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Kickstarting: An Elegant 19th-Century Lens That Syncs With Any Modern Camera

Lomography wants to bring back the Petzval lens, a pioneering piece of hardware for commercial photography.

Consider the darlings of the camera market. Between the Lytro camera and its newer app, and the forthcoming Instagram camera (or just Instagram itself), we really put a lot of effort into making digital photographs look soft and analog. It’s easy to forget that those charming inaccuracies used to happen naturally, simply because of the early mechanics of photography.

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Analog photography, in its original form, began in 1839 when the Giroux Daguerrotype was introduced. The first commercial camera was a wooden box housed within a larger sliding wooden box that the photographer would adjust for focus. But these models had such limited aperture that it took 10 minutes of sunlight to get a properly exposed photograph. That might work for a still life or a landscape, but it compromised portrait photography, since virtually no one can sit perfectly still for that length of time.

So when a math professor at the University of Vienna came out with a lens that could take a photo 20 times faster, it was a game-changer. With the Petzval lens, portraits were a cinch. And their quality isn’t too far off from plenty of today’s head shots, but the key characteristic is a blurred, swirling background–something described as a “bokeh” effect.

Today, of course, the marketplace for cameras is a fascinating and fragmented cornucopia of hardware, software, apps, and so on. So it’s curious that the team at Lomography, the Vienna-based company that champions analog photography, is trying to Kickstart back to a 200-year-old lens.

“The main goal was to maintain the bokeh effect that lets everything out of focus swirl away,” says Christian Polt, Lomography’s head of international marketing. To get a quality glass lens with some heft, the team tapped Zenit, the Russian camera company known for its high-contrast capabilities.

The Petzval promises to deliver the satisfaction of old-school optics with digital images. And while we’ve seen the convenience crop up in other models (the Lytro being a notable example), for anyone whose style sensibilities don’t run in tandem with the Nike FuelBand, there’s been a lack of attractive options. The Petzval is a beautiful piece of gold hardware that can snap onto a standard Nikon or Canon SLR digital model, sprucing it up without any plasticky gimmicks. And with well over $1 million in Kickstarter pledges for a $100,000 goal, it seems SLR owners would agree.

Lomography expects to ship the Petzval in February 2014. Backers can snag one now for $400, here.

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About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.

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