75-80mm Heroes

Previously, I explained why focal lengths of 60-90mm are of special interest to those seeking uncompromised performance at ‘regular’ taking distances of 40cm-infinity. Here’s a summary of tested Delta lenses in this range that should be at the top of your shopping list.

Gold-Awarded at Close Range:
Meopta Meogon 80/2.8; Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon N 80/4; Nikon EL-Nikkor N 80/5.6; Minolta C.E.Rokkor 80/5.6

Gold-Awarded at Distance:
Meopta Meogon-S 80/4; Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon N 80/4

Best Combination of Sharpness & Drawing Style:
Kodak Ektar 75/4.5 (89% near and far / circular aperture)
Agfa Color-Solagon DII 80/4.5 (88% near / 86% far / circular aperture)
Nikon El-Nikkor N 80/5.6 (90% near / 88% far / smooth)
Schneider Componon 80/5.6

Best sunstars:
Fujinon EX 75/4.5; Minolta C.E 80/5.6

Agfa Color-Solagon DII 80/4.5: £30-80

Agfa enlarger lenses are under-appreciated in general, but the Color-Solagon DII is the most criminally overlooked. Often fitted to Varioscop enlargers and European minlabs, the 39mm thread is a non-standard fine pitch that (like the Corygons and Axinons) needs fettling into a standard M42 helical.

Resolution looks excellent at all apertures, in all Zones (remarkably so), at all distances on a c.40MP full frame camera. Only when exposed to the brutal demands of a 3.3 micron sensor do we see that c.80lp/mm is the limit of the Color-Solagon, and the excellence of lenses like the Apo-Rodagon, Meopta Meogon and Fujinon EX (in Zone 1, at least). Contrast is a little lower than average, but it’s hard to be sure whether this was a design feature or a function of present condition, with a high incidence of fungal infestation. Evidently Agfa’s multi-coating was particularly tasty.

Anything short of a really ruined example will therefore give good sharpness: our renovated, but slightly coating-damaged, sample gave a near-field f5.6-8 average of 88%, with a 3.5% drop at distance – comparable to the Hoya Super EL and Minolta C.E.Rokkor – but what makes this lens so desirable is the combination of information-retrieval with truly lovely bokeh from its circular aperture. With a bit of vintage wear stirred into the mix, this lens is a powerful image-making tool with a beautiful drawing style: graceful focus transitions and truly fine-grained resolution. Given the paltry price of these once high-end lenses, it’s hard to remain unmoved by the Color-Solagon as a proposition for shooting still or moving images in 2022. Very highly recommended.

Agfa Colostar (various)

The Colostar-U and Colostar-N (not ‘Colorstar’) range was made in 5mm increments and an awkward fine-pitch 39mm thread – there are eight to choose from in the 75-90mm range, if you can find them. They’re all excellent, with a similar drawing style to the Color-Solagon DII, but none perform as evenly corner-to-corner. A 100mm f4.5 Colorstar-U gave us scores of 83% (near f5.6-f8 average) and 80% (far f5.6-8 average) – hampered somewhat by Zone 3 irregularities. Like the Color-Solagon, it’s hard to fine one in peak condition, but these are not expensive lenses and have an appealing look.

Durst Neonon / Agfa Magnolar 80/5.6: £40-80

Under the skin, these lenses are identical. Probably made by Pentax rather than Durst or Agfa, they sit on the border between adequacy and excellence: resolution is comparable to the Colostar-N, without its creamy bokeh; instead rendering is edgy and distracting. The straight-8 aperture, in typically Japanese fashion of the period, gives handsome sunstars, but there are better options for the money.

Fujinon EX 75mm f4.5: £70-150

Fuji’s premium EX range replaced the EP range, and it was a significant upgrade. Every EX model is comparable to the best at its focal length. However, the 75mm isn’t quite as convincing as its shorter and longer siblings – trailing them for sharpness by 1-2% at near and far distances, ranking identically to the Minolta C.E.Rokkor 80/5.6. That’s still very sharp (a High Silver award). It’s a fine professional-grade lens, with a rotatable mount – handy for mounting in an M42 helical. Fuji’s multicoating and build quality is among the best, too, and CA is no more than averagely troublesome for an enlarger lens – which is to say this is a well corrected lens. Bokeh is a little more nervous than either the Nikon or Minolta (with whom it shares a straight-sided aperture), and a notch less self-effacing than the circular-aperture options at this focal length. It controls flare better than any of its competition, and its sunstars are (therefore) some of the prettiest.

If this was the only 75mm enlarger lens in the world, everyone could make beautiful pictures all day, providing they skirted around f4.5 at long distance where Zone 3 dissolves to a mushy 7.6. That said, few lenses here score better than 8.0 at f4-4.5: honourable exceptions being the Schneider Apo-Componon 90, Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon N 80/4 and Meogon-S 80/4. But it isn’t quite the best, most likeable, or most affordable option in this group.

Hoya Super-EL 75/4.5: £60-100

A lens of many names. In Japan, you may know it as Osawa-Tominon; in southern Europe, Bemecron; in America, Omicron-EL or Beseler ColorPro; globally as Yashica or Bogen. Here in the UK, it was most commonly sold under the Hoya Super-EL brand. Whatever you call it, it’s a classy six-element design with a straight-eight aperture.

Near-field performance is solid at 87.5% – fractionally behind the class-leaders, peaking at f8, and dropping 3% at distance. Bokeh is edgier than average, but sunstars are excited from f8. Performance is sound rather than spectacular. The lens is priced fairly on the market.

Kodak Ektar 75mm f4.5: £25-60

This enlarger lens is seen in the pre-war, English-made variant and the lighter, Eastman-branded alloy-bodied version made in New York. The London versions were not given serial numbers. The year of manufacture of the American versions can be identified by the serial number, which begins with two letters from the word C-A-M-E-R-O-S-I-T-Y, with the number 1 assigned to C; 2 assigned to A; 3 assigned to M, etc. A recently sighted sample marked RE265 was therefore made in 1954, right in the middle of its 1941-1967 production run. Although they are all five-element Heliar designs, the later US versions with (at least) upgraded coatings have been optically far superior.

Adaptation is a simple matter of fiddling a 30.5mm > M42 step ring onto the Ektar’s Imperial 1 1/4″ thread. It’s not an exact fit, but it’s secure enough when padded with threadlock or non-gassing adhesive.

Ektar lenses were Kodak’s top-flight line, and this 75mm doesn’t disappoint. It’s shockingly sharp for a lens of this vintage, scoring 89% for average f5.6-8 performance at distance – the same as the Schneider Apo Componon 90HM. It’s also rare in performing nearly as well at distance as at close range. Wide open it scores a credible 8.9 for Zone 1 and 8.4 for Zone 3. At distance, it scores a giddy 9.2 centre frame at f5.6 – a feat matched by few lenses tested. The only slight niggle is that Zone 3 needs to be stopped down to f8 to reach a score of 8.7.

Chromatic and geometric aberrations are well enough corrected that we can say they’re not a factor: colour fringing is here less of a problem than, for instance, class-leading Nikon N, Fuji EX or Rodagon equivalents.

The well-formed circular aperture adds icing to the cake in the form of bokeh that is among the most pleasing I’ve tested (for enlarger lenses). You can’t expect sunstars at any aperture, flare is typically problematic (though not among the worst enlarger lenses), and colour rendition is rather subdued, but on balance, this beer-money lens is among the most highly recommendable in Delta – although just outside the sharpest trio of lenses at this focal length, when price is factored in, it has the most attractive combination of tonality and resolution.

Meopta Meogon 80/2.8: £125-200

This is the sharpest short-range enlarger lens we’ve tested. Wide open, that unique f2.8 aperture is best viewed as a (rather attractive) soft-focus filter – especially at distance. You can’t even use it as a focusing aid: by the time you’ve stopped it down to a shooting aperture, focus will have shifted enough to require refocusing for mission-critical applications. But the leap in resolving power at f4 is stunning. It gets better at f5.6, bringing the whole frame into the ballpark of reference lenses like the Sigma 40mm and 105mm.

This big five-element design comes helical-ready with an M42 mount and has an unusually short focal-flange distance of 66mm, requiring a helical+adaptor extension of 46mm on Lumix cameras (similar on others). Like early Rodagons, the aperture ring pushes and turns to release or engage click-stops. Like later Rodagons there’s a curved five-blade aperture that, from f4, improves rather edgy and funky bokeh wide open.

Don’t expect beautiful sunstars – kludgy stars are eventually rendered from f11 – and (unlike the Apo-Rodagon-N that is its natural competitor) there’s an obvious performance dip at longer range, but the Meogon 80/2.8 is undisputably one of the top five enlarger lenses ever made and is currently undervalued.

Meopta Meogon-S 80/4: £50-100

There’s little to suggest in the f4 rendition of the Meogon-S 80/4 the witchcraft that ensues by turning the aperture ring one click – then another. Like its faster stablemate, wide open is little more than an effects filter – treat it as a separate lens. The slower Meogon-S may not quite reach the f2.8’s peak of 9.4 in Zone 1 but it comfortably exceeds the 9.0 benchmark from f5.6-f11 and even scores 9.1 in Zone 3 at distance (f8) – a feat only matched by the Schneider Apo Componon 60 Makro Iris and the best Sigma primes.

Most enlarger lenses are excellent at short distance (25-80cm). The best of them – like either Meogon – combine sensor-resolving capabilities with field flatness, low-to-zero CA and usefully gentle contrast. The Meogon’s 89% rating for near F5.6-8 Average makes it incrementally below state-of-the-art, but its ability to carry that performance to longer working distances (89.5% far f5.6-8 Average) makes it special.

Both Meogons are tidily made, but suffer from disconcerting play in the aperture ring that makes them feel cheaper than they are. However, they seem to resist fungal ingress better than averagely well and are properly screwed together where it matters: few samples have suffer separation or other manufacturing defects that the test of time has punished in others (ahem, Computar).

Bokeh is similar to the Meogon 80/2.8: a little above averagely smooth for an enlarger lens. On balance this is a lens I would recommend slightly ahead of the EL-Nikkor 80/5.6 for it’s comparable performance at a lower price – and of course the extra stop. That makes it an absolute keeper in my kit bag.

Minolta C.E.Rokkor 80/5.6: £60-120

Don’t bother with any other Minolta enlarger lens: the top of the line C.E models, in production (or at least on sale) from 1974-1985 are well worth the cost premium over the rather dismal E.Series. They are compact, but beautifully wrought, with a broad, positive aperture ring. Expect the usual light leak issues, but for taking purposes Minolta’s multi-coating is among the more effective options, combining with the straight-8 aperture to give some of the best defined and most attractive sunstars on planet Delta.

Minolta’s six-element orthometar shadows Nikon’s EL-Nikkor N 80/5.6 in many respects. It’s heavier and better built, but by every other metric it’s fractionally inferior: scoring 89.5% for f5.6-8 near-average (versus the Nikon at 90.8%). Like the Nikon it holds on to its close-range resolution very well, dropping to 88% (versus the Nikon at 89%). Its bokeh, too, is just a little harsher than the Nikon. All told, this is a very fine lens, but it can’t be recommended ahead of the Nikon N, which is only a little more expensive.

Nikon EL-Nikkor 80/5.6: £80-160

It’s not a matter of opinion that the EL-Nikkor N 80/5.6 is a top pick at this focal length. It is better than the (similarly, but not quite as, excellent) Japanese contenders and cheaper than the Apo-labeled Germans. On the Near f5.6-8 average index it scores a solid Gold award with 90.8%, and almost maintains this performance at distance, dropping to a very High Silver at 89%. The high marks are achieved by uncommonly good correction resulting in excellent Zone 3 performance. Colour rendition and bokeh are also a step up from all but the Apo-Rodagon-N, and there’s even sweet sunstars that render similarly to AI-S-era Nikon glass. These lenses may have held their value relatively well, but I still consider them bargains, given that they are all-but equivalent to the most prestigious lenses in this range.

The only significant caveat is that they’re slow – but know that most of the faster (and all the cheaper) alternatives are quite soft across the frame at f4, whereas Nikon’s orthometars nearly hit peak performance from maximum aperture.

Rodenstock Rodagon 80/4: £80-150

Two questions are invariably asked about Rodenstock Rodagons: how do they compare to the equivalent Schneider Componon? And how do they compare to the more expensive Apo-Rodagon? Before getting into that, the scuttlebutt must be confirmed that any six-element Rodagon (or indeed almost any lens ending in -gon) – is a well-wrought thing that will give excellent results if in good condition. Two generations of Rodagon 80/4 were made: the earlier version has a broad, dual-band rubber aperture ring with a push-pull mechanism that disengages click-stops, revealing a red stripe beneath. There was also an f5.6 version released in this packaging. The later generation is optically identical but has a thinner aperture ring and a click-release button on the side and was only available in 80/4.

To the first question: we have found the Rodagon to be slightly sharper overall at close range, and slightly weaker at distance vs. the equivalent Componon or Componon-S. Predictably, the Rodagons sharpen up more noticeably toward their optimal f8 aperture and Componons start out sharper at wider apertures, but don’t quite reach the f8 peak of the Rodagon. The Rodagons all have above-averagely smooth bokeh (for enlarger lenses) because of their curved five-blade aperture, which gives a much more attractive overall rendition than the very problematic Componon-S models with their concave five-blade apertures. However, the Rodagon bokeh is rather less pleasing than the earlier Componon (especially the 80/5.6) thanks to their fine circular aperture.

To the second: you pay extra for sharp corners. Neither the 80 Componon or Rodagon reaches a benchmark 9.0 in Zone 3, and only struggle to high 8.x marks by f11, where diffraction takes its toll – whereas the Apo-Rodagon-N is excellent across the frame from f5.6 and bitingly sharp at f8 (scoring 9+). Therefore the Apo-Rodagon-N gets a Gold award at all distances and the Rodagon only a strong Silver. The Apo has much better colour rendition and purity, thanks to its better correction and multicoating.

Given the price, it’s hard to recommend the Rodagon 80/4 above better performing competition: ie, Minolta C.E, Fuji EX, Nikkor EL, either Meogon, or even the Hoya Super EL 75. But that’s testimony to the general excellence of these cheap lenses rather than their failings: the Rodagon 80/4 is fully suitable for all applications that don’t demand critical Zone 3 sharpness at long distance.

Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon-N 80mm f4: £400-600

If you’re simply looking for the best 80mm enlarger lens – cost no object – buy this one. If cost is a factor, maybe not. Yes, it is Gold-Awarded for near and far sharpness. Yes, it probably has juicier colour rendition than any lens in Delta – and most contemporary glass. Yes, it’s fully useable at f4 and gives reference-level performance across the frame at f5.6. Yes, it has the same reassuring mechanical solidity as a Bentley. Yes, it’s the perfect focal length for movements. And yes, if you only buy one enlarger lens, it should be this one. If there was a ‘but’ coming, I forgot what it was.

Oh, yes: the price. The problem is that for less than £400 you could buy both Meogons: giving you a slightly sharper short-range lens, an equally sharp long-range lens, an extra stop of light, and a whole spare lens. Or, if you can live without a stop, there’s the Nikon 80/5.6 – almost as good at half the price. While we’re carping, bokeh is sweet wide open, but messier stopped down compared to the longer Apo-Rodagons or, for instance, the much smoother, and ‘sharp enough’ Kodak Ektar 75/4.5, Agfa Color-Solagon DII 80/4.5 and Componon 80/5.6.

But as I said, if you have one, and you only want one lens, and you’re happy with the bokeh – keep it: there’s nowhere to upgrade to. Although you might want to check out the Meogon 80/2.8 and £200 in your pocket.

Schneider Componon-S 80/4: £100-160

See Rodenstock Rodagon 80/4. The lenses perform similarly, but the Componon-S has much uglier bokeh and isn’t recommended.

Schneider Componon 80/5.6

The mighty atom. Not much bigger than an ear-ring (though a lot heavier), this jewel of a lens – like the the Agfa Colostar and Color-Solagon – offers an endearing blend of good-enough resolution (87.3% for near f5.6-f8 average, dropping by 2.5% at distance) with the distinctive bokeh of a circular aperture. The M25 mount is easily adapted to M42 and, like all enlarger lenses, you will need to fit a hood to control ambient light, to which it’s more than averagely susceptible. No sunstars, but a winning drawing style in a bijou package you won’t believe is real until you process your images. I would personally recommend this lens for picture and video taking a long way ahead of the slightly sharper Componon-S – not least because of the later optic’s ghastly concave five-blade aperture.

Tested and not recommended at this focal length:

Computar DL 50-80/4.5; Fuji EP75; Meopta Anaret-S 80/4.5; Rolleinar-EL 75/4.5;
Perfex 75/3.5; Nikon N 75/4; Minolta E.Rokkor 75

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