The darkroom is, I believe, the ultimate escape — if you are a photographer, that is. Whether you call it a she-shed, a man cave, darkroom or by another name, once the door is firmly shut and sealed, it’s just you and your art. It gives you focus — pun intended. Just remember, no touchscreens can be used in this safe place. There is a certain purity and simplicity. Digital technology has little meaning here. Everything is touch, feel, and in your hand.

It is a quiet place. No one can disturb you if you are “blacked-out.” It is you and your art: nothing else. It is a place where you can really concentrate on what you are trying to convey in the picture. What is more, you are in full control of the environment.

Frances E. Schultz

Here’s what I cover in this article:


The darkroom warrior

As I discover more and more about this rather utilitarian darkroom enlarger — the Meopta Magnifax 4 — I realise it is well-loved and well-respected. I bought it on a whim mainly because my friend Georg was searching for a beginner’s enlarger and I was trying to help him out. I had suggested the Meopta and sent him the link to the advert. It was around 150 or 160 euros, way below the current prices roaming around eBay and the second-hand market.

After a couple of days, I asked him about it. At the time, he had his heart set on a Durst or Kaiser. He was looking for something a bit cheaper to start off with, as he hadn’t ventured into this direction at all. He did end up purchasing a job lot with a stack of ILFORD papers, massive chemistry trays, a Durst enlarger with a Kaiser timer. But ironically both the timer and enlarger were broken and beyond repair. The saving grace was the papers though and the massive trays to develop 40×50 prints. These are hard to come by, so all was not lost.

I read more about the Meopta enlarger and decided to purchase it somewhere near Vienna. For some unbeknown reason to me, I hadn’t asked anything about the enlarger until I had already purchased it. Then I thought to myself, “well that was a bit silly”. So I asked if there were any accessories included. She initially said, there were none and that was it.

I thought well, there goes 150 Euro plus shipping, and that it was probably damaged and beyond repair and missing what was important: those essential negative masks or a glass carrier. If you are purchasing any darkroom enlarger, ensure that the negative masks you need are included. I needed 35mm, 6×6, and 6×9 (I hadn’t a need for 6×7 at the time but it does have this option too).

Then a few days later, while my seller prepared a massive box to ship the enlarger in (it’s quite a beast), she had found some extras. I was delighted! It appeared to be a 6×6 and 6×9 mask and mixing box for the colour head from the image she had sent me.


Possible Issues with the Magnifax 4

I was relieved but wasn’t out of the woods just yet. Maybe the transformer for the halogen bulb which is the light source for the colour head, or the variable contrast head in the enlarger was broken. Maybe the bulb was broken and hard to find. Researching the voltage and type of bulb for the light source proved to be useful and was nothing too serious to worry about if one or both would fail to operate. I could pretty much easily fix them.

Another issue concerning the enlarger is the column gearing. The cogs are made out of plastic and do wear away over time and use. However again there is a solution for that too — a 3D printed part but feasible nonetheless.

The big wait

Bare in mind, the seller seems only to sell antiques but the condition of the enlarger looked good. These enlargers originate from the former Czechoslovakia and do have a reputation of being sturdy and solid. So I waited and waited for the enlarger.

Checking the tracking link nearly on every half hour out of excitement. Some bank holidays came and went in Austria. It was early December. It was stuck in a grocery store in Leobendorf outside of Vienna. Where she must have dropped it off. I contacted my seller and explained things were not as they should be. I then believed or imagined she marched down there and gave them a piece of her mind. She got things moving and mentioned how incompetent they were at the Supermarket pickup. As you see the transaction for the amount depends on the shipment arriving at the other end. A nice feature of the platform I had bought the enlarger on.

It’s now about two weeks later since I clicked the button for payment. I wait merrily for my pre-Christmas darkroom present. It should arrive today, the 15th of December.

The afternoon had passed and the evening left us without a giant parcel at the door. Thinking if the enlarger had grown four legs in the meantime I’m pretty sure it would being able to crawl here to Graz much faster than the current delivery schedule! Let’s see what tomorrow morning brings.

Of course, while all this has taken place I continued to learn with my trusty old friend, the 606, the Durst. Using Ilford grade filters in its filter drawer, I managed to achieve results from split grading printing. Plus brushing up on some dodge and burn techniques as well. Oh, I’ve even got to do some toning with selenium, 1:20 ratio. Quite nice indeed. These final prints have been framed and wait readily to be wrap as Christmas presents.

Although I wait hesitantly for the arrival of the Magnifax. It’s now the 16th of December. By this time mince pies and other goodies had arrived from Ireland. Mince pies are scare like Durst enlarger condensers but that’s another story. An email in the indox, says to expect a delivery from 08:00 to 17:00 today. mmh I’ll believe it when I see it.  So I checked their map tracking app which shows a reindeer instead of van – very festive. Things are starting to make sense now concerning the lengthy delay. I guess reindeers are in high demand at this time of year. I better prepare some water and leafy greens for the poor creature. It did have long journey with such a heavy load. The Meopta Magnifax 4 weights over 20kgs.

It arrived, 6×6 and 35mm masks seemed to be included along with a glass negative carrier – the one with anti-Newton rings.


Colour AND black and white printing

A surprise to me was also the included B&W condenser head. I hadn’t expected that. I was now the owner of two glorious enlarger heads for the tall Meopta! — happy days.

The black and white head

Concerning the B&W condenser head. The light source is an opal tungsten-type bulb and requires no transformer. It is a double condenser system. A large condenser is permanently installed in the device head, a second condenser is inserted. The standard affair is the 6×9 condenser. Of course, the optional 24×36 condenser would direct light more into the centre, which in turn reduces exposure time for 35mm film, but is not necessary. You can also print all formats in the configuration for 6×9.

The Colour head

Just like the mixing chambers for the Meopta colour 3 head. However most darkroom folks leave the 6×9 mixing chamber inside the colour head as it will facilitate for all formats of film up to 6×9.

Just to note the colour head fully raised all the way up, makes the total height of the system around 120cm. While the B&W condenser is much higher at 138cm. So if you are tight on height in a basement then the colour head is the one to go for.

You might be interested in...

MEOGrade

The other head the MEOGrade which is dedicated to B&W photography is very difficult to come across. However the colour head is well capable of doing B&W contrast grading, so don’t worry too much about it.

History

Meopta was a company from the former Czechoslovakia. Its roots can be traced back to the year 1933, when it was Optikotechna. Initially, Optikotechna produced lenses and condensers but quickly expanded its product line to include enlargers, composite lenses, single optics, binoculars, riflescopes, slide projectors, and of course, the well-known Flexaret TLR cameras.

After the war, the company was renamed to Meopta. A number of new and exciting products were designed and developed which helped to establish quickly an excellent reputation for the new Meopta brand throughout the world.

From 1947 to 1970 Meopta became one of the biggest enlarger manufacturers worldwide and the only cinema projector manufacturer in Central/East Europe.

The Magnifax 4 I had purchased, I believe is from the 90’s (Source: meoptahistory.com)


10 Top Facts about the Magnifax

  1. The late Barry Thornton was highly complimentary about the Magnifax and it is also the standard enlarger used by Roger Hicks & Frances Schultz. They had two of them!
    “The late Barry Thornton in his book ‘Elements: The Making of Fine Monochrome Prints’ 1993. mentioned that it was one enlarger he never regretted buying for both professional & personal use. The Magnifax is my main work-station. I have colour, VC, and condenser heads for it, plus glass and glassless carriers and light boxes for all formats. It looks ugly, but has taken a 10 year professional pounding without problem. It is designed to work well not look beautiful. The LPL has colour and VC heads. It is very rigid and beautifully smooth in operation, but its column to head reach is too small for big enlargements with a four bladed masking frame, of which I have two, a Kostiner and a Beard – both clumsy to use.”
  2. Dichroic filters use interference patterns to create colour, not dye, so they don’t fade and absorb less heat. They will last a very long time.
  3. No grain focuser required! – The Magnifax negative mask has a nifty feature – a built-in focusing aid: you just pull the “drawer” halfway out, and it projects a straight line of light on the baseboard. Once this light line is perfectly straight (unbroken), the negative is in focus.
  4. Benefit for dodge and burning – Magnifax colour head also has this ability – i.e. besides C, M and Y filtration, it also has a built-in (adjustable) ND filter…, It’s great for situations when you want longer exposures without changing the f-stop. It goes up to 6+ Stops
  5. Ilford paper comes with a chart that lets you know what filtration to use with different enlarger heads to get the various grades. The Ilford chart shows that Meopta may only reach grade 4.5 (with the max. 200 magenta) but reaches grade 00 easily (with 150 yellow). That is not a problem at all.
  6. The Magnifax 4a enlarger allows image restitution meeting the Scheimpflug condition. The perspective correction using the head tilt and neg-carrier tilt to get the Scheimpflug conditions.
  7. It can be wall mounted with some effort but possible.
  8. Glass adjustable negative carrier come with anti Newton top glass.
  9. Super solid and sturdy!
  10. Massive baseboard 60cm x 60cm. Suitable for those large prints.
  11. Swivelling the device by 90° provides wall projection. Swivelling the enlarger by 180° provides floor projection of high standard enlargements.

Filters settings for Grades

If you manage to get the color head you will need this table to convert the filter settings for contrast grades. (It’s also included in every pack of MG paper Ilford manufacturers.)

00150Y
090Y
1/270Y
155Y
1 1/230Y
20
2 1/220M
340M
3 1/265M
485M
4 1/2200M
5

Specifications

Meopta Magnifax 4 darkroom enlarger specifications

Maximum negative size:65 x 90 mm
Lens:available separately
Baseboard:wood, natural grain, 600 x 600 mm
Baseboard magnification:0.9x – 7.3x
Height overall:1375 mm
Depth overall:943 mm
Weight:18.8 kg

Lens options

The Meopta lens, such as the Anaret 105mm f/4.5 that comes with the Magnifax are in fact well made and is an excellent lens.

  • 50mm lens for 35mm
  • 75mm lens for 6×6
  • 90mm for 6×7
  • 105mm for 6×9

This is common to most manufacturers give or take 5mm. The old Rodenstock Rodagon 80mm f/5.6. They come in a “zebra” look, are very sharp and covers 6×9. 

Mixing Chambers

Regarding mixing chambers, larger is better but exposure for smaller negative will be longer. For example when using the 6×9 mixing chamber for 35mm negatives but that’s not a bad thing unless you need the speed.

There four mixing chambers available, 24×26, 60×60, 60×70, 65×90.

Conclusion

I’ve been using the Meopta Magnifax 4 for close to 3 months now. Enlargers should be functional devices to achieve the goal you are after. It’s different to a camera where you are handling the device all the time. Enlargers tend to have less of an emotional attachment for me, and compared with my old Durst 606, both are solid and reliable. Of course, there’s more support for larger negatives up to 6×9 along with anti-newton glass.

However, what is more important is the Magnifax works better without much or any fretting about. That said everything needs to operate without much thinking involved. The focus wheel on the bellows is far better than the focusing on the Durst, the column on the Meopta is taller and the color head is simple to use. What I find an absolute must is the ND filter on the color head. This is so practical when you need more time to dodge and burn or focus.

A nice example of a workflow is the ability to set the ND to say 30 and then the exposure time to between 20-30 seconds then set up your easel with your paper. When you need more light to focus the image then just drop the level on the side of the color head to remove the ND filter and there you go: more light, easier to focus. Then, flip the level upwards to make the exposure and the print. I like this a lot, I find it’s a good way to work. Especially for strip tests too.

The crank for raising the head along the column is more fluid than the wheel on the Durst 606. While the negative carrier pulls out straight and lifts up without effort.

The lens board supports M39 screw-type lenses which are easy to exchange, and again, is an improvement over the 606. I do like my Durst 606 it has charm and looks. The Magnifax has presence in the darkroom in terms of stature and seems always ready to work with its baseboard of a welcome size of 60x60cm. It’s a workhorse and will serve any darkroom well.

Update: Georg was lucky enough to purchase a Fujimoto G70. But that’s another story for another article.

Replacement Parts


Resources

If I’ve missed something please do let me know in the comments below!

~ Gavin

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About the author

Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1972, Gavin Lyons is an award-winning landscape and nature photographer who is self-taught. After living in Italy and France for a couple of years, it wasn't until settling in...

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  1. Hi Gavin – although I’ve never used any Meopta colour enlarger I’ve got both the b&w Axomat 5 (35mm) and Opemus 6 (upto 6cm x 6cm) I find them very solidly built and easily useable -especially what Meopta referred to as “micro focussing” basically a split line you then make a single line with using the fine focus knob. In the UK they can be found for for not too much money either.