I am 37 years young and old enough to know that life is an endless cycle. What is hip one day becomes obsolete the next to only emerge back sometime later as vintage. In this episode, I want to present you a lens which gave the birth of practical photography in 1839. Lomography brought it back to life in April 2016: The Daguerreotype Achromat 64mm f2.9 Art lens.
When I published History of Photography (simplified), I mentioned the French, Louis Daguerre, as one of the inventors of modern photography. His discovery on reducing the exposure time from hours to minutes thanks to mercury vapour was a revolution and lead to the first photograph of people in 1838 (a shoeshine boy and his customer in a street of Paris).
The photographic process is nothing without a lens. Charles Chevalier came from an optic manufacturing family. His fascination for Daguerreotype (the camera following Daguerre’s concepts) and his relationship with Niepce (inventor of the chemical process to capture an image onto a medium ) and Daguerre lead him to be commissioned to produce a lens specifically for the Daguerre-Giroux cameras. His lens was achromatic (also know as an achromat) designed to limit the effect of chromatic and spherical aberration.
In 1982, General Igor Petrowitsch Kornitzky, right-hand man to the USSR Minister of Defense and Industry, slammed a little Japanese compact camera called the Cosina CX-1 onto the desk of his comrade, Michail Panfilowitsch Panfiloff. Panfiloff, who was the Director of the powerful LOMO Russian Arms and Optical factory, carefully examined the item, observing its sharp glass lens, extremely high light sensitivity and robust casing. Realising its potential, the two gentlemen gave orders to the LOMO PLC factory in St. Petersburg, Russia, to create an improved version of the Cosina CX-1 – and the first working sample of the LOMO LC-A was born. Little did they know then how much this camera would be praised for years to come. Even 14 years later, when the Russian manufacturers decided to stop its production, the fans across borders, successfully convinced the decision makers at the factory and the then-Vice Mayor (Vladimir Putin) to keep it going.
Since then, Lomo has become Lomography and faithful to its 10 Golden Rule commandment, has been producing lenses and camera equipment that transpose and ignite photographic creativity. In April 2016, they successfully crowdfunded, in just four hours, their project to revamp the Daguerreotype achromat lens designed originally by Charles Chevalier nearly 200 years earlier. This time, the lens would not be specific to a camera but nearly compatible with all.
The Lens design
The lens is beautifully made of brass and comes in two colours: natural golden brass or black. I, like many, prefer the vintage look of the brass. It is a relatively heavy lens with its 689g. Unlike Canon standard lens, this lens comes its lens hood, also made of brass.
It has four engravings which I find add some character to the vintage design:
- A racehorse on the cap, a nice reference to Muybridge experiment in 1878.
- A reference to Chevalier in the middle of the body
- A distance scale
- The Lomography signature
It achromatic design makes is a very simple lens with two elements in 1 group.
Focal length & Aperture
This achromat has a fix focal length of 64mm with a maximum aperture of f2.9. The aperture system consists of the 10 Waterhouse aperture plates (6 standard & 4 creative):
This art lens accepts filters, and eight can be purchased from the Lomography store. From Circular Polariser, ND filter to colour filters. Given the small filter diameter of 40.5mm, these filters are very affordable (around £10 each).
Focus or out of focus that is the question
This topic deserves its own chapter! The Lomography Daguerreotype Achromat uses an helicoid focusing mechanism which means the lens expands when focused at close range. The minimum focusing distance of 0.5m is en par with a 50mm lens which usually is 0.45m. This lens is fully manual and given the absence of electronic contacts at its rear; you do not get any focusing confirmation. Therefore this lens does require some getting-used-to especially for the spoiled photographers like me who rely on the top of the range modern DSLR and Canon L lenses.
To increase your chance of sharp focussed images, you can do the following:
- Turn off the focus points display in the viewfinder. This will give you a clearer image to set your focus manually
- Focus bracket by setting the focus not only where you think it should be but also slightly before and after
Here are the photographs I captured during the recording of the video to show the effect of the aperture plates. These were obtained with the camera on a sturdy tripod and the camera set on aperture priority mode. These images have not been retouched.
Here are some of the photographs I have captured while hand holding the camera:
The Daguerreotype Achromat is not limited to portraiture. One can obviously use it for capturing some compelling landscape. Here is my attempt truly outside my comfort zone:
The Daguerreotype Achromat by Lomography has a solid built. The natural brass looks amazing although it seems more sensitive to scratches than other lenses. The focus mechanism has some friction and I prefer one that is smoother and ease the back and forth movement to set the focus right manually. I found that shooting with the Achromat was a challenge. The absence of automatic focus or focus confirmation made shooting with the Achromat a challenge for me. I struggle to get a good focus when my subject is more than 3 meters away or when I use an aperture plate wider than 5.6.
That being said, I really enjoyed playing with this achromatic lens for the past 2 months. The images produced by this lens do have a unique feel which cannot be achieved using a modern lens. The Daguerreotype Achromat is made for slow pace shooters who value more the mood of an image than the absolute sharpness in the blink of an eye. This is a sharp lens nonetheless. A sharp lens with a soft touch.