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Thursday, January 23

Appreciating Great Gear

Great photographs can be taken on the simplest of cameras and the most basic of enlargers can be used to produce some fine prints. But there's an undeniable pleasure in using good gear. I've found this out the hard way having been able to buy some top end stuff over the last few year's following analogue photography's usurpation by pixel-based imaging.

In the first half of my interest in film photography - separated by a seven year dalliance with digital from my present infatuation - I used darkroom equipment that was not exactly at the cutting edge of technology. My enlarger was a Blumfield, a great, beautifully-made machine from the fine Birmingham company of T.F. Blumfield.

The Blumfield: I love this enlarger.

Just looking at the pic above, the enlarger looks like a relic, doesn't it? And yet, it's hard to overstate how well it was made. Magnificent is probably the right word. Whilst I could appreciate the enlarger's fine engineering, it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to use. At some point it had lost its counterbalance so it was a bit of an effort raising and lowering the large, alloy bowl of a head.

The above pic was taken from a 1947 British Journal of Photography annual. The Blumfield advert said the lamphouse should "rise and fall at the touch of a finger" and I'm sure it did. All the parts subject to wear were made of stainless steel running in oil-less bearings. I bought it for £15 in a local flea market and used the old Wray Supar lens that came with it. The results were OK but could have been better with the right equipment. I think I gave it away when I was seduced by digital.

T.F. Blumfield also made amongst the finest pre- and post-war lightweight bicycle hubs. The Blumfield Duralite's finish was superlative, highly-polished alloy and with the smoothest running bearings around. The company was a class act.

Now, I'm lucky enough to have three really good, well-designed enlargers - the Durst L1200 for 35mm to 5x4, a Leitz V35 for the small format and a Philips PCS150, 35mm to 6x7, which is a condenser unlike the other two diffusion machines. I tend to use the Durst for 5x4 and medium format and the V35 for 35mm.

The Philips is handy for those occasions when the snappier condenser look is required. Quite a lot of my negatives, as I've documented here, are lacking a little in contrast because of the dull weather conditions I like. The Philips will come into its own when I try to squeeze every last ounce of sparkle from them when using the Agfa Record Rapid paper I'm keeping for a special portfolio.

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I was happy with the Durst and Leitz but I got the Philips for peanuts along with some handy darkroom equipment. I was going to pass it on to someone else but it's got a really good timer and it's nice to have a condenser in the line-up. I also have a gaggle of fine lenses for the various formats, all of which are great performers.

Left to right: V35, PCS150 and the L1200.
The darkroom is getting a bit messy again...

What these enlargers and lenses have shown me is that I really made life hard for myself with the Blumfield! In particular, even printing from 6x9 negs, I was never entirely happy with the sharpness I was getting from the old Wray lens. Why did I stick with the Blumfield/Wray combination? Probably because I felt I couldn't justify the expenditure on really good gear from that period. What would the Durst have cost secondhand then? Maybe £800 or so? Of course, I could have bought a good lens to replace the Wray for much less but, with a young family, there was never very much spare cash so I made do.

Now, I'm revelling in a veritable embarrassment of riches - no more than I deserve, you understand. :)

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Andrea Ingram said...

I rather think the Harden Hubs were better. I loaned a back track wheel with a Harden Hub to Dave LeGrys and DAve Rowe and they broke the GB 500m record on it!

Bruce Robbins said...

Hardens were excellent. I've still got a pair. Not a lot to choose between them but I think the Blumfieds just edge it. I can easily see why you might disagree though.

Tim Fitzwater said...

I used to work for a retired photographer - helping him fix up the old studio to eventually sell. I never made much real money though - I'd usually walk out the door with old analogue gear instead. Thats how I scored my Beseler 23C II XL.

MartyNL said...

As well as the clear physical build, quality, etc. advantages of professional gear I must say that for me it has been just as much the between the ears benefits. I can no longer blame rubbish photography on crap gear! Confidence in my equipment is important whether in the field or in the darkroom. And to me it feels that by ruling out the tools it allows me to focus on my own technique and gives me more freedom to be purely creative.