Hasselblad 500CM

2009/05/26

Following yesterday’s post, it makes sense to write about the camera I used to capture the photo displayed there. First, however, since I felt that the dramatic impact of yesterday’s post would be limited with the inclusion of information about the photo, here are a few comments about it.

Photo Information:

Camera: Hasselblad 500C [1]
Lens: Carl Zeiss 150mm f/5.6 Sonnar (telephoto)
Film: Kodak Portra 160VC (120)
Exposure: Minolta Spotmeter F

The subject of the photo is a makeshift memorial set up at Ground Zero by the clean-up crews who were tasked with removing the debris from the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. The artifact itself, often known as the World Trade Center Cross, [2] is actually a section of a pre-fabricated structural steel “T,” and was subsequently erected at Ground Zero while the clean-up and excavation processes took place. Eventually, it was moved to a nearby Catholic church to make way for WTC Memorial that will delineate the footprints of the original Twin Towers. This particular photo was shot prior to the cross’ relocation, and, as such, it can be seen in its original context on a stone pedestal constructed specifically for it.

As for the camera itself, the Hasselblad 500C/M is one of the early “V-series” cameras from Swedish (not German!) camera manufacturer, Victor Hasselblad AB. These were not the first Hasselblad cameras, but they were the first to incorporate German optics (Carl Zeiss lenses) with integral leaf shutters; the first Hasselblads had focal plane shutters, but these were not successful and were removed from subsequent models. [3] While the Hasselblad cameras were not the first to use the now common 6×6 negative format (6cm x 6cm), they were the first to be designed from the outset as a “system” camera – i.e. they were designed to use a wide array of lenses and accessories, all of which were concurrently developed with the camera development. [4] In the case of the Hasselblad, this is most evident when all the accessories are removed from the camera; the main body is simply a vaguely cube-shaped box that has a lens mount on the front, winder mount on the right-hand side, viewfinder mount on top, and film magazine mount on the back; even the viewscreen is interchangeable. When fully isolated, the camera body itself only contains the reflex mirror and its associated mechanisms, the shutter release and lens interface mechanisms, and a set of gears that connects the film winding knob (or crank) with the shutter release mechanisms and the film magazine. See the image below for an idea of just what kinds of “bells and whistles” are available for these cameras.

Hasselblad500CM 

As with many other medium format cameras (both before and after), the Hasselblad comes equipped with a waist-level finder (WLF), though in its own case, the WLF may be swapped out with other viewfinders, such as the prism viewfinder seen on the left-hand side of the above photo. There are also a number of film magazine options available, all using either 120 or 220 film, while having different negative formats (specifically, 6×6 and 6×4.5 or 645). Additionally, there are many lens options available, from the 50mm f/4 Distagon on the right-hand side of the photo, up to some very long telephoto lenses (none of which I own, mind you, as they are prohibitively expensive). Other prism viewfinders also have built-in exposure meters, though again, these are also quite expensive. Though you cannot see it in this photo, I currently have a rapid-winding crank (sometimes abbreviated as RWC) equipped on the side of the camera; this makes winding film a little faster than using the standard-equipped knob, which takes a few turns of the hand to operate. [5] 

As for using the camera, there are numerous advantages afforded by the “system” design. Compared to earlier (and even later) medium format cameras with fixed lenses and built-in film storage, the two primary advantages are the interchangeable lenses and film magazines. The former characteristic makes the camera quite a bit more versatile, as one can select the optimum lens for a given situation, instead of trying to make do with a single lens that may not provide the best result for a given subject. [6] While there may not be too many reasons to switch negative formats mid-shoot, I typically use the interchangeable film magazines to switch between B&W and color negative films. The waist level finder is generally adequate for many shooting situations, but having an eye-level view (as one can have using one of the prism finders) can also be useful, particularly when the shot you’re trying to capture requires setting the camera up at eye level (where the WLF would not be usable). As you can (mostly – okay, kinda sorta) see, the camera is also fairly streamlined; while this does not contribute to its actual operation, it does mean that it won’t get caught on parts of your camera pack while you’re taking it out or putting it away. And, of course, the Zeiss optics provide consistently excellent results. While the camera is a little on the heavy side, it is not too difficult to hold and operate in hand, without the need for a tripod. Finally, Hasselblad was the first manufacturer to use a fresnel lens [7] in the viewfinder screen, which dramatically improves brightness in the viewfinder; as with most cameras that have a WLF, the viewing hood also incorporates a magnifying glass to assist in critical focusing. The camera is also entirely mechanical, so there are no batteries to replace, and, of course, the camera functions just fine without any kind of power whatsoever.

There are, of course, some downsides to using this camera, as well. Most noticeable is that the camera is far more bulky than any 35mm camera, particularly with all of its accessories attached. Weight can also be a factor, though it is not as noticeable if you’re used to using robust 35mm SLRs (like most of the ones I use). Since they use leaf shutters, the maximum shutter speed available for this camera is 1/500 sec., which is substantially slower than modern 35mm SLRs (many of which have upper speeds of 1/4000 sec. or 1/8000 sec.), and the range of aperture settings is relatively limited, too. Even the normal lens has a fairly limited maximum aperture of f/2.8 (most modern 35mm SLRs have lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or faster). Also unlike modern 35mm SLRs, there is no depth of field preview button or lever, so you’ll have to visualize that on your own. While the fresnel lens improves the brightness in the viewfinder, the viewing screen itself still suffers from providing an unmagnified view of the scene or subject, though again, the flip-up magnifying glass does mitigate this quite well. Additionally, since the camera does not have a built-in light meter, you’ll need to use a separate one, which can be a little tedious and time-consuming; you could also purchase one of the meter-equipped prism finders, but as previously mentioned, these are very expensive. [8] Finally, a mostly esoteric disadvantage (for now) is that this camera is extremely complex. While the V-series cameras are renowned for their reliability and durability (almost a polar opposite of the earlier cameras that had focal plane shutters), given the declining film market, it may become more difficult to find repair shops qualified to service or repair these cameras, if you ever need to do so. Keep in mind, though, that I consider this an “esoteric” disadvantage for the moment, however, as I have not had any mechanical problems with mine, thus far. [9]

See below for another example of the results one can achieve with this camera.

Hass500C_EmpireState02

I shot the above photo at night (obviously) in Manhattan, just down the street from the New Yorker Hotel, where I was staying during my visit. In case you’re having difficulty making it out, the building in the background is the Empire State Building; while you cannot see it in black and white, the top of the building is illuminated Christmas colors (red and black), as I was in town during December.

A point of interest regarding the V-series cameras is that the Apollo 11 astronauts used modified Hasselblad cameras with built-in motor drives to capture many of the iconic lunar mission photographs that we all know and love. [10] Hasselblad also produced a commemorative model that is, naturally, highly sought-after by collectors.

Note also that Hasselblad still manufactures V-series cameras, in this case, the 503CW, which combines the mechanical operation of the earlier 500 models with an optional film winder, among other things. [11] Just remember that if you want a new-build camera, you’ll pay more for it than you would for a used, but older, model. Given that many of the decades-old models are still operational today, there currently do not seem to be too many drawbacks to using them, unless, of course, you prefer everything new.

All of this being said, the Hasselblad is one of my preferred cameras, particularly when I’m doing “serious” shooting in medium format (the other camera is a miniature plate camera, but that’s another story for another time). Its range of features and relative ease of operation makes it quite enjoyable to use. Given its cost and relative complexity (compared to simpler medium format cameras, such as the TLR I mentioned in a previous post), however, I do not recommend buying one of these if you’re new to medium format shooting and are not sure if you want to use the format on a regular basis.

Notes:

[1]: While this post is about the 500C/M model, I originally owned a 500C. This camera was irreparably damaged when I tried to use an off-brand teleconverter, and I was forced to find a replacement for the camera. Since I acquired many of my cameras on eBay, finding another 500C was not necessarily guaranteed; additionally, while the 500C/M often sells for more than the 500C, I was able to find a 500C/M for roughly the same price as my original 500C, so I bought the C/M. Honestly, though, I’m not entirely sure what the differences were between the two, as they both function the same (so far as I can tell, anyways). I should also point out that the lens I used to capture the photo in yesterday’s post was also irreparably damaged in this same incident, prompting its replacement with a 250mm telephoto lens. As you might suspect, this was not a happy day for me.

[2]: For a description of the cross, see here (Wikipedia article).

[3]: In fact, most cameras larger than 35mm ones did not have reliable focal plane shutters, these often being plagued by mechanical complexities and failures. The Soviet Hasselblad clone, the Arsenal Salyut and Kiev models (the former, at least, being unlicensed), are renowned for their mechanical unreliability and the fragility of their shutters (though, in their case, these defects can just as easily be blamed on typically lax Soviet quality control as anything else). I suspect that this has to do with the size of the shutter curtains, but I only know that there are few (if any) medium or large format cameras still in production that have focal plane shutters. All of the medium format “system” SLRs with which I am familiar use leaf shutters in their lenses.

[4]: See herehere, and here for background information on the camera itself, from Camerapedia.org, photoethnography.com, and patricktaylor.com, respectively. As the Hasselblad has a nigh-legendary status among medium format enthusiasts, there are plenty of other online resources regarding this camera, too.

[5]: While both the knob and RWC rotate through 360°, the human wrist does not; as such, it takes a few “turns” of the wrist to operate the standard knob, while the RWC can be operated through its full rotation in one fluid stroke. It is not always a huge advantage, but if you’re shooting anything that is time-sensitive, the crank provides a definite and noticeable speed advantage.

[6]: For example, a wideangle lens is often very useful for shooting street scenes, as the field of view in a normal lens can be quite limited in tight quarters. Conversely, if you’re trying to capture details that you cannot walk up to (like the cornice on a building across the street), a telephoto lens will be very useful. You can also use it to spy on your hot neighbors, but I neither do this myself, nor suggest that you do it. If you want to be a perv, that is your business, not mine!

[7]: See here for a description of the concept (Wikipedia article).

[8]: Though it is less efficient, I would highly recommend using a handheld meter instead of purchasing one of the metered prisms. The main reason I recommend this is that the Hasselblad prisms are both very expensive (even used ones often sell for up to or more than 1,000 USD) and can only be used on a Hasselblad camera. This latter, of course, is obvious, but keep in mind that if you have a handheld meter, you can use it with other cameras besides the Hasselblad (if you are so inclined), while the metered prisms cannot be so used. If you already use older film cameras or are just obsessive about metering, you may already have a handheld meter anyways, making the purchase of these prisms even more unnecessary.

[9]: Apart from the aforementioned teleconverter debacle, that is. Given that it was an off-brand accessory, however, I suspect that the manufacturer did not have as high standards as Hasselblad itself.

[10]: See here for a desciption of these cameras, from the NASA website, and here for a guided tour of space cameras from the Hasselblad website (Flash warning; nagivate accordingly).

[11]: See here, from the Hasselblad website. Note also that Hasselblad now has dedicated digital backs that can be attached to their V-series cameras, though if the earlier H-series models are any indication, they’re likely to be exorbitantly expensive. And seriously, do you really need 39 megapixel back that costs more than a small car, when you could get your negatives scanned for much, much cheaper?

[*]: See here for a PDF version of an instruction manual for this camera; unlike many of the older and more obscure cameras I’ve used, instructions for this camera are readily available online. This is not surprising, given the continuing popularity of the camera.

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