Adapting a 100-year-old lens to shoot video on a new camera

Mathieu Stern is curator of the Weird Lenses Museum.

This lens spent 100 years in the dark, the last think it captured must have been the horrors of the World War I … i think it was time to use it for something more light and positive. I took this Kodak Vest Pocket camera lens with me for a short trip to Vienna (Austria) to shoot some test footage. I must say i was pretty amazed by the sharpness and the quality of the image i saw on my screen.

It does look great. The go-to practical glass for getting this old-timey look is Soviet M42-mount Zeiss Biotar knockoffs, especially the Mir 1-B 37mm and the Helios 44-2 58mm.

I figure that the magic happens because old uncoated glass offers poor contrast, effectively compressing light and shadow into a thinner range: a bug in 1960 but a useful feature in 2020, where the resulting flat, grayish image can graded in real-time on pocket computers. The upside is capturing a filmlike range of light on everday video sensors. The downside is the loss of information in general–push too hard in the lab and it'll just look nasty. Which is good.