Latest toy for digital cameras hails from the 19th century

Lomo petz
The Petzval lens, mounted on Canon and Nikon cameras.

While digital camera makers compete on the sleekest, most high-tech lenses and image stabilization, analog photo lovers at Lomography have decided to take inspiration from the earliest days of the art instead, recreating a unique and influential lens that first appeared back in 1840 — right down to its brass case and distinctive background blur.

Cameras in the 1840s weren't quite as capable as the ones we have today. Part of this was that the actual photographic process wasn't quite mature, and formulas for photosensitive plates and prints were constantly competing and being revised.

But the lenses used then were also fairly crude — couldn't gather much light, required long exposures — and were not nearly as precise or complex as today's. Joseph Petzval, a 19th century math professor at the University of Vienna, worked out a better lens design that hit F/3.6, making it many times faster than its rivals.The Petzval lens was widely used in the 1800s, but times changed, and it was more or less left in the past — until now.

Lomo pix
The Petzval's distorted bokeh, or background blur, is a highly sought-after effect.

Lomography wanted to recreate this historic lens, which these days is coveted for its interesting optical effects. So the staff worked with a Russian optics company to figure out what made the Petzval lens tick. Amazingly, they've managed to remake it, funky aperture system and brass casing included.

In fact, they've actually improved it, at least for today's cameras. The new Petzval not only features a wider aperture (F/2.2), but it will be available on both Canon and Nikon DSLR mounts. Before, you'd have to buy some weird adapter, but not anymore.

But most importantly, the beautiful, swirling background blur is there in all its glory. Sure, you can get a similar effect on certain Russian lenses from a few decades back (for cheaper, too) — but there's nothing like the original. Or at least a reinvention of the original.

The new Petzval lens hit Kickstarter Thursday morning, and as of this writing just crossed the $400,000 line — four times its initial goal. You can still pledge and receive a lens for $400, which is $100 less than what it will go for once it enters production.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is