At this (comfortably ignorant) distance the commercial rivalries of our German brethren across the water seem to be civilised affairs predicated on fair play and the just reward of striving for excellence. BMW v Mercedes; Aldi v Lidl; Leica v Zeiss. May the best win, and may they receive sincere admiration from the loser. It’s the cornerstone of an attitude that made ‘German engineering’ a global by-word for quality. Gauss, Tessar, Planar, Biometar . . . you can’t avoid mentioning the Germans when discussing lenses.
In large-format optics – as well as the closely-related field of enlarger lenses – the Big Two of the Big Three are undoubtedly Rodenstock and Schneider – at least in the mind of American and European markets. For half a century, “a Rodenstock/Schneider” has been the number one recommendation of reviewers and retailers. Personal preferences among users tended to be a reflex of habit rather than a judgment of quality. The consensus was (and is) that both ranges are excellent. Both manufacturers produced high-end ‘Apo’ labeled designs that were considered to be equally excellent. You couldn’t put a fag paper between them.
However, I’d like to break ranks and convince you that there are some very important differences between Rodenstock and Schneider lenses for this application and, via a few pointed comparisons, demonstrate which are empirically better. For the record, I’ve used many Rodenstock and Schneider lenses over the years and found them broadly excellent. If I had a brand preference going into these tests it favoured Rodenstock – because they make cool sunglasses and I don’t like the sound of the word ‘Schneider’. But such arbitrary distinctions were firmly set aside for the purpose of this survey. No schnide comments will be allowed.
The best of the Apo’s
For a start, none of the Apo Componon or Rodagons are considered by independent reviewers to be truly apochromatic. The Apo Rodagon 75/4 and 90/4 lenses are an earlier generation than the 80/4 and 105/4 N models. Comparison of MTF data shows that the longer lenses enjoy a slight resolution advantage over the shorter ones, and the N models are consistently better than the models they replace.
Schneider’s Apo Componon models come in 60, 90 and 105mm focal lengths and two iris designs: the HM with straight aperture blades, and the Makro Iris, with curved blades.
The star of the Rodenstock range is the Apo Rodagon 105/4 N, which (for averaged f4-f8 resolution) scores X% for close range and X% for distance. The star of the Schneider range is the Apo Componon-HM 90/4.5 which (for averaged f4-f8 resolution) scores X% for close range and X% for distance. Both lenses are in the top five tested.
Focusing at sharpness, at close range the Apo Componon 90/4.5 has to be considered a superior lens: reaching peak performance at least one stop earlier than the Apo Rodagon 105, which requires f8 to do its best work. However the Rodenstock exposes a relatively weakness of the Schneider in terms of long-range correction: here it is the Componon that requires stopping down further to reach its zenith, and it fails to deliver the highest levels of Zone 3 sharpness at long distance.
The straight aperture blades of the Apo-Componon HM (though not the Makro Iris version) compromise its bokeh smoothness compared to the Apo Rodagon, which is also a faster and longer lens. Subjectively, I can’t avoid the conclusion that the Apo Rodagon gives more attractive images. It delivers demonstrably more vivid saturation and has pleasingly natural-looking contrast. However, on the downside, light handling is a problem – severely hot-spotting from f5.6 on without modification and a hood, and it doesn’t render sunstars at any aperture.
Which is best? These two lenses outperform any other lens made by Rodenstock or Schneider, including the other Apo-labeled focal lengths. But splitting them is as hard as it always has been to separate Rodenstock and Schneider offerings. The Apo-Rodagon 105/4N is slightly more desirable and significantly more expensive in the used market – roughly double the 2022 market value of the Apo Componon 90/4.5 – despite being almost identically priced when purchased new. However the Apo Rodagon is not conspicuously superior in any metric apart from ‘the look’, which is unique – combining very high resolution with moderately low contrast, Velvia colour and dreamy, expressive bokeh at f4. Some lenses have ‘it’ – a glimmer of magic & sparkle or some additional quality of expression. Evidently enough photographers (me included) feel the Apo Rodagon has a bit of something the Apo Componon doesn’t, and they’re prepared to pay for it. Your head will tell you the Schneider is a better used buy, but your heart may fall for the Rodenstock.
Giving star billing to the Apo Rodagon N 105/4 arguably robs its shorter sibling of deserved limelight. How does the Rodenstock Apo Rodagon N 80/4 compare to the Schneider Apo Componon HM 90/4.5? Well, the Rodagon is merely a top-drawer lens like the Componon. By certain metrics it’s a gnat’s crotchet sharper; by others it is not (see spreadsheet for details) but overall they’re hard to separate: the difference in aperture is offset by the difference in focal length; they’re both top 3 percentile lenses. The Apo-Rodagon’s smoother bokeh at f5.6 and smaller apertures just tips the balance in its favour, but it’s a close call. Both are best in breed, but there’s a reason the 105/4 N has a higher market value, and it doesn’t pertain to its sharpness.
The Special Case: Apo-Rodagon-D
Rodenstock Rodagon v Schneider Componon-S
These are probably the most common lenses to find in the used market, and are still in production. In the UK, a Rodagon 80/4 seems good value at £499 compared to either the lowly four-element Rogonar-S at £419 or the 80/4 Apo N at £1,169. Used prices seem flatter and fairer, but reflect similar residuals in percentage terms. The Rodagon is also attractive by comparison with the identically specified Schneider Componon-S 80/4 which lists at a giddy £879.
The received wisdom regarding their competence as enlarger lenses is a fair guide to their resolution at close range.
However, sharpness isn’t the whole story. The Componon-S and Apo Componons have convex pentagonal apertures that create sharply defined pentagonal bokeh balls and edgy out of focus areas. The (non-Apo) Componon-S proved to be even more ‘out there’ by generating some of the most aggressively jittery bokeh I’ve seen at maximum aperture from any healthy lens. Fortunately the Apo Componon has sweet bokeh wide open and at least the option of a curved-blade Makro Iris variant. By contrast, all the Rodagons have curved five-blade apertures that render more pleasing highlights and defocused areas in front of and behind the focal plane. Wide open, Rodagon bokeh is fairly smooth, natural and free of cat’s eye/swirling. Shoot both lenses at f8, though, and the Rodagon image has preferable rendition.
The Rodagons are slightly more susceptible to light leaks and flare than the Componons. The 105/5.6 is a slightly lower contrast lens (even masked and hooded) than either its shorter siblings or the Componons. For some applications, high-contrast lenses are more of a liability than a benefit – and low contrast files are effortless to improve – so I make no value judgment in the rating system. The recommendable 80/4 models from both makers are roughly equal in contrast, but the Schneider rendition even here is slightly punchier.
Common to both manufacturers is a plethora of spin-offs and rebrands, but also a conveniently uniform policy with regard to lens mounts (Leica M39), and front threads (M40.5 for Rodenstock; M43 for Schneider). Durst, for instance, marketed Neotaron lenses made by Rodenstock, and Componon lenses made by Schneider. It is widely rumoured that the Vivitar VHE range was also Schneider-manufactured.
“Buy a Rodenstock/Schneider” remains sound advice today – but a question mark lingers over their value – both practical and resale. As I’ve suggested, they’re not only expensive because they’re famous, but used prices are high compared to less well-known optics. If you’re looking at a £250 for a used Rodagon 80/4, plus helicoid and/or tilt adaptor, you might begin to wonder whether a used tilt/shift or macro lens is a better bet for the same money. Currently, you can buy a Minolta CE, Fujinon EX or Komuranon-S 80-100mm for the same price, or less, than a basic Rodagon or Componon-S. As you’ll see from the ELTS spreadsheet, these relatively obscure lenses (along with the Nikkor EL N’s) perform at a much higher level – closer to the German Apos – and are therefore more highly recommended.
I tend to split enlarger lenses into two eras: late models that benefit from multicoating and computer-aided design/manufacture, and early models that changed relatively little from the 1940s-1970s. There are many interesting early optics with attractive rendition and funky single-coated flare properties and it’s fine to have a few of these in the toolbox for a particular look, but the Enlarger Taking Lens Survey prioritises those that score well technically and can be put to wide range of uses with high fidelity. I will recommend my favourite shonky lenses in another article.
It’s also hard to find good samples of early era enlarger lenses, and indeed often it’s their age and condition that gives them ‘character’. But on that basis I’ve not focused on ranking the Rodenstock/Schneider Omegaron, Rogonar, Ysaron, and Comparon models that were the backbone of film photography in its heyday.
However, two lenses deserves to be singled out for special praise: the single-coated Schneider Kreuznach 80mm f5.6 and 105mm f5.6. Having castigated Schneiders for their accidentally terrible bokeh, and generally sided against them throughout, it’s restorative to write that a strong candidate for GOAT-enlarger-lens-bokeh is not a Rodenstock – which, now I mention it, makes me think of a RodentSock. These lenses crop up regularly at low prices, sometimes packaged as ‘Durst Componon’ in either a big silver M39 jacket or bijou and bare in 25mm and 32.5mm-mount versions. They are beautifully made: weighty for their size and tiny for a six-element design. Though lower contrast than their Componon-S successors, the difference in resolution is small enough that you really have to search for inferiority with a 3 micron pixel-pitch sensor. If your camera has a pixel pitch of 5 microns or more, the difference in resolution is minimal – but the difference in bokeh is not: the early (non-S) Componons have a 19-blade circular iris that elegantly melts foregrounds and backgrounds alike. You have to go the extra mile to control flare and light leaks, but the macro-rendition – the overall look – of these 1960s and 1970s Schneiders is a rare treat for bokeh connoisseurs, and that’s something you can rarely write with conviction about enlarger lenses.
The original Componons are by no means the only lenses with a circular apertures and smooth bokeh, but they are on a very short list of those that also resolve to a high standard. The rarely spotted Agfa ColorStar gets close to the old-school Schneider vibe. Kodak’s Ektars render sweetly, but they are way less sharp; similarly, many anastigmatic tessars have well behaved bokeh, but not in combination with the Componon’s accuracy.
I’ve said that the Apo-Rodagon 105/4 N sets the standard among enlarger lenses for high resolution and sophisticated rendition, but these elderly Schneiders run them close enough for many purposes and cost one tenth the price. There’s another great-looking enlarger lens out there, too, that inherits all the 105/4’s virtues but operates at a slightly lower level, and in an absurdly lower price bracket. More on that later.