After several years out of photography, and a couple of years using a DSLR I was ready for a change.
My local camera store has a used equipment case strategically placed so you can browse while the staff is in the back fetching whatever it is you came in for.
There was a Mamiya C330 that looked almost new that reminded me of the TLR I used in the 80s. During the next week I kept thinking about it, and I went back to the store to take another look. Too late, sold. They did have one other medium format camera, though...
That's how I ended up with a Hasselblad 500C/M in 2008.
Many others have written reviews, but here's my quick overview and opinion after having used this camera for 8 years.
The system. Manual focus Hasselblads of this type were made from 1957 to 2013. It was retroactively called the V series to distinguish it from modern autofocus and digital cameras which are the H series. It was designed to be modular and customizable for practically any photographic task. The camera body is a cube to which you attach lenses, film backs, finders, and winding knobs. The 500 series are the most basic; models had incremental improvements over the years. The EL series have built-in motor drives. The 200 series were the most advanced and had a focal plane shutter, with later models having built-in metering and autoexposure. Lenses range from ultra wide to super telephoto, and were in several generations (C, CF, CFE/i). This is the barest overview; see the links below for differences between models and much more.
This review is based on the most common configuration, a 500-series body with an 80mm C lens and waist level finder.
Body and construction. A Hasselblad with an 80mm lens and waist level finder is compact and fairly light. While it’s an odd shape, the controls fall naturally under my hands when I hold the camera. Left hand cradles the camera, with my index finger on the shutter. Right hand holds the lens and focuses.
An external meter, a meter app for your phone, or a working knowledge of the Sunny 16 rule is needed. There are prism viewfinders with built-in meters but they are heavy and expensive.
Each lens has a shutter. In addition to the aperture ring found on most lenses, there’s also a shutter speed dial and a flash sync socket. Because it's a leaf shutter, flash will sync at any speed.
Older chrome and early black C lenses have an EV Lock - the shutter speed and aperture settings are paired to make it easy to select between all the combinations that will yield the same exposure. There’s a tab on the side of the lens that is pulled towards the camera in order to slide the arrow indicator to the EV value indicated by the meter. I like this setup; some people hate it. Newer lenses (CF, CFE, CFI) have the lock but it can be disabled.
The focusing screen may be either plain ground glass with a simple crosshair, or may have a split image and prism as found in many 35mm cameras. I find focusing fairly easy with either type; it is difficult to focus in low light.
Loading film. The Hasselblad Manual breaks down the process of loading film into 12 easy steps. Ugh. Watch a YouTube video over and over, and be prepared to watch it each time until loading becomes second nature.
Shooting. Remove the dark slide — the shutter won’t release if the dark slide is inserted. Meter your subject and choose a shutter speed and aperture.
Raise the waist level finder: slide the small metal button to the side and it will pop up. With the finder up, slide the button a second time to release the magnifier which is necessary for critical focusing.
Focus. Focusing rings on the older lenses can be fairly stiff.
Slowly release the shutter, and let go after the exposure. You’ll hear the distinctive whump-whump sound, and the finder will go black. There is no auto-return mirror. Wind the camera to get the mirror to go down.
Replace the dark slide when done shooting.
Quirks. So many...
- It's possible to jam the camera if film backs and lenses are swapped out frequently. When an exposure is made there's a small indicator on the side of the body and film back that turns from white to red. It stays red until the camera is cocked (wound on). If an uncocked (red) back is placed on a cocked (white) body -- or vice-versa -- the camera can jam. Same with lenses and bodies. To make things exciting, lenses occasionally come uncocked due to jostling.
- Older lenses have a self-timer. Ignore it. It's usually gummed up from age.
- There's a T/O switch around the shutter release. O is the normal position. If it gets bumped to T the shutter release will stick in the in position and the camera will appear to be jammed -- until the lever is moved back to O.
- The light seals in the dark slide slot on film backs need replacement regularly.
- There's a secondary shutter inside the camera that closes as soon as the button is released, which is a problem for slow shutter speeds. The release button must be kept pressed until the lens shutter closes.
Reliability. While I don't abuse the camera, I don't baby it either. Over the past eight years it's needed some work. Light seals on three film backs have been replaced, about $15 each. The body needed to be aligned which was done as part of a CLA, about $170. One lens developed a sticky shutter, and while it was in for repairs I also had the iris replaced. This was the most expensive repair, about $300.
My take. This is probably the most versatile camera I own. I've used it for travel, environmental and studio portraits, even a band shoot in a walk-in fridge.
I use a 60mm most often. It's a moderate wide angle and I find it more useful than the 80mm. I keep a couple of extension tubes in my bag for close work. 80mm + 8mm tube for head and shoulders portraits, and a 21mm tube is for full-face portraits.
WIth a waist level finder the camera is unobtrusive, though this is relative since it's large and has a loud shutter. A prism finder makes focusing much easier but adds a pound (!) to the weight of the camera.
The nature of medium format and the quirks of this camera require me to slow down and think more about what I'm photographing. This is not a great camera for fast moving subjects, or for street photography (but, of course, there are people who do both of these well with a Hasselblad).
Many photos from the series Descent were shot with the Hasselblad in dim available light. I've been able to hand-hold the camera at 1/15 with acceptable results. The 80mm Planar is a legendary lens, but it's a bit mushy close up and wide open; it does best when stopped down to 5.6 or more.
- Photoethnography.com - Good overview of the 500 series and accessories
- Loading film into a Hasselblad Back (video)
- The Hasselblad Manual by Ernst Wildi. This book was in print for years, and any edition from 2000 or earlier will cover the basics of the 500 system without mention of the later H cameras.