As an engine is the heart of a car, so is an enlarger the heart of a darkroom. It is the instrument through which negatives are brought to life. Along with a good lens, it is the enlarger that the rest of the darkroom is built around. A darkroom can have the best plumbing, a great stereo and stainless steel trays, but without a good enlarger and lens, it can be hard to produce quality images.
How Enlargers 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. An interesting point about enlargers is that they differ from cameras in one major aspect. Whereas a camera takes a black and white scene and transfers the dark areas of the scene into light areas on the negative (and, conversely, light areas into dark), an enlarger reverses the process. It takes the dark areas on the negative and returns them to original light areas represented in the scene and vice versa - dark areas are represented in lighter tones.
Enlargers differ in several ways. Some are ostensibly for black and white whereas some are for color. Some will only hold 35mm negatives while others can accept larger negatives up to 8x10". Please note that an enlarger that prints 4x5" can also print smaller negatives but an enlarger that only prints 35mm will not hold a larger negative. Enlargers can also differ in the size of prints they can produce. An enlarger with a short vertical column yields a small print while a longer column permits the printing of larger images. In addition, certain enlargers can reverse their columns permitting you to place your easel on the floor for larger prints while others can rotate their columns for wall projection. A rotating column is especially valuable when your darkroom space is limited.
Enlargers also differ in the type of light they generate. The most popular kind of black and white enlarger is the condenser enlarger. Light from this type of enlarger is "collimated"; i.e. the light is focused to a point in “cone of light”. Condenser enlargers tend to produce very sharp, crisp prints. However, they also have a tendency to heat up and cause negatives to buckle as well as show up dust and scratches more clearly than other types of enlargers. Moreover, a portrait printed with a condenser enlarger will be less "forgiving" to imperfections and blemishes on the subject’s skin. Contrast with this type of enlarger is generally achieved through the use of either graded printing paper or variable contrast paper and variable contrast filters. It is possible to print color images using a condenser enlarger; however, this requires use of individual, separate color filters. This process can be time consuming and frustrating if the user is not familiar with color filter printing techniques.
Variable Contrast Enlargers
Variable contrast enlargers are a comparatively new design. This type of machine allows the user to adjust the contrast of the print within the enlarger itself rather than having to maintain a supply of graded paper or through the use of external filters. These enlargers have built-in dials with contrast grades on them. By rotating a dial either up or down, the contrast of a particular print can be manipulated – in some instance without a change in exposure time. Variable contrast enlargers use diffused light. This is achieved through a piece of frosted plastic, through which the light is passed. The resulting light is more diffused, i.e. softer, and can be more pleasing, especially for portraits.
Color enlargers use dichroic heads containing dial-in filters of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. By adjusting each of these filters to the appropriate setting (determined through test printing or by using a color analyzer), a proper print can be produced. It is also possible to print black and white images on a color enlarger. This requires more knowledge of C-M-Y filtration techniques, however, some professional photographers prefer this method as it yields a less harsh, contrasty image than a condenser enlarger.
You'll get as many arguments about which is the best enlarging lens as you will about who makes the best camera bag or which city has the best baseball team. The important thing to remember about enlarging lenses is that each film format requires a different recommended focal length with which to print. For example, for a standard 35mm negative, a 50mm enlarging lens is normally recommended. For a 6x7 negative, an 80mm lens is used and for 4x5 negatives, a 150mm lens is recommended. There are times when a different lens might be used but, when first getting started with printing, it is best to stick to the rule of thumb and experiment from there. Quality of lenses varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. This is one of the oldest debates in photography. Ask ten printers and you’ll get ten opinions on enlarging lenses. Generally, the discussion comes down to three lenses: Schneider, Rodenstock or Nikon. The truth is, they are all good. One may appear to be a touch sharper while another may be less contrasty. It depends on how you like your prints to look.
A Word about Negatives
It is important to mention at this point that print quality is more a factor of the negative than it is to the equipment used to print. Remember what Ansel Adam’s said: "The negative is the score. The print is the performance". It is very difficult to get a satisfactory print from a bad negative.
An enlarger is something for which it pays to buy the biggest and best one you can afford at the time. Sometimes it is beneficial to purchase an enlarger that will accommodate a negative larger than the format you currently shoot. That is, if you are now shooting with only 35mm, it might pay to invest in an enlarger (and lens) that will accept larger format negatives since, at some point, you might decide to step up in film format. The thought of having to buy a second enlarger because you’ve since bought a larger negative camera is daunting and financially painful.
When installing the enlarger in your darkroom, it is recommended that it be bolted to a wall, table or floor to minimize vibrations. Also, don’t forget to divide your work area into a "wet side" and "dry side" with the enlarger being on the dry side. There are many excellent books available which outline and diagram efficient darkroom design.
Other accessories to think about when buying an enlarger are: extra lamps, negative carriers, a good easel, a good timer, a good grain focusing device, and, inasmuch as dust is the biggest enemy of the darkroom, a good supply of compressed air - and a dust cover.
Working in the darkroom can be fun, challenging and creative. Owning an enlarger that makes your work easier will make your time "in the dark" more enjoyable.