Early in my career I took a job as a one-man studio photographer for a Swedish toy company called Creative Playthings. There were two camera systems I was required to know–a 35mm Nikon F system and a medium-format Hasselblad system. I knew the Nikon system inside out. I lied about the Hasselblads—I had never touched one, and I spent my first day figuring out how to use it. The job lasted two years. My love for Hasselblad cameras continues to this very day.
Photographs © 2019 Allan Weitz
The camera on which I learned medium-format photography was a Hasselblad 500C/M, a camera that was in production for 24 years (1970-1994). Not long ago, I managed to pick up an attractively priced, like-new Hasselblad 500C/M camera with a normal, wide, and telephoto lens at an estate sale. Decades after leaving Creative Playthings, I found myself the owner of a whistle-clean camera like the one I enjoyed using all those years ago.
The Hasselblad 500C/M was the third medium-format, single lens reflex camera (SLR) designed and produced in Sweden by Dr. Victor Hasselblad. Designed to capture 6cm x 6cm square images on 120 (12 exposures) or 220 (24 exposures) roll film, his first 2 cameras—the 1600 F (1948-1953) and 1000 F (1953-1957)—were similar in design, but featured focal-plane shutters, which proved to be finicky.
In 1957, an improved model 500C was introduced, along with a new series of lenses, each of which contained its own leaf shutter, which in addition to being far more reliable, enabled flash sync at speeds up to 1/500-second, which was just one reason Hasselblad 500s quickly became the camera of choice among professional studio, portrait, and wedding photographers.
In 1970, the 500C/M was introduced, the difference being focusing screens that could be changed by the user rather than having to send it off to a repair shop.
Part of the uniqueness of the Hasselblad 500-series camera is its modular design. The camera consists of a body fashioned from a single block of nickel-alloy, a lens, a film back, a folding viewfinder (or optional prism finder), and a film crank, each of which is interchangeable with almost every Hasselblad 500-series camera produced from 1957 through 2006, when the last Hasselblad 500-series camera was hand-assembled, in 2006.
Fun Hasselblad Fact: The serial numbers of all Hasselblad 500-series cameras and film backs contain a clue as to when the item was produced. The trick is to write the letters VHPICTURES and directly under the letters the numbers 1234567890. The first 2 characters in the serial numbers of Hasselblad cameras and film backs are letters. Line these letters to their corresponding numbers and you have the last 2 numbers of the year the camera was manufactured. As an example, a camera with a serial number starting with the letters “UR” (78) is a camera made in 1978.
Form and function are often at odds when it comes to product design. It’s either form follows function or vice versa, and seldom do these equally important design considerations meet at center court. Hasselblad 500-series cameras are among the exceptions to the rule.
In keeping with the design principles of the Bauhaus and Cubist schools of design, which were popular in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, each of the camera’s individual components (the mirror housing, the film backs, the finder, and to a certain extent the lenses, are composed of circles, squares, and rectangles. Visually, the camera system couldn’t have been more appealing, and the look of Hasselblad 500-series cameras, which were available with chrome or black trim, remain eye-grabbers six decades after they originally went into production.
When first introduced, Hasselblad offered a choice of 120, 220, and 70mm bulk film backs. When purchasing used Hasselblad film backs, make sure the serial number of the film back matches the numbers on the insert. Hasselblad is one of the few companies that took extra measures to ensure the tolerances of each of the camera components were as tight as could be. This practice began when Hasselblad was producing the earlier 100F and 1600F cameras, which were reportedly not as refined as 500-series cameras. Supposedly mixing and matching 500-series inserts and backs isn’t a big deal and I, for one, never experienced focus issues when shooting with non-matching backs. Regardless, backs with matching numbers sell for a higher price compared to unmatched backs, and if given the choice, I would go for a matched pair.
Shooting with a Hasselblad is somewhat systematic. To take a picture, you must first remove the aluminum dark slide. If the dark slide is in place you can’t shoot. Similarly, you can’t remove the back (and possibly fog your film) if the dark slide isn’t in place. The best practice is to always advance the film after each exposure, which in turn cocks the shutter. If, for whatever reason, you accidentally trip the shutter pin on the rear of the lens while handling it, you must reset it before trying to mount it back on the camera. The same goes for the trigger pin that rests on the mirror housing—reset it before trying to mount a lens or take a picture, or risk damaging the camera and/or lens.
So. If you plan on purchasing a Hasselblad 500-series camera, make sure you purchase a FotodioX CameraKey Tool for Hasselblad Cameras & Lenses, an inexpensive pen-like device that’s made specifically for resetting the cocking mechanisms on Hasselblad lenses and cameras. You can also use a coin (for the lens) or a long screwdriver (for the camera body), but if you slip or miss your mark you risk incurring serious damage. A CameraKey (or similar third-party tool), which is designed in a way that limits the opportunity to go “Ooops,” should always be in your bag when shooting with a Hassy 500.
One of the cooler aspects of Hasselblad 500-series cameras is that, despite the fact these cameras were manufactured when the word “digital” meant doing something with your fingers, Hasselblad 500-series cameras accept medium-format digital backs.
Known as V-series backs, digital camera backs made for Hasselblad 500-series cameras (and available at B&H) include Mamiya’s Leaf Credo 50 digital back (50MP with IR+UV filtration), Mamiya’s Leaf Credo 50WS Wide Spectrum digital back 50MP without IR+UV filtration), the Mamiya Leaf Credo 80MP digital back and Mamiya Leaf Credo 80MP Wide Spectrum digital back (both 80MP, with and without IR+UV filtration). V-series digital backs are also available used but, if you explore this market, make sure the operating system and software for the camera back you are considering are compatible with your current computer system.
The widest reflex lens made for Hasselblad 500-series cameras was a 40mm f/4 Zeiss Distagon (88° AoV). For wider needs, Hasselblad produced the SWC Superwide, a non-reflex camera with a fixed 38mm f/4.5 Zeiss Biogon lens (90°). Unlike 500-series Hasselblads, which had a reflex viewing system that allowed you to focus through the lens, you had to guesstimate your focus distance when shooting with a Superwide SWC. The camera is totally manual in every sense of the word, but the photos it captures are stunning.
The last 500-series camera, the Hasselblad 503CWD, was produced in 2006 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Victor Hasselblad. Only 500 units were produced. It was bundled with a CFV digital back (16MP) and, yes, you could swap out the camera’s digital back for a film back any time you felt like going analog.
The photographs accompanying this classic camera review were captured on Kodak Tri-X and Kodak Ektacolor 100. The negatives were then digitized by placing them flush against a daylight-balanced lightbox and re-photographing them using a Sony a7R II with a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-NIKKOR. The RAW files were then processed, cropped, and output as 70MB JPEGs.
Have you ever owned, or perhaps shot with, a Hasselblad 500-series camera? If so, what are your thoughts about the camera system? Let us know in the Comments field, below.
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