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Evolution of the Photographic Lens in the 19th Century - Working constraints in lens design, Early adaptations and designs, The landscape lens, The portrait lens

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Working constraints in lens design

From the very beginning, lens makers were constrained by the properties of light and its behaviors in glass, the availability of suitable glass, and the practicalities and limitations of the manufacturing process.

The physical properties of glass cause it to bend or refract light as it passes through a lens, but in the process, it will also separate or diffract light into its component colors. A perfect photographic lens would bring all light, of all colors, from all portions of the lens into focus on a flat plane without distortion.

Aberrations are problems of focus caused by the inability of a lens to bring light from all portions of a lens into focus at the same point, or the inability to bring light of all colors to focus at the same point. Distortions are a problem of geometry caused by the inability of a lens to reproduce the exact shape of the subject even though the image may be in focus.

Various types of optical glass have different physical properties. Two or more types of glass may be used in combination to help offset, or compensate for each other’s deficiencies. Until the mid-1880s, lens makers had only two types of glass suitable for use in photographic lenses. Given the glass available, designers could not fully correct for all the aberrations.

Until very recently, practical considerations limited the shape of the surfaces that could be produced in the manufacturing process. All surfaces were either flat or curved. But, if the surface was curved, then manufacturing limitations required that it be spherical in design. In other words, the radius of curvature must be exactly the same at all points of the surface. Another surface could be flat, or could have some other radius of curvature, but all curved surfaces had to be spherical in nature.

Until the early 1890s, the necessity of spherical surfaces, together with the narrow constraints of the available glass, combined to produce a set of problems for the lens maker that could only be dealt with through compromise. Even in the best of designs, there was some residual aberration or distortion that was less controlled than would be desired.

In the late 1880s, new types of glass with a wider range of properties became available. Lens makers quickly introduced new designs that brought all forms of aberration into much better control and the modern era of photographic lenses began.

Early adaptations and designs

It is generally held that photography was “born” in September 1839 when Daguerre (France) released his process for capturing images through the action of light on a sensitive emulsion. While his work may have resulted in the first somewhat practical photographic process, experimentation had gone on for decades prior to 1839. Pinhole imagery and contact printing had been practiced for many years, and long before Daguerre’s process was perfected, it was already understood by all of the pioneers in photography that some sort of lens would be required in order to record an image properly. As it turns out, Daguerre got the credit for his breakthrough process, but the optics he used for the invention preceded him by decades.

Long before Daguerre, opticians had worked out the basic optical principles for various lenses and truly fine optical instruments, such as telescopes, had been in production for almost a century. John Dolland (England) is usually given credit for inventing the “achromatic doublet” (Figure 115) in 1754. This lens was composed of a converging crown glass element cemented to a diverging flint glass element and was used as the objective in most telescopes of the time. It would also prove to be the best starting point for almost all photographic lenses 85 years later.

To be fair, the first truly useful photographic lens was the single element meniscus lens invented by William Wollaston (England) around 1812. Prior to Daguerre, the Wollaston lens (Figure 116) was used in camera obscuras to project an image that could be viewed, or perhaps traced, by the user. Since it was already used in a near-photographic process, the single element meniscus was the obvious choice for first use in a true camera, and very early experimental images were probably recorded using this type of lens.

For photographic purposes, the meniscus lens, used at about f/16 with the convex side toward the subject, produced a relatively wide and fairly flat field of view, but not without significant and immediately apparent flaws. This single element lens suffered from many inherent limitations and its aberrations cannot be adequately controlled. Consequently, within days of its first photographic use, the meniscus design gave way to the achromatic doublet as a far better choice of lens.

The landscape lens

In September 1839, Daguerre’s camera used an achromatic doublet, a modified telescope-type objective made by Chevalier (France). In the next few weeks, Chevalier and another French maker, Lerebours et Secretin, had experimented with the optical design and stop position, and by the end of 1839, Chevalier had introduced a far better achromatic lens.

Chevalier’s redesign was slightly meniscus overall with the convex side toward the subject and an f/15 stop well forward of the lens. Given the constraints of the glass available, it was about as good as this type of lens could get. Although not quite distortion-free and with a few spherical and chromatic aberrations showing, it still performed quite well for a fairly simple and inexpensive lens. As the basic form of the achromatic doublet had been around for almost 85 years, there were few legal niceties to be observed, and Chevalier’s design was quickly copied by lens makers everywhere. In later years, these lenses were marketed as the “French landscape lens” (Figure 118) thus avoiding giving credit to any particular maker while still alluding to its design.

As the name implies, the landscape lens was generally used outdoors. At first, that was not necessarily the intended use, but given the speed of the Daguerreian process and the early working aperture of about f/16, it could hardly be used for anything else. By the end of 1840, there were other lenses more suitable for portraiture and indoor use, and the lens was quickly relegated to scenic or architectural work and was universally referred to as a view, or landscape lens. Though somewhat outdated even by the 1880s, the design remained in common use through the early 1900s.

There were few attempts to improve upon the “French” design. However, in 1857, Thomas Grubb (Scotland) modified the design, reversing the crown and flint elements, and adjusting the curves. He called his lens an “Aplanat” (Figure 119) and claimed that it was better corrected for certain aberrations. It performed well, although whether better than the French lens is debatable. The lens did prove to be fairly popular in some circles, and was copied by other makers as well. It was offered as an alternative to the French design, and of course, it quickly became known as the “English landscape lens.”

The last really serious attempts to improve upon either of the established designs were made by John Dallmeyer (England). In 1864, he introduced the “Rapid Landscape” lens (Figure 120). This 3-element f/11 design was still meniscus in overall shape, perhaps a bit better corrected, and was about one stop faster than earlier landscape designs. Dallmeyer liked this lens, and he listed it for many years. In 1880, he released a long focus version of the lens, the “Rapid Landscape—Long Focus.” And finally, in 1888, he released the Rectilinear Landscape (Figure 121), also a three-element design, but a radical departure from the norm with an airspaced rear element. All of his lenses were very good for what they did, but the older French and English landscapes were entrenched with their followers and by the 1880s, other more generalized designs had come on the market. Interest in new types of landscape lenses had waned.

By the early 1890s, the usefulness of any sort of landscape lens had run its course. Many other lenses, both optically superior and faster were available. And while landscape lenses were still sold, they were generally found as the stock lenses on less expensive cameras, mostly for the amateur market.

The portrait lens

Within weeks of Daguerre’s announcement in 1839, and even as the landscape lens was being perfected, pressure was already building for a much faster lens. The potential for photographic portraiture was immediately apparent, but neither the low sensitivity of the Daguerreotype process, nor the small apertures of the available lenses lent themselves to this use.

Chevalier recognized the “need for speed” immediately, and began to experiment with combinations of elements that were already at hand. In a largely trial-and-error process, he combined two cemented achromats, back-to-back, which produced a much faster lens (about one stop) with an almost acceptable image. In 1840, he introduced the “Photographe a Verres Combines” lens (Lens 7) with a working aperture of about f/6. It was roughly three times faster than his landscape lens, and could reduce exposure times from 15 minutes down to about 3 minutes as a direct consequence of its improved transmission. Chevalier produced the lens for some time, but it was never really perfected and was quickly succeeded by a far better design.

At about the same time as Chevalier began to produce the “Photographe,” Joseph Petzval (Austria), a professor of mathematics, undertook a project to design a very fast lens. His eventual design was the first lens to properly compute on paper before going into production. It may be that he first worked out the math of an existing achromatic design and them reformulated it properly to correct for the known problems. Regardless, the first Petzval portrait lens (Figure 123) was built in mid-1840. It used a cemented achromat in front and an air-spaced achromat in the rear. The result was a very fast f/3.6 lens that produced a very good central image with exposure times in the one-minute range. The lens was not without flaws, but the qualities of the image that it produced were so distinctive and well-appreciated that it defined expectations for photographic portraiture for the next six decades.

The design was given to Voigtländer, then in Austria, and the first lenses were produced, but Petzval received little in the way of compensation or royalties. His lens was protected only by an Austrian patent, and the design was quickly copied and produced, essentially unchanged, by many makers for decades to come, even through the early 1900s.

Given the types of glass available at the time, little could be done to improve on the Petzval design, but there were some interesting variations over the years. One of the more successful attempts was the Jamin (France) “Cone Centralisateur” lens (Figure 124) introduced in 1855. This was designed as a combination portrait and landscape lens. When fully assembled it was essentially a Petzval-type portrait lens. However, it could be taken apart and rearranged so that the front cell could be reversed, mounted by itself on the flange, and used as a landscape lens. As with all successful designs, it was soon copied by a number of other European makers.

In 1866, John Dallmeyer (England) patented the first significant change to the design of the traditional portrait lens by reversing the position of the elements in the air-spaced rear cell. It is debatable whether his “Patent Portrait” lens (Figure 125) actually produced a superior image, but Dallmeyer was a superb craftsman and his lenses were acknowledged to be of the highest quality available and with far less lens-to-lens variation than most other makers.

In 1878, Voigtländer, perhaps while considering the Dallmeyer portrait variation, thought to reformulate the design using cemented pairs in both the front and rear. The new design (Figure 126) was quite good, but the older traditional designs were deeply entrenched, and many other designs were already on the market. The lens sold fairly well, but had little long-term impact on the field.

The last significant portrait lenses were introduced by Steinheil (Germany), perhaps in response to the Voigtländer product. The “Group Antiplanet” in 1879 (Figure 127) and the “Portrait Antiplanet” in 1881 (Figure 128) were both somewhat radical designs, using much thicker elements with far greater curvatures. These rather late designs attempted to correct some long lingering aberrations by approaching the traditional design issues in a more aggressive manner, employing off-setting corrections and compensations. The lenses were very innovative and well-thought out, but late to the game. The group lens was used on a number of high-end cameras at the time, but was not significantly better than some far more common and far less expensive lenses already available.

Experimentation and alternatives

The traditional landscape achromat and Petzval-type portrait lens completely dominated the field for many years. However, starting in the late 1850s, other lenses began to appear, and the next two decades saw the introduction of many additional lens types.

The term “lens evolution” brings to mind an orderly process with a succession of logical improvements to earlier designs. However, that most definitely was not how lenses evolved in the 1800s. Even after basic lens design was understood and the ever-persistent aberrations had been clearly defined, most lens designers still chose experimentation on the equipment rather than sit down with log tables and slide rules. Lens evolution was largely a hands-on, trial-and-error process.

Occasionally, some new construction, or improbable experiment, yielded promising results and there would be a flurry of similar activity as various makers attempted to capitalize on the new design, perhaps even to improve upon it, while trying to work around patent restrictions. There were relatively few gifted designers, but their influence was widespread.

Oddly enough, the first truly distinctive design to appear on the market in many years was another 1840 design by Joseph Petzval. The Orthoskop (Figure 129) was an f/8.7 wide field landscape lens, a variation on the portrait design which had not been brought to market. Having never received proper compensation for his portrait lens, Petzval brought his second design to market in 1856. However, as with his famous portrait lens, Petzval had little in the way of patent protection and within a year Voigtländer in Germany and CC Harrison in the United States were producing their own versions of the lens. The Orthoskop got good reviews, but was more expensive, yet not significantly better than the achromat. Interest in it quickly waned.

The next significant lens appeared in 1859 when Ross (England) developed the incredible Sutton panoramic water-filled “ball” lens (Figure 130). Although it worked reasonably well considering its limitations, this astonishing lens was for all practical purposes a technological dead end. Still, it was the first truly wide-angle lens and had a conceptually simple two-element design. While this type of lens was far too complex and difficult to produce, the application of complete symmetry meant that certain aberrations were easily controlled. Though the Ross/Sutton lens was not practical, it was something lens makers began to think about.

In 1860, Harrison & Schnitzer (United States) patented their justifiably famous “Globe” lens (Figure 131). The Globe is composed of two symmetrical pairs whose outer surfaces, if continued, would form a sphere. The Globe threw a very wide and remarkably flat field, but at f/30 was very slow. As might be expected, the Globe found use as an outdoor view lens, but perhaps surprisingly, it could also be used for process and reproduction work as well.

The Globe lens proved to be a very successful design and large numbers were made through about 1870, both by Harrison in the United States and by several licensed makers in Europe. Both Gasc & Charconett (France) and Ross (England) produced licensed versions of the Globe. It also spawned a number of copies, and it influenced lens design for years to come as makers scrambled to offer a competing product or to work around the patent restrictions. For example, Hermagis (France) produced their own “improved” version of the Globe. Interestingly, several U.S. companies such as Richard Walzl (Baltimore) imported Globe copies from Gasc & Charconnet (and perhaps Hermagis) and put their own names on the lenses. Essentially, they competed against Harrison’s Globe while using the Harrison design.

Design limits

In 1860, John Dallmeyer (England), who had been associated with Ross until the year before, formed his own company. From the beginning, Dallmeyer produced very high quality products. In 1861, he designed the Triple Achromat (Figure 141), a general purpose lens which, not surprisingly, was an arrangement of three achromatic doublets. The Triple Achromat came on the market in 1862, which proved to be very well corrected and received very good reviews. It was, however, fairly expensive and difficult to produce. It worked at about f/10 which made it a bit slow for indoor portraiture, although emulsion speeds had increased, which helped produce shorter exposures. Outdoors, it did not have quite the field of a landscape lens, and was far more expensive, but the results were impressive. It proved to be a popular design as photographers could now pack just one lens. The Triple Achromat helped establish the Dallmeyer name, and the company grew.

In 1864, he released the Rapid Landscape lens (discussed earlier), and in 1866, Dallmeyer had one of the best design years ever. In quick succession he released his Patent Portrait lens (discussed earlier), and another design, the Wide-Angle Rectilinear (Figure 142). This wide-angle lens was probably his response to the popularity of the Harrison Globe (1860), and the recently released Ross doublet (1864).

Market pressures may have rushed the release of the Wide-Angle Rectilinear before it was optimized. The lens is an unsymmetrical arrangement of two achromats surrounding a central stop, but the design of each cell appears be very similar to that used by Grubb in his 1857 Aplanat (discussed earlier). It is puzzling that Dallmeyer did not use symmetrically arranged identical pairs from the beginning, but it did not take him long to make that change.

In a matter of weeks, he released his third design of 1866, the Rapid Rectilinear. At first, the Rapid Rectilinear (Figure 143) was an all-purpose lens of moderate focal length, working at about f/8. Because of limitations in the types of glass that were available, the lens was a bit tricky to produce. However, once the compromises were worked out, the self-canceling effect of symmetry on the basic types of aberrations made it a superb lens. In time, a number of very successful variations were produced, including several excellent wide-angle designs.

Remarkably, at almost exactly the same moment that the Rapid Rectilinear came onto the market, an almost identical lens, the Steinheil Aplanat (Figure 144), was released in Germany. Controversy immediately ensued. Each company claimed priority and original work, and each accused the other of somehow stealing their design. Eventually, it was determined that both companies had independently and almost simultaneously come up with nearly identical designs, although Steinheil probably was first by a matter of weeks. In Europe, this discussion probably would have featured Steinheil with a note about Dallmeyer, but in England and the United States the discussion featured Dallmeyer. The coincidence is still amazing.

Whatever the case, the Aplanat and Rapid Rectilinear quickly superseded most other types of lenses, and all of the exciting lens developments in the 1860s would simply come to play second fiddle to this design. Some designs were discontinued, some were adapted, many simply lingered with their own devoted following. But the Rapid Rectilinear design dominated as no other lens had and was eventually adopted and produced in absolutely huge numbers by every maker on the scene.

The last of the pre-anastigmat lenses worth discussing is the double-Gauss design used by Alvan G. Clark in his lenses. In 1817, a mathematician named Gauss proposed using two air-spaced single meniscus elements as a telescope objective, but the idea went nowhere. In 1888, Clark revisited the design, putting two Gauss-type objectives back to back about a stop, hence the name double-Gauss (Figure 145). He marketed a number of variations of this design with only limited success. A few years later, a number of other makers, using newer types of glass, were more successful. However, the real success of double-Gauss lens came decades later with many very fast modern lenses using variations on this design.

Breakthrough in glass technology

At this point, the introduction of the more important lens designs from the early 1800s though the mid-1880s has been written about. To review the important inventions, in the early 1880s, the traditional landscape and portrait lenses were still popular and common. The Rapid Rectilinear lens was proving to be an eminently successful and adaptable design and its use and variations, especially the wide-angle designs, were spreading quickly. Other designs were also available, but not nearly as popular.

Also, by this time, photography was entering the dry plate era. Large numbers of amateurs were coming into the market, cameras were growing smaller, lighter, and more convenient, and news traveled further and faster than ever before.

Also at by this time, lenses had progressed just about as far as creative designs could take them since they were constructed with only two types of glass. By the mid-1870s, existing lenses could only be tweaked and optimized, but no real breakthroughs in lens design could occur until more types of glass with a wider selection of optical properties became available. Fortunately that happened in the mid-1880s.

In 1880, Ernst Abbe, a physicist working for Carl Zeiss (Germany), got together with German glassmaker Otto Schott, and the two of them founded the Schott Glassworks in Jena, Germany. Within a few years they had developed a huge number of entirely new types of glass, with an amazing array, which varied widely and had useful properties. By the late 1880s, these new types of glass were becoming more generally available, and more important, their properties were becoming more generally known to designers. New lens designs quickly followed.

Prior to this, even the best of lenses had traces of some pesky residual aberrations. The basic aberrations and distortion were fairly well-controlled, but several higher order problems remained; astigmatism was the most difficult lingering issue.

The first modern lenses

In 1889, using one of the newly developed types of glass, Ross (England) produced the Concentric lens (Figure 146). Perhaps because the symmetrical design of the Rapid Rectilinear lens was so successful, the concentric lens was also designed as a simple symmetrical lens, but using a pair of achromats made from the new glass. This design could not take full advantage of the potential of the glass, and it had certain limitations; the worst was a very slow f/20 working aperture. However, the image was superb, and all signs of astigmatism had been eliminated. The lens was well-received and remained on the market for years. Many consider it the first true anastigmatic lens. Still, f/20 was painfully slow, and after decades of using much faster lenses, many photographers thought this a high price to pay for a better corrected lens.

A year later, in 1890, Paul Rudolph of Zeiss designed an entirely new lens. It was asymmetrical and comprised of two dissimilar doublets surrounding a stop, but it took full advantage of the properties of the newer glass. He also recognized that his new design could be scaled and modified to suit a variety of uses and this one design was incorporated into a wide range of types, ranging from an f/4.5 portrait lens to an f/18 extremely wide-angle lens.

He called his lens the “Anastigmat,” later changed to “Protar” (Figure 147) and for all practical purposes, the modern era of lens design had arrived. The numbers and types of lenses that followed from all manufacturers simply exploded. Within a very short span of time, a bewildering array of new lenses, sporting dramatically new and creative names were competing for market attention.

There were dozens of important new designs in the last few years of the 19th century, but only one other lens will be covered here because of its impact on future designs.

In 1893, H. Dennis Taylor, while working for Cooke (England), designed a simple looking, but theoretically very complex air-spaced triplet lens consisting of three separate single elements made from several types of the newly available glasses. Taylor intensely worked on the mathematics of his design for some time before having test samples made, then made several design changes to improve upon the actual performance. The lens design proved to be quite fussy and difficult to manufacture, but once refined was a very good lens. Taylor named the lens after his employer, and the Cooke Triplet (Figure 148) in various forms, remains in production to this day, one of the longest lasting of all designs.

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over 1 year ago

Hi Milan, I'm writing a book about the lost Pink and White terraces in New Zealand.
In interpreting the pre-eruption photos, I need to know the focal length of the Rapid Rectilinear lens, when used with say, a whole plate, dry plate camera of the mid 1880's. Sofar I believe 21.5" is about right for focal length.
Do you agree? Many thanks for a wonderful web resource. Rex

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over 4 years ago

Dear Mr. Zahorcak:

I am a professional art historian researching how reproducive engravers used daguerreotype images in the process of tranferring a painted image into a pictorial engraving.

In an 1872 article about Southworth and Hawes the author noted that one of the devices they invented during their long and successful career was a "triple lens by which straight lines could be copied, and which was of considerable service to engravers."

Years later Hawes boasted in his autobiography that the "celebrated combination of lenes called a Dallmeyer lens I made and used fifteen years before it was known by its present name."

Because of your specialized knowledge of lenes,can you tell me if you think both of these references are referring to the same TYPE of lens design? I'm assuming that the particular Dallymeyer lens Hawes had in mind was the Triple Achromatic Lens that Dallmeyer developed in the 1860s. What would be the advantages of such a lens, aside from the straight lines it produced which were "of considerable service to engravers."

Thank you for your help.

Sincerely yours,

Paul D. Schweizer, Ph.D.
Museum Director Emeritus
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute