

Kerik Kouklis
7-Jan-2009, 17:03
Emil, you are correct!! Boring sharp pictures are no better than boring swirly ones.

7-Jan-2009, 18:11
Yes, any effect, for the sake of the effect alone is just an excercise in technology, not what I would call a real photograph.

Nathan Potter
7-Jan-2009, 18:22
I think what some here are saying is that it's the content of the image that's most important and it needs to be connected to a larger reality. The technique needs to be relatively transparent or in many cases it can actually weaken the impact of the image if too obvious.

Look at the post of Ted Orlands work put here by QT several days ago. I think the physical techniques are pretty transparent but the wry realities conveyed are unmistakable. This is only one style but the lessons are useful for all of us no matter our style or subject matter.

Nate Potter, Austin TX.

7-Jan-2009, 21:20
Hmmm...I'm not sure what you mean by transparent vs obvious.

When I make a picture, I first get an idea in my head and then use the equipment to put that idea onto a negative (& then paper). I want to know as many techniques as I can so that I can do that. My images are limited only by what I don't understand how to acheive. You cannot put your vision onto the film unless you have the tools to do it.

I think that's different than the hobby boys who are just playing with cameras because their wives won't let them collect cars.

Jason Greenberg Motamedi
7-Jan-2009, 22:49
I use a few (Civil War Era) Petzval-type lenses for the same reason they were used in the mid19th century; they were and remain very fast. They were regularly made at f3.6, and often made at f3 and even f2.2. If you need a long fast lens, there are probably very few alternatives.

I prefer to use these lenses long, as they were designed (8" for 1/4 plate, 11" for 1/2 plate, 16" for 4/4 plate), so they don't vignette and produce the swirly bokeh, but I can see the attraction and occasionally see an image where I find it attractive.

8-Jan-2009, 18:13
You must have seen some I haven't. :)


9-Jan-2009, 09:45
I believe this is a Civil War era landscape lens, but it gives a very sharp image, however, according to Jim Galli:

Later in the next century when anastigmats were common the achromatic meniscus found favor with portrait photogs that were looking for a softer lens. Yours is restricted to probably f13 - f16 wide open which is the threshold for a sharp enough image to be passable in the 1860's. Just for fun you could remove the entire aperture mech so that you just have the empty barrel as a shade and the lens with no other restrictions. Have a look on the GG than at f5 or 6 and you'll see a very soft image. Actually there will be a sharp image but with tons of glow from the non corrections that softens it.

I can't confirm this as the lens has been sitting on that lensboard blank for 6 months now and has yet to bore a hole in it on its own .... :)