With capability enabling it to span the globe and beyond, the Hasselblad 500 series is a special series of camera. As comfortable in the hands of elite fashion photographers as it is with astronauts on the lunar surface, it’s a time-tested legend. In part because of this illustrious lineage, Hasselblad’s cameras command a premium price compared with similar medium format machines. The question is whether or not the Hasselblad is worth that premium today.
Rivals like the Pentax 67 offer a larger negative and superlative lenses. Likewise, the Mamiya 6 provides a square negative in a more compact form factor. Bare-bones Russian cameras cost pennies on the dollar (or ruble?) and aren’t as bare-bones as people like to imply. Why pay the extra money for a Hasselblad?
The ace-in-the-hole which separates the V Series from its rivals is its status as a system camera. With more than fifty accessories available, and an ability to mix and match to create a truly bespoke machine, the Hasselblad allows each user to create a photography platform perfectly suited to their style and their desired methodology.
If you have a unique style and haven’t yet been able to achieve it with your current setup, the chances high are that the Hasselblad V Series can help you get there. Just don’t expect it to come cheap.
What is the Hasselblad V Series?
As the story goes, photography enthusiast Victor Hasselblad was not satisfied with the options available to him to take photos of his beloved flowers. He had already created a camera system which the Swedish military used for aerial photography during the 1940s, and noticing a lack of civilian professional medium format system cameras on the market, Victor took matters into his own hands.
Valuing adaptability, Hasselblad’s camera system was created with the ability to take multiple lenses and accessories right from the start. Beginning with the 1600 F of 1948, a Swedish-made machine which used Kodak, Zeiss and Schneider lenses, Hasselblad began to gain traction amongst photographers looking for great image quality in a package that was positively minuscule compared to the large format cameras of the day.
But these early Hasselblad cameras were blighted by the unreliability of delicate shutter mechanisms. It was not until the 500 C came to market in 1957 that Hasselblad managed to deliver a mass-produced machine which combined a modular system and great image quality with tank-like construction.
With the reliability issues largely behind it, the V system was ready to shine. And shine it did, especially the beautiful chrome-plated version. As with other classic camera designs, Hasselblad V series cameras manage to be both functional and extremely beautiful at the same time. Their sleek bodies appear to be one single hewn chunk of metal, despite the modularity of the system. And when held for the first time, it gives the impression of being an ingot of Swedish-made excellence.
Unlimited creative potential – The V System
The Hasselblad V system is modular. And when I say modular, I’m not talking about a few lenses and the odd viewing screen. Its core is comprised of a body, viewfinder, focusing screen, film back, winding handle and lens. But over the decades Hasselblad has manufactured dozens of different variants of these parts, meaning the photographer can easily balance choice and price to suit his or her needs.
An army of accessories complete the package. The lefthand side of the camera features an accessory rail which allows us to mount many of these add-ons. I would recommend picking up the spirit level and never removing it from the camera again. Extension tubes in numerous lengths allow us to focus far closer than the minimum focus distance if the situation requires.
Every single component of the camera can be stripped out and replaced with something else to suit our needs. And compatibility is exceptional, if not universal. The newest 503 CW with digital back could be matched to an ancient silver chrome C lens. Likewise, a 500 C will accept the latest and greatest CFi lenses to roll out of Oberkochen.
This is amazingly useful in practical application. It allows us to carry a selection of film magazines preloaded with different stocks to achieve different looks for a landscape shoot, for example. And take it a step further – once we have the necessary accessories, we can effectively transform the system into an entirely new camera to fit any situation. For each shoot, it’s possible to modify the camera to squeeze the most performance out of it for the task at hand.
Need to get close for some product photography for a client? Sorted, just equip the 105mm S-Planar and the bellows accessory for complete control of framing. Got a portrait shoot later in the day? Grab the 150mm Sonnar, a prism finder and a winder grip, and we’re ready to go. Need to shoot the Earth rising over the horizon of the Moon? That happened with a ‘Blad. There really isn’t a scenario that can’t be handled with the Hasselblad V series.
This helps to explain how one system has been so central to such a diverse range of photographic styles and scenarios over the years. Even the models used by NASA for space missions aren’t unrecognizable compared to their brethren made for public consumption.
The core of the Hasselblad V series is effectively a light-tight box. This is the blank canvas to which a user can apply an almost infinite amount of modifications and changes to make the camera uniquely theirs.
One direct result of Hasselblad’s success was the demise of their rivals, Rollei. A gentleman’s agreement between Victor Hasselblad and Dr. Reinhold Heidecke in the late 1950s left the field free for Hasselblad to print money. As TLR sales ran aground from the mid-1960s and onwards, Rollei was left to play catch-up, releasing the beastly Rolleiflex SL66 in 1966.
If being a fully modular system was the Hasselblad’s ace-in-the-hole, then the German-made Carl Zeiss lenses must be considered the X factor. The original lenses were groundbreaking at the time and are still impressive by modern standards today. These were the lenses that made the venerable T* multi-coating world famous. The definition, clarity and resistance to flare immediately made the V system stand out from its competitors.
As well as offering some of the best image quality available in a film camera system, the Zeiss lenses all use leaf shutters, which allows the photographer to sync flash right up to the top speed of 1/500th of a second. Studio photographers (and people who require fill-in flash) will love this, though photographers who work out in the field a bit more may find the relatively slow top shutter speed a bit more limiting.
It’s possible to find C-series lenses at very good prices, but there is a good reason for this. Although they are optically identical to most of the the newer lenses, they are ergonomically infuriating. The shutter speed and aperture are interlinked. Whilst this means it’s possible to adjust our settings and retain the same EV, it makes switching settings when lighting conditions change inconvenient at best.
As the years went by, Hasselblad periodically improved their lenses. The original C lenses evolved into CF variants, with improved ergonomics. Later wide angle lenses were improved with close focus correction. A range of “basic” CB lenses offer great value for money, if you can find one.
Which Version Should You Choose?
Sold continuously between 1957 and 2012, there are plenty of V Series cameras available on the market today. At first glance though, it may not be immediately obvious which one to buy. The good news is that most of the differences are minor, and all of the cameras will provide a fantastic user experience, once we get past the quirks.
Here is a breakdown of the variants available on the market today –
- Hasselblad 500C – 1957-1970 : Accepts all accessories, focusing screens can only be switched out by a technician.
- Hasselblad 500 C/M – 1970-1994 : “M” denotes the ability to modify the camera system. Added the ability to quickly switch out the focusing screens to brighter models, different grids, specialty screens, etc.
- Hasselblad 503 C/X – 1988-1994 : Added an internal TTL flash meter, as well as a “Palpas” coating to eliminate internal reflections. Came as standard with the improved Acute Matte focusing screen.
- Hasselblad 501 C – 1994-1997 : An all-black variant that was sold as a complete kit, with an A12 magazine and 80mm C lens. Confusingly this C lens is actually a CF designation, not the older C-type lenses that were originally released with the 500 C.
- Hasselblad 503 C/W – 1996-2013 : Came equipped with a “Gliding Mirror System” which prevented viewfinder blackout with telephoto lenses. Came with the Acute Matte D screen, the final and best evolution of the focusing screens. Compatible with the Winder CW for those who need to shoot fast (with their slow cameras).
- Hasselblad 501 C/M – 1997-2005 : Equipped with Acute Matte D screen. Winder CW system compatible.
Hasselblad also manufactured a handful of special models. Cameras designed especially for wide angle photography, or models with integrated motor winders to site two examples, these cameras satisfied niche needs with the same basic core camera.
Two separate electronic series, the 200 and 2000 series were manufactured between the late 1970s and 2004. These added internal metering, some programmed shooting modes and other bells and whistles, at the cost of requiring batteries. These 200 and 2000 series came with focal plane shutters, though they could be used with the C and CF series lenses. A selection of F lenses without leaf shutters was created by Carl Zeiss. These come with a larger aperture (and price tag) compared to their leaf shuttered equivalents.
The newest models, the Hasselblad 503 C/W and 501 C/M command a significant premium over the 503 CX and 500 CM. This is mainly down to their simply being newer machines, as their added features won’t really come in handy unless you’re using proprietary Hasselblad flash units, or need access to the winder.
One key reason why the 500 C is often significantly cheaper than the rest is that it does not have interchangeable screens. This means that you cannot swap in the high definition Acute Matte screens used in the later cameras. Although this is not a dealbreaker, some of these screens really can help with critical focus, which can be so vital in medium format photography.
The 500 C/M hits a sweet spot in price and features. As it had the longest production run, they are readily available on the market. Check the conditions of the camera closely before purchase, and bear in mind that these machines were often used and abused by jobbing photographers over the decades. This makes purchasing from a trusted seller with a warranty a better option than rolling the dice on eBay.
The 503 CX is another great choice. Manufactured in the mid-1990s, these came standard with the improved Acute Matte viewing screens. Manufactured by Minolta, these screens have a real ‘pop’ which help the shooter achieve focus more easily than the older screens.
[Images in the samples gallery were made with Kodak Tri-X and Ilford FP4 and Ilford HP5]
Shooting the ‘Blad
An inverted horizontal perspective and the long focus throw on all of the lenses mean that Hasselblad V series cameras are slow and deliberate cameras. Safety features, although adept at prohibiting the shooting of blank frames, can also slow things down even further. But if you prefer to take your pictures at a canter rather than a gallop, then there’s a lot to like about the Hasselblad. It rewards users who park it on a tripod and take their time to find the best composition before making a photo.
Using a waist level viewfinder is certainly challenging, even for more experienced users. New users shouldn’t be surprised to spend the first few months directing muses to move the wrong way, or twisting the camera away from the action at the crucial moment. Once our brains make the adjustment though, things smooth considerably. Expect to become addicted to the magical moment when a subject pops into focus in the viewing screen (this is especially true on models with the improved focusing screens).
The question of the 6×6 format is an interesting one. Instagram and social media means that people are more accustomed to the square frame than arguably any other time before, which is both a blessing and curse. The good news is that these large negatives can easily be cropped either horizontally or vertically into a more traditional aspect ratio, if that’s desired.
All of the sounds of the Hasselblad combine beautifully to give the impression of an exquisitely tactile machine. The shutter fires off with a satisfying ker-thunk. The viewfinder pings open as the chromed switch on top of the camera is released. The geared winding handle of the film magazine whirrs as we load and unload roll after roll. It’s a symphony of mechanical joy.
The Hasselblad V Series has a number of fail-safes to prevent cack-handed photographers from wasting frames, accidentally exposing film, and suffering any number of other minor mishaps that can occur when shooting before that first cup of coffee.
Initially, these little hangups will have new users staring blankly at their camera and wondering if they’ve acquired an expensive paperweight. As we get to know the camera, however, expect to begin to appreciate these thoughtful interlocks. When we consider that these preventative measures have all been achieved with cogs, gears, and pulleys, it becomes even easier to appreciate and understand why the Hasselblad became so revered as a mechanical masterpiece during the 20th Century.
Although it is extremely robust, the Hasselblad likes things its own way. This means that you must be considerate of the interlocks and never force the camera to do anything it doesn’t want to do. For example, if using extension tubes, the photographer will have to take off the lens first and then remove each tube, one by one. Failure to do so can cause the camera to jam.
The loading of the film magazines can be extremely finicky. You’ll have to feed the backing paper around the back of the magazine to the take-up spool, which feels counterintuitive. If you don’t then turn the handle to lower the guide over the film, the magazine will not sense when you get to frame one, and you will waste the entire roll of film.
As the Hasselblad is a system which rewards patient shooting over speed, I have never had a major issue with missing photos because of the failsafes. That said, it wouldn’t be the system I reached for if I needed to shoot some fast action on the streets.
Most of these quirks are more inconveniences rather than dealbreakers though. And the failsafes won’t cause issues for users after the first handful of rolls create the necessary muscle memory.
A tuned and cleaned Hasselblad setup featuring the waist level viewfinder, 80mm Planar lens, standard focusing screen and film back will run approximately $1,200-$1,500 from a reputable camera shop with a return policy and guarantee of full functionality, and will possibly cost less from eBay. That’s a fair chunk of change, especially when we consider that a similarly modular Mamiya 645 system can be had for about half the price.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to feel short-changed by the Hasselblad. The build quality is unmatched, the customization options practically limitless, and the image quality is outstanding. They’re compact, elegant, and timeless in a way that few other cameras in their class can claim.
Shoot the Moon
A Hasselblad V system camera won’t make you take better images. But if you have a clear vision for what you’re trying to achieve with your photography, the V series can be configured to help you do the job (any job). If you’re shooting professionally day-in day-out, this adaptability may make the Hasselblad perfect for you. For amateurs and keen enthusiasts, a Hasselblad may be more of a luxury than a necessity.
But don’t think you’ll have to break the bank to build a system. With a few compatible Russian-made accessories and a second film back, it’s possible to bring the price of owning a Hasselblad down to earth. And there’s nothing like shooting the Moon camera. Isn’t that worth a bit of a premium?