Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: As if it matters what I think.
The Long Version: The Hasselblad 500 is a legend. Immediately recognized and viewed with respect even by non-photographers, it screams 'serious' in a way that few other cameras do. Manufactured for decades, there's a huge base of compatible equipment in use and on the resale market. Some of it is certainly showing its age – such as mine, a 500cm model bought in 'bargain' condition from KEH.com – but it's remarkably reliable and robust.
It's too bad that it's such a pain to use.
I don't mind the meter-less operation or the all-manual everything, but the clockwork camera is very temperamental. Any discussion online about the intention to buy a Hasselblad eventually degenerates into "it doesn't lock up that often…" and "…it's really easy to fix…". I needed to figure out how to reset both the camera and lens quite promptly with mine, making it the first camera in years that I've needed help to operate.
When I use my Hasselblad there's always a small screwdriver in my bag. I bought it – $1.95 at the local Home Hardware – specifically to use to reset the camera when it jams. (The only other thing that I routinely carry tools for is my bike, and I've never actually needed any.) And because the back needs to be removed before the camera can be reset I also need to carry the dark slide for the one and only film back that I own. These are thin metal that must not be bent, and naturally the `blad's backs don't have a built-in dark-slide holder. Film backs that have been modified with aftermarket holders sell for considerably more on the used market. Nifty.
To reset the camera, remove the film back and set the camera lens-down on a table, or point it downwards on the tripod while on the Coney Island boardwalk on a cold and blustery day in March. Open the spring-loaded doors to be able to access the camera from behind the mirror, and find the small steel screw. A headlamp really helps here. Then all you need to do is use the little slot-head screwdriver to turn the screw against increasing tension until it clicks into place. This needs more rotation than is possible with a single twist of the wrist, so make sure that the screwdriver tip doesn't hit anything fragile or scratchable when it inevitably slips out of the slot. Repeat as needed.
The procedure for re-cocking the lens is about the same, except that the mirror needs to be up and now the screwdriver tip is much closer to the rear element of the lens when it slips. So far I've only had to do this once, and have had to unjam the camera at least a half-dozen times, so I suppose that makes it a rare occurrence.
One thing that Leica and Hasselblad share is the need to learn a new vocabulary. The term to know with the `blad is "bay", as in Bay 50 or Bay 60. This describes the size of the bayonet mount for special Hasselblad-compatible filters, because the lenses don't have the filter threads that almost every other lens for every other system on the market will have. On the positive side, that does make it faster to swap filters, which is often mentioned as a critical shortcoming for other lens systems. For those of us who don't own any Hasselblad-compatible filters, there are adapters that allow threaded filters and standard lens caps to be used instead. They're invariably a special-order item.
And the reward for this is the nominal 6x6cm negative. The square format has proven to be timeless, as it's equally at home on record sleeves, CD covers, and social media avatars. For anything else, such as most things, there's always cropping.* This typically reduces the frame to about what the 645 format would capture, and those cameras accomplish three or four more frames to each roll of 120 film. Some of them even have metering. And autofocus.
Of course, some people do brilliantly with square format cameras. Kirk Tuck comes to mind as a contemporary example, but I am not Kirk Tuck, and I doubt any of my readers are, either. By using many different formats over the years I have grown accustomed to composing on whatever viewfinder I see in front of me, so I'm not appreciably worse with a square format than I am with any other, but that's a state that's taken me years to attain.
Without a doubt, Hasselblad "V-series" cameras and their accompanying Zeiss lenses produce technically outstanding images. I would expect no less from them – or any comparable system that costs close to what these do. I can't imagine that many Bronica or Mamiya negatives are being culled for poor image quality, even though they lack the Hasselblad's distinctive "V" notches at the edge of the frame.
When combined with modern colour films, for the best possible quality, or traditional black-and-white, for the you-just-can't-do-this-with-a-cell-phone factor, these cameras still hold their own. The fact that you can put a digital sensor that costs as much as a car on these battlewagons means that the archaic all-mechanical camera still has a role in digital photography, and stands as a perverse testament to just how entrenched – and expensive – these cameras once were.
I do like my Hasselblad. There's an essential thing-ness to it that really appeals to me, and the basic camera with the waist-level finder and no doohickery grippy winder add-on takes up remarkably little room in a camera bag. My 500c/m, with 80 and 150mm lenses, is a high-quality travel camera that's a good compromise when I don't need, or can't transport, my majestic Fujifilm GX680. The viewfinder is big and bright, and mine even has a grid etched into it, which I adore. But for all of that, I have a very hard time thinking of any camera made during the past decades that's as temperamental and fussy as this old beast. If it wasn't a legend, would we tolerate it?
(*I'm happy to be the one to point out that almost all of the product photos that I use on `thewsreviews are square.)
last updated 22 feb 2012