In this article today, I continue my exploration of the Cooke Series II variable soft focus lens by heading out in the field and photographing a landscape.
I am working on a larger scale large format vintage lens project, where I am using my current collection of vintage lenses to make large format contact prints. The goal is to share the optical characteristics and qualities of these beautiful lenses in a realistic and informative manner.
I am using my Chamonix 8x10 view camera along with a Sinar Copal Shutter and an adjustable Iris lens board so I can have an shutter for these barrel lenses and easily mount them without needing to make an individual lens board. You can learn more about all of this on my Large Format Vintage Lens Project page.
The Taylor, Taylor & Hobson company of Leicester, England and later of New York, began their production of soft-focus lenses about 1898. The first model was the Cooke Series II which was first sold about 1898 and this is the lens that I own.
Based on the fact that the Series IIA lens was introduced in 1910, I know my lens was most likely made between 1898 and 1910 making it over 100 years old at a minimum.
One of the things that I love most about this lens is that I can get two different looks from this one lens.
I can create the vintage soft focus Pictorialist style image or a very sharp image, however, the sharpness and contrast is different than you will find in modern day contemporary lenses.
For this first still life studio print, I shot the lens wide open at F4.5 and applied the maximum soft focus effect and for the second print, I stopped the lens down to F16 to see how sharp it would become.
For this third print, I headed out to the historic Klepzig Mill on a cold winter morning because I thought this scene embodies the Victorian era and would make for a great subject.
I also elected to go to Klepzig Mill because it is a typical scene that I find in the Great Smoky Mountains. I am actively working on my Great Smoky Mountains Historic Buildings Project where I am photographing the last remaining historic cabins, mills, barns, and related buildings so I can make archival platinum prints. I have been photographing these historic buildings over the last several years trying to get a feel for the gear that I want to use. I am almost certain that I will be using the Cooke Series II as my main lens for the project and that is why I am testing it at Klepzig mill. For the Great Smoky Mountains Historic Buildings Project, I am using Ilford FP4 because of the quality of this film along with my ability to create higher contrast negatives that are needed for making my platinum prints.
As you can see in the print above, this image doesn't look like the typical super sharp image that is possible with more modern large format lenses.
I exposed this third image at F5.6 to see how much different and sharper it would appear from my first studio still life image at F4.5 (wide open).
For this scene at Klepzig Mill, I purposely focused on the mill and did not apply any movements to try and get everything sharp from foreground to background. I wanted to see how this lens performed like this and then later, come back and apply a front tilt movement.
In this print, you can see the rocks in the foreground are soft and there was some vignetting in the upper left and right corners because I pushed the lens beyond its coverage area. I actually kind of like the natural vignetting and I will consider using that again for select images in the future.
For my next test, I plan to come back and expose a sheet of film wide open and apply a front tilt. I think this may work out very nicely based on what I have learned so far about this lens.
As you can see in my first contact print below at F4.5, it is dreamy sharp in the center area on the lens of the vintage camera and then it gets deliciously softer from there. I have to tell you that this simple snapshot of this print is not representative of what the print looks like when you are holding it in your hands. Something is lost in the transformation to a digital image. I actually got emotional when I first saw this print after I turned on the white lights. It literally grabbed my soul and spoke to me.
I am making 8x10 large format contact prints from the original film negatives without any dodging or burning because I want you to see what this lens can really produce. In the image above, you can see the film notches and edges of the film in the contact prints, so you know for sure these prints are made from the original film negatives.
While I am exploring this lens, I am trying to keep my costs down. I am currently using Arista EDU Ultra 100 (Fomapan 100) and developing the negatives in my hand mixed version of D23. You can get this formula from my B&W Formulas page.
In the second print that I made with this lens, you can see how much sharper this lens can be at F16. Having the flexibility to create an ethereal soft focus image or dial in a beautifully sharp image using the same lens is something that is unparalleled with modern lenses today.
The design and engineering of the Cooke Series II is still a marvel in the 21st century in my opinion. As photographer's we are able to control the amount of diffusion with this lens and at any setting it is applied evenly edge to edge.
I find the sharpness of this lens to be more like what the human eye resolves which is a natural rendering of a scene versus the clinical and possibly over-sharpened style of contemporary lenses. Some modern lenses are so sharp that it starts to border on too sharp, depending on the key subject.
The Cooke Series II lens utilized the same diffusion principal as the Dallmeyer Patent Portrait lens, that is, by moving a lens element in relation to the other elements to add varying degrees of spherical aberrations to the lens.
I feel like the unscrewing three turns method is like a secret the designers created and unless you are knowledgable about the lens, you would never know that was possible.
I have the lens mounted on a Sinar type lensboard which I frequently use on my Chamonix 8x10 View Camera and a Sinar Copal Shutter. This shutter allows me to use faster speed sheet films with my vintage barrel lenses, and even for longer exposures, the shutter eliminates the need for me to use my lens cap as the shutter.
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