Great cameras are often defined by their lenses. Whether it’s a close-up, wide angle, or zoom, lenses allow photographers to literally capture more than meets the eye.
The first true photographic lens was developed by an Englishman named W. H. Wollaston in 1804 and fitted to a camera obscura in 1812. His meniscus lens, as it is called, permitted photographers to keep a wider range of their subject in focus than ever before.
Unfortunately, these lenses did not work well at close range, which meant they were ill-suited to portraiture. In 1840, an Austrian named Joseph Max Petzval devised a portrait lens that solved this problem, although people sitting for daguerreotype portraits were required to remain perfectly still for up to two full minutes.
Petzval lenses were fitted to Voightländer cameras—only 70 were made in 1841 and 600 the following year, but the lenses were quickly copied by German manufacturers. Today, working brass-barrel “Petzval-type” lenses, as they are often called, from the 19th century are readily available, although they are not necessarily inexpensive.
Subsequent improvements to camera lenses occurred in 1862 (the wider-angle Harrison & Schnitzer Globe lens, which was used in landscape photographs) and the Dallmeyer (1866). The telephoto lens arrived in 1891, but its was the Zeiss anastigmat lens of 1890, renamed the Protar in 1900, that signaled the arrival of the first modern camera lens.
Countless advances and refinements were made in camera lenses throughout the first half of the 20th century, but the game-changer occurred in 1959, when the Voigtländer-Zoomar made its debut. Vivitar improved the zoom even more in 1975 with its Series 1 lenses—the macro in that family allowed a photographer to zoom from 70 to 210 millimeters.