A View of History – An 1897 Cooke Lens Test Chart

Posted on by Larry

The search for that “perfect image” started a long time ago and will continue, I’m sure, far into the future.

I was reminded of this when I came across this 1897 lens test chart from Cooke Lenses (now called Cooke Optics).

Cooke began making lenses for still photography in 1894, in Leicester, England, with a focus on “Don’t do what everyone else can do; go out for something new.” Similar to technology companies today, back then Cooke needed to introduce themselves to the photographic world and explain what made their lenses worth buying. What better way to do this than to create and share a camera test chart filled with testimonials?

NOTE: For those that are not familiar with camera test charts, the small text and graphical shapes test the resolution and spherical accuracy of a lens. It is then easy to compare a photograph with the test chart to see how accurate the lens reproduces reality. Test charts similar to this are still used in media production today, …though without the testimonials.

(Click to see a larger image.)

Though technology continues its relentless march forward, take a look at large format black-and-white still images from around 1897 or so. Even by today’s standards the clarity and detail are amazing. Take a minute and read the testimonials. They bear a striking resemblance to the kinds of reviews we read today: “better,” “clearer,” “faster.”

I look at this chart and two contrasting thoughts come to mind: While we are always looking for better ways to do things, in the hands of people who know how to use it older technology can create amazing results. You don’t have to be using the latest tools to create lasting work.

I was reminded of this in a conversation with an editor today who was depressed that the iMac Pro they purchased a few years ago for a great deal of money has been essentially equaled in performance by the latest M1 chips from Apple.

While technology has, for decades, devoured its young, great work can still be done on older systems. Why, I just realized that a lot of great books were written before typewriters were invented. Smile… and I’ve been told that Leonardo DaVinci did not have access to a computer-generated color palette.

Technology makes us faster, but what makes our work better is the heart and soul we bring to it, as this chart reminded me today.


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