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Cooke Speed Panchro Lenses

The average price for a cinema camera lens is over $10000 US Dollars, and that’s for one lens. Most films require a set of at least 5 lenses. You can expect to double that price when it comes to anamorphic lenses, and also zoom lenses. So the hope for a low budget independent shooter to rent or buy these lenses is very unlikely.

With the cinema world, there are a variety of lens brands, but one of the most common and successful is the English company, Cooke.

The Cooke Speed Panchros were first introduced into the cinema world in the 1930’s and were used on films such as Casablanca. But as their design and speed developed, they were used in more films into the 60s including “The Sound of Music”. By the 1990’s however, Speed Panchros were used less and less as the demand for sharper, more clinical glass became necessary.

Before the digital revolution took over, cinematographers would choose lenses which were optically the sharpest and most precise, in order to balance the inconsistencies created in the chemical stages of the film process. But as digital cameras increased in popularity, the demand for lenses with more “character” and “visual defects” seemed to rise to compensate, digital cameras’ naturally, overly, artificial feel . And so a lot of cinematographers went back to older lenses, and anamorphic shooting, to achieve the organic looks they were after.

Cooke speed panchros quickly became a go to for a lot of filmmakers wanting to shoot period piece style content. These exact lenses have been used on major film productions such as The Crown, Chernobyl, Bohemian Rhapsody and in The Academy Award nominated film for best cinematography Mr. Turner.

The unique look of the Cooke Speed Panchros is largely achieved when shooting wide open. Although not the fastest lenses, at T2.3, there is a very interesting swirling affect in the out of focus areas, which adds to a look which could be described as “smeary” or “painterly”. I think this is one of the biggest selling points of the lens. Imperfections add character to a shot, the way that film stocks would add grain and chemical inconsistencies. This is, what makes vintage lenses so sort after.

The Cooke Speed Panchros do have a lot of flare. But this is part of it’s character, and something which a lot of modern cinematography demands. By coming in and out of lens flare, the lens dramatically creates quick changes in depth and contrast.

So how much are Cooke Speed Panchros? Well, they’re still around $10000 US dollars for a single lens if you buy them in their rehoused versions, the Panchro i/classics, TLS and other alternatives.

So why are these considered affordable cinema lenses if they are still so expenseive and were used on all these major films?

Well, I decided that rehousing them wasn’t necessary for me if I wanted to save some money, so I began looking for older, unrehoused versions. Unrehoused versions sell for much cheaper.

Now buying Cooke Speed Panchros isn’t as easy as it used to be. These lenses are heavily sort after because their value and quality is well known. And not only that, it’s almost impossible to tell the quality of the lens because of their age. Fungus and hazing is very common among these lenses, and they significantly reduce the value of these lenses.

To top it off, there are so many different versions of the Cooke Speed Panchro lenses, that choosing the right lens can be a bit tricky. The best thing to do is to look at the serial numbers and only buy lenses which start with the number, 6 or 7 since these are newer and more modern versions of the S2 and S3 series. Although earlier serial numbers can produce nice results, the newer versions are generally of a more consistent quality and a safer purchase. The best place to look for these lenses is on eBay, but they do sell quickly when they are put up for the right price.

So how much can you expect to pay for a Cooke Speed Panchro lens in its original form? Well, it seems to me like the going price for a good quality lens in its original housing is around $3000 US dollars. While this is still a significant amount of money, keep in mind that this lens is optically identical to the newer, far more expensive rehoused versions, and a third of the price you would expect to pay for these newer versions.

One of the main issues with buying individual older speed panchro lenses is that there is almost always some sort of colour shift between the lenses because of their age being manufactured in the 1960s. In particular, I have found that the 75mm Cooke S2 suffers from a significant amount of yellowing in its optics, which is expensive to properly remove, and therefore I have to manually set the white balance every time I am shooting on this lens. I have found that this yellowing does not affect the overall image quality of the lens however.

When it comes to form factor, this lens is ridiculously tiny, so we do see some issues on a full frame sensor when it comes to coverage. The side of the lens make its incredibly difficult to change aperture and get focus, and this is the biggest reason why the rehoused versions are so sort after.

The other tricky thing is the lens mount. The Panchros come in their original Arri standard or mitchell mounts, and I had to purchase a somewhat pricey adapter for its use on a PL mount. This adapter could cost up to $800 US dollars depending on which version you go with, and only a specific one designed by Les Bosher fits the best on the panchros.

Overall, these lenses work best with a camera setup which is smaller and designed for it. I have adapted it to my Blackmagic Pocket 4k and my Arri Amira, and am always impressed by the results.

While buying older lenses is a risk, it can also be very rewarding and it was the route I decided to choose when deciding what lenses I was going to invest in for higher end shooting.

Personally, shooting on Cooke Speed Panchro lenses was always a dream of mine, and I feel very lucky that I’ve been able have them as a part of my current kit. In the future I may choose to rehouse them, but for now, I’m happy enough shooting on them in their current form factor.

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Hi Robbie, thanks for the article- very interesting. Could you tell me a little bit more about your colour correcting process in camera when putting on that 75mm? Do you change the CC on your Amira at all or do you just cool down the image by adjusting the kelvin by eye? Have you found a more precise way of keeping colour consistency across the entire lens range using charts, LUTS etc.? Thanks!


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