Adapting and Using a 145-Year-Old Lens for Portraiture

Many of us have a penchant for vintage lenses and cameras, but few of us have ever shot with a lens quite like this.

While I love old cameras and lenses — truly, the older the better — I've not yet owned a camera or lens from the 19th century, let alone used one. So, whenever I see a photographer restoring and adapting old equipment, I'm wholly invested in it. As someone who enjoys photography and history, seeing some of the first photographic equipment ever made is a perfect balance.

In this video, Markus Hofstätter, a film and wet plate photographer, receives a carefully restored Dallmeyer lens. This large, opulent-looking cylinder was made by John H. Dallmeyer and first sold in 1875. The lens is a 290mm f/3 Petzval-design lens, which was incredibly quick for its day. In all honesty, 290mm f/3 wouldn't be considered slow today!

Hofstätter, upon receiving this antique, had to adapt and customize both the lens and the camera he aimed to use it on, which is an intricate process you can watch in the video. He then uses the setup to take beautiful wet plate portraits. This video is fascinating from minute one and well worth your time.

If you're interested in buying vintage lenses that really redefine "vintage" when used in a photographic context, Wet Plate Dreams provided Hofstätter with this lens and they have many different, rare pieces of equipment still for sale. Some of the field cameras they have for sale I want to buy just to display!

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9 Comments

Hector Belfort's picture

Beautiful video. Mesmerising. Great to see craftsmanship being alive and well and a great demonstration of wet plate photography. Well done Markus.

Markus Hofstätter's picture

Thanks a lot Hector! I just had another wonderful wetplate shooting (video will be online next week) with Jennifer for the inspired series and looking forward to many more.

Steven Weston's picture

Luxurious contrast.

Markus Hofstätter's picture

that's the beauty of the blue sensitive wet plate. every little wrinkle and red particle of your skin gets dark/black

Steven Weston's picture

Can that be emulated using a digital sensor with a simulation formula? Maybe not the same, but close?

Markus Hofstätter's picture

You can try to use a red filter on your camera and amplify blues and darken reds during the black and white conversation. I did a fun video experiment with Mathieu Stern, where I shot a wet plate and a digital portrait. I gave him the digital version without showing the wet plate version to see how close he came in photoshop. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cr99QppxIIY

Then you would have to use a lens like that on a digital camera to get a similar look. But you needed to get the large format look with lots of modifications, like Darius https://www.instagram.com/darius.thorsen/ - he uses a focal reducer and filters. His look comes already close. But it is still very clean and will be every time the same. My chemicals get older and the older they get the more contrast the image gets.
I decide during the shoot if I underexpose the image and overdevelop it (like pushing film to get even more contrast) or if I overexpose and shorten the development to mage the skin more pleasing.
Every of my movements and techniques for the single steps create a very unique image that I can not reproduce a second time.

All this is only the "optical" side of the process. The process of creating salted collodion (takes about an hour), making Varnish (2 days), making developer (10 minutes), mixing silver bath and fixer(10 minutes each) and doing the maintenance every time after the shoot (Silver bath needs additional maintenance twice a year for some days) creates a big emotional bond to every plate. This is something I can not archive with my digital work.

Steven Weston's picture

Thanks for your detailed reply. I've has some experience with large format (4x5) but with modern lenses. I may "get into" this if I ever can have a darkroom again. In the meantime, I'll try formulating a digital recipe as well as employing various blue filters and vintage lenses.

James Van Hees's picture

Holy Sh** what stunning one of a kind images! So cool.

Markus Hofstätter's picture

Thanks you so much!