Hasselblad has been the gold standard among studio, fashion, portrait, and landscape photographers since the original model 1000F was introduced in 1948. Though best known for its venerable square-format 500-series single lens reflex cameras (posthumously retitled Hasselblad V-series cameras), two Hasselblads have always stood out to me as being among the coolest production cameras ever made, and neither of them is an SLR!
Photographs © Allan Weitz, 2016
Hasselblad SWC Superwide
When the Carl Zeiss 38mm/f4.5 Biogon was introduced, in 1954, it was the widest-angle medium-format lens available at the time. The problem was that the rear element of the lens extended so far into the camera body, it couldn’t be used with any of the existing medium-format reflex cameras.
Victor Hasselblad, not one to be stumped by technical issues, solved the problem by designing a dedicated non-reflex camera with a shoe-mounted optical viewfinder that approximated the Biogon’s 90-degree AoV. He called it the Hasselblad Superwide Supreme and it proved to be the first of a series of five generations of Superwide SWC cameras that would remain in production for the next 50 years.
The beauty of the Superwide is its ability to capture wide-angle pictures that simply don’t look wide-angle. They’re wide-angle, but the Zeiss 38mm Biogon renders the spatial relationships between visual elements within the frame with less perceptual distortion than a comparable wide lens on a full-frame 35mm camera.
In terms of simplicity, Hasselblad’s Superwide is the quintessential camera. It contains zero electronics, so it never requires batteries. Its manual-focus lens isn’t coupled, so you have to set the focus by physically measuring the camera-to-subject distance or by guesstimating. For precision through-the-lens focusing, you can use the optional Focusing Screen Adapter, or if you want to make life easy, simply stop the lens down to f/22, set the focus to a bit past 5', and everything from about 26" to infinity will be tack sharp.
Despite its extreme angle of view, the Superwide is so pin-and-barrel distortion free, it can be used as a flat-field copy camera. What this means is that you can align a Superwide on a copy stand, photograph blueprints or other technical documents, and reproduce technically accurate renderings of the original. Superwides use the same film backs as Hasselblad 500-series cameras and are compatible with many of Hasselblad’s reflex camera accessories.
The cameras shutter tops out at 1/500-second for ambient and flash exposures. The shutter speed and aperture rings are coupled, allowing you to switch quickly between equivalent EV aperture/shutter speed combinations without having to break concentration.
With a film magazine attached, the Superwide is well balanced, relatively compact, and despite its boxy shape, feels more at home in the palm of one’s hand compared to most professional DSLR systems. The camera weighs about 2 lb and the body is a mere 1" deep, or about a fifth of the length of the permanently fixed lens. Total size of the camera and lens is 5-3/4 x 4-1/2 x 5-7/8". It’s worth noting that many high-resolution digital capture backs can be adapted to Hasselblad Superwides if you prefer shooting digital rather than film.
Aside from shutter and aperture controls, the only other controls are the film advance located on the right side of the body, and a shutter release located directly above it on the top of the camera. As I said, this camera is as basic as it gets.
Shooting with a Superwide takes a bit of getting used to. One must remember to focus and always keep in mind the viewfinder displays only an approximation of the final image, most notably when shooting at closer distances. Measuring depth-of-field is made easier by a pair of red DoF indicators that shift closer or farther apart automatically when you change lens apertures.
Because the camera is designed for three-point eye-level viewing, complemented by an ultra-wide angle of view and a vibration-free shutter, the Superwide is well suited for capturing low-light photographs at slower shutter speeds. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the Superwide a medium-format Leica M camera.
Production of Hasselblad Superwide cameras ceased in 2006, but many of these hand-assembled cameras can still be found in good, working condition used. Fun fact: most Hasselblad Superwide cameras manufactured during the 1970s and ’80s were hand-assembled by an employee named Florence!
Hasselblad XPan II
It’s no big secret that Hasselblad H-series medium-format cameras are co-produced by Hasselblad (camera bodies and related components) and Fujifilm (lenses and prisms). The relationship between the two companies goes back to the mid-1990s, beginning with a 35mm camera called the Hasselblad XPan.
The Hasselblad XPan was introduced in September, 1998. Aside from being the one and only 35mm camera ever built by Hasselblad, the XPan was unique in that, in addition to shooting conventional 24 x 36mm (2:3) photographs, with a flip of a dial, the film gate widened to capture 24 x 65mm (1:3) photographs.
This affects your photographs in an interesting manner. In standard mode, the 45mm lens has a diagonal AoV of about 47°. In panorama mode, it takes on a 74° AoV, which is similar to the diagonal FoV of a 25mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera, albeit in an image field that’s twice as wide. But because the focal length of the lens is (and always will be) 45mm, the image is less prone to perspective distortions common to wide-angle photographs.
Though technically a 35mm camera, the three lenses designed to go along with the camera—a 30mm wide-angle, 45mm normal, and a 90mm telephoto lens—each has an image circle wide enough to cover 6 x 7cm-format cameras, and that’s what made the XPan so special. Basically, the XPan is a medium-format camera in 35mm clothing.
The camera’s coupled rangefinder system, which will look and feel familiar to anybody who has ever handled a Leica, is parallax-corrected and features frame lines that automatically change when you switch between standard and panoramic mode.
The XPan offered shutter speeds ranging from 8 seconds to 1/1000-second (with Bulb up to 540 seconds), continuous shooting at 1.2 fps in standard mode, or 0.9 fps in panorama mode, and the flash sync is 1/125-second with the option of front or rear synchronization.
Metering can be performed manually or in Aperture-priority mode. TTL light readings are read from the central shutter curtains, which are painted 18% gray. Other options include auto-bracketing, up to 9 multiple exposures, and a self-timer that can be set to 2- or 10-second delays.
When you load a roll of film, it is automatically extracted from the canister. The film then rewinds back into the canister after every exposure. This enables you to switch between standard and panorama mode randomly while keeping count of the remaining exposures. Back-winding the film also keeps exposed film safe from light should you accidentally unlock the film door when the camera is loaded.
An updated model, the XPan II, was introduced in April 2003. The differences between the XPan and XPan II include rearranging a few exterior dials, an LCD of exposure data in the viewfinder, second-curtain flash-sync, a self-timer, an expanded shutter-speed range, and better IR imaging performance.
The XPan and XPan II were marketed in the Asian market under the names TX-1 and TX-2, respectively. Nomenclature aside, the only differences between the Eastern and Western versions were their exterior finishes—Silver Titanium with a wood grip (TX-2, TX-2) and Charcoal Gray with a rubberized grip (XPan and XPan II). Beneath their respective finishes, both versions feature the same solid titanium and aluminum construction.
Can the square and wide-field images captured by Hasselblads Superwide SWC and XPan be emulated by simply cropping a wider-angle photograph taken with a 2:3 or 4:3-format camera?
Absolutely, but shooting with cameras specifically designed to capture pictures from a specific point of view forces you out of your comfort zone, which is one of the best methods of waking up one’s visual sensibilities.
What about you? Is there a camera or camera format that speaks to you? If so, drop us a line in the Comments section and let us know.