Enlarger lenses in photomacrography (2023)

Best results in photomacrography can be expected with lenses specifically designed for this application. However, these lenses are expensive, and almost all of them are no longer manufactured and are difficult to obtain in good condition and at reasonable prices. Therefore, one may look for alternatives that are easier to obtain and cheaper, while still providing good results.

Based on theoretical considerations, good quality lenses designed for use on darkroom enlargers should be suitable also for photomacrography. These lenses are optimized to enlarge a negative (usually 24 by 36 mm or larger, depending on focal length and other design parameters) by projecting on paper an image magnified, in most cases, roughly between 3 and 10 times. These lenses are designed to provide a high resolution and a low field curvature. They are also chromatically corrected throughout the visible range (and sometimes even in the near-UV). Several users report excellent results when using these lenses for copy and close-up applications (in which typically they are used within their optimal range of magnifications).

(Video) Tutorial for Using Enlarger Lenses in Macro Photography and Image Stacking

When used in photomacrography (i.e., at magnifications exceeding 1x), enlarger lenses should be reversed, in order to work within their optimal design conditions. This brings the back of the lens (designed to be placed close to the negative), now pointing forward, at a comparably close distance from the object. The camera film or sensor is placed at a higher distance from the (reversed) front of the lens, at a distance hopefully similar to that the lens is designed for.

Other than reversing the lens by means of adapter rings, the use of enlarger lenses for this application requires essentially the same technique and accessories as true photomacrographic lenses. Both categories of lenses usually have manual stop rings that must be turned to focus and shoot, and must be used on extension rings and/or bellows. A potential problem with enlarger lenses is that they are supposed to project an image on paper that is much larger than the sensor of a DSLR, while photomacrographic lenses are designed to cover very small images at both their front and back. Therefore, enlarger lenses may sacrifice high resolution in order to provide a large image. However, in the best cases the resolution at the centre of the image should still be high enough for photomacrography. Thus, it is legitimate to ask whether enlarger lenses of good quality can be an alternative to expensive specialty photomacrographic lenses like the Zeiss Luminars.

In this page, I compare the following lenses:

(Video) Choosing the Right Enlarging Lens for Your Film Format

  • Zeiss Luminar 63mm f/4.5 (above picture, leftmost).
  • EL-Nikkor 63mm f/2.8 enlarger lens (second from the left). This lens is reversed onto Nikon bellows by using an EL-Nikkor reversing ring (shown at the bottom of the lens) of appropriate size and an M39-to-Nikon adapter ring.
  • EL-Nikkor 50mm f/4 enlarger lens (second from the right), similarly reversed (because of the different diameter of its filter attachment, it requires a different EL-Nikkor reversing ring, also shown in the picture). The chrome-plated ring at the bottom is an M39-to-Nikon adapter.
  • EL-Nikkor 50mm f/2.8 enlarger lens (not illustrated; see here), similarly reversed.
  • EL-Nikkor 75mm f/4 enlarger lens (not illustrated; see here), similarly reversed.
  • As a term of comparison, also a Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 D (rightmost) was tested. This lens was reversed with a 62 to 52mm filter adapter and a Nikon BR-2A reversing ring (this setup can be seen here). An E2 extension ring was mounted at its back to make it easier to use the reversed lens. Like in my test of photomacrographic lenses, all lenses on this page were tested at the maximum extension of Nikon PB-6 bellows (209 mm flange-to-flange).

The Luminar 63mm is generally regarded as one of the best photomacrographic lenses ever made. I reviewed it here, and compared it to other lenses specifically designed for photomacrography. EL-Nikkor lenses are generally regarded as among the best enlarger lenses. There are at least three series of EL-Nikkor lenses, and at least two categories of optical designs. The EL-Nikkor 63mm tested here belong to the newest series (the N series, multicoated, with partly plastic barrel) and consists of 6 elements in 4 groups. The EL-Nikkor 50mm f/4 tested here, on the other hand, belongs to an earlier series (with all-metal barrel and scalloped aperture ring). It has a simplified coating and a simpler and cheaper optical formula consisting of 4 elements in 4 groups. It is regarded as moderately good in its optimal magnification range, but clearly inferior to 6-element designs. A still-earlier series of EL-Nikkors has a finely knurled aperture ring and all-metal barrel, and it is rarely seen, except in focal lengths exceeding 100mm. Given a choice, I would not select one of these early EL-Nikkors because of potential contrast problems with the lens coating. Exotic Nikkor lenses of other series were also made (e.g., Apo Nikkors, Ultra Micro Nikkors) and some of them certainly are better than EL-Nikkors, but they are definitely rare, especially the shorter focal lengths. I don't have any of them to test.

Like in my test of photomacrographic lenses, the subject used for this test is representative of real-life, three-dimensional subjects illuminated with an SB-800 flash in iTTL mode and manual exposure compensation if needed. Results are shown at apertures of f/8, which seem to be the best for all these lenses. Reduced full frames are shown for all tested lenses, and for most of these also a 1:1 crop from a detail slightly outside the centre of the picture.

The two pictures above show the results with the Luminar 63mm at f/8. The full frame is at the top, and a 1:1 crop of a portion at the bottom. As you can notice, the sharpness of the details is not comparable with what you can expect in a landscape or close-up picture taken in optimal conditions (see here and here for a iscussion and detailed tests).

(Video) El Nikkor 50mm f/2.8N Enlarger Lens - how to use the most versatile macro lens you will ever own

Above are the results with the EL-Nikkor 63mm at f/8. The resolution is slightly lower than with the Luminar, and a slight chromatic aberration is also visible in the 1:1 crop. However, the performance is still very good.

The EL-Nikkor 50mm at f/8 (and any other aperture) is clearly disappointing. Magnification is higher because of the lower focal length, but the lack of detail is obvious even in the reduced full-frame.

I initially used the Micro Nikkor 60mm with the focusing helicoid focused at a reproduction ratio of 1:3. My thinking behind this was that, the lens being reversed and providing a magnification around 3x, focusing it in this way would make its floating elements effectively compensate for aberrations in the way they are designed for. The practical result is that the working distance was extremely small. I was forced to dismount the E2 ring, and even without this there was very little room available for illumination.

(Video) Tutorial for Using Enlarger Lenses in Macro Photography and Image Stacking Part 2

For this reason, I re-focused the lens helicoid to infinity and re-focused the bellows by moving the front standard only (pictures at the left). The magnification is somewhat lower, but the working distance increased threefold. As far as I can judge, the sharpness is unchanged. It is difficult to judge which picture, if any, is sharper, because of the different magnification. Possibly, there is a better flatness of field and higher contrast in the first picture. The increased working distance, however, may make it worth using the less optimized settings.

There are several other enlarger lenses potentially useful for this purpose. The EL-Nikkor 50mm f/2.8 (left) is much better than the 50mm f/4 (both specimens tested are from the same, older, metal-barrel series with scalloped aperture ring). The 105mm f/5.6 and 135mm f/5.6 come to my mind as additional alternatives, although they need very long bellows. Perhaps the 80mm f/5.6 is also a good performer.

I should expect that EL-Nikkors of the N series (the last produced) are optically better than earlier ones, in spite of their plastic barrels. At any rate, their optical formulas have been re-computed, and their coatings are better. It may be mentioned that there is an older EL-Nikkor 63mm f/3.5 which is expensive and difficult to find. This lens is often mentioned as useful in near-UV photography, because it is corrected down to 350 nm, and this rumour is probably responsible for it having been hoarded by collectors (although, in my opinion, probably it does not differ substantially in this respect from a few other lenses of the same series, like the 50mm f/2.8 and 80mm f/5.6). I don't have a 63mm f/3.5 to test, but my guess is that the newer EL-Nikkor 63mm f/2.8 N is at least as good for photomacrography, and probably better. I have no experience with enlarger lenses of other brands and series (a few of which are said to be "the best" by their respective users, e.g., Schneider Componon S and Componon M, Minolta Rokkor, Apo Rodagon, Rodagon G). There is ample room for further tests, and possibly there are quite a few surprises in store.

(Video) How to Use Enlarger Lenses on your Mirrorless Camera

One last note about the N series of EL-Nikkors is that they have aperture markings illuminated through a translucent window in the lens mount (when mounted on an enlarger). The window is visible when looking at the mount. This portion of the mount can be removed by unscrewing three small screws, and rotated to another position before reassembly. This eliminates the possibility that stray ambient light entering the gap between lens barrel and aperture ring may pass through the translucent window and cause flare. Earlier EL-Nikkor series do not have such a window.

As expected, the Luminar 63mm is the best in the present test. This lens turned out to be the best also when I tested it against other photomacrographic lenses. The EL-Nikkor 63mm f/2.8 is slightly worse than the Luminar, and the Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 slightly worse than the EL-Nikkor 63mm. Both last lenses are fully usable as substitutes for photomacrographic lenses, if a Luminar or equivalent is not available. The EL-Nikkor 75mm f/4 and 50mmf/2.8 are also acceptable, albeit slightly worse than the above. The EL-Nikkor 50mm f/4, instead, is clearly inferior. Don't use it for photomacrography.


What is an enlarger lens used for? ›

An enlarger is a specialized transparency projector used to produce photographic prints from film or glass negatives, or from transparencies.

Can photography Enlarge lens be used for Photomacrography? ›

When used in photomacrography (i.e., at magnifications exceeding 1x), enlarger lenses should be reversed, in order to work within their optimal design conditions. This brings the back of the lens (designed to be placed close to the negative), now pointing forward, at a comparably close distance from the object.

Which lens is used in photographic enlarger? ›

Most enlargers will allow you to use a normal lensboard for most lenses. However, a special, recessed lensboard is usually necessary for lenses with focal lengths shorter than 50mm. See Figure 2. Without the recessed lensboard, the lens cannot be moved close enough to the negative to focus correctly.

Can you use an enlarger lens on a camera? ›

The most logical way to get an enlarger lens to focus when using it on a camera is to replicate the bellows of an enlarger using a set of macro bellows. Mount one end of these bellows to the camera, and the other to an M39 mount to allow enlarger lenses to be used.

How does a photographic enlarger work? ›

The principle of the enlarger is simple. It is basically a box with a light inside that transmits that light first through a negative and then a lens. The resulting reversed image is projected onto a sensitized piece of paper which, in turn, is placed in chemistry which develops the image.

What is the magnification of photomicrography? ›

Projection lenses used in photomicrography typically have useful magnification factors of 2.5x to 3.3x, although higher magnifications (up to 7x) are available for special circumstances.

What size lens is best for macro photography? ›

50mm lenses work best in capturing typical macro shots. However, these types of macro lenses have their drawbacks. 50mm lenses (also known as a nifty fifty) make subjects appear half “life-size” since they usually feature a 1:2 ratio, and require shooting at a much closer distance.

Do you use zoom for macro photos? ›

There are many advantages to using a zoom lens for macros and closeups including: there is no need to be close to the subject. This is important for timid insects that may be frightened off easily. When shooting flower zoom lens macro closeups, a zoom lens allows you to fully fill the frame.

What lens can magnify an image? ›

When light bounces off an object and travels to your eyes, those light rays travel parallel to each other. When they pass through a magnifying glass, the convex lens bends the parallel rays so that they converge and create a virtual image on your eyes' retinas.

How do I choose an enlarger lens? ›

The lens is typically decided on based on the format and how far up you can move the enlarger head, and the focal length ususally parallels the "normal" focal length for that format. For instance, the ideal enlarger lens for printing 35mm negatives is 50mm; for medium format it's 80mm, etc.

What are the two types of enlargers? ›

Types of Enlargers

The two major types of film enlargers are condensers and diffusers. A condenser uses a condensing lens to focus light when illuminating negatives. A diffuser enlarger has a translucent plastic or opaque glass between its light source and the negatives.

How many megapixels do you need for enlargement? ›

Generally, you want at least a three megapixel image in order to get a decent photo enlargement. Luckily, today's cameras and smartphones offer more megapixels than that.

Do lens extenders reduce quality? ›

Any time you add optical elements between your lens and the camera (as when using a teleconverter) there will be some loss in image quality. Depending upon whether you choose a 1.4X or 2X extender, the corresponding light loss can be another relevant concern.

Can you use a zoom lens for astrophotography? ›

Surprisingly, short focal length "kit" zoom lenses that are supplied wiht many DSLR cameras these days, such as the 18 - 55mm f/3.5 - f/5.6, are usually prety good inexpensive lens for astrophotography even when used wide open.

What is the best image enlarger? ›

Here are some of the best image enlargers that you should never miss.
  • Let's Enhance. ...
  • SmillaEnlarger. ...
  • Enlarger Pro. ...
  • Vance AI Image Enlarger. ...
  • PhotoZoom Pro. ...
  • Bigjpg. ...
  • Deep Image. ...
  • Gigapixel AI. The Gigapixel AI image enhancer uses advanced processors and graphics.

What does enlarge mean in photography? ›

Digital image enlargement, or resizing, is the process of increasing the resolution of an image to produce larger prints, posters, wall art or even billboards. Even with today's high resolution full frame digital cameras that have 45-60 megapixels, photographers often need to resize their images.

How do you focus a photo enlarger? ›

Focus the Projected Image: Place a sheet of paper of the same size of the final printing sheet on the surface of the enlarger. Turn on the enlarger and adjust the height so that the projected image covering the whole area of the sheet. Using the knob near the head of the enlarger, try to focus the image.

What are the parts and functions of an enlarger? ›

All enlargers consist of a light source, normally an incandescent light bulb, a condenser or translucent screen to provide even illumination, a holder for the negative or transparency, and a specialised lens for projection.

What mount are enlarger lenses? ›

Mounting an enlarger lens in the regular way round requires an adapter from your bellows mount to M39 (the most common enlarger lens mount), which is difficult to find. Reverse mounting an enlarger lens is done with an easy-to-find step-up ring and a relatively common reverse mount for the bellows.

What is the role of the enlarger in the darkroom? ›

An enlarger is a special kind of projector used to create your photographic prints. By shining light through the negative, it transfers your image from the small negative and enlarges it onto your paper. It is the most important piece of equipment in the darkroom.

What are the 4x 10x and 40x lenses referred to as? ›

Most compound microscopes come with interchangeable lenses known as objective lenses. Objective lenses come in various magnification powers, with the most common being 4x, 10x, 40x, and 100x, also known as scanning, low power, high power, and (typically) oil immersion objectives, respectively.

What is the difference between 10x and 40x magnification? ›

It's easy to understand. A 40x objective makes things appear 40 times larger than they actually are. Comparing objective magnification is relative—a 40x objective makes things twice as big as a 20x objective while a 60x objective makes them six times larger than a 10x objective.

What ISO is best for macro? ›

For the best quality images, try to use low ISO settings, such as ISO 100, ISO 200 and ISO 400. At these sensitivities, the shutter speed may become too slow to get sharp results when you set a small aperture or you shoot in low light.

What F stop is best for macro photography? ›

Aperture — For the smallest subjects (one inch or smaller), it's best to use a higher aperture setting between f/8 and f/11. That'll help you keep the depth of field deep enough to capture the subject. For subjects larger than one inch, you can use a lower f-stop between f/2.8 and f/10.

What is the difference between a macro lens and a zoom lens? ›

Macro lenses can have focal lengths of 35mm and upwards and usually have a fixed focal length, otherwise known as prime lenses. A zoom lens has a variable focal length, for example, 16-35mm or 70-200mm. These are highly versatile lenses and occasionally come in macro form.

What are the two lenses that magnify objects? ›

In practice, modern microscopes contain a series of lenses rather than just one. They have an objective lens (which sits close to the object) and an eyepiece lens (which sits closer to your eye). Both of these contribute to the magnification of the object.

Which lens is the best choice for use as a magnifier? ›

The correct option is A Convex lens.

What enlarger Did Ansel Adams use? ›

His 8×10 enlarger was built by San Francisco's Adolph Gasser out of an old 11×14 studio camera and set up to project its image horizontally. The machine ran on tracks on the floor and projected an image on an 8-foot tall vertical easel which also rolled on the same tracks.

Is a bigger lens diameter better? ›

If you guessed the larger lens would make the image brighter, you would be correct. The larger lens has more area to collect light, which actually equates to an image more then twice the brightness at a ratio equal to πr² where r equals the radius of the lens.

Do you need an enlarger for a darkroom? ›

What kit will you need? You need an enlarger, but it need not be expensive. Even the simplest is capable of making prints on most photographic papers. There are also some good second hand enlargers available as well as new models still being made.

What is the enlarger that emphasizes all defects of a negative? ›

The condenser's increased contrast emphasises any negative defects, such as dirt and scratches, and image grain. A diffuser enlarger's light source is diffused by translucent glass or plastic, providing even illumination for the film.

What are the two types of photographic printing? ›

Giclee and Inkjet Prints

When it comes to producing photographic prints, these two printing processes started their rise to prominence in the 1990s. Both the giclee and inkjet processes utilize high-end inkjet printers. The differences are in ink application, ink quality, and paper quality.

Can you print black and white with a color enlarger? ›

In other words, a standard color enlarger allows you to not only make excellent black and white prints, it can also make excellent color prints.

What is a darkroom enlarger used for? ›

The Enlarger

An enlarger is a special kind of projector used to create your photographic prints. By shining light through the negative, it transfers your image from the small negative and enlarges it onto your paper. It is the most important piece of equipment in the darkroom.

How do I print using an enlarger? ›

Place a sheet of paper of the same size of the final printing sheet on the surface of the enlarger. Turn on the enlarger and adjust the height so that the projected image covering the whole area of ​​the sheet. Using the knob near the head of the enlarger, try to focus the image.


1. Extreme Macro photography with objectives lens and reversed enlarger lens
(Pixel Offbeat)
2. Extreme Macro Using Reversed Enlarger Lenses
(Allan Walls Photography)
(Baebs Silva)
4. Photomacrography using Bellows and Extensions
(BioCommunications Association)
5. TrifidStudio How2Photomicrography
(Jorge B. Leite)
6. Making Sense of Lens Adapters in Macro Photography
(Allan Walls Photography)
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