Lenses came before cameras. In fact, many of the best-known names in photography – Leitz, Zeiss and Voigtländer to name but three – began life as lens and optical instrument makers before diversifying into camera manufacture.
The earliest camera lenses consisted of a single piece of glass with a convex curve on both sides. While this could focus an image on a flat area, it couldn’t bring light rays of different colours to the same point of focus, resulting in what is known as chromatic aberration. To correct this, lens designers began combining groups of lenses, with both convex and concave surfaces, in such a way that they cancelled out each other’s aberrations and so produced a sharper image. In this way, camera lenses were developed and evolved.
Famous lens names echo through the history of photography: Biotar, Flektagon, Helios, Nikkor, Nokton, Rokkor, Skopar, Skoparon, Sonnar, Summar, Summicron, Takumar, Tessar, Ultron, Xenotar, Zuiko… the list goes on and on. We could fill these pages with the story of the development and evolution of these and other lens landmarks. But we’re not going to do that.
Instead, here’s a quick overview of some of the longest, shortest, biggest, smallest, widest and fastest lenses in photographic history, along with the cameras with which many of them were so inextricably linked.
1839: Daguerreotype camera lens
To begin at the beginning, the first classic camera lens must be the one used by the camera that introduced the world’s first viable method of photography. That was the daguerreotype camera. Its lens was made by Paris opticians Charles and Vincent Chevalier in a plano-convex design (curved on one side, flat on the other) that gave a focal length of 15.5in and a working aperture of f/14. The lens was bound in brass, while a pivoting cover plate on the front acted as a crude shutter.
1840: The Petzval
Named after its designer, Austrian scientist Josef Max Petzval, this was the first photographic lens where the design was computed mathematically before construction. Using two pairs of elements separated by a space, it had an aperture of f/3.6, which allowed shorter-than-before shutter speeds that made daguerreotype portraiture truly feasible. An all-metal Voigtländer camera fitted with the Petzval lens in 1841 became the first purpose-made portrait camera. In 2013, 3,000 Kickstarter backers funded the production of a modern version of the Petzval lens for use on DSLRs.
1859: Sutton’s liquid lens
Inspired by one of those water-filled toys that are shaken to create a snowstorm inside a dome, English photographer Thomas Sutton patented a lens encompassing a sphere of glass filled with water, capable of producing images on a curved surface. The result was one of the world’s first wideangle lenses, with a 120° angle of view and a central stop of f/12. It is most famous for being used in the Sutton Panoramic wet-plate camera successfully made, after a false start by its first manufacturer, by London optician and instruments maker Thomas Ross in 1861.
1944: MTO 500 catadioptric lens
The first general-purpose catadioptric, or mirror, lens came from Russia. The configuration of this type of lens sees light enter through the front element to hit a concave mirror at the back of the lens barrel, from where it is reflected to another mirror behind the front element, back through an aperture in the rear mirror and out through traditional lens elements on to the film. The result is a long focal length in a shorter-than-normal lens barrel. For the MTO, that meant a 500mm focal length in a barrel only 180mm long and 80mm diameter. It focused down to 4m and the aperture was fixed at f/8. Mirror lenses enjoyed popularity mostly in the 1960s and 1970s.
1953: The De Vere Long Tom
It was Coronation Day and the press needed a picture of Elizabeth II on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The problem was, they couldn’t get close enough, and telephoto lenses for the large-format cameras used by press photographers in those days were not available. So De Vere, more famous for its enlargers, built one for the purpose. The lens had a 1,000mm focal length and used a 5x4in film back from a Graflex camera. Only three were made. This one was used by The Star newspaper (now defunct and no connection to today’s Daily Star).
1959: Voigtländer Zoomar
There were zoom lenses for television and film cameras before this one, but the Zoomar was the first production zoom lens for a 35mm still camera. It was designed by optical engineer Frank G Back, who also coined the word ‘zoom’, when applied to lenses. Compared to today, the focal length range of 36-82mm was small but successfully covered wideangle to medium telephoto on a 35mm format. The zoom was operated by a push-pull control around the barrel, and the maximum aperture was f/2.8. Although eventually made in a variety of lens mounts, the Zoomar was mostly associated with the Voigtländer Bessamatic 35mm SLR.
1966: Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7
In 1928, Zeiss formulated the design for what would one day be the world’s fastest lens. In 1941, the German Nazi party funded its development for use in equipment to guide weapons at night, resulting in a 70mm f/1 lens. Then, in 1966, American space agency NASA revived the project to produce a lens capable of photographing the dark side of the moon. Zeiss completed production of ten 50mm f/0.7 lenses, of which NASA bought six, Zeiss kept one and film director Stanley Kubrick bought three to shoot a candle-lit scene in his film Barry Lyndon.
1972: 6mm f/2.8 Fisheye-Nikkor
If you thought 180° was a super-wide angle of view for a fisheye lens, think again. This one took in 220° which meant – wait for it – the lens could look behind itself! This nine-element lens weighed in at 5kg, and had a front element diameter of 20cm. It was a retrofocus design, which meant that, unlike non-retrofocus lenses, the rear element did not foul the movement of an SLR’s mirror. At f/22, depth of field was 17cm to infinity.
1980: 50mm f/2 AF Rikenon
Made by Ricoh in Japan, this was the first autofocus lens made to work with any manual-focus 35mm SLR that used the popular K mount. Using what the manufacturer called solid-state triangulation, it worked much like a traditional rangefinder, but with a sensor taking the place of the human eye. On to this sensor were projected twin images from two rangefinder-like windows. As the lens was activated, one mirror swung so that one image on the sensor moved in relation to the other. The sensor recognised when the two coincided as a point where maximum contrast was detected and information was passed to a motor that rotated the lens for correct focus.
1993: Canon EF 1200mm f/5.6L USM
At the time of its launch, Canon claimed this was the longest focal length lens available for any interchangeable-lens autofocus SLR. It weighed 16.5kg, measured 22.8×83.6cm, had a maximum aperture of f/5.6, an angle of view of just 2.05° and a minimum focusing distance of 14m. The lens was almost entirely hand built, using two huge fluorite crystals which took a year to grow before being ground and polished. It was compatible with Canon’s 2x Extender, which increased the focal length to an incredible 2,400mm and reduced the maximum aperture to f/11. Only 20 of the lenses were made.