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 praise. 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.

— FACTS

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); the EL-Nikkor 63/2.8 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 US-made Ektar and later Agfa Color-Magnolars – maybe even the Taylor Hobson Ental II – all of which render nicely and are workably sharp.

And although Delta is the largest survey ever undertaken of enlarger lens performance, there are still lenses we haven’t yet tested. The Kowa/Computar/Chugai 50/2.8 and 55/1.9 were given top honours by Ctein in the 1990s. We haven’t yet tracked down good samples of the Meogon 50/5.6 or 60/5.6. There may be worthy lenses lurking in the Taylor-Hobson and Dallmeyer catalogues. Not to mention the unknown unknowns.

Bad Buys and Bargains

Taking as a guide the valuation of a used, own-brand 50/1.4 or 50mm Macro (typically £100-150) many of these lenses have reached fair prices, given their utility in 2022. The Delta Big Six are of known quality but the Japanese models typically fetch less (typically £50-100) than the somewhat overpriced Germans: the magical combination of ‘Apo’ and ‘Made in Germany’ still pegs the valuation of those lenses in the £150-200 range.

It’s likely – in fact, expected! – that the Kowa 55/1.9 will join the ‘Gold’ club when tested, but its valuation (like its specification) is unique: presently five or six times that of the Apo-Rodagon-N.

The earlier Apo-Rodagons are rightfully worth less than the N models, but the Fujinon EX range isn’t dignified with the premium valuation it deserves over the Fujinon EPs. The EX models should be priced at the level of the Nikon EL-50/2.8 N and the German Apos.

Similarly, it seems to have been overlooked that Schneider never offered an Apo-Componon 50/2.8 to compete head on with the Apo-Rodagon – but the retail price of the ‘basic’ Componon-S was higher than the contemporary Apo-Rodagon – because it was better. It didn’t ‘sound’ as good, or sell as well, but the final six-element version [XX] matches the best Rodenstocks for sharpness, and it moved on from the concave-5 diaphragm that blighted earlier versions [XX]. It fully deserves a seat at the top table and has ended up being the best value elite-level 50mm enlarger lens. They should be snapped up at less than £50, but don’t expect them to rocket in value.

Many lenses in the ‘Silver’ category are valued at around £40-60, but a few have been written off as junk in a way that benefits discerning buyers: the US-made Kodak Ektar 50/4.5 and 1970s Steinheil/Agfa’s routinely fail to reach £20 on eBay and are roughly equal to the dependable but unspectacular Rodagons.

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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.

— FACTS

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.