Enlarger lenses
From ordinary to unusual  

In the days of film photography, owning an enlarger and learning to develop and print black-and-white pictures were necessary steps in the career of any "real" amateur photographer. Digital photography has freed us from messing with chemical solutions in improvised darkrooms in closets, bathrooms and basements (or at least, this is how I feel about it - I certainly don't miss the smell of fixer on my fingertips). The Digital Revolution (which in practice means taking analog pictures on an analog solid-state-sensor, converted to digital format as an afterthought of the camera) has left large numbers of darkroom enlargers, and related equipment, essentially useless for most practical purposes, except possibly as collector's items.

I don't plan on starting a collection of darkroom enlargers any time soon, especially because these items take a lot of space, and I am not aware of anyone doing so (although several of the older enlargers probably do have an appeal to collectors). However, enlarger lenses are another matter altogether. Some of them are good optical performers by any comparison, and a few are good to excellent when reversed as photomacrographic lenses. A few other enlarger lenses may find a use as specialty photographic lenses, e.g., on digital-converted large-format cameras (especially the lenses designed for large format negatives, which usually have medium focal lengths around 100-200 mm). From a collector's point of view, enlarger lenses would seem to be a reasonable choice, because there have been several tens of manufacturers, and probably well over one thousand different models. A collection in excess of a hundred specimens can fit in a couple of drawers. In addition, it is possible to find a large variety of these at very reasonable prices on the second-hand market. There is plenty of room for specialising on a particular brand or type of lens, if desired. I would assume that enlarger lenses complete with their original boxes, plastic containers, documentation and/or lens caps would be more appealing, at least to some collectors.

I don't regard myself as a collector of enlarger lenses, but now and then I do buy an unusual one when it becomes available at a reasonable price. In this page, I show and briefly discuss some of the enlarger lenses I have acquired, ranging from ordinary to unusual.

El Nikkors

Three EL-Nikkor lenses are shown above. EL-Nikkor is a name used for all enlarger lenses made by Nikon. During the years, the optical design, lens coating and (especially) barrel appearance have changed a few times. The leftmost example (EL-Nikkor 63 mm f/2.8 N) is from the latest ("N") series, with barrel made partly of plastic. These lenses are multi-coated, and if you intend to use an EL-Nikkor for practical photography, this is the series you should get. In particular, I found this lens good in photomacrography, where it outperformed the Micro Nikkor 60 mm AF D.

The EL-Nikkor in the middle (50 mm f/2.8) is from the next-older ("non-N") series. This series is characterized by a black metal barrel with a knurled and scalloped edge of the aperture ring. There is a particular hype about older EL-Nikkors (especially the 63 mm f/3.5 of this series) being useful in UV photography, with which I tend to disagree. Prices of this lens have increased so much that often it is cheaper to buy a true UV lens of a lesser known type, and to obtain far better results.

The EL-Nikkor at the right (135 mm f/5.6) is contemporary or slightly older still, with a metal barrel partly chrome-plated near the lens mount. In a few models of this lens, including the present one, the chrome-plated ring at the bottom of the lens can be unscrewed to reveal a non-standard attachment thread. In the present model, the smooth black ring at the front of the barrel can also be unscrewed, revealing a mounting thread that can be used to reverse the lens.

The EL-Nikkor 180 mm f/5.6 A is a large lens, shown (above left) together with the EL-Nikkor 50 mm f/4 for comparison. Incidentally, this series contains larger lenses still, up to a 360 mm f/5.6. The A series of EL-Nikkors is contemporary with the N series, and contains lenses of focal lengths from 135 mm and above. The A and N series are the latest among EL-Nikkors, and old unsold stocks of some models may still resurface now and then. While the N series has barrels made partly of plastic and represents primarily consumer products (albeit good ones), the A series was targeted at professional applications. EL-Nikkors series A often command high prices on the second-hand market (although the prices requested by some online shops are nothing but fantasy prices, guaranteed to leave these items to gather dust on the shelves, until a customer suddenly decides that he must have this particular lens by yesterday morning at the latest). A reasonable price for an EL-Nikkor A in mint condition ranges in the lower 3-digits (by comparison, an EL-Nikkor N should not exceed 2 digits, and an Apo EL-Nikkor ranges in the lower 4 digits).

This specimen is representative of what a collector could seek (above, right): the lens apparently has never been used, and is stored in its original box and packaging, with front and rear caps, some documentation (the data sheet, if any was present, is unfortunately missing) and the individually signed certificate (left) that accompanies high-end Nikon lenses. The lens, box and certificate are marked with the same serial number, ensuring they are original and not reassembled from left-over items that came with different lenses. The box sticker and the rear of the certificate report the (handwritten) actual focal length of the lens (in this case, 180.1 mm), which may vary slightly among specimens and is required for demanding applications. Practically always, boxes like this have some external scuffing, even in old stocks that never left a shop. I believe this particular type of wear does not affect the collectors' value of an otherwise mint item.

The lens itself is unusual for its large mount diameter (72 mm), which requires the use of its special retaining ring (requiring a panel cut of 74 mm). A metal ring in front of the aperture ring can be unscrewed to reveal a second mount of the same diameter, for reversing the lens. Another peculiarity is the aperture scale, graduated in 1/3 stops (instead of the usual 1/2 stops). The front and rear caps are similar to those used in Nikon large-format camera lenses. The lens coating has a deep purplish shade, characteristic of Nikkor lenses made in the 70's and 80's.

There are additional, older EL-Nikkor series. One of these has black barrels with a finely knurled, but not scalloped, aperture ring. An example is shown above (leftmost). All series are engraved EL-NIKKOR (with a dash), albeit sometimes spelled EL NIKKOR without a dash on the boxes and/or in the accompanying literature, and the first two Nippon Kogaku (the company name that preceded and, for a few years, accompanied Nikon) Japan . Kogaku (kogaku) actually means optics, or literally light study. The other two lenses above are EL-Nikkors with the same specifications (50 mm f/2.8) but from the two subsequent series (the one at the right is from the "N" series). The cardboard boxes also differ in the three series.

There are also Apo EL-Nikkor, Process-Nikkor and Printing-Nikkor copy/process lenses, and Apo Nikkor lenses designed for the graphic industry but sometimes used on large format cameras, like the 240 mm f/9 at the right. The latter lens has a few unusual features: attachment threads at both ends, an aperture ring closing down to f/128, a separate internal slot for inserting fixed apertures or a rotating polarizer, and is marked Nippon Kogaku. The internal slot opens by dragging the chrome-plated pin, and the scale graduated in 0 to 90 is used to control the rotation of the polarizer or aperture stop (in the printing industry, apertures with a square or more complicated shape are/were used for rastering continuous-tone pictures, in combination with raster masks and very high-contrast film - these lenses came with filter mounts for gelatine filters, as well as a few blank stops that you could modify yourself). The flange with four threaded holes is the aperture ring, not a mounting flange. A lever and/or exposure factor scale was sometimes mounted to the aperture ring, using these holes.

Macro (not Micro) Nikkors are also similar in construction and designed for photomacrography. There are as well Ultra Micro Nikkors designed for very high resolution. A few old Nikkors are designed for use on bellows, and are also similar in construction to enlarger lenses. Micro Nikkors, on the other hand, are ordinary camera lenses designed for macro work (except for a few models without focusing helicoid, like the excellent Micro Nikkor 70 mm f/5).

The above line-up shows several large- and very large-format enlarger lenses, most of them big enough to dwarf the EL-Nikkor 180 mm discussed above. From the left: Schneider Componon-S 360 mm f/6.8, Rodenstock Rodagon 360 mm f/6.8, 300mm f/5.6, 240 mm f/5.6, 150 mm f/5.6, and the EL-Nikkor 50 mm f/4 for size comparison.

In this category, there is actually some overlap between enlarger and camera lenses. As a rule, large-format camera lenses can be disassembled into two separate parts, and a shutter can be mounted between these parts. Enlarger lenses lack this possibility. There are exceptions in either direction (e.g., the Apo Nikkor shown earlier on must be used with a shutter mounted behind the lens, and process lenses often do not need a shutter because they are used with long exposure times), but, by and large, I do follow this definition in deciding whether a large-format lens is an enlarger or camera one.

Large-format lenses use an accompanying retaining ring of large and, often, proprietary diameter and thread to mount onto a camera or enlarger. The largest lenses shown above are so big and heavy that they require a very solid enlarger, or a large-format camera of unusually heavy design. Some of the above lenses are shown with their retaining rings. Front and rear caps and filter mounts often are also of proprietary sizes. With image circles exceeding 370 mm, the larger models shown above are definitely specialty lenses, and make sense only when used on special enlargers. Typically, these enlarger lenses still command high prices on the second-hand market, and are quite scarce. Large-format camera lenses are more common, and typically much lighter.

The Schneider-Kreuznach W.A. Componon 80 mm f/5.6 at the left is a wideangle enlarger lens probably made in the 70's. The lens mount is a standard 39 mm thread, but is located not far from the centre of the barrel, which is roughly three times longer than enlarger lenses of more ordinary types (e.g., the above EL-Nikkors). This wideangle lens was meant for printing medium-format negatives at quite large sizes on paper, without using a long enlarger column.

This lens is designed to cover a 60x90 mm negative, which explains its wideangle denomination, its rather large size in spite of the relatively modest aperture and focal length, and the large size of its front and rear elements, relative to the maximum aperture.

In the picture at the left, note that the white split-circle is used as the indicator of the aperture scale, and that the diaphragm closes way past the last marking (f/22), at least up to f/45. While this aperture is not recommended for negative printing, it could be useful if this lens is used on a large-format camera, where it is said by some photographers to perform well in macro photography.

This lens, of course, is not really suitable for macro photography with digital cameras, because of the smaller sensor sizes. For this application, lenses designed to provide a higher resolution on smaller negatives or sensors should be used. However, a possible application still exists for a wideangle enlarger lens. Because of the large image circle, this lens tolerates large amounts of tilt and shift when used with a digital camera body. Thus, it is potentially useful with a large-format camera capable of these movements that has been converted to use a digital back, or a DSLR body used as a digital back. In the latter case, the shadow cast by the lens bayonet mount of the body and/or other parts of the mirror well limits the possible amount of shift. "Half frame" DSLRs like the Nikon DX-format DSLRs allow larger amounts of shift than "full-frame" FX cameras.

soviet

The two above lenses, made by Industar, are examples of Soviet optical industry. Optically they are not exceptionally bad, but the mechanical parts and finishing are rough and shoddy, typically with enormous gaps between the aperture ring and barrel that make the ring wobble when touched. Note also the large amount of original brown "gunk" between aperture ring and barrel in the lens at the left, and the rusty appearance of the barrel interior in the lens at the right. Unless you are planning to use these lenses for actual photography, they do have a kind of charm of their own, somewhat like desert lizards or other strange reptiles.

Sometimes, these and similar lenses are pushed as lenses for macro photography and photomacrography, which definitely they are not. There are better solutions available for this purpose, even if you are looking for a low-cost solution, and even if you cannot afford a true macro lens and must make do with an enlarger lens.

Other Soviet enlarger lenses, like Vega, have mechanical parts of better quality.

square

The Chekoslovakian-made Meopta Belar 50 mm f/4.5 was, in its time, one of the cheapest enlarger lenses for amateur use. Neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad (although not recommended for any serious use), it is extraordinary in having a square diaphragm opening. Typically, camera lenses have numerous diaphragm blades (between seven and eighteen) in order to render out-of-focus highlights as circles, rather than polygons. In most enlarger lenses, the diaphragm has five, six or more blades. This is because enlarger lenses do not need to cope with out-of-focus highlights, and with bokeh in general. Overall, an odd number of diaphragm blades is said to reduce the risk for certain types of flare and internal reflections within the lens, especially with small numbers of diaphragm blades. Also, curved diaphragm blades are generally used to better approximate the shape of a circle. The above lens, apparently, throws away all these considerations in order to achieve the cheapest possible diaphragm. It might be interesting to try this lens, or a similar one, for general photography, because it should render out-of-focus highlights as squares. However, this may be possible only with higher focal lengths, because the above lens cannot focus to infinity if mounted on a DSLR.

I somehow do hope that someone, somewhere, cut yet one more corner and made enlarger lenses with three aperture blades and a triangular diaphragm aperture. If you know of any, I would like to hear about it.

updated I discovered that there are indeed lenses with a three-bladed diaphragm, although so far I have not seen an enlarger lens with such a diaphragm. I found the above diaphragm in a videocamera lens. The red goo is not rust, but perhaps a lubricant. So now I will raise the ante: does anyone know of a lens with a two-bladed diaphragm? It is indeed possible to build a variable diaphragm with two blades, each carrying a V-shaped notch that gradually overlaps the other.

updated I now found an example of a two-bladed iris with V-shaped notches, just as I predicted. This is not from a camera or enlarger lens, but from the port that accept a light guide for axial illumination in a Mitutoyo FS-60 industrial microscope/macroscope. The two blades converge toward each other to restrict the aperture. This diaphragm is used to reduce the illumination level, and does not seem to affect the size of the illuminated area (for the latter function, the diaphragm would need to be placed close to the focal plane of the collimator).

Incidentally, there are also lenses with a one-bladed aperture. This aperture of course is not variable, and consists of a thin metal sheet with a round hole manually inserted into the lens barrel through a slit. They are called Waterhouse stops and were used in early lenses. Usually they were available in sets with different aperture sizes. Non-circular Waterhouse stops were also used until relatively recently to raster continuous-tone images onto high-contrast film in the printing industry, before it went digital. A thin metal slider with two or three Waterhouse stops, moved by a servomotor, is sometimes used in point-and-shoot digital cameras.

PZO PZO

The two above lenses were made by PZO in Poland. The two side dials turn colour filters in and out of the optical path. One wheel controls cyan and yellow filters, the other magenta and yellow. This allows the lens to be used for colour printing on an enlarger without a colour head. One of the lenses has what appears to be a plastic optical light guide that can be placed in front of the lens, presumably to convey light to a colour exposure meter. The other lens has a similar light guide built as a lens cap. The two prongs that project from the base of one lens and the round ring at the base of the other are used to tighten or loosen the lens onto an enlarger lens board.

The color filters enter the optical path from the side. This does not cause a visible non-uniformity of the colour across the image, because the filters are located near the diaphragm plane. However, there is a "gotcha". If you close or open the aperture, this changes the colour balance obtained with the filters, which then must be re-done. Thus, the proper procedure seems to have been: focus, close diaphragm, colour-balance, then expose.

Leech Autocrat

Apparently, car models are not the only items that are sometimes named in odd ways (at least in some languages). Two examples of enlarger lenses suffering a comparable fate are shown above. For the record, a leech is a blood-sucking worm, and an autocrat is a person who yields absolute power (e.g. a dictator, despot or emperor).

Supar

The above Wray Supar (not Super) is also rather oddly named. In addition, it came in a dual-purpose plastic can. The can, as usual, was meant to protect the lens while not mounted on an enlarger. In addition, the bottom of the can has a friction ring of soft nylon that allows it to be used as a filter, push-fit mounted on the front of the lens. This explains its otherwise odd red color - it is a safety filter used to verify the framing and focus of the enlarger without exposing a black-and-white photographic paper. The filter was removed during the actual exposure.

Fuji

The above series of Fuji lenses was used in a minilab (i.e., an automatic machine used in a photography shop, where film entered at one end and color prints came out of the other end). Each lens was mounted on a plate that could be quickly swapped in and out of the machine, in order to cope with different film and print sizes. The add-on lens at the bottom can be screwed into the back of one of the enlarger lenses, in order to slightly change the magnification factor. These three lenses are typical of a set, and allowed the printing of 6x6 cm, 24x36 mm and smaller (126 and/or 120 "Instamatic"?) negatives on common paper formats. Focus was calibrated once by turning the lens barrel into the plate, and locked with a screw afterwards. The main unusual feature of these lenses is that they all have a fixed f/6 aperture, achieved with a fixed round stop built into the lens. The shorter focal lengths, like the rightmost lens, have a finer barrel thread and required the use of a different type of plate. These lenses are small and compact, with no moving parts.

In one type of minilab using these lenses, each plate has a few coded bumps or magnets to inform the minilab of which lens is currently in use. In another type of minilab, each of these lenses was mounted onto an extension tube that ends in a three-tabs proprietary bayonet, and no encoding bumps or magnets.

These lenses were also marketed in a more conventional barrel with a variable aperture ring (ranging from f/5.6 to f/11 in the case of the 65 mm). The focusing/mounting thread was the same, so also these models with variable aperture were made for minilabs.

Agfa

The above Agfa lens is another type used in a minilab. Unlike the Fuji ones, this is a huge and very heavy item that rather resembles a medium-tele camera lens. It is a varifocal lens, i.e., its focal length can be changed. It is not, however, a zoom, because changing the focal length requires a re-adjustment of the focus. This particular type is designed to provide magnifications between 3x and 4x, presumably with medium- or large-format negatives. It has no less than seven adjustment rings that can be locked with a supplied hex driver. The end stop at the far left seems to prevent the other rings from "stepping off the edge of the world" and falling off. It might also be a fine focus adjustment. The bayonet mount is used to attach the lens barrel to a minilab, and also to change the magnification factor, according to a scale. This ring moves within an interval pre-set by the top and bottom stops of the mount. The adjustment ring is set on its scale to the same magnification factor as the bayonet mount, and also moves between its pre-set top and bottom stops. Thus, once properly pre-set, this lens could be used without further calibration at two different magnification factors by turning two rings between their end stops. The adjustment ring moves an internal optical group through a cam sliding between rubber louvers on the opposite side of the barrel. The bayonet mount has a couple of small magnets that can be inserted in coded holes, to inform the minilab of what magnification ranges have been pre-set.

Also this lens has a fixed aperture and a round internal stop. Another unusual feature is that the front lens surface is deeply concave, which means the optical formula is quite unusual.

Betavaron Betavaron

The Schneider Betavaron (above) is a true zoom enlarger lens (and the only one I was aware of until recently). It was designed for advanced amateurs as well as non-automated printing labs. Once the enlarger is properly set up, it allows continuous changes of magnification between 3 and 10 without refocusing, just by turning the zoom ring. The aperture is variable, and similar to that of normal enlarger lenses (albeit the scale is not calibrated in f-stops). I reviewed this lens in detail here.

EL-Zoom-Nikkor EL-Zoom-Nikkor

The EL-Zoom-Nikkor for Noritsu 99-230 mm f/8 (above) is, with good margin, the largest enlarger lens in my collection. In fact, it is quite a bit larger than a 500 mm or 600 mm f/8 catadioptric lens. It is shown here with the EL-Nikkor 50 mm f/4 for size comparison. The EL-Zoom-Nikkor is a true parfocal zoom like the Betavaron, but is not meant to be used with a manual enlarger. It was made for Noritsu, and designed for use in their one-hour photo-printing machines. The large cup-shaped ring near the lens mount is the aperture ring and is totally devoid of an aperture scale. The zoom ring moves forward and back when turned, and at the longest focal length is almost completely hidden under the front part of the lens barrel. It is shown turned half-way in the leftmost picture. This lens was designed to be mounted vertically like in the leftmost picture. Internal springs partly counterbalance the weigh of the moving groups (at least two or three, one of them being the front group of large lenses), and when the lens is placed horizontally they pull these groups almost back to the shortest focal length. Therefore, without modifications, it is simply not possible to manually use this lens in a horizontal orientation.

The zoom and aperture rings are meant to be operated by geared servomotors, and the zoom ring in my specimen bears an oblique depression that indicates where the (plastic?) motor gear used to run. A little at a time, its pressure slightly indented the ring surface, albeit without damaging its surface finish. The fine ribs on the two rings are not for a better hand grip and are not rubber-coated. They are precision gears machined in metal.

It does show that this lens is not meant to be operated manually, and is supposed to be completely enclosed in automatic equipment. When the zoom ring slides forward, it exposes the oblique cuts of the precision cams used to move the internal optical groups.

The diameter of the front element (78 mm) is way too large for a 230 mm f/8, and suggests instead a maximum f/3 aperture. For now, I am unable to test this lens because of its unusual characteristics. I also have no technical data like its focus distance, which must be used if the zoom is to remain parfocal. I simply assume that the f/8 specification is not its widest aperture, but the aperture setting at which the lens is supposed to be operated (perhaps by closing the aperture all the way?).

I remain interested to hear from any visitor who happens to know more about this lens.

Conclusions

Enlarger lenses may well be collectable items and, at this time, a broad variety of models and makes is available at reasonable prices on the second-hand market. For technology enthusiasts, several special types may be of interest. A few models can also perform well in macro photography and photomacrography.


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