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Dale Wilson 1851 ambrotype antique Canada collodion dale wilson historical photo processes lens pictureology studio equipment tintype wetplate

The lens is the most important piece of equipment one needs to purchase, even more so than the camera. Typically the better quality the lens, the better quality the final image.

Without doubt the beginning photographer has browsed every online forum that could be found, and kicked-tires on EBay looking for the coveted Dallmeyer, Darlot or Voigtlander, and observed prices that  are worthy of a holiday in the tropics. It would seem the shinier the brass, the higher the cost.

a Darlot petzval lens from 1862 

You have also seen words attached to those lenses that seem a foreign language: petzval, rectilinear and asymmetric. Most all of these strange monikers apply, in one way or another, to the manner and fashion of the glass design. Just like the automobile, there are as many lenses as there are cars.   

Also like purchasing a new car, one should first do their research. There are a few basic guidelines that will steer the new buyer in the correct direction. First, it is best to determine whether the majority of your photography will be landscape or portrait work. Portrait lenses (petzval designs seem to be most popular) tend to be faster and with waterhouse stops –for increasing depth of field- can be used for landscape work. Landscape lenses (rectilinear) tend to be much slower (f6.5 and slower is a common starting point) and make it difficult to use with portraiture due to the longer exposure times to achieve a correct exposure.

However, with all that having been said, let’s again look at the objective: to acquire starter equipment to learn the process. We are not yet ready to create art. Consequently, I would humbly suggest to the purists that at this juncture a nice shiny 19th century $2000-plus lens is not necessary. Why not look at a mid-20th century lens that offers both light gathering capacity, sharpness, built in aperture and a sensitivity to budget.

A great lens to consider is the f4.5 Zeiss Tessar.  It ain’t big shiny brass, but it will look awfully fine sitting in front of an entry level camera. More importantly, it will perform well in portrait and landscape work and generate nice crisp images.  Creating the art is up to the photographer, but this lens will serve you in good stead.

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  • Dale Wilson on

    Hi Wayne, Feel free to send me an email and we can connect. I am in Halifax, and would be delighted to provide any assistance I can.

  • Wayne Simon on

    Hello. If I wanted to try the Wet Plate process in Nova Scotia where would I purchase supplies? I just purchased a Crown Graphic and thought I might give wet plate a try. I have not been in a darkroom or developed film since the 70’s in high school when I worked on the yearbook in Toronto. God, the 70’s ! Seems like the dark ages now…lol.


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