Following a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, Lomography’s Daguerreotype Achromat lens is available for a $499 pre-order. It’s a recreation of the very first camera lens used in the very first Daguerreotype camera—but it will work on your modern Canon or Nikon DSLR.
While it would be Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre whose name would become synonymous with the world’s earliest photographic process (even though Nicéphore Niépce is largely responsible for developing the design and the foundational research behind it), it was Vincent Chevalier, a creator of microscopes and other optical instruments, who made the camera possible. The camera obscura had been used for centuries to project an image from the world inside a black box, but a pinhole produced the image. The chemical processes driving photography required more, focused light. It needed a lens, but what kind?
That’s where Chevalier came in. Daguerre ordered a custom lens for his camera, but after two attempts, Chevalier failed to deliver what Daguerre required. Apparently, an air of secrecy and competition had led Daguerre’s request to be too vague. Eventually, the pair worked it out, and Chevalier created the beautiful brass lens Lomography would reproduce over 150 years later.
The Daguerreotype Achromat, featured recently on Designboom, doesn’t appear to be an exact duplicate, but it embraces the charming flaws of Chevalier’s original lens—including a tendency for light to diffuse through the glass into a soft glow, and for the corners of an image to blur through whereas the center stays sharp. (Yes, you’ve seen this same phenomenon in some Instagram filters.) It’s also devoid of the creature comforts found in modern lenses. To change the aperture, or how much light the lens lets in, you actually have to swap in and out tiny metal plates.
The results speak for themselves. It’s a very difficult lens to shoot with, having only a narrow range of focus, but it can create that hyperreal sensation of looking at old portraits, where the image looks like a fuzzy memory and a picture-perfect record at the same time.
There's plenty of precedent here. A strong contingent of photographers attaches real, vintage lenses to digital cameras—including those accordion-like billowing lenses that can create some really fantastic effects. Nothing is more satisfying than walking into a pawn shop, picking a vintage camera off the shelf, dropping a mint in film, and learning to photograph the old way—though having easier backups to Google Photos is certainly nice.
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): via Lomography]