Back in October of 2018 I made a bit of a wild decision and bought a Hasselblad 500c/m from a local camera shop. I’ve shared some of the work I’ve done with the camera on this very blog and now I feel like I’ve run enough rolls through it to give the camera a proper review. This review is probably going to be a little long winded and for that I apologize. For some reason I feel like I have a lot to say in this review and I don’t see why I shouldn’t just get it all out there.
The Hasselblad 500c/m that I purchased back in October is not my first experience with a Hasselblad. In fact, it’s not my second either. It is actually the third time a Hasselblad has entered my photographic world. The first Hasselblad I ever made a photograph with was the Hasselblad H2. It was sent to me directly by the company when the camera was brand new on the market in order for me to test and review it for a magazine I as working for at the time. I played around with it for several months, wrote a review expressing that I felt the camera was mediocre, and then Hasselblad promptly asked for it back. I still stand by that review today. It was a clunky beast of a camera with very poor autofocus and a user interface that felt finicky at best.
Fast forward several years and I got the itch to buy a Hasselblad 500c/m so I found one that looked great on Ebay and I took the plunge. In a very short period of time I fell love with the camera and made some great images with it but quickly ran into issues of reliability. One film back had a constant problem with jamming while the other had a light leak. The “barn doors” on the camera body got stiff and would sometimes get stuck open even after a couple trips to the repair shop. Finally, during a photoshoot, one of the aperture blades in the 80mm lens literally popped off and rattled around the inside of the glass element. I was frustrated. I loved the images I was producing but hated the constant trips to the repair shop, not to mention the expense on my bank account. So in frustration I sold it off as a parts camera.
That was back around the year 2005.
Fast forward to October 2018 and I noticed a Hasselblad 500c/m on consignment at a local shop for a very decent price. The question swirled in my mind on whether or not I should take the risk again. After all, on paper the Hasselblad 500c/m is a near ideal camera for me. Medium format…check! Square negatives…check! Large and bright waist level finder…check! Fully mechanical…check! Interchangeable backs…check! Sharp and fast Carl Zeiss lenses…check! Camera body that is easy to hand hold…check!
So I bought it and figured if I got another lemon I wouldn’t lose too much money selling it again as a parts camera. I mean hey, it happens. When buying cameras that are older than I am it is really tough to hold a grudge that they may not work.
If you’ve read this far into the view you might be asking yourself, what exactly is a Hasselblad 500c/m? Well, the Hasselblad 500c/m is probably the most common and the most popular camera in a long line of “V” series cameras that were produced from 1957 all the way into the 2000’s in Sweden. The look and styling of the V-series went largely unchanged throughout the decades and started with the 500c and ended with the 503CWD as late as 2005 which was coupled with a digital back. As far as the 500c/m is concerned it was produced from 1970 to 1994 and is widely considered the standard in which other Hasselblad’s are judged. It retains an all mechanical sensibility with some advanced features not found on early 500c models such as the ability to change out the focusing screen.
The basic design of every Hasselblad camera in the V-series lineup is the same. As the central component you have a light tight box which houses a mirror, the winding mechanism, and the shutter release. On the front of the box one attaches their preferred lens which come in a number of focal lengths and were manufactured by legendary lens designers, the Carl Zeiss company in Germany. On the back of the camera you can attach various film backs, the most common being backs designed to be loaded with 120 medium format film and which create a 6x6 square negative. On the top of the camera is the ability to attach various finders and view screens such as waist level finders, prism finders, and chimney finders. On the right side of the camera one can attach varying styles of film winders from knobs to cranks and on later models even motor drives.
Basically, the Hasselblad V-series is a camera designed to be completely customizable based on the photographers preferences. I could go on and on about all the small differences between the various cameras in the V-series line up but THIS WEBSITE does a pretty good job at that.
Ok, so what is it like to actually use a Hasselblad? In short, it is incredibly fantastic! The Hasselblad is extremely well built. Perhaps the most well built camera I have ever touched and that includes cameras from Leica, Bronica, and Mamiya. Nothing on the Hasselblad camera feels flimsy, out of place, or cheap. I wouldn’t want to drop this camera on the pavement (I can’t think of a single camera I would want to drop on pavement) but I can tell that throwing this camera into a bag and taking it out on a hike isn’t going to damage it in any way. So far since I’ve owned it I’ve taken the Hasselblad on some very long hikes, into the desert, and down into a cave. I get the feeling it’ll be going on a few more adventures with me before I’m done with it.
Surprisingly, for a medium format camera, the Hasselblad is not that heavy either. I very regularly attach a neck strap to my Hasselblad and walk around with the camera slung over one shoulder. I personally find the camera very easy to hand hold and I don’t feel like the size and weight get in the way at all. It certainly doesn’t feel any heavier than a pro-grade 35mm SLR like the Nikon F5 for example.
Working with the Hasselblad is a 100% manual experience. Aperture and shutter speed are set manually on the lens barrel. Focusing is done manually by hand. Winding the film is done by turning a knob or a crank on the side of the camera body. This is about as much of a hands on experience as you can get and if you don’t like working slowly and deliberately then the Hasselblad 500c/m is not for you. Personally, I find it relaxing and as such I’m not bothered at all by the lack of automation. Composing a photograph in the waist level finder, setting aperture and shutter speed, clicking the shutter, and advancing the frame all almost feel like doing yoga to me. Action photography may be a challenging prospect with the Hasselblad but it is not impossible. With some practice, operating a fully manual camera is not as time consuming as one might think.
For metering I carry around a small hand-held light meter, usually tied to a lanyard around my neck. Hasselblad did make metered prism finders and even a meter one could buy integrated into the winding crank but I find the hand held meter to just be the easiest option. It’s quick, simple, and accurate and it allows me to walk around my subject and take various measurements in challenging lighting situations. This is why the Hasselblad 500c/m shines in my book. It is easy to customize the camera into a configuration that works for *you*.
I only own one lens for the Hasselblad 500c/m at the moment. It’s the tried and true standard 80mm f/2.8. 80mm on a medium format 6x6 camera is considered a “normal” focal length. Not telephoto, nor wide angle. It’s pretty much the focal length most medium format cameras come with and most people new to the system will start with. Mine is one of the more modern CFi lenses which have some more plastic parts than the older lenses but performance-wise it seems to be just as good. The Carl Zeiss lenses are the area in which Hasselblad cameras really shine. They are sharp, even wide open at f/2.8, have incredibly lovely bokeh, and they seem to handle tonal variation incredibly well. In other words, this is really the best of the best here. If you aren’t getting the results you want from a Carl Zeiss lens then you really have to start realizing that the fault lies within you and not your equipment.
I do tend to like working with wide angle lenses so sometime this year I plan on purchasing something in the 55mm focal length range. I’m sure I’ll post about it on this blog when I do. I have confidence that other lenses in the Hasselblad line up will perform just as well. Considering the price of used Hasselblad lenses on sites like Ebay they better!
If I do have one complaint about the Hasselblad it is that the backs can be a little touchy to load. There are plenty of tutorials online that can show you what I mean by this. Here is a great little video on YouTube for example. It takes a little bit of practice and I say this as a veteran of a lot of film cameras including a camera like the Mamiya RZ67 which also has a removable back. For some reason I find loading the Mamiya back much easier than the Hasselblad backs. Maybe I’m just more used to them. When I’m feeding my Hasselblad film I sometimes have to find a flat service to work on otherwise I muck up the process. Now that being said, in the short time I’ve owned the camera I’ve noticed my skill in this regard get substantially better so over time I suspect it will not be an issue at all.
So the question ultimately comes down to, is the Hasselblad 500c/m worth it? Does the camera live up to all the hype and praise that has been heaped upon it for decades? Those are complicated questions for me and I don’t think there is an easy answer. If one takes the factor of price out of the equation then I would say yes, absolutely, the Hasselblad 500c/m is pretty damn near perfect of a camera as a camera can be. However, I live in the real world and I’m certainly not rich, so price is something that needs to be considered. For the cost of a Hasselblad 500c/m with one lens a person could easily buy a camera like the Mamiya C330 TLR, three lenses, and still have a lot of money left over for film.
People make great images with other cameras too after all.
That being said, I have no regrets about my latest purchase of the Hasselblad 500c/m and I’ve been enjoying using it. In fact, since I’ve purchased it, I haven’t picked up any of my other medium format cameras and I’m starting to feel bad for neglecting them. If this trend continues I may even sell them to fund some wide angle lenses for the Hasselblad. Given that is where my brain has been going lately I would argue that is a testament to the fact that the mystique and hype around the Hasselblad 500c/m is very much warranted.
Honestly, I think this ad sums things up perfectly…