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Thread: FS: Vitax lens

  1. #1
    smieglitz's Avatar
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    FS: Vitax lens

    I have a couple fast Wollensak Vitax (Petzval) lenses that will cover 8x10. I plan to keep one of them. The smaller is a 16" f/3.8 which is in nice shape. IIRC, there is a ding in the lens shade and the rear bezel, but the glass is fine and the mechanics such as the soft-focus adjustment also work correctly.

    The other is its big brother, a rare 20" Vitax. (I've only heard of two of these 20" Vitax lenses in the 8 years or so I've been acquiring older lenses.) The 20" extension element on this makes the lens ~f/5. It should cover 11x14 (see below). The larger lens has a couple issues which shouldn't affect its practical use for wetplate. The more relevant question is whether your camera can support either of these monsters. There's a lot of glass in them and a robust camera with at least 6" square lensboards is needed. 7", 8", 9", or 11" are better. The lenses were designed for studio cameras, not modern field cameras. But then, any fast lens that can cover 8x10 is going to be big, especially at f/3.8. I have them mounted for use on my large 11x14 Burke & James View Camera.

    Both lenses have the mounting flange which is often missing on lenses of this vintage.

    If you are not familiar with the Vitax series, they are a modified Petzval portrait design. They don't have a rack-and-pinion focus knob but are rather fixed barrels that were designed for cameras around the 1900-1920 era. They do have a knob that is a soft-focus adjustment. The knob changes the position of the rear element group and causes a softening effect at the higher settings. This adjustment is a variation on the Dallmeyer Patent Portrait design that incorporated a soft-focus effect by reaching inside the open camera back and twisting the rear element group to different notched positions. The rear bezel of the Dallmeyers have four different notch groups set 90 degrees apart. Lining up one of the group of notches (having either 1, 2, 3, or 4 notches per group) with an index pin at the rear of the lens let the photographer adjust the sharpness. The Wollensak Vitax design allows the small knob on the outside of the barrel to do the same thing without having to reach inside the camera from the rear or taking the lensboard and lens off the camera.

    I mounted the 20" Vitax on my 11x14 and was able to focus on a studio wall about 35' away that brought the lens out 21" from the aperture position, so almost infinity focus if that is where the focal length was measured by Wollensak. It looked like it covered no problem and I'm pretty sure I could have gotten the other inch out of it outside. No question it would cover 11x14 at portrait distances.



    The 20" lens is next to the beer bottle for scale. (The Oberon is not included, Andrew.) The 16" f/3.8 Vitax on 11" lensboard is at left. (Sorry for the poor quality of the jpegs. I only have an ancient point-and-shoot digital camera.)

    I found a few flaws in the 20" lens:

    1) There is some very minor balsam separation , maybe 1/16", showing around the perimeter of the front element group. It really is very minor but present. I've tried to show it in the picture below. Otherwise, the glass is in good shape on both ends. There are a few very small bubbles in the glass but according to lore, that marks high quality glass of the period.



    2) The aperture doesn't close through the entire range. Wide open it is reading f/6.3 and it closes only halfway when marked f/22. The lens is marked from f/3.8 to f/22 and I figure the operating range is actually from f/5 to around f/11 with the 20" element. In other words, wide open the lens is f/5 (showing at f/6.3 on the scale). Adjusting the set screw didn't help close the aperture further than midway nor did it seem the scale could be positioned to line up f/3.8 with wide-open. There might be another screw stop somewhere inside, but I couldn't tell where. In practice, this shouldn't be much of an issue since the lens would probably only be used at the wider apertures for wetplate. There appears be a small amount of oil on the aperture blades.




    3) There is a small dent in the rear bezel that takes it out-of-round. (See picture.) The glass in the area is unaffected.




    4) The enameled barrel shows some brassing, scratches, and wear but it is not too bad for a lens this old.

    5) The flange is present but stuck on the barrel. A couple other points on the barrel are also bound. (I wonder if this might also be the cause of the aperture restriction. I had a Verito in Studio shutter that had a similar aperture problem but worked fine after the barrel was freed up.) The lens is so big that these areas are hard to get enough even pressure on by hand to loosen. (I also shattered my wrist in February so I can't get a decent grip on the barrel. Perhaps that wouldn't be a problem for you.) A penetrating lubricant would probably help free these areas. If I were to keep the lens, I would probably get a couple band wrenches and take some wd-40 to these areas. I think that would free them up.

    The soft focus adjustment appears to operate as it should to move the rear element group apart. There is also an original front lens cap and hood.

    So, the lens is not perfect but it is in pretty good shape overall. The main issue is the strange behavior of the aperture.

    I suspect the aperture problem would be an easy fix for someone that actually knew what they were doing, assuming of course that one wanted to bother. These lenses are made to work wide-open for speed and not stopped down to minimum apertures.

    If you are interested in the 16" lens, I can look it over further and provide some more info and some pics.

    I'm looking for USD $650 for the 16" lens and USD $850 for the 20" lens. Insured shipping for either would be additional and at actual cost. USPS money order preferred.

    A couple similar lenses have recently sold on ebay. Check out items #320447031369 and #230396312748. They went for $406 and $449.88 respectively. Note the smaller #3 lens also had a scratched rear element and the #5 had some element separation (the "yellow marks on the inside ring") even though the auction stated it didn't have separation. The latter also lacked a flange.

    You can find further info on the Vitax series (and other lenses) in the old Wollensak catalogs posted on these webpages:

    catalogs on cameraeccentric.com

    Note that somewhere in the early 1900s Wollensak changed the designation of the Vitax focal lengths. As reflected in the catalog pages, early 16" lenses were identified as the "Royal Portrait #3", later as "Vitax #3", then finally as the "Vitax #5" lens. So, without having that lens from the ebay auction in hand, it is difficult to tell whether it was an earlier 16" #3 lens (ca. 1912) or a later 10" #3 lens (ca.1919).


    Joe Smigiel (aka smieglitz)

  2. #2
    Ektagraphic's Avatar
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    I love seeing and hearing about these turn of the century lenses that are still working! I wonder what these current digitals will be like in 100 years!

  3. #3
    Andrew Moxom's Avatar
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    Damn, that Oberon would have sealed the deal! Wish I had the scratch for one of these Joe, I love what this lens signature can do.

  4. #4
    smieglitz's Avatar
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    Sale is pending on the 16" f/3.8 lens as of 12/30/09.



 

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