Enlarger Lenses: Reviewing the Reviews

Dr. Klaus Schmidt, creator of www.macrolenses.de, told me in 2014: “Save your time. That has all been done multiple times.” Indeed: why compile and publish another group test of enlargers lenses? In 2022?

In the October/November 1967 edition of Camera magazine Arthur Kramer “put the best through the wringer” and concluded: “Enlarger lenses are very good. Some are better than others, however.” Most of the nine optics evaluated out-resolved the test system by reproducing 80lp/mm (see full results below), but the Rodenstock Omegaron 50mm f3.5 was uniquely distinguished by reaching maximum performance across the measured image circle at f5.6, whereas the other vintage optics tested needed one or more stops to reach the same level.

In what turned out to be the twilight years of mass-market print enlargement there was quite a vogue for such surveys in the late 1990s. Looming large are the collective surveys of Chasseur d’Images in 1997, Color Foto magazine in 1999, articles by Bob Mitchell for Darkroom Techniques, and the man shooting for iconic status with the monolithic nom de plume ‘Ctein’, who evaluated more than ninety enlarger lenses for his 2008 Focal Press publication ‘Post Exposure’ (see below).

Of merely 26, Chasseur d’Images gave top marks for centre-frame sharpness to four lenses: two Meopta Meogons (50/2.8 and 60/5.6) and a pair of Rodenstock Rodagons (40/4 and 80/4). However, only the Meogon 50/5.6 scored maximum points for ‘border’ performance. Factoring in distortion and other aberrations, they ranked ten lenses of equally excellent optical quality, but distinguished three of special merit and identical specification: the Rodenstock Apo Rodagon 80/4, Meopta Meogon 80/4 and Schneider Componon-S 80/4.

Color Foto’s tests garlanded the homegrown Schneider and Rodenstock Apo-labeled lenses (90/4.5 and 80/4 respectively) ahead of the Schneider Componon-S 80mm and 100mm, followed by their Nikon EL equivalents, and ranked Meopta’s Anaret range above their premium Meogons. Again, please see below for details.

Ctein’s ranking system is somewhat gnomic – though apparently underpinned by rigorous methodology. He cites the top twenty of ninety enlarger lenses tested across focal lengths from 50-135mm. If it’s not on the list, it didn’t make the grade – although which lenses suffered such ignominy is unknown. Were the well-regarded Meogons, for instance, untested or unremarkable? The Ctein-approved Top 20 is listed below.

If you’re still using enlarger lenses as nature intended (you hipster, you) the results here summarised are as valuable as they ever were – arbitrary evaluation systems and all. However, such tests belong to another century, and are a prologue of uncertain relevance to a consideration of using them as taking lenses.

As commercial print-making diminished, values of enlarging equipment fell dramatically. Not until the next decade was there renewed interest in deploying these ageing, but undervalued, lenses for macro photography – although Rodenstock, Schneider and Nikon had in fact continued production of mildly modified derivatives for use as large-format optics.

Rather quickly, a range of online resources sprang up documenting the success of deploying enlarging lenses via adaptors, helicoids and bellows, on digital SLR and mirrorless cameras. At www.coinimaging.com, Mark Goodman deserves a special mention. Similarly see www.coincommunity.com and Ray Parkhurst’s work at www.photomacrography.net. Sites such as www.savazzi.net and John Jovic’s pages at www.photocornucopia.com aim to fully document the history of such lenses, supported by practical guides such as the the pages of www.extreme-macro.co.uk. Much of value is presented at www.closeuphotography.com who led the way in hyperinflating old film scanners as they raided and reviewed scanning lenses and other micro-optics.

And, lest we forget, Dr. Klaus Schmidt’s excellent resource: www.macrolenses.de. Why indeed, then, ignore the Doctor’s advice?

Well, I rarely shoot insects. And never, on purpose, a coin. Such applications are rather close to the intended use-case, but not mine. I want small, versatile tilt lenses for short-range work such as food and product photography, and portraiture and architectural assignments. I’m also intrigued by their low-contrast, low-speed, low-aberration look, so similar to cinema lenses. I share the curiosity of the DPReview forum poster who asked in 2019 “Anyone interested in enlarging lens performance at infinity?” 

Film-era tests are irrelevant to such applications, and the digital-era surveys aren’t much more useful: most of the target coin, wafer and insect test imagery was shot with APS-C cameras, brutally exposing Zone 1 performance, but (especially in the case of coins) showing little of Zone 2 and nothing of Zone 3. To deploy shift movements in that big image circle, I need to explore Zones 4 and 5, and see how they handle flare and sunstars. I want sweet bokeh. I want to make these lenses uncomfortable – to take them into deep water and see which drown and which bob to the surface. 

As mentioned in the introductory article, enlarging lenses are optimised for a specific, short-range application. Whether or not they retain the desirable qualities on which their reputations are founded beyond this remit is terra incognita. It turns out that no premium enlarger lens performs quite as well at distance as it does in the sub-1m range. Some stumble badly. It’s well documented that at higher (1:2 and above) magnifications, some of the best enlarger lenses are outperformed by humbler alternatives – hence the existence of Rodenstock’s D range. Similarly, at working distances of 10m and beyond we leave the designer jackets of our preconceptions with the doormen and observe what the big guys do on the dancefloor.

For instance, the £600 Leica Focotar II is a very well corrected enlarger lens, but in terms of resolving power and flatness of field, it’s increasingly unimpressive the further it is from its subject – scoring almost identical marks to the £30 Nikkor EL 75/4 at 10m range. The Meogon 80/2.8 perfectly resolves a full-frame 43MP sensor at peak apertures, but shares the tendency of many top-flight enlarger lenses to have relatively soft corners at distance.

Most enlarger lenses (even class-leaders like the Meogons and Apo Rodagons) are optimised for peak performance two stops down. However, Nikkor and Schneider Apo Componons resolve best (centre-frame, at least) wide open. Rodenstock and Schneider’s lenses best-looking MTF charts belong to longer-than-expected lenses; whereas for most enlarger lenses shorter is sharper. Working against this is a broader principle that the longer the distance from the rear element to the sensor, the worse the contrast – and resolution usually takes a hit, too.

However, when adapting enlarger lenses to digital cameras you hit hard limits based on their flange-focal distance requirements. Mirrorless cameras made it possible to obtain infinity focus with 50mm enlarger lenses combined with slim adaptors, but not with tilt movements. But not all 80mm lenses, for instance, have the same F-Fd. In practice, adapting a Meogon 80mm requires a shorter helical than the Nikkor 80mm f5.6. Most 50-135mm enlarger lenses cover 35mm with plenty of space for movements, but when allowing space for a tilt mechanism and a focusing helicoid, 90mm is a minimum when movements and infinity focus are required.

Getting uncompromised results involves trial and error. But once past the disappointment that enlarger lenses are not the resolution-masters of the distance game that their near-field reputation promises, there are pleasant surprises, as future articles will show. The full Enlarger Taking Lens Survey (ETLS) spreadsheet, available on request, ranks each aperture of each tested lens (so far numbering 30) ranking them for centre-frame and corner resolution at near and far-field, with scores and comments on rendition, flare-resistance, contrast, and mechanical specification.

Please note the ETLS is based on their practical ‘in the field’ performance as taking lenses and doesn’t reflect on or attempt to evaluate their performance in the darkroom, or for print-making. Tests were made at 50-80cm distance and 10-15m distance using full-frame SLR and mirrorless cameras of at least 42MP resolution. In certain cases – to better separate closely performing lenses – tests were made using a more demanding 20MP Micro 4/3 camera with the enlarger lens mounted on a shift adaptor. Good quality samples were collected and CLA’d over a ten year period. Where I felt there was a question mark over sample variation (where results fell below expectations) or visual inspection revealed flaws, multiple copies of certain lenses were used and only the best samples entered into the database. Real-world performance of these old lenses is uncommonly sample dependent, which generates statistical noise that inevitably compromises analysis. However, given that none of these lenses are still in production, the somewhat anecdotal nature of our survey fittingly reflects the real-world lottery of using vintage enlarger lenses. It’s not an exact science. Such practical limitations made it hard to include, for instance, more than one, token Kowa/Computar DL lens. However good these lenses once were, by now most have suffered from terminal separation; or, if they haven’t yet, they’re destined to fail imminently and can’t be recommended.

Camera Magazine Enlarger Lens Test
(published 1967: centre frame/border expressed in lp/mm)

Kodak Ektar 50/4.5
f4.5: 56/40 | f5.6: 64/56 | f8: 80/64 | f11: 80/80 | f16: 80/64 | f22: 64/56
Leitz Wetzlar Focotar 50/4.5
f4.5: 64/56 | f5.6: 80/64 | f8: 80/80 | f11: 80/80 | f16: 64/64
Meopta Belar 50/4.5
f4.5: 40/40 | f5.6: 48/48 | f8: 56/48 | f11: 64/64 | f16: 64/64 | f22: 56/40
Meopta Meopar 50/4.5
f4.5: 48/40 | f5.6: 56/48 | f8: 64/56 | f11: 80/56 | f16: 64/56 | f22: 56/48
Nikkor EL 50/2.8 (original, pre-N)
f2.8: 40/34 | f4: 64/56 | f5.6: 80/56 | f8: 80/80 | f11: 80/80 | f16: 64/64
Rodenstock Omegaron 50/3.5
f3.5: 56/40 | f5.6: 80/80 | f8: 80/80 | f11: 80/80 | f16: 64/64 | f22: 56/40 
Schneider Comparon 50/4
f4: 56/48 | f5.6: 64/56 | f8: 80/64 | f11: 80/80 | f16: 64/64
Schneider Componar 50/4.5
f4.5: 56/40 | f5.6: 64/48 | f8: 64/56 | f11: 64/56 | f16: 56/48
Schneider Componon 50/4
f4: 64/56 | f5.6: 80/60 | f8: 80/80 | f11: 80/80 | f16: 64/64

Ctein’s Top 20 of 90 Enlarger Lenses in focal length order:
(published 1997, test dates unknown)

Beseler (Rodenstock) Color Pro 50/2.8
Schneider Componon-S 50/2.8 (best central contrast of 50mm tested)
Computar 50/2.8
Nikkor 50/2.8 N
Rodenstock Apo Rodagon 50/2.8 (some red/green CA)
Computar 55/1.9 (best edge contrast and light fall-off)
Nikkor 63/2.8 N
Computar 65/3.5
Schneider Componon-S 80/4
Rodenstock Eurygon 80/4 (lower edge sharpness than shorter FLs)
Rodenstock Apo Rodagon 80/4
Schneider Componon-S 100/5.6 (central resolution relatively weak)
Leica Focotar II 100/5.6 (slight loca)
Nikkor Apo 105/5.6
Nikkor 105/5.6 N
Rodenstock Rodagon 105/5.6
Rodenstock Rodagon 135/5,6
Nikkor 135/5.6
Schneider Componon-S 150/5.6
Rodenstock Rodagon 150/5.6

Chasseur d’Images Enlarger Lens Test – Published 1997
(MTF marks out of 5 only)

Angenieux 48 G-10 48/4: Centre 4 / Border: 3
Leica Focotar II 40/2.8: Centre: 4 / Border: 3
Leica Focotar II 50/4.5: Centre: 4 / Border: 4
Meopta Meogon 50/2.8: Centre: 5 / Border: 4
Meopta Meogon 50/5.6: Centre: 4 / Border: 5
Meopta Anaret-S 50/4.5: Centre: 4 / Border: 3
Meopta Meogon 60/5.6: Centre: 5 / Border: 4
Meopta Meogon 80/2.8: Centre: 5 / Border: 1
Meopta Meogon 80/4: Centre: 4 / Border: 4
Meopta Anaret-S 80/4.5: Centre: 4 / Border: 1
Nikon EL 50/2.8 N: Centre: 4 / Border: 2
Nikon EL 50/4 (non N): Centre 4 / Border 3
Nikon EL 80/5.6 N: Centre: 4 / Border 2
Rodenstock Rodagon-WA 40/4: Centre: 5 / Border: 3
Rodenstock Apo Rodagon 50/2.8: Centre: 4 / Border: 4
Rodenstock Rodagon 50/2.8: Centre: 4 / Border: 3
Rodenstock Rogonar 50/2.8: Centre: 4 / Border: 2
Rodenstock Rogonar-S 50/2.8: Centre: 4 / Border: 3
Rodenstock Trinar 50/3.5: Centre: 4 / Border: 2
Rodenstock Rodagon 80/4: Centre: 5 / Border: 3
Rodenstock Apo Rodagon 80/4: Centre: 4 / Border: 4
Rodenstock Rogonar 75/4.5: Centre: 4 / Border: 1
Rodenstock Rogonar-S 75/4.5: Centre: 4 / Border 1
Schneider Componon-S 50/2.8: Centre: 4 / Border: 3
Schneider Comparon 50/3.5: Centre: 3 / Border: 3
Schneider Componon-S 80/4: Centre: 4 / Border 2

Darkroom Techniques (May/June 1986)
Fujinon EX range (results in lp/mm)

  Full Aperture
Full Aperture
2-Stops Down
2-Stops Down
Fujinon EX 50/2.8 80 45 90 56
Schneider 50/2.8 64 45 64 64
Rodenstock 50/2.8 64 64 80 57
Nikkor 50/2.8 50 50 80 64
Fujinon EX 75/5.6 45 40 72 50
Fujinon EX 90/5.6 50 50 72 50
Fujinon EX 135/5.6 45 28 45 36

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