Cooke Optics UK Factory Tour

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Cooke Optics lenses

A vintage Cooke Optics lens

Cooke Optics has been making lenses for 130 years, and their coatings haven’t changed much since the ’60s—that’s what contributes to the Cooke Look cinematographers want on their digital bodies, like RED and ARRI.

The coatings are like pixie dust and seen here (decades of them built up) on a flange. The flange holds the lens in an autoclave as the coatings are applied and baked on. Fascinating stuff for a camera nerd, and I learned much more about Cooke when I toured their factory in Leicester last week. I daytripped there from London on a fast train for a tour with my Sony RX1R II.

Cooke Optics lenses

While a few of you may not have heard of Cooke Optics, you do know the look. The cabbie at the airport didn’t know the factory was in his city, either—I had to pull it up on Google Maps for him. That’s part of Cooke’s allure, and the look is warm skin tones, smooth contrast and eye-pleasing sharpness.

Getting that look for a filmmaker outside of a studio or big-budget house also follows my cine story from last week on how manufacturers are responding to ever more capable cameras with new cinema lenses.

In 2013, Cook won an Oscar, an Academy Award of merit for their lenses, defining how a film looks, and the statuette is proudly displayed in the lobby of the factory. You can still sense the uplifting energy the company got from that win, especially, when the backstory to it includes being saved from the brink by American businessman Les Zellan.

The disruption caused by RED and ARRI brought filmmakers out of the woodwork who could afford a $10K body that used to cost a quarter of a million dollars and then either buy lenses like the cine ones I shared from Canon, Sony and Sigma or rent from houses. As I learned, Panavision (who obviously also has a film look) is a closed system and is rentals-only. An ecosystem initiated by RED revitalized Cooke’s business, and whether or not the film or TV show you watched declared itself filmed with Cooke lenses, there’s a good chance it was.

A shortlist includes: Zero Dark Thirty, A Good Day To Die Hard, After Earth, Hugo, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Midnight in Paris and My Week With Marilyn, and television productions including Parade’s End, World Without End, Game Of Thrones, Downton Abbey, True Blood, The Borgias and Chicago Fire.

Just left of reception is the office of Alan Merrills, Cooke’s COO, who warmly greeted me and, after some introductory small talk, handed me a lab coat and walked me into the factory through another door. Seeing how stuff gets made firsthand is always neat, but what struck me at Cooke was the sense of pride, the upbeat staff and the hum of high-quality products being made. I didn’t see any seagull feathers falling from the ceiling, like I read about in their dark days of neglect from a parent company before Les saved them.

Meeting the employees and seeing what they made was quite the opposite experience. There was a table of lenses ready to be shipped, and I followed the factory line from a silica ingot, to polishing, coatings, body assembly and testing. Cooke requested I only shoot stills, and I obliged.

Cooke Optics lenses
The silica ingot process
Cooke Optics lenses
The lens polishing process
Cooke Optics lenses
A polished lens

All of Cooke’s lenses are custom-made to order, and they’re experiencing unprecedented growth, with the factory running 24/7. At capacity, they’re opening another just down the road, and also announced new full-frame lenses for 8K cameras. Of interest to me is their Mini S4/i Primes fit with an E or a Micro 4/3 mount. Even Cooke, who makes the heaviest glass I carried for a bit around Allan’s office, has heard the demand for more compact, on-the-go cameras and responded to their mirrorless market.

Cooke Optics lenses
Cooke Optics lenses ready for shipment

How can you get the Cooke Look with your own collection of lenses? Well, think of your dream sports car, say, a Porsche or Lamborghini, then double the price, if you wanted to pay cash, and maybe are a Director of Photography. You could max out your credit cards, too, or see the work of Philip Bloom who attached a Mini S4 to a Canon EOS 7D.

A Day at the Races Fixed: 7D and Cooke Lenses

The Minis are under $10K, and their 50mm prime is $7,300. When paired with, say, a Sony a7S II at $2,598, that’s a cine system under $10K. At those budgets, we can expect another wave of filmmakers to come out of the woodwork like they did with RED.

For some perspectives on the cost of a cine system, back in London and out for dinner, I met a retired documentary filmmaker. We got to talking, and I told her about the camera tech story I was working on and showed her the Sigma 50mm T1.5 ($3,499) attached to the a7S II. She was amazed at what choices creatives have now, and in her time, that lens alone would have cost $100K. Her crew would have rented it and treated it like the crown jewels.

As I learn in this series of cine stories, it’s really a great time to shoot stills and motion, with many choices at previously unheard of prices.

Visit the Cooke Optics website.

You can follow DL Byron on Twitter @bikehugger