In the mindset of US and European buyers, Fuji enlarger lenses occupy a tier below the Big Three of Nikon, Rodenstock and Schneider. However, Fuji’s roots in this area are respectably deep, and like their higher-profile peers, they extracted better mileage from their R&D by repurposing enlarger lenses as large format taking lenses and vice versa.
In 1950, Fuji’s ‘E-Rectar’ triplet enlarging lenses began rolling off the production line in Odawara. Models of this period are distinguished by the marking ‘FUJI PHOTO FILM’. Some focal lengths are designated in centimetres rather than millimetres. However, an improved range of Tessar (four-element) lenses soon emerged under the designation Fujinar-E.
In 1957, Fujinar-E production moved to the Fuji Photo Optical factory, and lenses were indicatively marked. Focal lengths now appear consistently in millimetres. In the 1960s, Fuji introduced an upper-tier range of six-element orthometars designated Fujinon-E, tipping their hat to the German convention of naming entry-level lenses with the suffix -ar (Componar, Rogonar) and high-end six-element lenses with the suffix -on (ie, Companon, Rodagon).
However, in 1975, the Fujinar-E range (available in focal lengths from 50-135mm) was replaced by the incrementally upgraded Fujinon-ES, and the Fujinon-E range morphed into the Fujinon-EP (all f5.6, apart from the 50/2.8). By this time, the Fujinon brand was established across Fuji’s output, and it’s application to the -ES range is somewhat misleading: the 1960s Fujinon-E was a superior lens to the four-element 1970’s Fujinon-ES – a truth suggested neither by chrononology nor nomenclature – and not reflected by current valuation.
While the Fujinon-ES continued in production until 1991, the EP range was upgraded in 1983 by all-new Fujinon-EX models benefiting from EBC (Electron Beam Coating) treatment and advertised as apochromatic.
However, despite their market share, their performance justifies a seat with the grown-ups. Build quality and optics are competitive at least – testimony to which is the number of samples still available in excellent condition. Though construction isn’t in Apo Rodagon territory, a Fujinon enlarger lens is a solid buy in 2022, and the creeping value of EX lenses in particular is a sign of their desirability.
In 1986, Darkroom Techniques’ contributing editor Bob Mitchell “came out of the darkroom [with] . . . exciting news!” In the May/June edition he tested several of the new EX range against their more popular counterparts, and reported: “Fuji make great enlarging lenses and that’s for sure.” Reported in lp/mm, these are the test results that got him so hot under the collar:
|Fuji EX 50/2.8||80||45||90||56|
|Fuji EX 75/4.5||45||40||72||50|
|Fuji EX 90/5.6||50||50||72||50|
|Fuji EX 135/5.6||45||28||45||36|
As the exec of the USS Montana said in James Cameron’s ‘Abyss’: “Nothing goes 135!” And it’s true: 135lp/mm is unobtainium, but the Fuji 50EX belongs to a rare club that can “go 90” – lp/mm at f5.6 in Zone 1 (centre frame). Before locating this test, our experience had pigeon-holed all Fujinon enlarger lenses as very sharp in Zone 1 and slightly off the pace in Zone 3, and it was gratifying to see the same pattern emerge from tests made decades earlier.
Prices of Fujinon enlarger lenses in the digital era have tended to homogeneity, but the EX range is a big step up, and was once valued much more highly. As well as being optically superior, EX’es have the benefit of a fully air-spaced design, which means that an old lens can usually be restored economically: the major – all too common – kiss of death for these lenses (see Computar DL) is balsam separation of cemented elements, of which Fujinon EX’es have none.
As if to compensate, some EX models (in particular the EX 75/4.5) are cussedly difficult to render light-tight, leaking not just through the hidden porthole on the rear mount designed to illuminate the aperture dial, but also via the rotating mount mechanism. However, taken outdoors, the Electron Beam Coating does its job well, and these lenses have above average flare resistance – for an enlarging optic.
The EX 105/5.6 is inherently less leaky, but has a potentially problematic idiosyncrasy of its own: its widest aperture doesn’t extend the full width of the inner barrel. This potentially ‘f4’ lens can’t be opened up fully to give circular bokeh balls and other benefits the extra stop would have conferred. Perhaps it made sense in context of its original application (though perhaps not, too) but as a taking lens it puts it at a slight disadvantage to competitors like the Apo Rodagon 105/4.
And indeed it is more competitive with these top-flight lenses than the stock Rodagon, Componon-S and EL-Nikkor options. The EX 105/5.6 may be most desirable taking lens at its price and focal length: where the Componon-S is a bit soft wide open, the EX is very sharp centre frame; where the Rodagon is a bit sludgy and low-contrast, the EX is crisp and punchy, and it has slightly more vivid colour rendition than the Nikon.
However, the shorter lenses face stiffer competition. The EL-Nikkor 80/5.6, for instance, exposes the slightly sub-par Zone 3 performance of the EX75/5.6 and EX90/5.6. In Zone 1, The Fujinon ES versions are almost as sharp as the benchmark EX’es but deliver a soggy Zone 3. Minolta’s CE 80/5.6 has to come into the conversation here, too, with its tremendously even corner-to-corner performance. The competing Rodagon 80/4 has similar performance characteristics to the Fujinon EX’es: a reference-grade Zone 1 but slightly feeble in Zone 3. Schneider’s Componon-S 80/4 is more like the Minolta in terms of level performance across the frame, but the German f4 lenses really benefit from that extra stop, delivering great performance at f5.6.
All told, though, if you demand the highest resolution in Zone 1/2 (enough to cover APS and M43 sensors), every razor-sharp EX Fujinon is anything but second-tier, and even the dime store ES models are commendably transparent on sub-full-frame cameras.
‘Fujinon bokeh’ is a thing we can speak of – for every Fujinon-EX has the same aperture design: a straight-eight that also delivers the prettiest sunstars of any enlarger lens. Fujinon EX bokeh is much better behaved than the S-Series Componons, but it’s a little rowdier than that of EL-Nikkors, with faint ‘soap-bubble’ highlight ringing. Late-model Rodagon bokeh is also slightly preferable to me than the EX’es, but you may not share my view: they’re certainly comparable, without significantly intrusive artefacts. Neither are quite as slick as the EL-Nikkors or as ‘molten’ as the beautiful old 19-blade Componons and Ektars.
Stopped down, the ES models have similar bokeh to the EX but defocused areas are conspicuously edgy and uncomfortable at maximum aperture, forcing a choice between smooth bokeh or round highlights – never both – a dilemma faced by users of the EX 105mm, too, which (as noted above) doesn’t have a circular aperture, even wide open.
As ever, older models with more aperture blades (Fujinar-E and Fujinon-E lenses were fitted with 9-12 blade diaphragms) render smoother backgrounds, but weren’t as sharp.