Enlargers, the good the bad the ugly?

I am often asked about all kinds of photography equipment, from cameras to tripods to enlargers and everything in between. Recently I was asked about what is a good enlarger so as I have yet too add this FAQ to my website I'll start with a blog entry that will live on my website eventually.

Good choices of enlargers, like cameras, really depend and vary; there is no one size fits all single piece of equipment. The enlarger depends mostly on the type of negatives you frequently use.

When choosing a good enlarger there several things to look out for but before you even narrow your search to a size or brand you need to be aware that there are two types of enlargers, for black & white, colour enlargers are another beast all together along with commercial enlargers. So I'm limiting my discussion here to small non commercial kits.

The two types of enlarger available are, condenser and diffuser, which really refers to the light source used to make the negative larger. Each type has its pros and cons. Let me list these first.

Condensor Enlarger






Ok,  I have a diffusion enlarger in my darkroom, I prefer it's tonality which suits my work and how I like my prints to look. I mainly shoot medium format film and large format film so sharpness is less of an issue for me. If you like harsh jagged tones them perhaps a condenser is for you? In the end these are aesthetic conditions and need to be answered in a manner that suits your ideas and aesthetic.

Look at as many good prints as you possibly can! In Victoria we have a state run gallery that permits access and viewing of some of the best printers in the history of the medium, the National Gallery of Victoria. People like Frederick Sommer, Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, Minor White, Edward Weston. Do yourself a favour go and look at some of their prints.

Once you have decided what type of enlarger you want then choices come down to format, cost, and condition, this article assumes you are buying second hand. The next most important aspect of enlarger purchase is the lens, spend the your money here if needed everything else is almost secondary, even consider buying a new lens if you can source one. I can't overstress this enough.

When looking at enlargers there are several reputable brands, LPL, Durst, Omega to name three. All in all the enlarger needs to be versatile enough to make enlargements to the size you can afford from the formats you mostly shoot, have minimal rust and other signs of wear and be able to be powered easily. Other things to look out for are bellows that may leak light, fungus and mould in the bellows and or the enlarger itself as most enlargers spend Lon periods of time in moist dark environments. You are most likely to run into Beselers and Omegas, and if lucky, possibly a Durst enlarger. They are all mechanically durable, especially the 4x5 models. Keep in mind that you can print smaller negatives on a 4x5 enlarger, and many people prefer them specifically for that. Besides, many small format enlargers have inferior construction.

With each enlarger size, you need to make sure (like your camera) the lens can handle the entire image of the negative i.e. 50mm lens for 35mm film, 85mm for 120 film, 150mm for 4x5. Unless you're planning on creating your own personal darkroom RIGHT NOW, it's not a bad idea to just get used to a few different enlargers if you can get studio times at different places, and then decide that way. If not, it really is just a matter of getting used to the one you choose. There really aren't any "bad" enlargers in the markets because they've had to survive the test of time, and the digital revolution. The companies that still make enlargers are the ones providing schools and professional studios with their enlargers so they're all pretty trustworthy.