Enlarger Lenses: Choosing & Using

Some oddballs get a buzz deploying stuff intended for Job A on ‘Mission X’. To them, the common man’s planetary gear is a can-opener, coat-hook or toast-slice-holder. In their homes lamps are recycled teapots, whisky jars and welded-together-cutlery. Their toilet-roll holders are made of copper plumbing. The concept of shooting with a Sony-mount lens on a Sony mirrorless camera like everyone else sits uneasily in their fertile minds.

In honour of these pioneering souls we present: Enlarger Lenses: Choosing & Using. Not for the purpose of making photographic prints – the myopic, nocturnal task for which they were designed, and to which they are perfectly suited. Not, even, for the purpose of photomicrography and macro photography – to which kindred endeavours they are equally fitted. No, but as general purpose taking lenses – out in the field, shooting stills and video.

WHY?

Because they’re cheap? Mmm. Some are; others not so much: a Kowa Computar f1.9, or top-notch Apo Rodagon is a four-figure investment – or about one quarter of a Noct. They’re not the bargains they were ten years ago. On other other hand, they still, occasionally, come free with discarded enlargers, which is hard to say no to.

Because they’re ‘vintage’? Well, they aren’t in production and most are older than the photographers using them, but they don’t have the typical ‘vintage look’.

Because they’re portable? Certainly.

Because you feel special using one? Perhaps.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

But before we nail the why, let’s consider what an enlarger lens is and is not. It’s small and simple – rarely more than six elements; sometimes only three. It’s often slow: maximum apertures are in the f5 ballpark in the recommended 75-105mm range. It was probably designed in the 1940s and may or may not have been updated since. It’s likely to be fitted with a Leica M39 rear thread. With rare exceptions enlarger lenses are single focal-length primes. They are always optimised for near-field performance. Only a minority are multi-coated, and none have internal focusing mechanisms. They are never weather-sealed – although rudimentary protection against liquid ingress would have been a sensible precaution.

The first issue, then, is that searching for such a vulnerable lens that has spent most of its life in a dark, clammy environment is going to bring you into contact with a lot of fungus and haze. We’re dealing with next-level sample variation here. On the one hand, infected lenses are the norm, not the exception. On the other hand, enlarger lenses are really easy to take apart and clean. But on the other other hand, because they’re really easy to take apart and clean, many have been. And they’ve not always been properly screwed back together.

Secondly, enlarger lenses are as defenceless as newborns against ambient light. In their intended application projected light traveled ‘backwards’, flooding through the lens from the rear into a dark room (literally, a darkroom). Many therefore leak light – intentionally – through their ‘illuminated’ aperture windows. Some also leak light through their mounts and other unexpected crannies.

Many hotspot at middling apertures or suffer reflection problems from focusing helicoids. Almost all flare virulently. Along with your eBay lens purchase, buy a deep hood. You may need to jury rig a blackout screen on the aperture dial. And you will need to be aware of secondary effects when shooting with a bright light in, out of, next to, or vaguely in the vicinity of the frame.

The third consideration is focusing. The macro folk do it with bellows, but that’s no good for twitchy, hip-toting sharpshooters. You will need an M39-M42 adaptor ring and M42 focusing helicoid matched to the focal-flange distance of your lens, plus an M42 > [Mount of Choice] adaptor. All cheaply available on eBay. 

BUT WHY?

Close-up performance. Up to 1:1, enlarger lenses make excellent macro lenses. Reversed, at higher magnifications, they make excellent micro lenses. A cheap enlarger lens is often as good or better, and usually smaller, than a dedicated larger-format optic – because of . . .

That big image circle. A lens that covers a 35mm ‘full-frame’ sensor needs an image circle of 43mm. Lenses with great Zone 3 performance often throw larger image circles (Tokina’s 11-17mm f2.8 AT-X springs to mind), pushing the inevitable degradation outside the captured area. Many enlarger lenses were repurposed into view camera lenses where they covered 5×4 with an image circle of 153mm on a front standard. Even arrayed on the compressed focal-flange distance of a mirrorless camera via adaptors, all enlarger lenses of 50mm+ focal length cover FF with light leftover. However, lenses in the 100mm range a) tend to be of higher resolution and b) have even larger image circles, further benefiting from the sweet spot effect. The upshot of this is sharp corners and . . . 

Movements. There are mechanical, rather than optical, limits to tilt and shift movements with current digital cameras that make ancient view cameras seem rather exciting. But you’ll find on eBay a range of tilt and shift adaptors that deploy that big high-res image circle with benefits. For many, shift movements have become redundant with the advent of monster digital files and post-production solutions, but tilt and swing movements can’t be replicated quite so easily. In any close-up, or even product photography, the ability to manipulate the plane of focus onto a subject is, I would argue, indispensable. And of course, there are many creative application thats require the opposite approach, to twist the focal plane away from a subject or background – which touches on the final major benefit . . .

The Look. If we define ‘vintage look’ as comprising funky flare,  vignetting / aberration in Zone 2-3, generally low contrast, and spherical aberration causing halation or ‘glow’ – enlarger lenses only partially qualify. To me, the drawing style is more ‘cinematic’. Shooting old lenses wide open for video does give a desirable, gentle focus fall-off but that’s largely because actual focus is so fuzzy. The best cinema lenses are highly resolving when in focus, – not as contrasty as photo lenses – and that describes enlarger lenses perfectly. There’s a purity about these simple little optics that draws naturally. Resolution is high, but they don’t look ‘sharp’. Unlike vintage lenses, performance is even across the frame, with well-controlled aberrations. They have a self-effacing quality: you’re attention is on the subject, not artefacts of the lens. They’re subtle, dreamy and precise. The best (typically the Apo versions; especially the Rodenstocks) render vividly saturated colours.

Also, they’re really little – reminiscent of Borg implants – and people like little lenses, even if they weren’t keen on The Borg. It makes them feel powerful, whereas The Borg just made people sad. And into Borgs. There was a rumour Paramount used Industar 23-U enlarger lenses as Borg eyes and if you look carefully at the 4K Star Trek Next Generation remaster you can see the aperture markings blacked out, although the narrative never made clear why (and when?) The Borg assimilated 20th century enlarger lenses. Not a great choice for hard vacuum, I’d have thought, even if they used an internal focusing mechanism with 25th century lube. Anyway . . .

APERTURE ISSUES

To walk back some of these aesthetic benefits we must note some rendering downsides that hinge on aperture design. Enlarger lens apertures vary even more than conventional taking lenses. Anything from 3-30 blades might appear and no polygons are off limits: there are even triangular and square aperture enlarger lenses, whose bokeh is . . . well, distinctive.

Not many late-period (1980-1995) enlarger lenses have circular irises, although they were the norm in previous eras. Some don’t even have a ‘wide-open’ setting: the largest aperture in the Fujinon EX range, for instance, is hexagonal. The problem is that enlarger lenses are frequently (but not always) optimised for best performance one or two stops down, forcing the shooter to choose between best in-focus performance, but weird bokeh (stopped down), or slight softness and smooth bokeh (or at least round bokeh balls) wide open. In the case of Fujinon’s EX range, you don’t have that choice: bokeh balls are perpetually hexagonal because the aperture never opens the full width of the barrel. Conversely, in the case of Componon-S models the bokeh is uglier wide than stopped down. You have to know your lens.

Bokeh wasn’t a thing when enlarger lenses were invented, and in their native habitat a defocused area means something is broken. So pleasant bokeh in an enlarger lens is a fluke, and few lenses are ‘commendable’ – by which I’m making a personal value judgment penalising ‘cats-eyes’ and rings or ‘doubling artefacts’ in favour of what some call ‘neutral bokeh’. That said, if you like ‘swirly’ or ‘soap bubble’ bokeh, you’ll be happy with many of the left-field effects produced by the wide, wonky world of enlarger lens aperture configuration.

Similarly, pleasing sunstars are rendered (or not) entirely out of accord with the manufacturer’s intent. They were never on the agenda. As it happens, some lenses (the EL Nikkors, Minolta CE, Fujinon EX) offer tight, handsomely spiked stars with minimal glow. Others, like the Rodenstock Apo Rodagons, stoically refuse to do so at any aperture.

I’ll be following this introduction to enlarger lenses with a series of articles demonstrating how to mount, focus and modify them; an overview of previous reviews; and overall and manufacturer-specific tests comparing a wide range of lenses with regard to optical performance and issues encountered in use. Happy hunting. 

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