The Hasselblad 500C/M
Hand-built in Sweden, the Hasselblad 500 series of cameras is one of the most popular medium format systems of all time. The brainchild of Victor Hasselblad, the original 500C model, launched in 1957, was also one of the first true system cameras. It embodies a modular design that allows components to be mixed and matched with ease to create the perfect camera for any specific assignment.
In this article, I will explain some of the features and benefits of this superb photographic tool and also discuss a few different configurations of the fully mechanical 500C/M model that demonstrate the flexibility of the Hasselblad V system.
The basic V system camera consists of four main interchangeable components; lens, body, film back and viewfinder. Let’s take a more detailed look at each of these.
The single most important component on any camera is the lens. No matter how technologically advanced, reliable, or easy to handle the rest of the camera may be, if the lens doesn’t provide good optical performance, it’s all in vain. Fortunately, the lenses for the Hasselblad deliver it in spades!
Hasselblad have never been in the business of making lenses, and have always used optics from other manufacturers; from Kodak (for the 1600F) to Fuji (for the latest H series of cameras). The smartest move they ever made, however, was deciding to source this critical component of the V system from one of the most revered lens makers of all time; Carl Zeiss.
The Zeiss lenses for the Hasselblad are fantastic, and exhibit the excellent sharpness and contrast for which the German company is rightfully known. The range includes some of the classic Zeiss designs; Biogon, Distagon, Planar and Sonnar, with the 80mm Planar being the ‘standard’ lens for the system. The original lenses are known as C type, and use a Compur in-lens shutter. All later types (CF, CFE, CFi, etc.) use Prontor shutters (apart from F series lenses which are for focal plane bodies and have no shutter).
I own three lenses for my Hasselblad; 50, 80 and 150mm, all of the second series CF type. If you are not used to leaf shutter lenses, they may look a little daunting at first with all the scales, markings, rings and switches on the barrel, but they are quite straightforward in operation. From front to back, the first ring sets the shutter speed and is marked from 1/500 to 1 second, and B (bulb, for long exposures). Next is the aperture ring for controlling the diaphragm, and lastly the rubberised focus ring.
The build quality of the lenses is superb and all controls operate smoothly with shutter speed and aperture settings clicking reassuringly into place. The focusing on a well maintained lens is well damped and very precise, although this is partly due to the long throw of the focus ring. Apart from the earliest C series lenses, all Carl Zeiss lenses for the Hasselblad use their patented T* multi-coating on the front lens element which helps prevent flaring when shooting into the light and also increases contrast.
The EV Interlock System
If you look beyond the ‘500’ setting on the shutter speed ring, you will notice a range of additional numbers in orange. These are EV (exposure value) indices and, in conjunction with the small button on top of the aperture ring, allow you lock the shutter speed/aperture ratio for a given EV. To use this, take a light reading with a meter that provides an EV value and then match the orange pointer on the lens to that value by altering the shutter speed and aperture rings.
For example, if the EV reading from your meter was 12 and the aperture was set to F/2.8, we can match the orange marker to the ’12’ marker by turning the shutter speed ring to the 1/500 second setting. So we now know that, for the given light reading, the settings of 1/500 second at F/2.8 will give a correct exposure. This is all well and good if we want to use that particular combination, but what if we want to use a slower speed to allow some motion in our shot, or a smaller aperture to give increased depth of field?
On a non-interlocked system, you would have to alter either the shutter speed ring, or the aperture ring, to the required setting, and then also alter the other ring to compensate. On the Hasselblad lenses, however, you can simply depress the interlock button on top of the aperture ring and then turning this ring will also turn the shutter speed ring by an equivalent amount to retain the correct exposure value. This is extremely convenient, and makes working with these lenses very quick and easy. Although the explanation seems complicated, I assure you it is very simple in practice!
The Hasselblad Body
To look at it, the body of a V series camera appears deceptively simple. It’s little more than a box to which you attach a lens and film back, and with a mirror and screen for viewing the subject. Once you start to consider everything that has to happen in a Hasselblad when you press the shutter release button, however, the true complexity and mechanical genius of the body becomes apparent.
So lets look at the mechanical process of making an exposure. We’ll assume that the body and lens are both in the ‘cocked’ state, and the film back is wound on to an unexposed frame with the dark slide removed. This is the default state if all components are correctly synchronised with each other. In this state, the mirror in the body will be in the down position (45 degrees, focusing the image onto the viewing screen on top of the camera) and the in-lens shutter will be open, as will the aperture diaphragm.
The light-tight flaps at the rear of the body are also closed. On pressing the shutter release button, the following series of events is triggered:
- The in-lens shutter is closed.
- The lens diaphragm is stopped down to the selected aperture.
- The mirror is flipped up out of the way of the light path.
- The rear flaps open.
- The shutter in the lens is released and opens for the selected amount of time before closing again.
- On film backs that have this feature, the ‘exposed’ indicator turns from white to red.
That all happens when pressing in the shutter release button. Now, when you release the button, the following happens:
- The rear flaps close.
- The ‘ready’ indicator on the body turns from white to red, matching the indicator on the film back.
The Hasselblad 500 series cameras do not have an instant return mirror, so at this point the viewfinder will be dark as the mirror is still raised. To return the camera to it’s ready to shoot state, you need to wind the knob (or crank) on the right side of the body, which does the following:
- Winds the film on to the next frame and increments the frame counter on the film back by one.
- Resets the ‘exposed’ indicators on the film back and body to white.
- Cocks and opens the in lens shutter.
- Opens the diaphragm to the maximum aperture.
- Returns the mirror to it’s 45 degree viewing position.
As you can see, there is a lot more to these camera bodies than meets the eye. If you were to look under the right panel of the camera, you would see an incredibly complex series of cogs, springs and levers that control this sequence of events. It’s a beautiful sight!
With all of the mechanical inertia being created by that huge mirror swinging out of the way, there may be certain circumstances, such as when shooting at very low shutter speeds, where this may possibly cause a tiny amount of vibration resulting in softness in the final image. To alleviate this, there is a mirror pre-release switch directly below the film wind knob which flips the mirror out of the way. Now when you press the shutter release you only hear the soft click of the lens shutter.
Other external features of the body are an accessory rail on the left side of the body which is used for mounting a cold shoe or bubble level, and strap lugs on either side which take specific Hasselblad connectors. On the lower front left of the body (from the viewing position) is the lens release button, and on the opposite side, the shutter release button.
The Film Backs
An important feature of many medium format systems is the interchangeable film backs. This allows the photographer to switch between different film stocks at will, even mid-roll. You can shoot black and white one minute, colour transparency the next, then C41, even Polaroid, without having to finish each roll first. Even if just using a single film type, you can have multiple backs preloaded with film to eliminate the need to interrupt a shoot to reload after each roll.
The film backs are hooked onto two tabs at the bottom of the camera body and locked into place with a catch at the top. A dark slide inserted into the side of each film back prevents the film from being exposed when not attached to the body. The is an interlock feature that prevents a film back from being removed from the body without the dark slide present, and another that prevents the shutter from being fired with the dark slide in place (more mechanical complexity/genius).
Speaking of dark slides, the dilemma of where to store them once removed from the back has plagued photographers for years. They are made of thin metal and are easily bent if care is not taken. Hasselblad acknowledged this problem with the later film backs by providing a holder which safely cradles your precious slide until it’s needed. These later backs are the ones to get if possible, although they are obviously the most expensive too.
To load film you turn the key on the left side of the back and the film insert can then be slid out. The film path is fairly self-explanatory but care should be taken when new to the Hasselblad that you load it the correct way around. It’s quite a common beginners error to load it backwards which leads to 12 frames of nothing when your film is processed!
Various types of film backs are available, including:
- A12 for 6x6cm on 120 roll film.
- A16 for 6×4.5cm on 120 roll film.
- A24 for 6x6cm on 220 roll film.
- Polaroid back for Type 100 film packs.
There are also some other backs for 70mm perforated film and for producing 4×4 ‘super slide’ format, but these are not commonly used these days.
In keeping with the modular nature of the V system, various viewfinders are available for a Hasselblad. The standard finder is the collapsible waist-level finder. This is a fairly simple device that provides a flip up hood that prevents stray light hitting the focusing screen and allows comfortable viewing while looking down on the camera. For more accurate fine tuning of focus, a popup magnifier is built into the top of the hood and released by sliding the catch fully to the right. Simple, and effective. The downside is that the image is laterally reversed on the screen which can take some getting used to.
Other finder options include a magnifying ‘chimney’ finder which is useful for critical focusing and has built in adjustable diopter correction to account for an individuals eyesight, a sports finder (basically a frame type finder for shooting at eye level while prefocused, useful for fast-moving subjects), and various models of eye-level prism finders.
The prism finders are grouped into four different types: metered or unmetered, and 45 or 90 degrees. The 45 degree finders allow slightly lower than eye-level operation that many prefer (myself included), whereas the 90 degree finders give you true eye-level operation. There have been many different metered prisms over the years, with various differences between each model. All that I have used have been accurate and simple to use, although the PME90 that I used to have was fairly complex due to it’s multiple measuring modes.
Although the prism finders add weight and bulk to a V system camera, it makes the whole medium format experience a lot more comfortable for many photographers, particularly if coming from a 35mm system.
The Other Stuff
The Hasselblad system is huge and comprehensive. Other components include a vast range of interchangeable focusing screens, a wide selection of closeup accessories (extension tubes, diopters, bellows, etc,), various grips to make handling easier, filters, cases, bags, and even some esoteric items such as an underwater housing! Suffice it to say that if you have a need for a particular accessory, it’s probably already available.
Although there is no correct way to configure your Hasselblad for a particular photographic task, I’m going to show how I configure mine for a few different shooting scenarios. Everyone is different, and I’m not for one minute suggesting that these setups will be suitable for anyone else, but it will demonstrate the flexibility of this amazing system.
If there was ever such a thing as a ‘standard’ configuration, this is it. The classic Hasselblad kit of 500 series body, 80mm Carl Zeiss Planar lens, A12 film back and waist level finder. With this setup, a light meter and a few rolls of film in your pocket, you’re ready to tackle the majority of general purpose photographic tasks. In fact, I’ve seen amazing portfolios from photographers who use only this setup (check out the excellent Hasselblad 80mm blog for some examples).
The Carl Zeiss Planar lens is legendary; it is extremely sharp, has fantastic contrast, and renders images in a very special way. The 80mm focal length provides roughly the same field of view as a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera, and it is very close to how the human eye perceives a scene, making it the perfect standard lens. Suitable for everything from landscapes to portraits (except for tight head shots as it does not focus close enough), it is the perfect lens when you want to travel light.
If you like a slightly wider view on life, ditch the Planar and pop on a Distagon! This Carl Zeiss 50mm lens has a roughly equivalent field of view as a 35mm lens on 35mm film, and gives you a pleasantly wide perspective without the bulk and weight of the wider 40mm lens. The Distagon is a great lens with fantastic sharpness at the center of the frame, although it does fall off very slightly towards the edges, but this is not noticeable in all images. The T* coating provides good resistance to flare, although the lens hood is recommended for the best results. This is a great focal length for landscapes, urban scenes and environmental portraiture whilst still being hand-holdable in everything but the worst light.
When shooting with a wider angle lens it becomes more important to be aware of holding the camera level with the horizon, unless you are after a particular stylistic effect. To aid in this, I’ve made a couple of changes to this configuration. The first is to fit a grid type focusing screen in place of the regular screen which gives me a constant visual reference for aligning horizontal and vertical lines in a composition. The second is the addition of the Hasselblad bubble level which slides onto the accessory rail on the left side of the camera body.
Macro or closeup photography is very well catered for in the Hasselblad system. The Proxars are glass diopters that attach to the filter mount of your lens and provide close focusing (the closest focusing distance is determined by the strength of the diopter). These are very convenient to use and, unlike extension tubes and bellows, they do not require any exposure compensation when using them.
Personally, I prefer the extension tubes, and they are available in various extension lengths, from 8mm to 55mm. They mount on the body and your lens then mounts onto the tube. Unlike the Proxars, you are not adding any additional glass elements into the image path, so you do not get any degradation of sharpness or other unwanted aberrations when using them.
Although you can use the larger tubes for true macro photography, the smaller tubes are also very useful for reducing the close focusing distance enough to enable tightly framed head shots, and for this the 8mm and 16mm tubes are perfect for the 80mm and 150mm lenses respectively.
The setup shown will focus very close, enabling me to fill the frame with the smallest of objects. The 80mm Planar lens is mounted onto a 55mm extension tube, and I also use the magnifying chimney finder to aid in critical focusing as the depth of field is greatly reduced as such close distances (high magnifications). A compendium hood ensures that no contrast-robbing stray light hits the front of the lens.
See an example macro studio setup, and a few examples, here.
I am a huge fan of tightly cropped portraits, either head shot or slightly less than quarter length. I also prefer to use a prism finder to bring the camera level up nearer to the sitters eye level. Victor Hasselblad designed the V system camera to be operated at waist or chest level, and it is ergonomically perfect when shot in this manner. At eye level, however, it is not the most comfortable camera to use unaided. The solution, for me at least, is to use the left hand flash grip. This inexpensive accessory bolts onto the camera using the tripod bush and provides an extremely comfortable solution for eye level shooting.
The prism I use is the original 45 degree PME metered finder. Once you’ve set the maximum aperture of the lens you are using, and the film speed, a quick press of the front mounted power button will give you an accurate through-the-lens light reading of your scene. The readout in the viewfinder is in EV (Exposure Value) and it’s a simple job to transfer this reading to the lens (all V system metered prisms are uncoupled and require manual setting of the lens to match the metered value).
My favourite lens for portraits is the 150mm Carl Zeiss Sonnar and it is shown here in conjunction with a 16mm extension tube as this lens is not known for it’s close focusing capabilities! The Sonnar design makes for beautifully rendered portraits without being too sharp (your clients will thank you)!
Although this setup looks bulky and heavy, it handles surprisingly well with your left hand on the grip and your right cradling the underside of the lens, where it can also handle focusing, shutter speed and aperture adjustments. The grip has a trigger release built in for even more convenience, and a cold shoe on top which is useful for mounting a radio popper for triggering your strobes.
There are many reasons why I love the Hasselblad 500C/M; the mechanical precision, the quality feel that you only get from a hand-built machine; I even love the almighty clatter it makes when you release the shutter! But, above all, it’s the quality of the results that keep me coming back to this system. The Carl Zeiss lenses are unmatched, and every time I pull a freshly developed roll out of the tank I am blown away by the images that this thing produces, roll after roll after roll.
It’s also a camera that simply does what you tell it to do. You are in control of all aspects of the image making process, without a computer making exposure or focusing decisions for you. In fact, if you produce negatives or transparencies that are not of the highest technical quality, you only have one person to blame!
Apart from a few taken with my Rolleiflex, the majority of the square format images in my portfolio were shot with a Hasselblad. All images in this article shot with a Canon G9, except for the lead image of Kendra, for which I used a Nikon D2X.