In this installment of the Examination of Lenses series, we will be looking at a venerable lens. The Cooke Super Cinevarotal MKI T3.1 25-250. (Special thanks to Mike Ross who provided the lens, and i promise i will review something other than a Cooke in the next article!) This was the lens used to shoot the original Superman film. Being a product of the late 1970’s this lens certainly has the character and look of that period. Zoom lenses from that era, the pre computer age, completely hand made, with all the flaws and perfection unique to a hand made product, have a distinct feeling to them. Somewhat soft, with a dreamy dramatic look. The Angeniuex’s had it, the Cookes had it, and the Lomo’s certainly had it. This lens is no exception. Unlike contemporary zooms that perform consistently all the way through their range and apertures, (Angeniuex DP Rouges, Optimos, Allura Zoom, Fujinon Zooms etc) This lens really needs to be kept a safe distance from its extremes. Full wide, and full telephoto both cause the lens to act up, as well as wide open apertures. The artifacts happen far more on the telephoto end of the lens, than it does on the wide, however in the video below, you will see that at 25mm it does display some softness in the corners. The Cinevarotal seems to behave far better in terms of flare performance and sharpness when stopped down past a T5.6.
This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the lens is thirty years old. I personally found the flaws, to be part of its charm. If i’m shooting a period romance drama, i definitely would shoot on this lens, wide open even. The softness is so kind to the talents complexion, and the reduced contrast gives the sense of antiquity. There are a few caveats to watch out for when shooting on a Cinevarotal, the lens has a lot of purple/green chromatic aberration on the long end of the lens. Its pretty robust from 32mm-200mm @ T4+, but once you go wide open, or past 200mm it gets very “quirky”. The last 2 clips on the the video, really demonstrates the performance difference between, wide open and stopped own. The shot of the couple with the dog is wide open @ 250mm, and the shot of the monument is also 250mm, however @ T8.
Notice the couple shot is a dreamy soft romantic “optical disaster” by Arri Master Zoom standards. The monument shot however is far more acceptable by todays standards.
Mechanically the lens i used was sound, and despite its age, it was well taken care of, and the focus and zoom mechanisms were practically brand new. One interesting mechanical quirk is that the focus ring, has a small metal housing that covers part of the focus ring, and within it, is a mechanical dampener. Essentially a small toothed wheel that has a friction element to it, that slows down and tightens the feel of the focus ring. Very odd, but it gets the job done. Now based on the photo above i’m assuming i don’t have to mention that the size of this lens is daunting. It weighs in about 20 pounds, and is the size of a 3 liter pepsi bottle. In studio setups, or narrative that requires no hand held, i’d not hesitate to shoot on this lens.
Some things to be aware of….
It will not cover RED EPICS 5k until you reach well into its Zoom range. Even then, the 5k Frame is looking into the far edges of the image circle, not a place lens manufacturers ever intended the film plane to be. So use it with an Epic at your own peril. On Red MX, F3, Alexa, AF100 and FS100 you should have no trouble whatsoever.
These test images from a RED training seminar show the vignetting corners of the Epic with the Cinevarotal. Stills Courtesy of Mike Ross.
In Conclusion, This lens has tons of feeling, character, and just enough “trouble” to keep things interesting. Just what I look for in a piece of glass. After all, nothing is more boring than absolute perfection…. There are contemporary zooms that are as sharp as primes, have zero breathing, don’t flare and weigh in at astonishingly low amounts. However by eliminating all the “flaws” they also scrubbed out all the character. This lens, just like its smaller brothers the Cooke Varotal 18-100 and Varotal 20-100, are character incarnate.
Next Time Zeiss Compact Primes.