Enlarger Lens Survey: 2014
Sixteen relics: passed-over bric-a-brac. Photo-jumble. Some lenses in this group test sell for pence if they're not given away. They're old: the youngest pre-date digital cameras; the oldest pre-date your grandma. And yet . . .
Just as vinyl persists, the number of 'alt-lens' enthusiasts increases: the satisfaction of mating cutting-edge digital technology with funky, cheap, off-piste lenses older than you is one of photography's genuine thrills. If you want to dip your toe in those waters, MFLenses, Fred Miranda, and other forums will scratch that itch. Have fun.
But I've long advocated more serious fun. The gratification of a well-resolved sensor. The satisfaction of achieving better performance than those on the well-trodden path with equipment and techniques offering greater creative control, freedom of expression and money in the bank. I've previously recommended enlarger lenses as seriously fun tools: sharper than you expect, better at distance than you've been told; fewer aberrations, and a big image circle to play with. Cheap, too.
No great secret there: macro photographers using bellows have long appreciated the merits of enlarger lenses. Astrophotographers sunnily pay astronomical amounts for apochromatic enlarger lenses operating quite close to infinity focus. Novoflex and Zörk have dedicated products for mounting enlarger lenses on modern DSLRs. Enlarger lens prices have markedly ticked up over the last few years as Canon, Nikon and - especially - Sony shooters have squirreled away desirable optics.
It's simple to design a good, slow 70-135mm prime. In fact, there's a peculiar magic about lenses hovering around 3x the 35mm focal length: at 100-105mm we find a disproportionately high number of the best lenses.
However, with every generation of more demanding sensors, demanding photographers are sent back to their lenses - like an audiophile upgrading speakers, discovering previously unrevealed flaws among their favourites.
Excellent surveys such as the one published by Ctein in the 1990's ranked the performance of enlarger lenses for enlarging. Coinimaging.com has been busy testing them as taking lenses on the Canon 10D. And there are several informative Flickr-published reviews.
But if you're serious about using enlarger lenses professionally or for demanding amateur work, this might be the first in-depth survey considering all aspects of their performance using benchmark-level digital sensors: the Nikon D800E and D7100. Put another way: whatever you think you know about the quality of an enlarger lens, you don't - until you subject it to the scrutiny of a naked 3.9µ pixel and ask questions of its outer image circle with tilt movements.
Which raises another goal of this survey. I need a lens.
Very often – in the field or studio – I find myself 20-120cm away from a subject with a 50-135mm prime mounted: food, architectural details, products, flowers & insects, etc. My best lenses (like the 85mm f1.4 G) not only frustratingly hit the stop at 85cm, but they're not great at their minimum focal distance. Macro lenses are in their element here but when working close, I need focal plane control: tilt movements that can make the difference between getting the shot, or not.
So what's wrong with Nikon or Canon's excellent T/S and PC-E lenses? Only that I'd need two, and they are expensive. Ditto commercially available bellows and adaptors: nudging four figures Sterling for a system. Ideally, I'd like something chuckable that fully resolves a D800E sensor and no more than £500 for a two-lens tilt system. It didn't quite exist, so - like the first Nikon G adaptor - we invented it. More on that later . . .
The real meat of these articles is an extended 'audition' of the most highly regarded and readily available enlarger lenses for use on the best Sony, Canon and Nikon bodies. I've not shortlisted lenses shorter than 50mm or longer than 105mm: the best performers are all in this range, and they provide a better working distance for the work to which they're suited. In fact you'd be well advised to staying between 100-105mm for maximum quality and accommodation of movements.
This little hexadectet represents a healthy sample of the most interesting lenses on the used market: rarified exotica like the Zeiss Orthoplanars and Nikkor Apo EL (rated by Ctein as the best enlarger lens made) are conspicuously absent: for most intents and purposes these have become collectors items only, commanding prices well in excess of £2000. As we'll see, however, limiting our budget to £500 doesn't involve any meaningful compromise.
I'll be making extremely careful evaluation of their resolving power, flare resistance, colour, contrast, bokeh and performance at near-/far-field. In the later stages - for perspective - I'll be comparing the best of them with elite fixed lenses like the Nikon 85mm G and Sigma 150mm Apo. I'll be paying particular attention to extreme corner performance.
All lenses will be tested with the help of ELA: our new Enlarger Lens Adaptor, which will show off the outer image circle of these lenses when tilted.