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Focomat

Seeing the Leitz in the dark

“Ernst Leitz, Wetzlar” is a name synonymous with traditional cameras… in particular the 35mm rangefinder, but also in recent years with the SLR. Whilst precision and quality are words which easily spring to mind to describe products from the Leitz factory the word autofocus certainly isn’t… although the company has made a few compact AF cameras of late. Whether they will ever make a fully specified autofocus 35mm SLR is open to debate… now that the company and factory is “The Leica Camera Group” based at Solms, the direction is clearly a digital one with the M9 rangefinder being produced in greater numbers to satisfy an increasingly strong demand.

What many photographers do not appreciate is that Leitz has also made a number of enlargers over the years and for several different formats including 24x36mm (the original Leitz 35 mm miniature format), 24x18mm (the ciné format), 4.5x6cm (the film and plate size for folding vest-pocket cameras) and 6x6cm, or to be more precise, 6.5x6cm (the 2.5×3.5 inch size for many other folding cameras also of the period). Whilst they have apparently avoided the AF route with cameras and lenses they have been fully involved in the design, production and, until recently, continual refinement of autofocus enlargers since 1934.

What I’m describing here is the Focomat range of enlargers. Leitz used the name Focomat to describe their autofocus models at a time when they also manufactured manual enlargers which can still be found second-hand as the popular Valoy and Valoy II, and rather less frequently as the Vamax, amongst other esoteric names.

Enigma Codes

Of course the names or numerical codes Leitz have used over the years only serve those who know their interpretation. Whilst not quite in the “secret society” league I think that advertisers in the popular photographic magazines who list items under their codes such as, for example, Verat, Verup, Veryn and Verax, which obviously refer (to those in the know) to 50cm, 80cm, 100cm and 120cm metal columns for the Valoy only do themselves out of potential new customers. I have owned all three basic Focomats at different times over the years and have never understood the mysteries of the accessory codes. Although originally factory designations perhaps they are now perpetuated for collectors only rather than users and as such serve their purpose… perhaps I am wrong?

Nevertheless, for discerning users the enlargers are arguably the finest piece of equipment for the darkroom money can buy. Like a Leica rangefinder camera there is a “feel” that is unmistakable… especially in the dark. Once the idiosyncratic nature of the tool is understood there’s no looking back. You may own other more modern cameras, or an enlarger, after using a Leitz product but you will never get rid of the “oldie” for it will always be there to use for the sheer enjoyment of its (and here are those two words again) precision and quality.

Purchasing

Focomat enlargers can only be purchased pre-owned because even the modern Focomat V35 gave way to a name change in 1989 to become the Leica V35. There are, however, ample opportunities of finding “as new” Focomats simply because most owners of such equipment looked after them. I say most because we have to take into consideration age… after all the first Leitz AF enlarger was manufactured 70 years ago… and use. Many Focomats, especially the larger IIc model, saw constant use in newspaper darkrooms where the throughput of prints would have been at least 100 times that of the home darkroom. To attach the label “well used” to such items would be accurate although a little unfair as the equipment would still probably be in full working order. But, the buyer should be aware.

On the other hand there are new examples lurking in-store which see the light of day from time to time and I remember a couple of decades ago Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles having one “unopened, boxed” for $7,900. Whilst around £4,000 is a high premium price to pay for a IIc there is comfort in the knowledge that, as with all Leica products, you should not lose on your investment! A decade ago prices in the UK hovered around the £1,995 mark for late models of the IIc (mint-) complete with accessories, down to £795 for used examples. The more common Ic is obtainable for anything from £200 for an early well-used model to £495 and above for an example in very fine condition. Accessories which are scarcer than the products they fit are expensive… and the Enigma code breaker is thus an advantage.

35mm Focomat Models

Several Leitz Focomat autofocus models were released over the years… and there were no doubt small variations which are beyond the scope of this review such as baseboard and column dimensions, but, they can be narrowed down to the following 35mm models…

Focomat introduced in 1934, for 35 mm with AF operation from 2x to 10x.

Focomat Special Version enlarger baseboard 25×26 inches and 48 inch column.

Focomat Ia 1937, longer column and larger baseboard with clamping device.

Focomat Ib 1946-50, (made in USA), extended AF range from 2x to 13x, and with hinged lamphouse.

Focomat Ia 1949, (made in Wetzlar).

Focomat Ic 1950-77, first new post-war enlarger, sturdier construction.

Focomat Ic Color 1950, built-in drawer for Agfa colour printing filters.

Focomat Ic Color 1973, plastic laminated baseboard, 47 inch column of 2 inch diameter.

Focomat V35 Autofocus 1978, new 40 mm f/2.8 WA, modules for black-and-white, VC (variable contrast) and colour printing.

35mm to 6x9cm Focomat Models

Focomat II 1935, for 3.5 x 2.5 inch, a larger version of the Focomat I. Autofocus range from 1.8x to 6x with a 9,5cm lens and from 2x to 13x with a 5cm lens.

Focomat IIa 1937, redesigned parallel arm motion reducing AF range to 1.3x to 4.8x with 9,5cm lens but 5cm AF range unchanged.

Focomat IIa (modified) 1950-56, rotating lens holder with 5cm f/3.5 Elmar and 9,5cm f/ 4.5 Focotar.

Focomat IIa Color 1950-56, built-in drawer for Agfa colour printing filters.

Focomat IIc 1956-83, sliding lens carrier with 60mm f/4.5 and 95mm f/4.5 Focotars.

Focomat IIc Color 1956-83, as above but with drawer for Agfa colour printing filters.

Focomat Ic

The Focomat lc has several attractive features not seen on modern enlargers. Starting from the baseboard up, an “On-Off” switch falls to hand at the left edge, a wired-in outlet is provided for an exposure timer and a (Leitz) masking easel can be locked tight in any position on the baseboard with a clamping mechanism

Negative carrier inserts are guided into a V-groove made accessible after the enlarger lamp housing is tilted backwards to a locking stop, plus, the negative strip can realigned by raising the lamp/condenser housing using a lever at the right. And, beautifully engineered, the head raising mechanism (for focusing) is a pinch-lever operated by forefinger and thumb of the left hand… all very simple, smooth and elegant.

Focomat Ic in use…

The first important thing to say about the original Focomat series of enlargers is that the light source is as near to perfect as can be expected. That may be a bold statement… but it is one which is backed up by many fine printers around the world. The perfection being looked for is the balance, OK perhaps compromise, between sharpness and tonality. Whilst modern colour head and variable contrast diffused light sources are slightly softer and are undoubtedly forgiving to negative blemishes, the older type condenser light source produces slightly higher contrast, with “apparent” greater sharpness, although they are prone to emphasise negative defects, scratches and dust specks which then require spotting.

The light source of the Focomat Ic is particularly interesting in that it originates in a large domed housing half of which has a matt semi-silvered interior… and is directed onto the negative via a single focusing condenser. With the 150w opal bulb used it is efficient enough to provide exposure times only a fraction of a stop down on most modern enlargers fitted with a 100w quartz-halogen bulb in a VC head. Most of my negatives over the years have only required on average 7.5 seconds or so, 2-stops down, to make a 10×8 inch print… which is enough time to perform a basic dodge or two to the projected image.

The single focusing condenser also acts as a pressure plate… when the negative is aligned correctly the condenser is lowered so that it rests on top of the film. An additional pressure plate (code: NESOO) can be fitted under the condenser which then eliminates any Newton’s Rings effect. An added touch are the two ruby red windows in the metal negative carrier through which the negative’s number and film code is projected… very handy when making notes on the reverse of the printing paper.

You don’t have to focus the lens, of course, because the autofocus cam does it for you… but if you choose to make big enlargements by raising the head/parallelogram motion up the 47 inch tall column a helical screw mount will bring everything back into precise manual focus. If you repeatedly make the same-size large prints in the non-autofocus range, a spare “focus alignment stop” can be mated with a sprung catch for quick and accurate focus.

The autofocus range of the Focomat Ic is from 2x to 10x – a range which projects the negative image size from 3.25 x 2 to 15×10 inches approximately. When the head/parallelogram assembly is at the top of the 47 inch column an enlarged image size of 30×20 inches is possible… certainly a “big picture” and none of which is spoiled by the base of the enlarger column or its support, unlike many other current enlargers.

I am actually unsure as to whether the Leitz 5cm f/4.5 lens is better than (although it is certainly comparable to) the 50mm f/2.8 El-Nikkor I use on my other enlarger. When making comparison prints from the Focomat and the Durst Laborator 1200 one particular enlarger/lens combination sometimes appears better than the other… then the preference is reversed with another negative and print. I’m coming to the conclusion that there are certain lens/film combinations which work better than others. For example, I get (in my own humble opinion) wonderful results using Agfapan APX 100 film in rangefinder type Leicas and equally wonderful results with Fuji Neopan 400 and 1600 emulsions in my Nikon SLRs… but not always the other way around. Could it be that German lenses and films work better than German lenses with Japanese, English or American films… and vice versa? Or in photographic terms… is the East compatible with the West? I don’t expect a definitive answer to that poser although I’m sure it will raise some debate on the net.

Coded Accessories

There are accessories to be found for those not-so-frequent darkroom tasks such as distortion correction and copying. Both can be done with the Ic and IIc, although one has to find the accessories first. For the former, a tilting negative stage and baseboard has to be found… a different solution to the problem than that provided by modern designs with pivoting heads, lens boards and baseboards. For copying work a cassette or copying dark-slide which holds a pre-loaded plate or sheet of film has to be used, along with copying lights, a facility Leitz deemed necessary at the time.

Focomat IIc

This is the enlarger that cost the equivalent of a small car in the 1960s! For those lucky enough to own one there is probably no finer instrument for pure monochrome printing work from 35mm and 120 roll-film negatives up to the 6x9cm format. There are also less pure ways of using a IIc… by adding one of a variety of modern colour dichroic and monochrome heads from manufacturers such as Agfa, Beseler, Durst, Ilford, Omega and Wallner… some of which can also be fitted to the Ic with the correct adaptor plate. Through necessity I took the under the lens route with Ilford’s Multigrade filters which, whilst possibly affecting image sharpness a tad, certainly don’t create any movement to the enlarger head when changing filters in multiple filter/split-grade printing.

This, I find, is the only problem with both the Focomat Ic and IIc because the filter drawer has to be pushed (Ic) or pulled (IIc) out of the head housing. However, I tend to hold a filter under the lens because of the lack of room for a proper holder… and a filter held between right hand forefinger and thumb, combined with the left hand “on/off” switching and possibly a little dodging here and there whilst the eye is darting between the projected image and the wall-timer, phew… it certainly concentrates the mind… and that’s what darkroom work (and photography for that matter with manual camera equipment) is all about in my book.

Conclusion

When one considers that Leitz started producing autofocus enlargers in 1934 and that many of those very same instruments are still providing sterling service in darkrooms around the world then there is little I can add to that testimony. Except, do not look for one with the expectation that it will be wonderful in every respect… because it won’t be. Focomats probably suit the Leica rangefinder aficionado more than the modern camera user. And, there are those who like the look and feel of antiques which the original Focomats nearly are… they even have nipples for routine oil servicing just like the 1960s cars many of us drove instead of purchasing that longed for Leica.

And then there are the miniature format monochrome enthusiasts who use nothing but graded papers and who don’t need the questionable positioning and operation of a filter drawer and its contents to manipulate their print tonality and contrast… preferring instead to get the exposure and development of their films correct before the printing process begins. In short… old Focomats, cranky though they appear, are more for the enthusiast!

Image & text © 1997 Ed Buziak.

 

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