Reversed Enlarger Lenses

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated August 31, 2017


Reversed enlarger lenses are one of the mainstays of extreme macro photography, because they give exceptional flat field performance at extremely reasonable prices.

Enlarger Lens Prices

Since the emergence of digital photography, demand for enlargers has been drastically decreased, so the price you pay for enlarger lenses has come down radically over the years. There are some delicious bargains to be had out there.

One reason for the lower price is the condition of the lenses; mine are generally beat up with scratches and dust. But, even in this condition, my lenses are still extremely sharp. I have never paid more than £100 for any enlarger lens and most cost much less.

Nikon El-Nikkor 50mm f/2.8N enlarger lens

Nikon El-Nikkor 50mm f/2.8N, a cracking enlarger lens that performs beautifully and is easy to get hold of. This is an excellent choice for a first extreme macro enlarger lens.

Why Enlarger Lenses?

An enlarger lens is specifically designed to project light through a flat negative onto a sheet of printing paper. Therefore, if used in reverse, an enlarger lens is perfectly designed to project an image onto a flat digital sensor.

Reverse Or Not?

This is a question often asked about reversing enlarger lenses - is it really worth reversing them?

The basic rule of thumb is that asymmetrical lenses perform better if reversed, whereas with symmetrical lenses there is probably little visible difference, so there is no point.

The most visible differences would be in the periphery of the image, and are probably related to field flatness.

perfectly designed to project an image onto a flat digital sensor

A flat test object such as graph paper can show them better than a real life shot of an 3D insect in the centre of the image where the resolution will be about the same and the field curvature is irrelevant.

In my own experience it seems to me that reversing is only better below 50mm.

Reversing enlarger lenses does one other important thing. Most enlarger lenses made a reverse mounted lens will give you more working room in the last 25 years have illuminated f-stops - a window on the back of the lens puts light into the numbers - and if you mount the lens near side to the bellows, light enters the numbers, exits the rear window, and causes a light leak in your image. Reversing your lens stops this problem.

Componon 28 f/4 reversed for macro

Pentax K-7 with a Componon 28mm f/4, an outstanding lens for up to 5:1.

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.

Also, the back of an enlarger lens is typically smaller than the front, so a reverse mounted lens will give you more working room.

Which Enlarger Lenses?

I have never paid more than £100 for any enlarger lens

Over the years thousands of enlarger lenses have been made, but not all enlarging lenses are equal, and it is all too easy to purchase a poor lens with the glut of enlarging lenses that's out there given the decline of the darkroom.

For extreme macro photography, the better enlarger lenses to use are six element enlarger lenses: cheaper four element variants do not perform especially well. Nikon El-Nikkor 50mm f/2.8N is such a six element lens and highly recommended.

Componons, Rodagons and El-Nikkors are usually used by extreme macro photographers, but I have also seen good things written about six element Fujinons.

Comments (13)

Article: Reversed Enlarger Lenses
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Mark Rehorst says...
Great series of articles! Many questions...
How do I calculate the expected magnification that results when using an enlarger lens in reverse? Do I need an extension tube to ensure the the image won't be vignetted? How long should the extension tube be? How do I calculate working distance from the lens given the distance from the lens to the film plane?
4th March 2019 12:35pm
Harold Gough says...
I use a reversed Schneider HM 40mm enlarger lens. I bought it from someone who had compared several copies with three copies of the MPE-65 and found it better at all magnifications, reversed at >1:1. It has one irritating problem when reversed. It has a flat front surface to the front element. This causes internal reflections, between it and the sensor. This is a phenomenon which has nothing to do with macro and affects some other film lenses used on digital (e.g. the Tamron Adaptall-2 SP 90mm f2.5 macro). This is overcome by placing and optic with curved rear surface between the HM 40 and the camera. For this, I use a Kiron x1.5 TC. This means that I cannot use the lower magnifications with the lens reversed but I find the 6mm FOV (on m4/3) is ideal for many tiny subjects.
13th October 2017 5:09pm
Tim L. Heller says...
I'm going to buy a Componon-S 50mm f/2.8, since this seems to be one of the best in this price segment.
Now I just have a problem with mounting the lense to the camera. I think it'll perform better if reversed. Does anyone know the filter thread size of this lense?
12th June 2017 2:47pm
Utan says...
Filter thread size of componon s- 50 f2.8 is 43mm.
28th June 2017 2:34pm
John says...
Johan, Is there any quality advantage to be gained by reversing an enlarger lens onto a prime lens as opposed to using the same enlarger lens simply reversed onto a series of extension tubes ?
You're not the first to have wondered about this =). There is an improvement if reversed onto a prime because of field curvature, especially in the corners.
26th February 2017 8:42am
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