November 5, 2013

Cooke Cinema Lenses: What Exactly Is the 'Cooke Look', and Why Do You Want It?

Your guide to all things Cooke.

Lenses are often one of the more subtle choices that the cinematographer makes when determining the look of a film. Usually things like camera (or film stock) and lighting take precedence over lenses. However, what many people don't realize is just how powerful an effect certain lenses can have on the final image of a film, no matter how subtle or subconsciously appealing the look may be. Cooke lenses, for example, are known worldwide for their distinctive look. But what exactly is the "Cooke look"? Where does it come from, and why would you want it on your next project? Stick with us to find out:

Cooke, as a lens manufacturer, has a rich and storied history (one which is well worth reading) dating back to the early 1890's for photography lenses and the early 1920's for cinema-style lenses. As such, cinema and Cooke lenses go together like peanut butter and jelly, and Cooke lenses have been used on some of the greatest cinematographic achievements in history. Even with the tremendous amount of options on the market today for cinema lenses, many cinematographers still stand steadfast by Cooke. But what exactly is it about Cooke glass that makes it so fantastic for the purpose of motion picture photography?

The answer to that question is a multifaceted one which we'll explore over the course of a few videos. In this first video, you get a quick, yet comical peak at what are often considered to be some of the best cinema lenses on the market today, the Cooke 5/i primes. This video comes to us courtesy of Inspiration Studios, who, as you're about to see, are some pretty funny guys (mildly NSFW):

In this video, our peeps at Craft Truck talk to the folks at Clairmont Camera about the various different Cooke lenses on the market right now, and why they're an excellent choice for discerning cinematographers:

In this next video, Mitch Gross from AbelCine breaks down "the Cooke Look" from a technical perspective. Here you can see what it is that really differentiates Cooke lenses from the other cine-style lenses on the market today.

Now that we've got an understanding of what the lenses are actually doing to produce their signature look, here's an excellent real-world example in the form of an old Philip Bloom piece, A Day at the Races, which was shot on a 7D with Cooke S4's. You can really see the inherent warmth and presence of the skin tones in this video.

In the end, lens choice boils down to a couple of different aesthetic factors: color, contrast, bokeh, distortion etc. Finding a set of lenses with perfect combination of these characteristics for a certain project can certainly be an involved task, and shooting a variety of resolution and color charts can help in that process. However, if you're looking for luscious, warm skin tones alongside smooth contrast and a pleasant amount of sharpness, then you never need to look any further than your nearest set of Cooke primes.

What do you guys think? Have you ever used Cooke lenses? If so, what did you think of the "Cooke look"? Let us know in the comments!

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33 Comments

I think it is hilarious that there is a video included in here shot on the 7D. Not exactly the upper end of quality. Want a better example of the cook look? Mr. Deakins in No Country. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cED2AKWxWJc

November 5, 2013 at 9:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I think it's hilarious just how much you've missed the point.

November 5, 2013 at 9:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Steve Wilmer

Agreed. :-)

November 5, 2013 at 10:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

I think the fact that they showed just how much great lenses can do on a entry level camera perfectly illustrated the point they were trying to make here. Great article, and great references, way to go.

November 6, 2013 at 6:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Taylor

Even than I still consider hilarious to show quality of this lenses on 7D video. I love this Blooms video, but expect way better examples than 7D mush-o-rama.

November 10, 2013 at 12:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Kuk

The example video is not a fair example. Honestly to analyze differences in high end glass you need to sit in front of a 4k screen. Even at 1080p the range of high end glass ...s/4s included even though they maybe are considered mid end...the differences will be subtle. the place youll see the biggest difference is in sharpness/aberation through range of stops and mainly how they handle flares which will actually be a noticeable difference.

the 7d example is a sketchy one for sure not just cause its a 7d but because its graded too. Even a subtle grade will make the difference in optics negligible for a video shot on a 7d on the internet. I mean your going to maybe tell the difference between an s/4 and a rokinon lens....but a lot of people probably wont notice it in a finished piece with a grade

November 5, 2013 at 9:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom Ford

I disagree to an extent. Yes there are subtleties lost because of the 7D's low end codec, the grading, and the upload online. However, the validity I see is how the talent and experience of Philip Bloom combined with superior glass makes this camera's footage shine! The same thing happened when I saw him shoot with the GH1 on Zeiss Ultra Primes.

The glass removed one of the "compression" stages.

In essence there is what we see with the human eye; then glass, the sensor, compression/processing, and a final output. By having virtually zero image degradation because of the quality glass, the 7D felt more organic and pro to me even after all the other factors. It is some of the best footage with this camera I have watched.

November 5, 2013 at 11:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Morgan C.

Amen. Even though the camera isn't the best, the footage looks better due to the lens. People are missing the point. It makes me hurt inside.

November 5, 2013 at 7:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tyler

I would love to see a blind test between lenses to DP's, Technicians who work with this stuff. I very much wonder without see flare quality what the percentage of people even looking at a 4k screen could tell the difference between says cook s/5's, Ultra primes, etc

November 5, 2013 at 10:27AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom Ford

Seriously?
This kind of 'blind' test happens daily in most grading suites/pre prod meetings. We are constantly debating the look of particular lenses across different sensors in different environments. Your choice of lens is very important in your final look. Need that super clean Pacific Rim vibe? That's one set of lens/sensor/filter options. Looking for something more Wes Anderson? That's a different set of options. After a while you can pretty much tell what type of lenses are being used on a particular show and why. Sure, sometimes we guess wrong, but you'd be amazed how often we get it right. :-)
/ the S4s are VERY nice, and old Cooke zooms look spectacular (to me) on the new high-res sensors.
/love your (I'm guessing fake) log in name! One of my favourite directors.

November 5, 2013 at 10:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

Im speaking only about lenses sir. I understand different cameras and lenses and filters and color grades make the picture look different.

the exact same camera shooting the exact same frame and a 25mm ultra prime, a 25mm cooke s/4, master prime, etc, etc in a 4k theater ....I'm just saying the difference is very subtle

November 5, 2013 at 11:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom Ford

We do that too :-)
I'd say the difference is subtle between some brands of cinema lenses, but definitely not others.
Just so you know, we also do this to laboriously match lenses WITHIN sets/brands.

For you it may not be worth doing, but when you are putting up things big screen at plain old 2K (BTW, just because the projector is 4K, doesn't mean you're seeing 4K, particularly on effect films) the differences can be quite marked. Certainly there are types of expensive cinema lenses you would avoid for certain projects.
I can often pick them at home in compressed HD!

As to your (and others) comment 'the audience won't notice': that is total BS. Everything goes to the cinema experience. Everything. Its no accident that studios spend what they do on large scale films (including $70M studio comedies). There is no studio exec that wouldn't like to spend a LOT less on films. Its not so the DOP can get his/her rocks off. Its because humans are remarkably astute in assessing quality at a subconcious level. They can tell when the details have been looked after. And oddly, its often people who have zero 'insider' knowledge who the most savvy.

Not every film needs to be shot with Alura zooms and Master Primes. And certainly not every film shot with that combo is worthwhile. But when you get to a certain level, they kind of have to be, and trust me its not for ease of use. And when you're now operating at that production level, lens choice, even between $40k prime lenses, can become a heated empirical argument.

My favourite current example to people is 'Blue Is The Warmest Color' which I think is a film whose look perfectly matches its aims. That's the terrific Angeniuex Rouge Zooms on PL C300s. Those zooms are awesome value for money in terms of look, and upgrade the camera by a good way. Having seen a TON of blown up C300 footage, the difference in using those zooms in that film over say colder Master Primes/CP2s but with a sharpness/color handling no Canon L is ever matching really works.

November 5, 2013 at 3:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

I understand what your saying. Im not sure your job? I am a professional I have shot with most of the range of high end cinema cameras C300, RED, ETC. I have seen many a test between glass as well. I will say this first of yes. DP's do get there rocks off to a certain extent...on a 5 million dollar + film (which yes is a world well beyond my means I will admit) It is pretty much assumed you will be shooting with a certain level of optics its expected to be seen on set if a DP on a 5million dollar film shot with say converted zeiss primes or CP2's even a producer would ask about it ....not to say it couldn't happen but there is a status quo. I shoot commericals and face the same thing its assumed a producer or agency guy is going to see a cinema lens on a cinema camera with a nice matte box.....there is some camera machismo BS going on. With that said I don't think you can deny a master prime offers something for sure. If I was shooting in 4K and know I was going to get 4k distro and was shooting big wide static frames you know I would probably push for a higher end optic to get a certain look..... But I think it should be pretty known there is not a color grade suite in the world that couldn't very easily match any high end optic to another interms of contrast/sharpness/ and color

My main point here is just that optics are very expensive and there is a little bit of an attitude in the high end of the industry about the importance of good glass or the impact it makes. I'm not saying it doesn't matter but I am saying it should be pretty near the end of the list of concerns as pretty much everything else from camera sensor, to lighting, etc will have a larger impact on the picture.

November 5, 2013 at 5:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom Ford

Amen to that.

November 11, 2013 at 4:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Elias

Absolutely. I'm always skeptical of such minute distinctions. The other side of that is of course that the general public won't know or care about your choice of lens (at least to a certain degree - your lens has to be good enough, but much beyond that and only cinematographers will notice, and maybe not even then).

November 5, 2013 at 11:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Luke

You don't make art for a general audience and as a Cinematographer, your artistic eye and vision have to show through, fused w/ the Director's. Your job is to move the audience with emotion and connection, so the subtleties of a lens choice are just as important as the choice of color and light.

If your concern is "the audience won't notice anyway", then you're going to be lost and the "look" of a lens package wouldn't apply to you in the first place.

November 5, 2013 at 12:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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You sir, are very wrong.

November 5, 2013 at 2:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

I meant @Luke :-)

November 5, 2013 at 2:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

Agree with Luke

November 5, 2013 at 11:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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August

i think your wrong, film communicates subconsciously. "The general public" comes out of a film with a better or worse feeling towards the film dependent largely on the look of the film. People, and actually i find even "pros", cannot articulate exactly what was wrong but when it doesnt feel or look right they just turn right off the film. They need to feel that super high level standard has been achieved even to give the 'content' of the film a chance to shine. This is something ive often argued with people that come up with the argument that "the public doesnt care wether a film is shot on film or digital, or which camera is used". They very much do care, they just aren't conscious of or able to explain what's making them feel negatively towards the film.

November 6, 2013 at 6:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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andy

Glass options are great to debate at the high end of productions, but at a base level just about everything is more important. From Red lenses to Ultras to S4's, the difference is noticeable, but SO much less than having slightly better costumes, makeup, production design, better actors etc.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't discuss these things and pixel peep, 'cause needing out on this stuff is awesome. But boy, do we have to make sure everything else is in place before we start spending production budget on upgrading the lens package.

November 5, 2013 at 11:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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ongbak

Couldn't have said it better myself.

November 5, 2013 at 11:23AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4318

Good thing this article was labelled 'Cooke Lenses'.. how disappointed would you be if you were art department or wardrobe.

November 6, 2013 at 5:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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KC

Just did a spot with the 5i's. Absolutely wonderful images.

November 5, 2013 at 11:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Lee

B&L Super Baltars all the way. :-)

I really like the look of Cooke lenses. Sharp, but organic. The Master primes can be too hard at times, bordering on looking sterile.

The old Cooke 18-100 and 20-100 zooms are pretty amazing.

November 5, 2013 at 1:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Wilbert

The Cooke 18-200 is one of my all time favs.

November 5, 2013 at 3:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

So, who are their main competitors and what do they bring to the table that Cooke can't or wont? Isn't there an Arri/ Zeiss lens that will get you to about the same point as a Cook? Canon? Fujinon? Are the Japanese manufacturers generally deemed "colder" and "more sterile"? Is there an overlap of sorts?

November 5, 2013 at 7:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Not sure what the hell is going on in the 2nd video

November 6, 2013 at 1:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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heilherzog

The photog's Leica lens debate in 24p. The difference exists, but is it worth the money? Leica users will say yes, cinema DOPs will say yes, 99% of the photogs and shooters will still create beautiful stuff with "low end" Canonikonsamyangwhatever glas...

November 6, 2013 at 9:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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SpartaBear

I've come to love the 'Cooke look' over the last few years on my projects and it's the go-to lens for me these days (either 4s, or 5s).
Having read the other comments, I'd love to address a thing or two (btw. I'm a director, not DoP).

Subconsciously, the Cooke lens gives me an image I love, almost instantly. It renders skin-tones (of all colors, especially black skin) in a way that makes me want to look at the person in the frame, admire him/her, follow his/her story. Why exactly that is, I don't care, but it's important for me to have.

Second, viewers can feel if cheap glass is being used (without it being a gimmick to support story), the same as with film vs digital. I want to achieve the highest quality possible for the viewers and this informs our lens choices.

I'd take a great lens over a bigger lighting budget any day, honestly. Or just shoot with two lenses.

So, Cookes are the go-tos for me, unless I want fancy lens flares or the likes.

November 11, 2013 at 4:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Elias

Dude, you are very wrong. The differences are there, and are huge. It does take a few years of working with this type of glass to develop an awareness of the differences, but rest assured they do become very obvious once the eye is trained to see the difference. The Alexa with S4 + Optimo package, for example, is used in the vast majority of episodic tv, feature film and commercial production over here in the UK. I have worked on three features since October, and all three use the very same package. This same look can be seen in quite a few very succesful shows being broadcast at the moment. Hannibal, to me, looks as Cooke as it gets.

However, it's not just about the image quality but the ergonomics and ease of use. Professional glass has no stops in the focus rings, the distance marks can be trusted, they've a predictable behaviour through the stop range, don't breathe, and so forth...

I am, in fact, not so much of a cooke fanboy, having at the moment found more pleasing results as a norm with arri glass.

Does it all mean that good images can't be created with non pro glass? Of course not. But those hypothetical good images would look better and would have been easier to shoot had real glass been put on the gate.

June 27, 2014 at 3:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Fancy lens flare is synonym with Mini s4, they've a removable front element just for this...

June 27, 2014 at 4:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I have heard a lot of BS. A film camera needs four things. Steady speed, steady gate, light tight, and sharp lens. It you have that and you have the skills to use it and a story, not much else matters. I hear that 24fps is the magical number to bring someone into a story. BS, it was picked because sounds was no good at 16fps. I hear all about Film Noir. B-Movies were shot that way because the drive-in showed the B-movies before it was dark. 16x9 was picked because of averages of 1:85... blah blah blah. Nonsense, it is the square of 4x3. The position of the camera has much more impact on the audience than what brand of prime. I do find it hilarious that such a huge amount of time is given to lenses but not to matching the cameras in the first place.

June 30, 2014 at 12:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JJohns