19th Century Lens on a RED Looks Surprisingly Good

Mathieu Stern got his hands on a Scarlet-W, which shoots a whopping 5K image, to bring the best out of a vintage 135mm lens he picked up on eBay.

How does Stern know that the lens is so old? Unfortunately it’s nameless, however he told us that it fits perfectly into a “travel chamber camera”, which is made out of wood and used in the 1880s. Sure, this lens could be a little younger, but once you hit the century mark it’s safe to consider it a true vintage. It's older than the Eiffel Tower, as he puts it.

What’s got me stunned is the decent quality and sharpness. It's not perfect but I guess I expected far less. I’m not saying I’d opt to use a 140 year old lens on set, over something a little more modern, but I’m still taken aback at how the quality holds up. Stern knows his stuff when it comes to vintage glass, so it’s no mystery that he would be the one to carry out this experiment. He’s showed that plenty of old lenses look great in the past.

One major issue is that it looks difficult to focus. Obviously it’s not built for high end video, let alone video, so we’ll give it a pass on that. You can see Stern trying his best to keep it in focus. I’m also astonished at how it’s able to keep up in low light.

How did he mount it onto an EF mount RED? “The lens was first mounted on a M42 ring using friction cardboard strips, then this was screwed on a M42 Bellows” he explained. “then this bellows was screwed to a M42 to EF mount, then this mount to the EF Red camera mount”. It’s a little complex but it got the job done.

A working iris, which is pretty amazing.

Stern picked it up on eBay for a cool $15, and what’s better is that it’s likely handmade. “That's the magic with really old lenses” he mentioned. “You can get a wonderful unique lens, but you can also find a catastrophically bad one from the same producer”. Sounds like $15 is a good bet nonetheless! What’s particularly interesting is that it has a working iris, which happens to be blue.

To me, this also adds fuel to the fire of gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) fans. Usually the argument would be “invest in your glass, and don’t go buying the latest camera body” in an attempt to avoid GAS. However this video turns that on its head. It definitely shows off how great the RED can push through the adversity of the lens. I had expected it to look fuzzy and filled with abrasion, at best.

Images used with permission from Mathieu Stern

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Jonathan Brady's picture

With my current system, I opted for a similar strategy, I bought a technologically advanced camera (A9 and A7RIII) to wring the most out of the lenses I was going to use. Unfortunately GAS got ahold of me and I bought stellar lenses, too. Oops!

Joshua Kolsky's picture

Dont take that out on the streets, might get shot.

Interesting. Lenses have been around for a very long time, and although you can't argue that modern technology and research have led to ever better results (and certainly far more consistent overall quality), the reality is that those better results are, at this stage of the game, marginal and almost impossible to detect in the majority of real world situations. My oldest lenses date back to the 1950s (which really isn't that old) and I get just as many pleasing images from them as I do from the most modern lens. I always like to hold this thought in mind when I get entranced by the specs of latest and greatest - it does act as a counteractive to the desire to rush out and buy it.