What Was the Best Enlarger Ever Made?


This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Wait, what? What is this, 1989? 

Well, Tracy Chapman did just perform “Fast Car” at the Grammys.

It’s a silly question now, and if you do not care about the answer, well, few do. Keep in mind, though, please, that not every post here is for everyone. A minority of TOP readers still shoot film or remember it fondly, and a smaller minority like, or liked, working in the darkroom. Don’t begrudge those folks a few posts in their area of interest, even if it doesn’t fall in yours.

/lecture mode, and sorry for lecturing!

But, to proceed. In my opinion, the best enlarger ever made was the 4×5 model (which was actually a family of slightly different models) made by LPL of Japan, now located in Tokorozawa City, Saitama Prefecture. They used to give the location as “Tokyo,” so maybe they have moved, or maybe they were always in Tokorozawa City, which is sort of a satellite city of Tokyo. Mine was a 4500II, with the VCCE (variable contrast, constant exposure) module.

Saunders 4x5s

Saunders/LPL 4×5″ enlargers in the darkroom of the Photography BFA program at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire

My opinion is—how shall I put this modestly?—well-informed. I didn’t use every enlarger there was (most enlargers, like most pool tables and most home treadmills, were junk), but I used a lot, from a ridiculous tiny toy with a decentered triplet lens to a massive floorstanding 8×10 Durst with a lens that cost a number of months’ worth of my rent at the time. I never owned an Omega D-series, but I maintained them when I was a lab manager. I tested a whole bunch of enlarger lenses. I printed pictures professionally for every conceivable purpose—a display at the Monterey Jazz Festival, museum exhibitions, annual reports, headshots for actors, copy photographs of peoples’ ancestors, news photos, the historical archives of deceased photographers for galleries, fine-art prints for photographers, portraits and pictures of pets and kids and houses and weddings, architectural interiors, PR photos and grip ‘n’ grins for schools and companies—on and on. The largest print I ever made was four feet by four feet—I used window planters lined with plastic for the solutions and washed the print out on the sidewalk, with a hose—and the most prints I ever made by hand from one negative was 500, which took all weekend including an all-nighter. Of course I printed my own negatives, too, sometimes. I worked in a lot of darkrooms.

I have to give John Sexton some credit for my top choice. It was what he used (Jerry Uelsmann too—Jerry had six), a powerful endorsement. John, who was Ansel’s last assistant (of many) and helped Ansel with the last lifetime revision of his technical book series, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print (he even appears in the books here and there), is a revered nature and landscape photographer in his own right, known for his prized books and superb craftsmanship.

The 4×5″ VCCE LPL was the end of a long quest for the “right” enlarger for me (the Focomat IIc being but one small step along the way). It remains the most ergonomic enlarger I ever used, and the most precise, and it had the most elegant light system, adapted from color dichroic-style light heads. A color-correct slide projector bulb was aimed into an aperture in a carefully engineered light-mixing box, past a sliding system of three adjustable glass filters with highly colorfast dyes: two in the colors to which VC papers are most sensitive, and the other an ND (neutral density) filter to keep the exposure time constant. All the operator had to do was turn a dial to input a continuous range of contrast on VC papers. The light is as bright and more even than that from a condenser head, and cooler in temperature at the negative stage than even a “cold” light head*.

To change filtration effects on the big enlarger you simply slid one filter module out of the head and inserted another one. So a VCCE model could be turned into a color enlarger simply and easily. Of course, the convenience is now gone, because the modules now cost far more than the whole enlarger used to, even adjusted for inflation. The smaller 670 didn’t have the modules; it required dedicated heads for each kind of light source. But usually darkroom workers only needed one, the one of their preference.

Not quite gone

Only last July (2023), LPL announced “the discontinuation of production of photography and darkroom supplies,” and, the company says, “the new name of DDL (Digital Data Laboratory) was adopted to renew the digital data related product group.”

The enlargers weren’t always branded LPL outside the Japanese home market. They were imported by various companies into a variety of markets and typically known by the importers’ names. I always knew them under the name of Saunders, after the famous easels, another brand belonging to importer Berkey Marketing; later, Omega was the American importer, but Omega now lists all LPL enlargers as discontinued. I believe KHB Photografix, a repair shop in Ontario and the longtime Canadian importer, is the last outlet that has new-old stock (NOS). Prices, understandably, are rather high; an enlarger I last purchased for ~$700 (original 1983 price for the base condenser model: $289!) currently lists for CA$3,295 (US$2,445).

The contraption in the attic…er, basement

The Saunders/LPL 4500II, the model I had, was not ideal for 35mm negatives. The smaller medium-format 670 series (called 7700 in Canada) handled 35mm negatives better, although those models had an obvious and unnecessary weakness, which was that the negative carriers cropped 6x7cm negatives slightly. (You can see Ctein’s original magazine review from way back in the day—March 1983—here. He reviewed it as a color enlarger.) So the 4500 and 4550 were best for 6x7cm, 6x9cm, and 4×5″, and the smaller enlarger was best for 35mm. Both enlargers coped well enough with 6x6cm and 645.

There was one really neat trick you could do with the bigger enlarger and 35mm, though. I discovered that the glass 4×5″ carrier would exactly fit nine 35mm frames if you overlapped the sprocket-holed edges. So you could make enlarged proof sheets with ease, nine negatives at a time, as long as you cut your negatives in strips of six. Four of those equaled one 36-exposure roll. Nine frames on an 11×14″ or 16×20″ sheet is the world’s most elegant way of proofing 35mm, and, exposed at a consistent time and contrast, gives you all the information you need to skip the test strip and go right to a full first print.

Unfortunately, by the time I discovered that trick, I had moved to Chicago and left all my custom printing clients behind in D.C., so I never offered enlarged proofs to clients. Some of them would have gotten hooked, for sure.

Lpl-smallThere are worse fates; it could be in a landfill.

I also have not one but three Apo-Rodagon-N’s.

The enlarger I have in my basement is an Omega/LPL 670 XL plain condenser model (the “XL” means that it has an extra long, or rather tall, column). I also have a separate VCCE head that is in not quite new condition.

I’ve never been much of a “keeper”; mostly, stuff shuffles into and out of my sweaty little grasp. Such is the lot of a reviewer. And I mentioned the other day that I should sell it. Looking into all this again over the weekend, however, I’ve decided that I should die with that LPL still in my possession. I might never use it again, even if I live to be 102, but I realized yesterday that not only do I never want to deal with having to acquire an enlarger at any time in the future, I also don’t even want to have to think about dealing with it. So I’ll just keep what I have as a talisman against my angst. I do aspire to pare my belongings down before my beloved son has to shovel through it all, but that’s one old artifact he’ll just have to deal with. Sorry, Xander!

So I guess I am a little sentimental about enlargers after all. I earned it, though, after the thousands of hours I spent in darkrooms in my time.

Mike

*Heat from light bulbs was a longstanding problem in enlargers generally. Many instructional books cautioned you not to leave a negative in an enlarger with the light on, as the heat could damage or even destroy the negative. I tried to buy a certain print from Frank DiPerna once, but he had left the negative cooking while he went to answer a phone call. He got distracted and accidentally burned a big hole right through the negative. Hence one appeal of the cooler so-called “cold light” sources. They still got warm—in fact they did not perform consistently until they warmed up—but not enough to damage negatives.

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