Anamorphic on a Budget – Isco Ultra Star

April 16, 2017

Along with the Schneider Cinelux, the Isco Ultra Star is one of the most popular – and cheapest – modern anamorphic adapters. It’s not hard to see why.

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Alright folks, I’m Tito Ferradans and we’re gathered here today to celebrate… I mean, to talk about the Isco Ultra Star. This review has been requested by my patrons and was made possible thanks to the guys at Vid-Atlantic, who borrowed me one of their lenses (for as long as I needed it!). Let’s get to it. If I had to define this lens in one word, it would be “sharp”. The modern glass and coatings grant you edge to edge performance at the expense of flares. You’ll see almost none of them. The other advantage of such sharpness is that you can go as fast as you can with your aperture with no disastrous image degradation. Oh, and no distortion either. Do you remember the edge distortion on the Kowa B&H? For the record, I’m doing these test shots using the Rectilux HardCoreDNA as the Ultra Star is a projection lens and double focus setup by nature. Low light performance is quite nice, and due to the high quality of the glass, you can really see the oval bokeh.

Let’s begin by saying that the Isco on the name of this adapter is the same Isco from the Iscoramas, only a few decades later, so the quality is there – but the single focus is gone. These lenses are designed to pair with film projectors. Some of them come with a taking lens attached, and that can be tricky to take out, so do it with caution. The Ultra Star adapter comes in three different flavors. The oldest one has a beveled focus ring and golden color. The second generation is this one I have here, with a more round shape and the most advanced one is the red one. The differences between them are very subtle and I wouldn’t consider any to be a dealbreaker.

This adapter weighs 300g, which is lighter than I expected. Stretch is 2x, so you’ll have lots of compression going on and super oval bokeh. You have to rig it with clamps in order to attach diopters to it and to attach it to a taking lens. Here I have Vid-Atlantic’s caps and clamp, which is pretty basic. At $39, they’re the cheapest option in the market to get the job done. This one fits perfectly around the back of the Ultra Star and gives me 52, 55 or 58mm threads. The clamp is also the way to align this adapter properly.

One thing I had no idea about this lens is its push-pull focus lock. When you push the ring down it won’t budge. Then you have to pull it forward in order to adjust focus again. I guess it is a useful feature when dealing with projectors, since the distance will never change! Anyway, that was just an interesting thing I had never heard about.

For many reasons mentioned before, I’m not a fan of projection lenses. Double focus is too time consuming – which is why I’m using the HardCoreDNA -, and the setups tend to grow too long and too front-heavy. All of this applies to the Ultra Star.

Strangely enough, modern optics tend to go for lower prices than their vintage counterparts. The Isco Ultra Star has quite a price range and you’ll be able to find deals from around $150 all the way up to $450. I won’t go as far as to say they’re hard to find, but there are seasons. Sometimes they’re widely available, sometimes all you can track are the high-priced ones. Keep your eyes peeled and your eBay alerts active.

As I said in the beginning, “sharp” is the word to define this adapter. Not Iscorama-sharp. I mean Zeiss sharp, Canon L sharp. Tack sharp at f/1.4. It follows the performance of the taking lenses impeccably and I can’t spot blooming, washing or any of those pesky vintage artifacts.

For flares, the Ultra Star behaves similarly to the Cinelux. Very subtle green flares, usually caused by strong light sources. The Red version has even less flares due to stronger coatings. You can always try to cheat your way around it and increase flares by using UV filters. Check this other video for a better understanding of the technique.

Canon’s 40mm pancake isn’t enough to clear a 2.4:1 frame, but surprisingly, you’ll be fine with a 50mm on Full Frame. Then 2.66:1 at 58mm with the Helios 44, and full 3.56:1 above 70mm – commonly 85mm. I wasn’t expecting to go so wide for a Cinemascope crop. It was a nice surprise. Take into account that a single focus solution will increase vignetting and all of these numbers.

The Isco Ultra Star made me swallow my dissatisfaction with this type of adapter – modern projection lens. Its compact form matched by unmatched optical performance creates a powerful piece of gear. I was able to go wider than I expected, handling the lens is easy and the anamorphic look is there. Not the flares, true, but for the people who aren’t after flares, this is like a gold mine (pun intended). Now I understand all the praise for this adapter, when it comes to beginner anamorphics. And it can be had for cheap too!

I would like to thank Vid-Atlantic for providing me the adapter with clamps and not rushing me to review it, as well as my patrons for encouraging me to do this review sooner than I originally planned. You should definitely join us at Patreon for exclusive rewards and knowledge ahead of time! If you liked this episode, hit the like button below, leave your praise in the comments and subscribe for more and more anamorphic stuff. Check the archives if you’re feeling bored. I’m Tito Ferradans and I’ll see you next week.