“Who the hell actually buys this thing?”
That’s what I’m asking myself as I struggle through my first day shooting Lomography’s Achromat lens. I silently curse the spirit of Charles Chevalier for this new copy of his nearly two-hundred-year-old invention, ignoring that his genius was responsible for helping invent photography as we know it.
I roll my eyes as I fish through my pockets for an aperture that works. I grit my teeth as I cycle through shutter speeds until the exposure looks acceptable. Later, while editing, I will fall to my knees and weep as I realize that a potentially incredible portrait was ruined by my poor focusing, not helped by the cumbersome functionality of the lens.
Now I know why we imagine what it’d be like to take technology back in time, and not bring old stuff the other direction. Sure, send me back to Waterloo with a tank. That seems much safer than fighting through Normandy with a flintlock.
But my resentment of the lens didn’t last forever, and eventually I figured it out. Getting there, well, that took some effort. But before we get too deep, what the hell is this strange, brass relic made for modern digital cameras?
Lomography’s Daguerreotype Achromat Art Lens is a 64mm f/2.9 lens with two elements in one group and comes in Canon EF, Nikon F and Pentax K lens mounts without electronic contacts. It comes in three finishes: brass, black, and damage-resistant chrome. For this review, I used the brass version on a Canon 6D.
The original Achromat lens was created in 1839 (when flintlocks were still in use, by the way), and was designed to work with the Daguerreotype camera that had been created earlier that year. More than 175 years later, Lomography announced their Kickstarter Campaign to reproduce Chevalier’s lens for use on modern film and digital cameras.
Whether it’s with plastic toy and instant cameras, quirky repackaged film, or reclaimed Russian glass, Lomography has built its reputation around intuition and style rather than technical prowess. With the Achromat, they’ve struck a balance; a lens that requires extra work and knowledge of fundamental processes, but also creates out-of-time results that can remind us why we photograph in the first place.
There’s nothing normal about the Achromat, and it’s truly the weirdest piece of glass I’ve ever used. It’s amazing and frustrating, requiring both patience and impetuosity, the precision of a German and the romanticism of a Frenchman. It makes every type of photography more difficult, but is capable of delivering stunning and truly unique results if we just learn how to use it.
It also makes a statement before we even get it out of the box. There’s something to be said for well-designed packaging and Lomography nails it here. The cover features a gorgeous portrait with gold lettering embossed across a sturdy box. Inside this luxuriant box is a lens case and two booklets, one is small and instructional and the other highlights the lens’ optical possibilities. Once we get to the lens, it’s no surprise that so much thought was put into its packaging.
In the hand the lens feels rather excellent. Pulling it from the packaging it seemed like I was handling an artifact stolen from the archives of a museum. It’s well made, sturdy, and I imagine less sensitive to the vagaries of the modern world than Chevalier’s was. The lens cap has an engraving of a man on a horse, which seems like a reference to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion picture from 1878. All in all, it looks very much like an antique, one that’d be equally suited to sitting behind glass as it might be mounted on a camera.
But spend more than two seconds looking at it, and you’re sure to notice some strange details, such as the small slotted opening near the front of the lens, and the complete lack of an aperture ring. Though you may not know it at first, these peculiarities point to the lens’ most notable and unique feature.
The Achromat uses the Waterhouse aperture system, by which the photographer inserts small metal plates with different apertures in front of the glass element. The plates have an aperture range from f/16 to f/2.9. Lomography also offers two additional sets of plates with different shapes and sizes. These give unique and artistic effects to out-of-focus areas of the image.
In use, the lens is an interesting mix of methodical and spontaneous. The real novelty of the Achromat is the simple ability to use a 19th century lens design on a digital camera, and on digital cameras is where this lens works best. Even on my DSLR, things aren’t simple. The Waterhouse system naturally precludes electronic communication of aperture settings between lens and camera. So when the lens is attached to my 6D, the camera reads f/00 regardless of whether aperture plates are inserted or not. And since the aperture rings are inserted in front of the glass, brightness becomes a real issue at minimum apertures. At f/8 there’s noticeable darkness in the viewfinder, and by f/16 it’s downright difficult to focus in poor lighting. This means that metering will need to be done off camera or exposures tweaked in live view, where I can just play around with shutter speeds until I see something I like on my screen.
Focusing is a complex issue with the Achromat, both because a chief component of its marketing is geared toward the dreamy, soft focus images it produces, and because it’s simply a difficult lens to focus. The first difficulty comes by the way the aperture system works, and second from just how painfully slowly the focus ring spins.
Were I shooting it on a film body, achieving correct exposure and accurate focus would demand a level of care that would be strange from a Lomography product, a brand whose credo seems to be less thinking and more feeling.
Image quality is interesting as well, which is unsurprising given the lens’ design brief and history. Lomography’s soft-focus marketing is spot on. The lens produces really dreamy, ethereal images, especially when shot wide open. Bokeh has that unique swirl we’ve all seen in Russian glass, and gets even more interesting when using the creative plates that can turn bokeh into stars and reduce the clarity of images to that found in watercolor paintings. Every lens is different, and like meeting a new person, the more time we spend with it the more layers of personality we uncover. Just when I was getting the hang of the lens, I shot into the sun and produced an unexpected light ring surrounding the subject. It likely has more tricks up its sleeve that only time will reveal. Some may even be pleasant.
But taking a photo with the Achromat is undeniably a process. It’s a string of decisions that begins with choosing the aperture plates, slowly focusing the image, shuffling through shutter speeds, and reviewing the live view on screen to make sure our settings are correct. Film shooters are accustomed to a longer process, but it admittedly feels more frustrating when we’re holding a DSLR whose purpose is expediency.
Often I found that I skipped or messed up one of the many steps. That weeping over a lost opportunity I mentioned earlier? I was only able to shoot that subject for a few minutes, and I really felt like I’d nailed a gorgeous shot with it. Even while shooting I thought “Oh, these are really good.” Later that evening, I had to admit that the focus was way off, even for the softest lens in the world. I’ve included it in the photo samples here, where it will always remain a mental reminder to double and triple check my images before wrapping a shoot.
Lomography claims that the Achromat is capable of razor sharp images, but I haven’t seen too much evidence to back that up. The best results I achieved for sharpness came when the camera was on a tripod in the studio.
It’s in this environment that the steps of using the Achromat don’t just feel easier to perform, they feel natural. By posing the subject, adjusting the light, choosing the plate, putting it in the lens and straining to find focus, I felt a connection to the essence of photography. Photographers were performing these steps in the beginning; they have done it since, and we continue to do it today. When we take a photo that makes us stop and smile, we’re touching the absolute base motivation anyone has ever had for taking a picture since 1839. By doing that with the Achromat, we’re getting a closer approximation to what photography was like for the OGs like Chavalier.
When I wondered who would buy this lens during my first day of shooting, I was out of touch with that motivation. To get back to it, I had to struggle with the Achromat. I had to roll my eyes about aperture plates, the slow focusing, and the goofy focal length. It wasn’t until revisiting the images, specifically the portraits, that I appreciated all those steps, and even some of my missteps. I was far from being enthused about these photos when I was taking them, but looking at them now has me feeling almost wistful.
Expectation at times feeds frustration, but hard work and patience are the tools of success. The flintlock knew that, and so does the Achromat. For those who are willing to work for it, this lens will reward shooters with a unique experience and unique images every time.
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I feel it might have been easier to use, if Lomography had opted for the rack and pinion focussing, that they employ on the Petzval 58.