T.Stops Blog

Examination of Lenses.

The influx of the 35mm sensor cameras over the last few years has created a vacuum in the cinema lens world.   Used lens prices are sky rocketing from the demand, and many manufacturers are scrambling to get high quality, “cine” style lenses to market at a price point low enough that ownership becomes an option.

In this post i’m going to examine every PL lens i can get my hands on.  I am not going to be putting lenses on MTF projectors, nor will i shoot test charts.  Practically every modern lens manufacturer can produce lenses that far exceed the optical resolution that the sensor on any digital cinema camera can capture.  I know they are sharp.  Instead i am going to focus on the visceral.  What does it look like, more importantly, what does the lens feel like.  Story telling visually, requires emotion in the image.  The state of the camera market being as it is, the cameras impart less on the image by way of character.  The real deciding factors in creating the look optically is the Lens, the filters, and the lighting.  I am a HUGE believer in getting the look in camera.  Taking chances, and knowing what you want on set.  I challenge the directors of the world to make the choice to shoot with a blue filter and ancient Lomo’s, instead of adding blue an a vignette in post!!!

Check back as I will update this post as often as i get to test the lenses.

First up:

The Cooke Varotal 18-100 T3 Zoom.

A legendary lens.  Roger Deakins himself said its his favorite Zoom. ( if you know me, you know i worship the ground he walks on)   I can see why.  Its organic, sharp but handles the image with out feeling harsh,  solidly built, ergonomic, and has…. character.   First off it is so forgiving to portrait shots because of its Sharp/softness.  The skin texture and detail is there, but not overwhelming.  Speaking with the Cooke lens tech who checked out my lens, he said Cooke designs the lenses to naturally emphasize skin tones.  Its like a built in warming filter that only effects certain wavelengths of light.  (very subtly of course) That added with its lovely deep contrast, and you have the recipe for “The Cooke Look”.  It has the distinctive Cooke Iris.  Most Cooke lenses have Iris blades that create a bokeh pattern that resembles a flower or sunburst.  See the video below.  It has carried through to the S4’s S5’s and Lastly the iPanchros.    Its sort of a signature in every shot, ” This was shot on Cooke glass”.   I think it looks great.

The focus roll off from the points that are sharp, to the out of focus bokeh is quite smooth and gradual.  Take note of the focus in the shots of the street in the Second video, “testing the filters”.  there is no point with absolute perfect focus.  Focus rolls in, and out with a nice smooth transition.

The lens is heavy around 13 pounds, and made of high grade aluminum, and most likely brass in the internals.  The lens comes with a tapped hole in the focus, and zoom rings for a snap zoom lever, pictured above.  The focus rotation is more than 270 degrees, making focus pulling easy and accurate.  The Varotal also has a close focus of 26″ from the Focal plane.  Taking into consideration that the Varotal has a length of 13″, this means you can focus, 13″ from the front optic @ 100mm.  This is a 12 degree field of view, almost rendering the lens a “macro”.  This is a screen shot @ 100mm T3 at i believe 3 feet.  The lens can get even tighter.

One of its coolest features is the internal Filter system.  A small trap door opens up, and a device that looks like a threaded monacle pops out.  You screw in special 30mm filters, and voila`!   Filters that will never flare from the sun, freeing up precious matte box filter trays, and only weigh a few grams.

This video is an example of some of the effects the filters have on the image.

The Varotal opens up to T3.0, a bit faster than its older predecessor the Cooke 20-100 T3.1.  In the 1980’s when this lens was first made, most film stocks sat in the ISO250 range for tungsten.  A T3 aperture was considered pretty fast for a zoom.  Especially one with the range of an entire standard prime lens kit.  In todays shooting environment, with camera sensitivities, and image quality reaching unheard of levels of performance, a T3 aperture is not only adequate, but hardly feels like a hindrance in any way shape or form.  I use a Sony F3, REDmx, and hopefully soon will have the pleasure of working on Epic, and Alexa. All of these cameras have standing ISO800 base sensitivity, and the some of these cameras, the Epic, Alexa and Especially the F3 hardly lose image quality when gained up.  The test below is shot on a F3 @6400.  Mind you i was in Cine gamma mode, and the overall image is darker and lower in contrast, I also was testing the Sepia 2 internal filter wich absorbs 1.5 stops of light.  Had i shot in Rec 709, and no filter i most likely would have been over exposing the shots by about a half stop.  The room with the model sitting was lit by one 40w bulb, the TV and a laptop.  All the filters mentioned above were in play.

Under controlled lighting conditions the Varotal did its very best.  The image is sharp, and color; especially skin tone rendition is perfect.  Shot on F3 w/ 1x 250w softbox, and a 150w pepper hair light.

Here is a grab of the “before”: to show what the raw footae looks like when using a “soft Con” filter to help emphasize the dynamic range, and give me a better “negative” to pull of the composite above.

Thats all i can think of for now.  I will be updating this Lens series with the Cooke iPanchro set, Zeiss CP1 set, and the Duclos 11-16mm PL lens very soon!


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13 years ago

We have the Cooke 18-100 T3 and it truly is a beast… but images do have a character unlike anything I’ve ever shot on.

Some samples below:


13 years ago

looks great!
Thanks for commenting.

Love the silk spot!

12 years ago

Thanks for the review. What’s this set-up like handheld?


11 years ago

Thank you! Veri interesting information. I got my cooke 18-100 today and will test it… But I see already that I have vignette 🙁 I am using my red epim-M

lukas kronsteiner
10 years ago


I would like to sell my cooke 18-100mm T3,0 zoom. Do you know someone who might be interested in the lens?

Thank you for your help


cameraman, austria

7 years ago


Just wondering if you still feel the same way about this lens, I’ve just found a mint one for not a bad price, will be my first and only cine lens for a while. Am shooting all Sony and Arri super 35 in 4k.