Daguerre announced his process to the world on August 19, 1839. The original Daguerre & Giroux Camera utilized a lens designed and manufactured by Charles Chevalier, celebrated microscope maker and son of Vincent Chevalier who founded their optical business in France.
The Chevalier 15-inch telescope objective* was comprised of a cemented doublet and was achromatic. The lens, which covered a whole plate, had a working aperture of f/15, and suffered from considerable spherical abberations. The slow, small aperture, combined with the extremely low sensitivity of the original materials, meant even in bright sunlight, exposures could run 10 minutes or more. This only allowed for fixed objects to be reproduced "faithfully" and prevented the ability to capture the human likeness with any ease.
* Some sources list the lens as 16 inch and f/16, while others (GE House) list 15 inch and f/15
The significance of Daguerre's process and how important being able to apply it to capturing people's likenesses was immediately apparent to the scientific community. In fact, once the immediate novelty of the process had been fully explored by 1840, it was the commercial aspect of taking "Sun Portraits" that started a race among opticians, telescope and microscope makers, and other scientists to design a faster lens to allow for faster exposures and enable portrait work. Concurrently, chemists and scientists worked on improving the sensitivity of the plate to also aid in reducing exposure times.
Within short order, in 1840, Charles Chevalier and Joseph Petzval each came up with their own, faster, lens designs.
Charles Chevalier's Design of 1840
Chevalier designed a lens he called the, "Photographe a Verres Combine."
He combined two cemented achromats that brought speeds down to about f/5.6 for portrait work, and, as a bonus, the lens could be converted for use as a landscape lens.
The issue with Chevalier's design was that it suffered from a lack of overall sharpness. Over the years, Chevalier made slight improvements to the lens and frequently advertised that Fox Talbot was a user and fan of the lens. Chevalier sold this lens for sale for over twenty years ( as late as 1863 ), despite its lack of commercial popularity.
Advertisement of Chevalier's "PVC" Lens from the catalogue, Instruments Pour La Photographie by Arthur Chevalier (Paris) 1863
It should be noted that in May of 1842, the Society of Encouragement evaluated Chevalier's lens and Petzval's lens (discussed below). Accounts of the judges decision was that Chevalier's dual purpose lens was a more significant achievement than Petzval's design. History would prove them very wrong.
An example from Westlicht Auctions
Joseph Petzval's Design of 1840
While Chevalier was presenting his design to the world, Joseph Petzval, a Professor of Mathematics at Vienna University, came up with a lens design that provided for speeds of f/3.6 and had superb sharpness in the center of the image. This design was some twenty times faster than the original Chevalier lens, and about a stop and a half faster than Chevalier's f/5.6 Photographe a Verres Combine lens. The speed and performance of Petzval's design was nearly perfect for the purpose and literally gave birth to commercial photography, which started with the taking of portraits.
The design was an instant success and due to a lack of patent protection, was quickly copied the world over. The firm of Voigtlander & Sons, who worked closely with Petzval at the time, was the first manufacturer of the Petzval designed lens and was instantly rewarded with international success and a reputation for producing the finest lenses.
From A Dictionary of Photography By Thomas Sutton, John Worden 1858 (London):
"PETZVAL'S PORTRAIT COMBINATION. The object of this instrument is to obtain an image well defined in its principal parts, when a large volume of light is admitted. In taking a portrait it is evident that the time of exposure should be reduced as much as possible, because after remaining in a constrained position for a long time the features of the sitter betray an expression of the discomfort felt. A lens of large aperture must therefore be employed in portraiture, so long as photographic processes remain in their present state of insensitiveness. As soon however as the chemist shall discover the means of rendering these processes more sensitive, the optician will be released in a corresponding degree from the necessity of constructing lenses of large aperture, and the defects to which such lenses are liable, and which admit of no remedy, will be avoided by using smaller apertures.
The portrait combination of Professor Petzval is that which has been generally adopted by opticians, and the arrangement of the lenses is...... The front lens A is a compound lens, exactly like the common view-lens, but placed with its convex side to the objects. It is achromatic, but not entirely aplanatic; this defect being remedied by the posterior lens. The posterior lens is composed of two lenses B & C separated by a small space; that next the front lens is of flint glass, convexo-concave, and divergent, being thinner in the middle than at the edges ; the other is biconvex, and of crown glass, being placed with its most convex side next to the concavity of the flint, as shown in the figure."
Illustration from Optics : Light and Sight. By Edward Nugent (London) 1870.
Optical Signature of a Petzval Lens
The optical signature of the Petzval Portrait lens is crisp central sharpness over a very narrow field (about 15 degrees) with significant curvature of field and vignetting. These design "defects" provided added benefit to the portrait images they produced as the progressive vignetting tended to help focus the viewers attention on the crisp, central image of the plate.
Today, Petzval lenses have come into vogue by users who have come to appreciate the optical effects of the design. Modern users tend to emphasize the design's defects, especially by shooting close up and with lenses of too little coverage, creating images that are unique and display ample amounts of Bokeh. There is a certain mystery to how any older lens will shoot and it appears the Petzval design is currently being explored by many. Here are few distinctive Petzval images found on the web. Example one and two. Here is a very useful series of images taken with Petzval lenses at varying apertures. A new site that is featuring Petzval images is here.
Petzval's design was referred to and advertised under many different names. Some of these include:
Petzval's Portrait Combination
Petzval's Portrait Objective
Compound Achromatic Lenses
Double Combination of Achromatic Lenses
Cut Away of a Petzval Lens made by Suter c. 1866
Early Makers & Dealers of Petzval type Portrait Lenses
Voigtlander (Austria/Germany); Ross (UK); Lerebours & Secretan (France); Horne & Thornthwaite (UK); Grubb (Ireland); Fitz (US); CC Harrison (US); Roach (US), Chapman (US) and possibly Lewis (US).
In the 1840's and most of the 1850's, Voigtlander dominated portrait lens sales both in Europe and, via import, the United States. The Voigtlander lens was generally considered the best available although each country had its own premier maker. Lerebours of France and Ross of England were also very well respected lens makers early on. In the United States in the 1840's, most lenses were made by telescope and microscope makers like John Roach and Henry Fitz, but it was Charles C. Harrison who rose to prominence by 1850. Harrison is considered the first American maker focused entirely on producing photographic objectives. In fact, within a few years, Harrison lenses gained national recognition and were considered excellent performers at a much more modest price than the imports.
Advertisement from "A Treatise on Daguerreotype..." by Levi Hill, NY, 1850; which shows the price differential between American made lenses ( with American glass ), American made lenses with German glass, and Voigtlander's lenses.
By the late 1850's the worldwide portrait lens market greatly expanded with newer makers and even more numerous dealers. Many dealers purchased unmarked lenses from makers and relabeled them or sold them as their own.
Portrait Lens Categories and Period Advertisements
1880's Mammoth-Sized Albumen Print of a Photographer
Sellers typically categorized their product lines by lens speed. Each seller had their own marketing terms, but the lenses were commonly offered in three varying speeds.
The basic portrait lens was usually advertised as, "Quick" or "Rapid." These lenses tended to be about f/4 in speed from most manufacturers. These lenses had more modest specifications and, correspondingly, more moderate prices.
The premier portrait lens was typically called "Extra-quick" or a "Superior" lens. These were faster lenses, typically about f/3 in speed, and correspondingly, were much more expensive and were physically much larger lenses.
The last type were called, "Group" Portrait Lenses, which tended to be about f/6 in speed. The smaller aperture provided greater depth of field and more uniform sharpness across the field in order to photograph "groups" of people.
Some Period Petzval Lens advertisements...
A Guide to Photography by Horne Thornthwaite and Wood 1845 (UK)
EHT Anthony 1854 Catalogue
1854 J.J. Griffin's Catalogue of Photographic Apparatus (UK)
Practical photography, on glass and paper By Charles Long 1856 (UK)
Instruments Pour La Photographie by Arthur Chevalier (Paris) 1863
Dry Plate Photography.... By John Towler London/NY 1865
Practical photography, on glass and paper. By Charles Long 1864 (UK)
The Photographic Times 1881
1890 Benjamin French & Co. Catalogue (US)
1890 Benjamin French & Co. Catalogue (US)
1904 Kodak London Catalogue (UK)
1904 Kodak London Catalogue (UK)
Photographic Optics: A Text Book for the Professional and Amateur By WK Burton 1891 (US)
How to Make Photographs..... By Scovill & Adams Co., New York 1892
1891 Anthony Catalogue
The fact that Petzval lenses have large apertures and typically provide coverage of many inches, requires them, by the laws of optics and physics, to be physically large objects. And, since glass objectives were mounted in brass barrels, Petzval Lenses also tend to be quite heavy.
As soon as competition between lens makers began to heat up in the late 1840's, six inch diameter lenses were often touted in photographic journals. By the mid 1850's, makers such as Voigtlander and Harrison were manufacturing nine, and shortly thereafter, twelve inch diameter lenses. All of this, of course, was done for bragging rights, since the physical dimensions and weight of a twelve inch diameter lens would be so massive, just mounting it to a camera would have been hugely problematic, never mind other logistical issues with such a lens. A typical whole plate lens might physically be 20 inches in total length, 5.5 inches in overall diameter and weigh 15 or more pounds.
Below are two examples of some larger Petzvals.
Image Courtesy of Randy Cole
The lens above is an 1863 Voigtlander Petzval Portrait Lens of 16 inch focus and an aperture of f/3.7. This would have covered an 11x14 inch plate. Next to it is a lens and shutter of more modest specifications, circa 1920.
Also notice the retaining ring (flange) is clipped at one edge. There is usually one of two reasons for this - either the lens is part of a stereo pair and the flange needs to be clipped where it intersects with the other lens' flange. The other reason - and most likely in the case above, the lens ring was so large in diameter, it would commonly block some feature on the front of the camera, or overhang, so it was frequently clipped.
This massive lens sold for $ 1,027 USD February 2008 on ebay.com.
Image & text Courtesy of Mr. Sol Hadef of 'The Rangefinder Montreal'
The Holmes, Booth & Haydens lens above, is also marked "Patented June 7th, 1859." Serial No. 6022.
"The Lens is almost 22" long including the shade. The diameter of the front element is 6". The diameter of the rear element is 7". The Lens weighs 23 lbs and has a focal length of 22.5". Please note that all measurements given are approximate. "
This massive lens sold for $ 3,300 USD January 2008 on ebay.
The vast majority of lenses from the 1840-1855 period had no aperture controls. They were meant to be used wide open and didn't provide any means to stop the lens down. There were a few rare exceptions during that period. In those cases, the front lens group was unscrewed and a stop was inserted in the barrel and the front group was then screwed back into the barrel. In the mid-1850's, there were a few individuals* who apparently came up with the idea of inserting stops in the barrel of the lens. However, it is John Waterhouse of Halifax who is commonly credited with the invention, hence the name "Waterhouse stops."
In 1857, CC Harrison and Joseph Schnitzer applied for a patent for what has become the "iris diaphram." Their patent was granted September 9, 1858; patent number 21,470. To this day, the same basic concept is utilized in almost all photographic lenses as Harrison patented. Harrison's main competitor in America, Holmes, Booth and Haydens, would also patent a form of an adjustable diaphragm on June 7, 1859; patent number 24,356.
It would take some time for the iris diaphragm to become commonplace since Waterhouse stops were simple to manufacture, inexpensive and did their job quite effectively. While the iris diaphragm eliminated the need to carry stops of varying sizes around, the complexity of manufacture and related expense would delay its general popularity until the late 1870's. From that point forward, most makers in Europe and the US, would offer their lenses with either Waterhouse stops or with the more expensive iris diaphragm.
Its important to note that since Waterhouse stops only needed a slit cut in the barrel to perform their function, so many early lenses of the 1840-1855 period may have had their barrels cut after they were originally manufactured.
In summary, portrait lenses with a slit for Waterhouse stops typically date no early than the late 1850's. Lenses with an iris diaphragm typically date from the late 1870's on, however, there are exceptions that date back as early as 1857. Photographic lenses with no aperture control would typically have been made from the 1840's to the mid 1850's.
* Lake Price, HR Smyth, and John Waterhouse all seem to have some claim towards the invention of lens barrel stops.
Petzval portrait lenses typically featured one of three styles of construction. The first type featured a fixed length barrel with no focusing adjustment. These were typically reserved for the largest lenses where any type of focus adjustment would have been impractical and costly due the shear mass of the lens. The next type, which was the least common, featured an adjustable "slip-focus" barrel, where one half of the barrel slid inside the slightly larger other half of the barrel and was locked down by turning a screw. By far, the most common construction for Petzval lenses featured a rack-and-pinion mechanism, which allowed very fine focusing adjustments.
There were two types rack-and-pinion which collectors have termed "tangent" or "radial" drive. Tangent drive was utilized in Europe from the very first Petzval lens until it was phased out sometime in the early 1920's. Radial drive rack-and-pinion appears to have been mostly an American feature which was utilized over a short period of time - from about 1850 to the mid 1870's. By 1880, American lenses switched over to the more common tangent drive, likely to keep manufacturing costs down.
Petzval Design Variations
Cone Centralisateur Lens by Jamin
The first variation of Petzval's original design was by Jean Jamin ( and his protege, Alphonse Darlot ) in 1855. The Cone Centralisateur Lens was a Petzval Portrait lens that had its rear group mounted in a cone shaped cell. This design was to help eliminate internal reflections of the lens, which in turn reduces flare and improves contrast. The front objective could also be removed, reversed, and would replace the rear group, to convert it to a landscape lens.
The next minor Petzval variation was by John H. Dallmeyer who tweaked Petzval's original design to create his "Quick-Acting Portrait Lens," in 1860. The lens was advertised as having improved correction of spherical aberrations and an "intensity of f/3."
About 1861, Dallmeyer again tweaked the Petzval design to produce his "Extra Quick Acting Portrait Lens," which was a super fast f/2.2.
In 1866, Dallmeyer patented his most significant variation on Petzval's design, with his " "Diffusion of Focus Portrait Lens."
This lens was also called Dallmeyer's "Patent Portrait" Lens. Dallmeyer basically took the rear element group in Petzval's original design, flipped it and re-worked the lens a bit. He marketed the lens as having numerous benefits over Petzval's original design. It claimed better sharpness, reduced flare, and less distortion and vignetting. Additionally, Dallmeyer touted the feature of being able to unscrew the rear element group to introduce spherical aberration to the lens, resulting in image having varying degrees of a soft, dreamy quality. These images would also appear to have more of depth of focus ("diffusing" the focus). This feature was to endear the lens to photographers who were creating more soft focus and "artistic" work in the 1860's. In fact, this lens gave birth to intentionally made "soft focus" lenses that would become very popular in the 1880's and beyond.
Dallmeyer's "Diffusion of Focus" claim led to a firestorm within the optical and photographic communities, especially in England. The Photographic News and British Journal of Photography contained numerous accounts and bitter exchanges between Dallmeyer and challengers to, what they felt, was an erroneous claim that defied the laws of optics.
Here is one account from London's, The Photographic News from May 2, 1884:
"In the year 1866, the late Mr. J. H. Dallmeyer patented a variation of the Petzval lens. This variation consisted in reversing the elements of the back combination with such a modification of the curves as this change involves. The particular advantage claimed at the time for this form of lens has since been abandoned. The putting of the negative lens at the back allowed its distance from the positive element to be varied, and thus the perfection of its correction for spherical aberration to be modified. It was stated that by altering the distance of the back lens, so as to re-introduce spherical aberration, and sacrifice definition at the focus, improved definition was obtained upon the planes not in focus. This claimó" diffusion of focus" it was calledówas shown to be mistaken, and is no longer made. The lens, however, when employed with the element in the position of best definition, is a useful one, other well-known opticians have for some time past issued a series of lenses of this form. In this case, however, the back lenses are burnished together into their cell, and no shifting or alteration of their position is possible. While on the subject of "diffusion" or "depth "of focus it may be remarked that a delusion on this point is cherished by a vast number of photographers. For this the manufacturing opticians are somewhat to blame. They have been in the habit of advertising lenses as having great "depth of focus," whereas that is a quality that, except as attained by the use of a small aperture or diaphragm involving slowness of action, does not exist at all. Still many photographers -careful, practical men, too, some of themówill tell you that they have, or have had, some particular portrait lens that will give the various parts of a sitter's head, through the background behind him, and generally objects on different planes, with sharper definition than other lenses of similar aperture and focus, that have as fine, or finer definition on any one plane. This is a curious case of mistaken observation; but in photography, unfortunately, mistaken observations may pass current as scientific facts."
Dallmeyer 1866 Design
Original Petzval Design
In the book, Photographic Optics: A Text Book for the Professional and Amateur By William Kinninmond Burton 1891 (NY), also discusses the issue:
"An arrangement whereby spherical aberration could be produced at will in a lens was, I believe, first suggested by my esteemed friend, J. Traill Taylor, and the idea was first put into practice by the famous optician Dallmeyer. It is said of a which it is possible to produce spherical aberration at will that it possesses a diffusion of focus arrangement. Such an arrangement is of lens in use only in the cases where it is not possible to get of focus by the introduction of a small stop, as in the case of portrait lenses, where the small stop would, in certain circumstances, depth prolong the exposure to too great an extent. The dispute diffusion of focus is as to whether it does or does not actually increase depth of focus. It does not actually make any part of an about image sharper; on the contrary, it makes every part less therefore, say some, produces no increase in the depth of focus. The opponents of these, on the other hand, argue that as there is sharp; it no actual depth of focus, as the whole question is one of definition as judged by the eye, an arrangement which makes the definition of objects at different distances apparently more equal does actually increase the depth of focus. The question is in reality purely one of terms, and where the terms cannot be strictly defined it is idle to argue one way or the other. I leave the reader free to take what view of the question he likes, a thing which he would probably do whether he were left free or not."
In the 1884 advertisement below, the final paragraph claims that by unscrewing the rear cell, the lens produces "...the impression of a general distribution or depth of focus; and this is in proportion to the amount of unscrewing."
Dallmeyer Patent Portrait A
Dallmeyer Patent Portrait D
Dallmeyer Patent Portrait B
Voigtlander Petzval 7B. Image Courtesy of Eddie Gunks
The next Petzval variation was in 1878 by Voigtlander. This design basically eliminated the air space in the rear group of Petzval's original design. Removing the air space was to help improve contrast and reduce flare, over Petzval's original design, but from actual accounts, the improvements appeared minimal and the lens wasnt quite as sharp as other Petzval lenses.
Hermann Wilhelm Vogel wrote in his book, The Progress of Photography Since the Year 1879;
"Voigtlander's new Portrait Lens.óThis has a front combination similar to the old Petzval. But the back combination consists of two single lenses cemented, by which the reflection of light occurring in the old form with separated lenses is avoided. The focus of these lenses is relatively shorter than that of the old form with similar opening. For instance, Voigtlander's C lens, by substituting the new back combination, has its focus shortened from 10 inches to 7 1/2 inches, thus increasing the illumination in the proportion 9:16. The new back combinations may be bought separately, so as to be used with any lenses by the same maker. We thus have the power to shorten or lengthen the focus, and correspondingly increase or lessen the light at will, by using the new form of back combination."
The Beginning of the End
By the 1880's, there were many more choices for portrait work available, including Steinheil's Portrait Antiplanet lenses which featured much better correction, as well as the Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear ( and Steinheil Aplanat ) design, which would come to dominate the 1900-1920 period. While Petzval Portrait lenses would continue to be sold for decades more, the slow decline of its sales had begun by 1900. However, Dallmeyer's Patent Portrait did continue to appear in catalogues even after WWII with the option of "Dallcoating."
The Petzval lens is a cornerstone of photographic optics and it is estimated over 90% of all images taken previous to 1880 were taken with a Petzval designed lens.
Antique Lens Serial Numbers
CC Harrison Founded 1849
Holmes, Booth & Haydens** Founded 1853
Dallmeyer Founded 1860
**Holmes, Booth & Haydens serial numbers are currently be charted here.