Optical innovation: how the Petzval lens revolutionised portrait photography

Mathematician, engineer and inventor Joseph Maximilian Petzval is best known for his contribution to modern photography.

He was born in 1807 in Spišská Belá, now in Slovakia, but at that time part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

The large universities of the Habsburg kingdom offered great opportunities to students and therefore many people, like Petzval, migrated to study Following his early education, Petzval moved to Budapest to study engineering at the Institutum Geometricum, where he also studied mathematics later.

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By 1837, Petzval had moved once more – to the University of Vienna, where he was appointed a professor of mathematics, teaching mechanics, ballistics, optics and acoustics as well.

It was there, in 1840, that he developed the lens that carries his name. The Petzval lens revolutionized early modern photography.

This invention had a substantial impact on the history of photography. Petzval used mathematical models for the design of his lens, reducing the exposure time by one-sixteenth.

Previous daguerreotypes required a long exposure time – between 15 and 30 minutes approximately – which was too long to result in good quality portraits.

The Petzval lens was known for delivering extreme sharpness in the centre, strong colour saturation, and a blurred effect in the out-of-focus area. Because of these characteristics, Petzval lenses were perfectly fit to produce portraits, especially when the photographer wanted the subject to be the centre of attention.

Yet Petzval’s groundbreaking work would end in disappointment for him.

Petzval collaborated with the Austrian entrepreneur and optician Peter Wilhelm Friedrich von Voigtländer, who had the right to produce Petzval’s lenses. However, by 1845, the collaboration was mired in disputes, as Voigtländer moved lens production out of Austria taking advantage of Petzval’s patent limitations.

Voigtländer produced and sold thousands of lens over the next decades, becoming known throughout Europe, as well as producing the world’s first all-metal daguerreotype camera.

Petzval also collaborated with the Austrian optics producer Dietzler, who later went bankrupt in 1862.

In 1859, the final straw for Petzval came: his home was robbed, and his drawings and manuscripts were destroyed. He gave up his research in optometrics, never having fully published his findings.

Yet his legacy does live on: Petzval’s achievements are used today in cinematography, astronomy and meteorology, and have – among others – allowed for photographing stars and galaxies.

By Zoltán Szatucsek, Hungarian National Archives and Sofie Taes, KU Leuven


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Feature image: Camera with Joseph Petzval lens, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

This blog post is a part of the Migration in the Arts and Sciences project, which explores how migration has shaped the arts, science and history of Europe.

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