Please note: For those unfamiliar with the history of Leica Camera AG, the company used to be called Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GmbH in honor of its founder Ernst Leitz. Many of their product carried the prefix Leitz, like the Leitz Focomat V35.
It may seem strange to talk about an enlarger in these days of digital photography, but this is not your average, amateur darkroom piece of equipment. Film still is still very much in use by many photographers and Leica is still making very high quality film cameras. Of course, negatives (and transparencies) can be scanned and printed digitally, but even here many photographers still prefer do arrive at their final enlargements digitally.
With Leica film cameras and Leica lenses we have equipment with an unsurpassed performance potential. In a conventional darkroom, it is a simple fact that only an enlarger and enlarger lens with an equal quality will be able to render enlargements with the same level of quality.
Such an enlarger is the Leitz Focomat V35 and its 40mm f/2.8 WA-Focotar lens. It was made specifically for 35mm film by accepting only negatives up to 35mm, a 35mm enlarger only, not a copy camera, a graphic arts device, nor anything else. There is no other made by anybody that completely addresses itself to the wide range of 35mm photography.
Major points in favor of the V35 are the broad autofocus range, the brightness of the image, the 40mm wide angle enlarging lens, the streamlined design, and its extremely functional operation.
Autofocus is one of its prime features. Many manufacturers have tried it over the years, and just as many disposed of it with the claim “Autofocus is out-of-focus.” True enough in most cases, especially when final cost plays a role.
A good autofocus system in any case requires a focusing cam that is a perfect match for the precise focal length of the lens. One can either take each individual lens and painstakingly match each individual cam to the respective lens, or do as Leitz did, using their expertise in precision lens manufacture to make the 40mm Focotar to such tight optical tolerances that the focusing cams required little or no hand machining .
The focusing cam arrangement on the underside
of the V35 enlarger head
Modern Photography magazine said: …over the years, there has only been one manufacturer consistently willing to submit to these financial and engineering tortures – E. Leitz.”
There is another problem involved with autofocus design. Regardless of how well the focusing mechanism might be executed, it will not work if the negative does not stay where it belongs, and it has to do that within the depth of field of the lens.
This brings us to the negative carrier. I don’t want to get involved in a discussion of glass verses glassless carriers, only the one that optimizes, results can be considered the right one. Leitz used a combination of the two.
V35 negative carrier
The adjustment knobs for the cropping frames
A negative with the emulsion side toward the enlarger table (as it should be) will always have a slight upward curvature. Utilizing this, the Focomat enlargers have always used the principle of lowering a glass surface onto the negative to hold it perfectly flat, without the necessity of a sandwich type glass carrier. Such carriers often present dust problems as well as Newton’s rings, a phenomenon eliminated in the Focomat by using an ant newton glass design. The Focomat carrier is no different from the inside of a camera, where we also have a precision cut aperture with a pressure plate.
The benefits of such a system cannot be underestimated. As one person at Leitz put it, we “no longer have to peer through focusing magnifiers all day and go home tires and cross eyed. The user will no longer have a stiff neck and a pulled shoulder from attempting to make 16 times enlargements.” Autofocus will also eliminate the prints rejected after inaccurate eyeball focusing.
Many of us also know the hassle involved in making enlargements to exact sizes. The endless height adjustments and refocusing can be very time consuming with non-autofocus enlargers. By saving time, the autofocus enlarger allows more high quality work in less time.
A great deal can be said about the overall quality of the enlarger. In a test, Modern Photography magazine said they were surprised to find none of the expected sideways wobble in the enlarger arm. The V35 was truly built like the proverbial little brick house with crescent moons on the door (hearts in Germany).
The inside of the V35 height adjustment arm
Column height adjustment to compensate for
different easel height
This has some immediate as well as long term benefits. Obviously, a piece of equipment built like this well will last a lot longer, but it has also an immediate effect on the quality of the results. The most basic reason to build an enlarger as sturdy as possible is to assure perfect alignment and parallelism among the film plane, the lens stage, and the baseboard. According to Modern Photography’s test, the parallelism was perfect, not “just about”, but perfect laterally and longitudinally.
Even the best optics in the world will become useless of the film and the printing paper are not properly aligned and parallel to one another. Lens sharpness would become irrelevant.
The vibration damping of the V35 can be demonstrated by putting a glass of water on top and then hitting the enlarger with the knuckles. The water will ripple slightly, the quickly settle. All other enlargers, even the Beseler 23C or 45MCRX will vibrate substantially more when compared to the V35. Part of the reason is the steel support plate underneath the baseboard. No other enlarger has this solid column support.
The V35 commitment to quality is also shown in the baseboard and the Leitz easels. They are manufactured to a flatness within 0.8mm, and the fact that when manually focused when necessary, the mount has no backlash at all, a problem very common with other enlargers; and there is no bellows to wear out.
The illumination system is most likely the best ever offered in any enlarger. Even though brightness is somewhat subjective, with the V35 is has resulted in drastically shorter exposure times. The efficiency of the illumination system is clearly shown when compared to the Wallner color head as it was available for the Focomat Ic. Both have similar diffusion chambers and use identical bulbs. With the lens and the color filters removed, the V35 is over two stops brighter at the lens stage. This can aid the cost efficiency of the enlarger since it eliminates worries about reciprocity failure in color materials and further lessens potential vibration problems.
V35 light mixing chamber
Equally important is evenness of illumination. To quote Modern Photography: “Illumination was the best we have ever seen. Illumination, corner to corner, varies less than 1/20 stop, and the difference between center and edges was within 1/10 stop. This is not just good performance, it is outstanding.”
Arriving at such impressive figures was not easy. As is the case with any wide angle lens, the Focotar has slightly less corner illumination. To even this out, Leitz used a special diffuser on the bottom of the diffusion chamber. It is shaped similar to a condenser, but has its curvature downwards to the negative stage. Its density increases from the edge towards the center, compensating for the uneven illumination. This the main reason why the 40mm Focotar would not work anywhere near as well on any other enlarger, including the Focomat Ic.
One objection that is often heard is in regard to the lack of condensers. While it may be generally true that a diffusion system cannot deliver the same contrast level as a good condenser system, it is a fact that the V35/Focotar combination delivers such a high contrast level that a condenser system without a point light source would hardly be an improvement.
Another critical point often raised concerns the use of Styrofoam in the mixing chamber of an enlarger that lists for almost $2000. The reasons are quite valid. With the use of high precision injection molding, the shape of the chamber can be maintained within very close tolerances. That, combined with the very high reflectivity of the material, produces the very high light output of the enlarger.
The foam also has excellent thermal properties. Heat buildup at the negative stage, even after prolonged use, is negligible. So why not use Styrofoam? Maybe it all wouldn’t sound so bad if we refer to it as polyalkene.
Other advantages of the enlarger cannot be shown in numbers, they have to be experienced. In terms of ease of use there is nothing close to the V35. Every knob and adjustment is within arm’s reach. The f/stop illumination can easily be seen, the f/stop scale can be adjusted to the best working position. Everything works with the proverbial Leica smoothness and precision, which is something few other manufacturers could make claim for.
The list of fine points goes on: the feet under the baseboard are high enough to put a 100 sheet box of paper beneath, and they are positioned such that in spite of the oversized baseboard, the enlarger will still fit an average size enlarging table. These baseboard dimension are necessary because the V35 is one of the few enlarger’s which allow a 16 x 20 enlargement on the baseboard – with autofocus.
The negative carrier can be depressurized from either side. The enlarger head can be swung around to make oversized prints, and does not have to be counterweighted. The clickstops of the Focotar can be deactivated, allowing infinitely variable aperture adjustments to accommodate the use of color analyzers. The negative can be masked from all four sides with four easily accessible knurled knobs in the front of the enlarger.
Wiring is internal. There is not the usual clutter of wires and hookups on the outside of the enlarger. For that matter, the overall styling contributes to the functionality of the enlarger, and the V35 looks like no other ever marketed.
This brings us to the color filtration of the V35. Unlike any other enlarger, the V35 does not have a color head as an accessory. Instead it has only a filter module. The entire illumination system is shared by both black and white and color printing, and only the color filters need to be added. The greatest versatility is gained with the color filter module. Not only does it offer filtration for color printing, the color filters can also be used to change contrast levels with variable contrast paper. For individuals not interested in color printing at all, there is also a variable contrast module which allows infinitely adjustable contrast levels with variable contrast papers.
V35 color module
Please note: the variable contrast module is very
similar, except it has only one knob for the contrast adjustment
Filtration of all three colors for color printing goes up to the rather high values of 200 units. The dials are illuminated and easily read (as are the dials of the variable contrast module). A while light switch allows the removal and instant return of the filters to their preset values. This is nothing new or really different, but it again works with Leica precision, and in combination with the V35 the capabilities of the dichroic filtration system are certainly maximized.
The general finish and design of the V35 shows extensive input from the designer as well as the manufacturer. In comparison, other enlargers are crudely put together. The finish is rough, virtually screaming of mass production.
Even little things like lens boards that require lens retaining rings, or square lens boeads that make it impossible to adjust the viewing angle of the aperture scale, these things too show lack of thought in terms of functionality and further amplify the incredible finesse of the V35.
Finally, let’s look at the 40mm WA Focotar. Again a quote from the test in Modern Photography: “Using a 40mm instead of the usual 50mm lens traditional on 35mm enlargers means a larger image for equal paper or negative distance. The lens proved to be an outstanding performer. It was at its best at f/5.6 where it provided a degree of crispness, corner to corner sharpness, and illumination evenness that was exemplary. Prints had superb overall quality with the high color saturation characteristic of high optical quality. This is a lens that matches the quality of the enlarger it is fitted to. It was even usable at f/2.8. In fact, it is the closest thing to our test apochromat that we have ever seen.”
a book by John Holts, Harper & Row
I usually don't accompany articles with a commentary, but this one is very fitting. I came across this book quite some time ago. Part of which deals with the purchase of an enlarger. Mr. Holtz starts out by saying that it does not make sense to have the very best in cameras and lenses if one makes prints on a cheap enlarger. That is good advise.
But a bit further on things get rather confusing. After recommending an enlarger able to accommodate various negative sizes, Mr. Holtz goes on saying: ..."the only reason beyond your budget...are the discontinued Leitz Valoy and Focomat enlargers... These 35mm format machines provide a kind of silvery long scale black and white print gradation that other sources can't match. Neither the bigger Leitz Focomat II series machines...or the stylish, but almost useless Focomat V35 can produce prints as good."
Apparently, Mr. Holtz does not like diffusion enlargers. While I agree with his general comment of diffusion enlargers giving a softer image than comparable condensor equipped counterparts, I most profoundly disagree with him in regard to his comment about the V35. Generalizations like "almost useless" do not have any place in a book that is supposed to be written to help people gain knowledge about certain products.
It is obvious that Mr. Holtz either has never tried the V35, or he does not exactly know what he is talking about. While he is right that the V35 is a diffusion enlarger, it certainly does not have to fear comparison to the older Focomat Ic enlarger.. If there is a loss in crispness, tonality or any other aspect, it certainly does not show.
I have used both of these enlargers and compared to the Focomat Ic, the V35 is superior in most any respect. It should be obvious that the engineers at Leitz were well aware of the shortcomings of conventional diffusion systems. But by optimizing the system as used in the V35, such fears are totally unfounded, and comments like those by Mr. Holtz are utterly out of place.
Had he raised the question about whether the V35 might not be even better in performance with a condenser system like in the Focomat Ic, he would have given grounds for a sensible discussion, but "almost useless"...
I can't help wondering what terminology he might have used in regard to some enlargers that are way behind the V35 in terms of quality and performance.
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