Reversed Enlarger Lenses

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated May 13, 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 (10)

Article: Reversed Enlarger Lenses
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Harold Gough says...
I have been using my Schneider HM 40mm f2.8 (variable aperture) lens reversed, mostly at f11. I noticed that I was getting a, slightly off-centre, dirty white haze across many images. I also saw this sometimes in the viewfinder, when framing subjects. I have now cured this, in the same way as I did previously with my Tamron SP 90mm 2.5. The problem is the same. Film lenses with a flat rear element tend to cause reflections on the sensor. This is cured by using a high quality TC, with a convex rear element, behind the affected lens. This remedy seems to work well with the Schneider. I use a x1.45 Kiron Matchmate, purchased to fit my Kiron lenses. I am very relieved that this works as the previous owner had three Canon MPE-65 lenses and six of the Schneider 40mm one. He found that the 40mm beat the MPE throughout the magnification range but needed to be reversed above about x 1.7. Mine was the best of all!
9th April 2015 10:15am
Harold Gough says...
Rather than use additional (TC) glass to remove this reflection I thought I would try putting a tilt adapter in the setup. Just applying a small amount of tilt eliminated the reflection.
14th April 2015 6:32pm
Harold Gough says...
A point of clarification: This problem is when the lens is reversed. Its rear element has a very convex rear surface, such that there in no internal reflection of this nature when conventionally mounted. However, the front element has an unusually flat surface, giving rise to the reflection problems. Google "hazed but not fazed" to see images with and without tilt correction.
18th April 2015 8:38am
Harold Gough says...
On further us of the TC, I find that I get (only at some extensions?)another, central, type of diffuse white hazing. Reverting to the tilt adapter seems to be the only fully effective remedy.
30th April 2015 10:19am
Harold Gough says...
One thing to watch out for on some enlarger lenses is that the aperture selection ring is right at the front of the lens. This is the case with my Schneider Componon Apo HM lenses. If you mount the lens (on an extension) facing forwards the fingers which support the front of the lens tend to easily turn the ring, without you noticing, giving an incorrect exposure. With the lens reversed there is a similar tendency, to rotate the barrel in relation to the front ring which is firmly held in the extension ring or adapter.
10th February 2014 1:42pm
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