Cooke 13" F4.5 Series II Anastigmat Variable Soft Focus Lens

Cooke 13 inch F4.5 Series II Anastigmat Variable Soft Focus Large Format LensCooke 13 inch F4.5 Series II Anastigmat Variable Soft Focus Large Format Lens The Taylor, Taylor & Hobson company of Leicester, England and later of New York, began their production of soft-focus lenses about 1898, and via various company name changes and restructurings, still, sell a soft-focus lens today (Cooke PS945)!

The first model was the Cooke Series II which was first sold about 1898 and this is the lens that I own.  

This lens and its future variations would be sold for over 50 years.

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.  I also own the RVP soft focus portrait lens which pre-dates this lens back to the 1880's and was the first soft focus lens used by Clarence White and Alfred Stieglitz.  If I could only pick two lenses to keep and use for the rest of my life, it would be the Series II and RVP without a doubt.  The versatility of the Series II allows for a wide range of creative expression and the history and ethereal beauty of the RVP is unparalleled. 

Cooke Series II F4.5 Soft Focus 13 Inch Large Format Vintage Lens by Tim LaytonCooke Series II F4.5 Soft Focus 13 Inch Large Format Vintage Lens by Tim Layton 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 Pictorialism style image or a very sharp image, however, the sharpness and contrast is different than you will find in modern day contemporary lenses. 

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. 

Cooke Series II Maximum SharpnessCooke Series II Maximum Sharpness If you refer to the 1898 advertisement to the left, notice by unscrewing the back lens exactly 3 turns, the maximum definition is obtained!

I owned this lens for several years and had no idea until I conducted more extensive research. 

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. [Antique & Classic Cameras]

In the 1911 advertisement, you can learn more about the soft focus diffusion control of the Cooke Series II and Series VI.

I've included some photos below to give you a sense of the size and scale of this lens.

I have the lens mounted on a Sinar type lensboard which I frequently use on my Chamonix 8x10 View Camera and I recently acquired 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.  

Cooke Series II Portrait LensCooke Series II Portrait Lens Cooke Series II Portrait LensCooke Series II Portrait Lens Cooke Series II Portrait LensCooke Series II Portrait Lens Cooke Series II Portrait LensCooke Series II Portrait Lens Cooke Series II Portrait LensCooke Series II Portrait Lens Cooke Series II Portrait LensCooke Series II Portrait Lens


8x10 Large Format Contact Prints

Cooke Series II F4.5 Contact Print Exposure by Tim LaytonCooke Series II F4.5 Contact Print Exposure by Tim Layton I used my Chamonix 8x10 large format view camera loaded with Arista EDU Ultra 100 (Fomapan 100) B&W film developed in a hand mixed version of D23.  

For this first print, I wanted to expose the image wide open at F4.5 and dial in the maximum amount of soft focus effect

I focused on the lens of the 5x7 vintage camera in the scene to ensure the center of the image was sharp.  When you see the print in person, you can read the very fine writing on the lens that is located right above the center element. If you look close, the brass plate below the lens is completely out of focus as is the bottom half of the plate holders and the brass lens to the left of the camera.

I contact printed these prints from the original film negative as you will notice the film notch and edges of the film on the prints. All of the prints are straight prints on Ilford MGIV RC paper using a number 2.5 variable contrast filter and no dodging or burning.  

Cooke Series II @ F4.5 Contact Print by Tim LaytonCooke Series II @ F4.5 Contact Print by Tim Layton

For this second print, I wanted to stop down the lens and see what the print would look like sharper.

I wanted to expose the image wide open at F16 and left the maximum amount of soft focus effect set on the lens.  

As you can see in this print, the image is drastically sharper, but still has an older look and feel to it.

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to making art, only choices that align to your creative vision.  The main reason why I am doing the large format vintage lens project is to show people what real prints look like from these lenses and not perfected digital scans or representations. 

I contact printed these prints from the original 8x10 film negative as you will notice the film notch and edges of the film on the prints. All of the prints are straight prints on Ilford MGIV RC paper using a number 2.5 variable contrast filter and no dodging or burning. 

Cooke Series II at F16 by Tim LaytonCooke Series II at F16 by Tim Layton

For the third print, I headed out in the field to photograph the historic Klepzig mill that is close to my cabin in the Ozarks.  I felt like the mill was a perfect subject to showcase this type of lens.

I focused on the cabin and set the lens to F5.6 with the soft focus effect fully dialed in.  

You will notice in the rocks in the foreground are soft and I did that on purpose.  I could have used a front tilt and got the rocks and the cabin sharp.  In the future, as I continue to add more prints for this lens, I will probably do that so you can see that effect as well.  

I contact printed these prints from the original 8x10 film negative as you will notice the film notch and edges of the film on the prints. All of the prints are straight prints on Ilford MGIV RC paper using a number 2.5 variable contrast filter and no dodging or burning. 
 

Cooke Series II @ F5.6 - Klepzig Mill by Tim LaytonCooke Series II @ F5.6 - Klepzig Mill by Tim Layton

THOUGHTS & ANALYSIS

Cooke Series II at F16 by Tim LaytonCooke Series II at F16 by Tim Layton It is easy to instantly see the softer focus ethereal mood in the first print at F4.5.  If I were going for a more artistic rendering, this would be my personal choice.  It is sharp where you want it and soft in the non-important areas.  

In the second print at F16, you can see how much sharper the entire print is when stopped down to F16 from F4.5. If I were wanting to document my subject, then shooting the Cooke Series II at F16 or even F22 would be an each choice and produce really sharp, but not the modern day "digital sharp" type of prints. 

In the third print at Klepzig mill, you can see how much detail is possible, edge to edge, even at F5.6.  In the future I will photograph this scene wide open at F4.6 and apply a front tilt to get the foreground sharp too. 

I absolutely love this lens and use it for everything from studio still life to landscapes and architecture. 

Cooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim Layton Cooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim Layton Arista.EDU Ultra 100 Negative With Cooke Series II F4.5 Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim LaytonArista.EDU Ultra 100 Negative With Cooke Series II F4.5 Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim Layton


HISTORY OF THE COOKE LENS

The properties of light and its behavior in glass have been a constraint for lens makers ever since the first optics were made. The ability of glass to bend light is known as refraction.

Glass types that are able to bend the light for effectively are known as high refractive index glass.  Glass will also separate light into its component wavelengths (as seen in a prism). This is commonly referred to as dispersion. Glass types that cause less chromatic aberration are known as low, extra-low, and ultra-low dispersion glass.

A "perfect" lens would focus all wavelengths of light from all areas of the glass into the same flat plane of focus. When a lens fails to do this it is known to have an aberration. Chromatic aberration is when the different wavelengths of light do not meet at the same point. If different parts of the glass fail to focus the light to the same point it is known as spherical aberration. When the plane of focus is curved rather than flat it is known as astigmatism

Cooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim Layton Early on lens makers were limited to two types of glass: sodium lime (crown), and lead crystal (flint). Photography’s first lens, the Wollaston meniscus of 1804, was a simple single element lens made of flint glass.

Chevalier improved on the design by adding an element of Crown glass that was designed to cancel out some of the dispersion (chromatic aberration) found in the Wollaston meniscus. This was known as the achromatic doublet (1829). 

The photography processes of the time required a lot of light. The maximum aperture of the Chevalier was F/16 so it was a very “slow” lens that required long exposure times.

In 1840, the mathematician Joseph Petzval came up with a new much faster design. The Petzval lens consisted of 4-elements, with a cemented achromat in the front and an air-spaced achromat behind the aperture. The result was a "fast" lens with a maximum aperture of 3.8.

Arista.EDU Ultra 100 Negative With Cooke Series II F4.5 Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim LaytonArista.EDU Ultra 100 Negative With Cooke Series II F4.5 Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim Layton The faster exposures allowed for portraits to be taken with the lens so it became known as the first portrait lens. The lens was very sharp in the center of the image but it suffered from a highly curved field of focus (astigmatism). 

In the 1890s, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott invented new types of optical glass which quickly led to new breakthroughs in lens design. The first lenses with complete correction of field curvature came into the market. First was the Zeiss Protar (1890), followed by the Goerz Dagor (1892), and the Cooke Triplet (1893). These were known as Anastigmat lenses because they were free of astigmatism. The Anastigmats were hugely successful and quickly replaced the majority of earlier lens designs.

THE COOKE LENS TODAY

Cooke Series II F4.5 Soft Focus 13 Inch Large Format Vintage Lens by Tim LaytonCooke Series II F4.5 Soft Focus 13 Inch Large Format Vintage Lens by Tim Layton There is now a resurgence in older styles of photography. Many find that the sharp contrasty look of modern lenses and digital cameras lacks the “character” of older classic lens types or the processes associated with analog photography. There is a growing number of photographers who use wet plates instead of film, or digital camera sensors, to obtain a more unique "classic" look. Many refer to the look of lenses that were used back in the days of 1930's Hollywood glamor and noir style photographers.


The Cooke Series II, also known as the Cooke Triplet, has become a favorite of many photographers today. The character is very different from the Petzval-type lenses which are also popular. The curved depth of field of the Petzval lens produces images that are very sharp in the center but have a soft-and-swirly look toward the edges.

In contrast, the Cooke lens has almost no curvature of field. The “proper” English portrait lens, the Cooke renders everything in a very even and balanced way. Curvature of the field remains flat and consistent throughout the entire image circle. The transition to out of focus is very smooth, and the background itself has very nice blur qualities (bokeh).

The out of focus areas have a very rounded and smooth look. The background is tranquil free of distractions. It is a lens that is designed to be used at large apertures.

Depth of field is shorter with larger apertures, and many prefer to use the lens "wide open" for Artistic selective-focus photography. Wide-open, it is sharp like a knife blade, and going from that rapidly to a smooth and melty background is “what it is about”.

Cooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim Layton There is so much “eye candy” in a Cooke image. Every part of the image is pleasing. Areas where in and out of focus objects meet really pop with an almost stereoscopic 3d look.

While visible “slow” transitions from in and out focus are equally amazing. A simple picture with a line of trees, fence posts, or even a wall becomes work of art by the fascinating way the Cooke renders the transition to out of focus.  

There is something about the sharp and smooth. And the Cooke has smoothness...The gradations present in the background are very rich and buttery. The out of focus objects are smoothed over evenly without geometric distortion. The flatness of field remains in the out focus areas; it does matter if an object is near the center or the corners as long as it is the same distance behind the focus the effect is the same.
Cooke also produces lenses for Hollywood with the same Cooke look that dates back to the Cooke Triplet (series II). Cooke cinema lenses are very well regarded and also quite expensive (~$30,000 new).
For those who prefer less than “knife” sharpness, the Cooke lens features a sliding element based, soft-focus feature. By turning the dial, the edge is taken off the image giving a more subdued diffused look. The literature states that this is done through the use of spherical aberration and that this also adds more depth to an image.

The name of the Cooke Series II can be somewhat misleading in that sold series III, IV, V and VI lens but the other lens models were sold concurrently to the series II and are not later “improved versions” of the Cooke lens. The series II was Cooke’s most premium portrait lens and had the largest aperture sizes. The other series were lighter, more economical, and sold for group portraits... Where one would already stop down for depth of field. Series II is the one you want.

Behind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim LaytonBehind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim Layton WHAT IS A SOFT FOCUS LENS? 

A soft focus lens is a type of lens that is designed to produce a soft but sharp image that combines a distinct, finely-defined, inner image core with a warm out-reaching glow. This is different from conventional lenses which are either sharp and in-focus or out-of-focus and blurry.

 A true soft focus lens is actually both in and out of focus at the same time. Form and detail are not lost, but instead, are combined with a warm halo that is produced from the multiple levels of out of focus light. The effect is different from a Gaussian blur layer in that the effect varies through the focus range of the image.

With a soft focus lens the transition between in focus areas and the background is improved and the background itself is enhanced with better gradation, shape, and a stepless “circle of confusion”. In addition, the local and global contrast of the entire image is softened enhanced in the most complex way.

Light is spread into from the highlights into the midtones and shadows in varying degrees based on proximity, focus, and the strength of the highlights. There is a growing appreciation and the desire, among a portion of fine art photographers to explore the artistic and creative value in the unique way the soft focus and other classic lenses interpret the word. The characteristics of soft-focus lenses vary and some are very rare and highly sought after adding a level of prestige to owning certain prized optics. 

Behind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim LaytonBehind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim Layton Soft focus lenses vary widely in optical configurations and the principles behind each lens’s unique characteristics. Most of the “character” comes from the careful incorporation of just the right amount of one more optical aberrations.

An Optical aberration is the term describes are different types of technical “flaws” or “optical imperfections” in the lens. The attempt of the majority of modern lens design is to reduce “optical aberrations” to create sharper, clearer, more detailed, and accurate images. However early on in the evolution of lens design, the question was asked if more accuracy actually produced better more meaningful images. A number of lens designers experimented with “controlled imperfection” to look for a “better-than-accurate” view of the world. And so the soft focus lens came into being introducing with it a romanticized dreamy version of the world with more emphasis on depth, form, and the interaction of light rather than pure unadulterated detail. 

Soft focus photography became very popular with the rise of Hollywood glamour photography in the 1920s. Significant early photographers who were known to have some point used a soft focus lens include Holland Day, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Weston, Nicola Perscheid, Karl Struss, George Hurrell, and Ansel Adams. Soft focus lenses and filters have been used sparingly in the mainstream from the ’20s until now. Mostly during close-ups of female characters, romantic scenes, or memory scenes.  

WHAT MAKES A LENS "SOFT FOCUS?"

Almost (if not) all Soft focus lenses use a degree of chromatic and/or spherical aberration to achieve an effect where a portion of the image is both and out of focus at the same time.

This creates a soft but sharp effect with the in focus areas produces sharp details and with the addition of a warm graduated glow formed from the out of focus light.

The first soft-focus lenses relied primarily on chromatic aberrations to produce a soft image.

CHROMATIC ABERRATION

Behind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim LaytonBehind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim Layton Chromatic aberration is a term for when one or more bands of the visible spectrum have a slightly different focal length than the others. In color photography, this can often be seen as color fringing and is generally a sign of poor optics. The best modern lens types use special glass to reduces the dispersion of the optical spectrum to produce an Apochromatic lens.  

However with black and white film sometimes chromatic aberration can add a nice photogenic soft focus effect. If each color has a different focal length you always have a section that is out of focus creating the simultaneous in and out of focus effect. With a soft focus lens based on chromatic aberration, you must use black and white film and the effect will react differently to the based on its own spectral response. Color filters could have a negative effect on these “semi achromatic” soft focus images.

There is also an issue where there is often a perceived difference in focal length between the image on the ground glass “visual focus” and the “chemical focus”  of the negative. This is due to the spectral differences between the black and white film used and the human visual system.  

SPHERICAL ABERRATION

Cooke Series II @ F4.5 Contact Print by Tim LaytonCooke Series II @ F4.5 Contact Print by Tim Layton This occurs - when the light that travels through the edge of a lens, focuses on a different point than the light that travels through the center of the lens. Imagine a “multifocal” lens with each aperture being a different focal length.

This is a spherical aberration. With the right amount of spherical aberration, you can have sections of the image that both in and out of focus at the same time creating a wonderful soft focus effect.

Many soft focus lenses used only spherical aberration to achieve their softness while allowed for more consistent results with more film types and bring together “visual” and “chemical” focus. 

FROM A TECHNICAL ASPECT

Behind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim LaytonBehind The Scenes Vintage Large Format Lenses by Tim Layton Despite their age, old soft focus lenses have great value today as powerful tools of photography. From a technical aspect some of the qualities of a nice soft focus lens and modern large format film cannot be matched with digital capture.

The level of detail present in the core of a soft focus image varies for design to design but all soft focus images have one thing in common extraordinary smooth linear or non-linear gradations.

The optically produced glow and smoothness of present around the highlights and out of focus areas are perfectly stepless and analog, it is not limited by diffraction, bit depth, pixel sizes, or optical sharpness. The gradations out resolve even the best of today's black and white films.

Cooke Series II @ F4.5 Contact Print by Tim LaytonCooke Series II @ F4.5 Contact Print by Tim Layton When you think about it, one can easily understand how the extra pixels and “film real-estate” of large format produces higher quality images with older soft focus lenses just as it does with modern sharp glass.

The quality and integrity of the scan and printing system used is not lost when using a 100-year-old soft focus lens. Film images can be scanned using high-resolution 16-bit Creo or Drum based scanners at very high resolutions and printed in large sizes to show that “gradation detail” not present in digital capture. Black and white darkroom and contact prints also have very good technical qualities. 

WHY USE A SOFT FOCUS LENS?

Cooke Series II Vintage 8x10 Large Format Lens Mounted on Chamonix Camera by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Vintage 8x10 Large Format Lens Mounted on Chamonix Camera by Tim Layton Soft focus photography is very different than most of the modern photography. Having the ability to take an ultra-sharp snapshot of the world alone does not create art. It's not about what is the sharpest lens with the highest modular transfer function or which back has the highest pixel count. The goal of photography as an art form is to create an emotional reaction inside the viewer of the image. Subject, composition, meaning, and style are essential components of artistic vision. The great photographers of the past did not have access to today's modern digital camera technology and we continue to marvel and react to their work. 

Soft focus photography allows one to take a step back and to explore photography in a new way. It adds something magical and timeless. Finding new ways to utilize and explore the unique attributes of high character lenses can be very rewarding. The soft focus style does not work for every image but when it does work it is amazing. In the right hands, a soft focus lens can be used to produce an image of exception complexity and nuance.

The effect of a soft lens can bring a certain harmony, balance, and emotion to an image. The subject is revealed in sharply defined form and detail surrounded in a wondrous and magical glowing luminous veil; an ethereal lightness. Depth is enhanced. There is a mellow blending of reality and imagination as the clearly defined melts away in a kind and gentle transition into the soft and tranquil background. Contrast is also enhanced. There is something magical about the combination of sharp details, a delicate transition to out of focus, and gradations that sensationally smooth, rich, and creamy. It is like the lens takes you away to an almost enchanted realm.

Cooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim Layton In the soft focus world each once lonely spot, or pixel, becomes a glorious beacon of light. With the power, if bright enough, to shine across neighboring areas affecting the surrounding pixels and area. Individual bright spots combine to form highlights but with true luminosity; a communal brightness, that can spill into the deepest shadows adding harmony and balance to the image. 

The effect is not content-aware but is truly content dependent. Lighting can be re-imagined. In general, soft focus lenses will have lower contrast but the contrast is also very unique and complex. Global and local contrast are both affected most elegantly; as light is spread from the highlights into the mid-tones and shadows it does so in varying degrees based on proximity, focus, and the luminosity of the highlights.

One must visualize the effect of light spillover on the image and learn to incorporate the spillover into an image and use the flare from a highlight to brighten a cave or shadow region.

Cooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim Layton Lone highlight details can be given a little more oomph but can also get blown out surrounding light sources. A spot meter can help out tremendously with the exposure and lighting of soft focus images. 

As humans; our mind focuses on something and our eyes follow. When looking at printed images what is the effect the choice of focus on the mind? How does separating a subject from its surrounds affect our opinion of the subject? How can context be changed by the choice of a lens? 

An attribute of Bokeh; “Blur Disc’s” and the “circle of confusion”

Maybe you have seen in a movie or photograph where a light is out of focus and shows up as a polygon. What you are looking at is often referred to as the "blur disc" or "circle of confusion". What a spot of light is out (behind) of focus it spreads to form a disc.

It might be better to use the term "blur disc" then "circle of confusion" as a "circle of confusion" is a more general term for describing any part of the cone of light that is created behind a spot.

The smallest focus point is known as the circle of least confusion. Often a larger circle is acceptable depending on the size of the sensor or resolution capabilities (and desired print magnification) of the film.

Arista.EDU Ultra 100 Negative With Cooke Series II F4.5 Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim LaytonArista.EDU Ultra 100 Negative With Cooke Series II F4.5 Variable Soft Focus Lens by Tim Layton As long as the circle of confusion fits within a pixel it will show up as being in focus to that pixel. The size of the circle of least confusion is integral to many mathematical formulas for determining exact depth of field. Too many, the circle of confusion translates to a single spot or pixel in a print. When photographers talk about the circle of confusion as an attribute of the visible out of focus they are talking about a much larger circle that is further out of focus. Both are circles of confusion, and to reduce confusion, I feel it is better to use the term “blur disc” in reference to a part of the cone of focus that is large enough to be clearly identified as being out of focus yet retains some shape or form.

The shape of the Blur Disc is determined by a number of factors; the number of blades on the aperture, for example, determines the number of sides on a polygonal disc pattern. A lens with a rounder aperture is said to have a rounder "blur disc". The transition from the center of a circular blur disc to the edge varies dramatically from different lens designs.

* A "perfect" "neutral" or "good" blur disc has no or very little gradation and small out of pinpoint highlight shows up as an evenly light circle with a hard edge. The type of blur disc is associated with modern Apochromatically and Spherically "correct" lens designs

* "Negative" or "bad" blur disc's have a visually unappealing "doughnut" light pattern; light is distributed more heavily toward the outer edges then it is in the center. The result can be visually distracting.

* The "Positive", "ideal", or "Best" blur discs have a smooth step-free gradation with the center being the brightest point. The look is generally accepted as being the most visually attractive. The out of focus areas on a lens of this type of having smoothest gradations and fewest distractions (sharp edges, doughnut artifacts) of these three basic blur disc types. Figures are smoothed but are more generally recognizable then with the other two main disc types.

Cooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim LaytonCooke Series II Variable Soft Focus Lens 8x10 Large Format Photography by Tim Layton In order to produce this type of disc blur, the Light needs spread out from the center at an unequal rate so that the brightest point of light is at the center and a smooth gradation radiates outward with no sharp edges. Remember.... the light near the center of the disc is closer to being in focus than the light near the edge.

The most common way portrait lenses go about creating an ideal "blur disc" is to carefully introduce spherical aberration (a term used to describe a change in focal length throughout the aperture range). The idea is that the center parts of the lens would be closer to being in focus while the outer parts will spread out more do to being further from being in focus.

Some lenses have a curved depth of field that can distort the shape of the "blur disc" depending on the spots' location in reference to the center of the lens image circle.

Color fringing and reflective ghosts are negative things that can appear in the "blur disc" on poor quality lenses.