View Full Version : Building darkroom - Variable contrast or condenser enlarger?
I am currently building a darkroom in the house and now must figure out what enlarger to get.
I know this question gets asked a lot, but I wanted to query my fellow forum members regarding the best enlarger to buy (brand new). I will mainly be looking to print B&W up to 16"x20" since anything color or larger than that I will still send to my printer in L.A.
I was in B&H a few weeks ago and was recommended a variable contrast Beseler (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/281592-REG/Beseler_6780K_Y_67XL_VC_W_Variable_Contrast_B_W_.h tml). Any suggestions or ideas will be greatly appreciated.
Go with an LPL. Beseler enlargers require regular alignment, where the LPL is 'permanently aligned'. I'm not sure what they do differently, but my LPL has not needed alignment once in the three years I've used it. My Beseler couldn't go three prints sometimes without.
I'll also say the build quality of Beseler has dropped dramatically in the last several years. My work purchased two VC head 23C's a few years ago, both of which are in constant need of repair to the filter mechanism. I need to do one of them again this week. The old Beseler colorheads on other machines are consistently reliable. Also, the focus racks slip on the new ones.
LPL machines are reliable, dependable and pretty much maintenance free. I've used many enlargers over the years, I wish I'd bought an LPL day one.
Sepia - Thanks for your suggestion.
Photomoof - I've thought about that, but I don't know too much about the Leitz enlargers. I also don't have time to mess around with repairing stuff and wouldn't know how to judge something used.
PopFlash currently has one and I would buy it if that's a good model to have.
The VC enlargers are based on diffusion color enlargers. You'll most likely prefer printing with a condenser light source for conventional B&W negatives. I never tried it but it's possible that a diffusion light source might be ideal with the dye image of C-41 B&W film.
I just stick the filters in a holder beneath the lens. That makes it fast and easy to switch filters so I can burn in through a different one than I use for the overall exposure.
I think that the Omega is the sturdiest design of any. I've had one, a B-22 XL, for 43 years and it's still in alignment.
New? Omega, the XL version. It'll do 16x20, easy. Can handle any format from minox to 4x5 (glass or glassless), and you can get a condenser or VC head for it. Zone IV made very fancy VC fluorescent diffusion heads too. It also has a range of lens carriers (and a turret) that will work with almost any enlarging lens out there.
Much prefer VC (we have 2x Magnifax).
On the one hand, it's as personal as film choice. On the other, any half-decent enlarger should work.
This is the Leitz that Tony Rose has for sale (http://www.rangefinderforum.com/photopost-classifieds/showproduct.php/product/10903/cat/10)
For those of you familiar with it, what do you think? Do I still need a lens? Is there any maintenance or adjustment that these units need? Any I assume it can also print medium format...
To briefly answer your question, I'd say get the variable contrast unit. As a printer, wouldn't work with a condenser enlarger unless I had no choice. Condensers are much harder to keep clean, transmit more heat to the negatives which can cause them to "pop" in the holder, ruining sharpness, and they magnify any dust in the light path, making for more spotting. Diffusion units (including cold light heads, color heads, and most variable contrast units) inherently have lower contrast light, which allows you to pull out greater subtlety of tones across a wider range from bright highlights to dark shadows. My personal favorite enlarging heads are the (sadly discontinued) Ilford 500 Multi-Grade units, mounted to stable, solidly aligned chassis like the Omega D series.
Enlargers like this that allow you control the contrast settings with a keypad- instead of changing filters or settings directly on the head- make split-filtration/local contrast control printing a breeze, with no chance of moving the head and ruining your registration between exposures.
A few points about enlargers: First, there are lots of things available used these days. Many darkrooms have been torn apart in the last few years, and lots of excellent darkroom equipment can be had for little to no money. Craigslist and eBay searches will show loads of stuff you can practically (and sometimes literally) cart away for free. Second, get good quality lenses, whether new or used. Third, get the largest (and by this I mean the tallest column and the largest film format) enlarger your space and wallet (and luck, if you shop used) will allow. Besides leaving room for possible future moves to larger film formats, this will get you greater stability (fewer headaches), and larger prints. Don't forget that enlarging lenses are all interchangeable; you can mount just about any lens on any enlarger and print from varying formats to a multitude of sizes with a big enlarger. You can always print from 35mm or 120 negatives on an enlarger made for 4x5, but you can't go to a bigger film format with an enlarger made for smaller film. Good luck!
The condenser set ups are matched to the lens. The Omega D-2V ("V" for variable)allows movng one condenser lens up or down by sliding it out then back in on another track. The plain D-2 uses different sets of condensers. The B-22 uses a third condenser with the 50mm lens. Some enlargers might require a recessed lensboard with shorter lenses and/or a lensboard with an external cone for use with longer focal lengths.
Not all lenses are exactly the marked focal length. They might be a mm or 2 off, which causes problems with autofocus enlargers.
VC vs Condenser? It's personal choice and depends very much on your personal preferences. VC (or multicolor head) may also have condenser, it's not necessarily diffusion light. Check http://www.kaiser-fototechnik.de Kaiser has condenser in low head unit so high head unit may be multicolour or variable contrast, or classic BW. They seems to be in business, as well as Meopta. Also, I saw LPL enlargers brand new in Henry's superstore here in Toronto, Canada.
I prefer condenser look and would not go for anything else. Yes, I like harsh look of condenser. I like so called B&W condenser heads mostly because of its simplicity. I don't know if filters in VC heads change their colour in time but I know MC filter set from Ilford will be off in decade or so... And it cost only $30 to replace MC filters. I just did it recently, and replacing VC head would cost much more.
I use LPL and like its Japanese laconic feel and quality - no nonsense, very easy and robust.
...Get the one with a drawer if you are going to print polycontrast, however you shouldn't.
As one of the last converts to VC paper I have to disagree. These days VC papers are every bit as good as graded- plus give a much wider choice of emulsions.
As to the condenser vs diffusion argument- I agree with drewbarb- as a printer (3 days a week religiously) I'd avoid a condenser enlarger like the plague. A well aligned diffusion enlarger will give just as good prints if not better. Condenser enlargers send the light through the negative at an angle, creating the appearance of more grain as one gets to the edge of the negative. Diffusion enlargers give much more even looking grain. Yes there is a very slight decrease in maximum contrast, but in practice it is not softer enough to matter. A slight increase in agitation will more than make up for it. As well, diffusion enlargers run cooler (in temperature) at the negative stage, so less buckling or popping.
I'll admit to never having used a Leitz enlarger, but all my experience with condenser enlargers, from 35mm through to 10x10" from Beseler, Durst and Omega screams "go diffusion". Using sheet filters adds two surfaces for dust whether they sit above or below the lens, and printing through a filter below the lens is sure to degrade the image. Filters are also difficult to keep scratch free when in constant use.
If you do seriously consider the LPL check out this site (no affiliation, just a happy customer)-
a great source for info on LPL enlargers and great folks to deal with.
You guys are awesome! Thanks for sharing your very insightful thoughts and experiences...
Sepia - I'll definitely look into the site.
I'm heading out to Vermont tomorrow for Saturday's wedding but will continue checking this thread.
I was just about to ask this question myself. I've been using an old Beseler Dichro 45s color head enlarger, but have a chance to buy a very clean Omega 2 condenser. I think I'll stick with the Beseler, I like the prints an I've figured out how to align it with mirrors.
Sepia's appreciation of the LPL (now sold as Omega) is well founded. I have used Omegas, Beselers, Leitz, Durst, u name it. For the last 12 years my VC LPL enlarger has only needed to have the lamp changed, other than that still working like new. VERY durable, and I really like the vertical column. Not quite as bright as my Ilford Multigrade head on the Omega D5, but THAT is one piece of technology you don't want to invest in now (no parts available).
Use one and get back to me... :cool:
No need. I've found my perfect enlarger. :D I'll never go back to sheet filters for general work. When I need to print with the 810 (with a cold-light head) I go for graded papers instead and take the hit on emulsion choice. Since Agfa has left the game graded papers just aren't the same. There is some Insignia left in the freezer, so I have it when I need it, but not for much longer...
For the last 12 years my VC LPL enlarger has only needed to have the lamp changed, other than that still working like new. VERY durable, and I really like the vertical column.
My experience also. I've blown a bulb twice in three years, and I print a lot with this one. Another nice feature is the ease of changing lightsources- I can swap the VC head for a colorhead in about a minute and not put any stress on the enlarger at all. A top notch bit of industrial design.
Not quite as bright as my Ilford Multigrade head on the Omega D5, but THAT is one piece of technology you don't want to invest in now (no parts available).
The higher wattage bulb from the extended column version adds a bit of brightness, I use that bulb when printing 1620. The Ilford MG head was a real gem. I printed with one a few times while assisting. That's one piece I wish Ilford would bring back in 810 size- I'd love to put one of these on my 810 enlarger.
Get a condenser, it'll be cheaper and will give you results that are comparable or equal to any diffusion enlarger.
Simpler the better. One like Tony has for sale.
I have two IC plus late Focotars and a diffusion V35 with VC and color modules. I print on the IC 90% of the time. Built like tanks.
Any diffusion has a power supply that can go bad and uses expensive special bulbs. The IC takes standard ph 211 bulbs if you get one with the egg shape head. Do not get one with the old round head as it takes short neck bulbs no longer available. All grey heads are egg shaped. All the color models with the filter rod coming out the right side are egg shaped.
A bit of care is all that is needed to keep the condensers clean like a garbage bag cover.
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