50mm Heroes

Everyone and their aunt made a 50mm enlarger lens. And if you use a 50mm enlarger lens, you have to ask: why not use one of the hundreds – nay, thousands – of standard 50mm taking lenses, which everyone’s aunt and uncle made too? Adding to the excitement, we even find the odd wide angle projector lens in this focal length, and a sprinkling of long cine projector lenses. To say that a photographer is ‘spoilt for choice’ at this focal length is an understatement bordering on farce.

Before we attempt to answer, we have the advent of mirrorless cameras to thank for even being able to address this topic. Most 50mm enlarger lenses have focal-flange distances of around 45mm, which simply didn’t allow them to be focused beyond the extreme macro range on DSLRs. Many have been tested for this application (commonly reversed) and verdicts were reached.

However, Delta explores their properties as general-purpose video and stills lenses, with an eye on their field flatness, sharpness, drawing style, flare behaviour, bokeh, starburst rendering, etc – and it’s on this basis that we want to single out a few lenses worthy of discussion. First, let’s get one question out of the way: are 50mm enlarger lenses sharp?

The Sharpness Masters

Disappointingly, at long distance – by comparison with a typical modern f1.4 prime – not really, especially at wide apertures.


However, at working distances under 1m, where even modern primes tend to suffer something of a performance downtick, enlarger lenses come into their own, especially at the smaller apertures required to work effectively in this range. If we set aside the fact that the shorter enlarging lenses have smaller images circles and tight Extensions unsuitable for tilt and shift movements, and often suffer somewhat from vignetting until they hit f5.6, they are usually built for higher resolution than longer focal lengths. In fact, the majority of enlarger lenses scoring ‘Gold’ in the Hall of Fame are 60mm or less. Outstanding among these, in alphabetical order, are:

Fujinon EX 50/2.8
Minolta CE 50/2.8
Nikon EL 50/2.8 N
Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon-N 50/2.8
Schneider Apo-Componon Makro-Iris 60/4

Schneider Componon-S 50/2.8 [16828]

Also excellent, but narrowly failing to make the shortlist, are the later Leica Focotar 50/4.5 models and Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon 45 (both superb near-field, but quickly deteriorating at longer range); the earlier (pre-N) Apo-Rodagons (not quite as well corrected as the N); all the other Schneider 50mm Componons (the 1960-70 models draw well but aren’t quite sharp enough, and the 1980s models have gruesome bokeh).

There are other competent 50mm lenses that don’t have obvious weakness, but don’t scale the peaks of excellence of the shortlisted six – here worthy of mention are the Hoya Super-EL, Meopta Meogon, Rodenstock Rodagon, the later Agfa Color-Magnolars – maybe even the Taylor Hobson Ental II – all of which render nicely and are workably sharp.