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Be An Educated Consumer:
How to Choose An Enlarger For Your Black-And-White Darkroom

The enlarger is the heart of the darkroom. It's takes a tiny negative and makes a big print out of it. While there aren't too many new enlargers available today (thank you, Photoshop) there are still enough to satisfy all levels of photographers; of course, used enlargers are readily available almost everywhere. The following divides enlargers into categories and features so you can decide which one is best for your needs.

By Mason Resnick

Enlargers are made up of three basic parts: the Head, the Shaft, and the Base. The Head is the most complex part of the enlarger. It contains a light source, a negative carrier that holds the film itself, a focusing apparatus (usually a bellows with knobs that control it), and a lens.

The light source can be an incandescent bulb (usually in a "condenser" head or a fluorescent light source (typically found in a "diffusion" head, also sometimes referred to as a "cool" head because it doesn't generate as much heat). Enlargers are categorized as condenser or diffusion enlargers.

A negative carrier will have an opening sized for specific formats, although many photographers would file the opening down so light would be allowed in around the edges of each negative, creating a black border on full-frame prints.

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. Using the wrong focal length lens can result in vignetting the corners of an image, or image distortion.

Focus is controlled by moving the bellows holding the lens up or down. Most enlargers accomplish this with a knob or a pressure-released control. More advanced models may have a fine-tuning focus knob as well.

To change the size of the projected image, you need to move the enlarger head up or down on the shaft. A shaft can be a single tube or poll, sometimes placed at a slight angle, or structure that includes two polls (the latter is steadier). A dual shaft design, or a heavy-duty shaft, is usually found on more expensive, pro-level enlargers. Simple lightweight shafts are typical of entry-level models, and may not be quite as sturdy. When using less expensive enlargers, give the enlarger a few seconds to "settle down" after putting a negative in it before printing to avoid enlarger shake.

The base is a fairly heavy flat surface that the easel (which holds the printing paper) is placed on. Some photographers bolt their enlargers directly to their work surface for extra stability.

Condenser Enlargers
A condenser enalrger uses a series of condenser lenses to produce parallel light rays. The light source is usually an incandescent bulbNormally, light travels from the source in all directions, but the condenser lenses in the enlargers redirect the light so it travels, more or less, straight down through the negaive to the lens, which focuses the light on the printing paper.

This directional light creates a very specific "condenser enlarger" look on prints. Prints made from grainy negatives, such as Kodak Tri-X, for example, will display more contrast and sharply defined grain. The grain pattern and structure will appear relatively sharp. This can be a desirable look, but in addition to more pronounced grain, any imperfection on the negative--dust, scratches--will be clearly seen.

Diffusion Enlargers
Diffusion enlargers scatter light before it strikes the negative, usually via a translucent material located between the light source and the film. The light source is typically a fluorescent, which by its nature produces more diffused light. Prints made with a diffusion enlarger are lower in contrast and detail is a bit softer. The good news is that negative imperfections--scratches and dust--are minimized. Color Heads
(Yes, you can use them for black and white!)
Some diffusion enlargers have built-in adjustable color filters and are designed for color printing, but they are also extremely convenient when printing black-and-white negatives on black-and-white variable-contrast paper. Unlike black-and-white-only enlargers, which require you to keep a set of filters which you manually place into or take out of the enlarger head to change print contrast in full or half-steps, color enlargers let you "dial up" a combination of color settings that are infinitely variable.

For instance, if you dial 30 Magenta, you will get the same contrast print as you would when printing with a grade 3 filter. The more magenta you use, the higher the contrast; the more yellow, the lower the contrast. No filter settings is the equivalent of grade 2 paper.

Ready to buy an enlarger? Here's a guide to what's available now.

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Buying Guide
12 Enlargers You Can Buy Now