Lomography’s Petzval Lens: A Bold New Breakthrough from 1840

A 19th-century Austrian inventor has a Kickstarter hit on his hands.

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Bear with me for a moment: This may be just a tiny bit confusing. Lomography, a company best known for resurrecting cheap, toylike film cameras of the past, is launching a Kickstarter campaign to revive a 19th-century lens for use with 20th-century analog cameras and 21st-century digital ones.

The lens in question is known as the Petzval, and it was invented in 1840 by Joseph Petzval, a professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna. Lomography’s prototype modern Petzval looks a little less like some sort of brass kerosene lamp accessory than the original, but it’s still nothing like any other lens I’ve ever seen.

The company says it’s the perfect portrait lens — its optics produce a vignetting effect that leaves your subject in focus, surrounded by a pleasingly blurry background. The Kickstarter page includes some sample photos, taken with both vintage Petzvals and its new one. They do, indeed, look beautiful.

Lomography’s Petzval works with Canon and Nikon SLRs, and the company plans to build it in Russia. It launched its campaign this morning with a goal of $100,000 and has already passed $300,000; you have to back the project for at least $400 to get a lens. I’m only supporting it in spirit, but isn’t it cool that a guy who died in 1891 managed to design something that 21-century digital photographers look at as an exciting new innovation?