Written by James Baturin
I fell in love with the 6×6 film format ever since I discovered the work of Michael Kenna. It just so happens he uses a Hasselblad 500 C/M, so, naturally, I dreamed of one day shooting with the same camera. If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. (Find the Hasselblad 500 C/M at KEH Camera or on eBay)
Unfortunately, I didn’t have money for one at the time, so I settled with an old Bronica S2. Don’t get me wrong, the Bronica was a great camera as well, but with the age of the camera came a number of issues that made it an unreliable tool. And fixing it was going to cost me more than was worth the time and money. So I began dreaming again of my Hasselblad, and even started throwing loose change into a jar labeled “Camera Fund.” As it turns out, thanks to a generous birthday gift from my friends and family, 7 months ago I was able to buy one.
The Hasselblad 500 C/M has been my go to film camera since, at my side everywhere from the streets of my hometown to the craggy peaks of Scotland. While I’ve discovered, like any camera, even the Hasselblad isn’t perfect, it’s been an absolute joy to use.
The Hasselblad 500 C/M is a medium format film camera using 120 or 220 film, and will give you a dozen 6×6 negatives per roll (24 on a 220 roll). The kit I bought from a Hasselblad technician in Toronto is from 1971, though the camera was produced up until 1994. It included the camera body, an 80mm f/2.8 Planar Zeiss lens, A12 film back and waist level viewfinder. The 500 C/M is a modified version of the earlier Hasselblad 500 C, and includes a focus screen that is easily removed and replaced. The 500 C requires a technician to remove and calibrate it, making the upgrade to the 500 C/M worth it in my opinion.
Speaking of money, if you’re looking for a bargain, the Hasselblad may not be for you. Though I’ve heard of people who have found rare deals, the majority of camera kits on eBay (lens, body, film back) are going to run you anywhere from $1000 to $1500. That being said, the quality of images this camera is capable of is incredible. If you’re looking for a camera that is going to be reliable, precise, and of the highest quality, then you’re not going to be disappointed.
The camera system itself is completely modular, making it extremely customizable when it comes to accessories. Everything down to the film advance knob is removable and interchangeable. Don’t like the waist level viewfinder (shame on you if you don’t! :p)? No problem! Slap a prism viewfinder on there and you’re ready for eye level shooting. Want to switch to color film midway through a roll of black and white? Piece of cake! If you have an extra film back you can switch film types before you can say “Victor Hasselblad!”
The stock lens is the Carl Zeiss 80mm 2.8, which is roughly equivalent to a 50mm focal length on a 35mm camera. It’s an extremely versatile lens, and as far as I’m concerned a must have for this camera. These lenses feature a built in self-timer of about 9 seconds, as well as a sync mechanism if using a flash. And, when it comes to quality, the Zeiss lenses are some of the sharpest out there. If there is a downside, the fastest shutter speed is 1/500, which can’t compete even with my Nikon FE2 with its lightening fast shutter at 1/4000.
Outside of the stock lens, there are plenty of wide-angle and longer focal length options. I am currently looking at the Carl Zeiss 50mm f/4 CF FLE for a wide angle option, which made improvements to earlier models to increase image sharpness from corner to corner. The lens itself isn’t cheap, going anywhere from $400-$1200 on eBay, but if there’s anything that I’m willing to spend a little extra on for quality it’s camera glass!
Metering: Even with all the customization options, this camera is remarkably simple in its design. When you look at the camera’s outside, there aren’t any extra bells and whistles, no unnecessary details. It’s 100% manual and mechanical; batteries not required! This means there is no built in light meter, so you’ll have to meter externally or use the old “Sunny 16” rule.
Shutter: Unlike most cameras, the shutter in the Hasselblad 500 C/M isn’t in the body, but in the lens. So both the aperture AND shutter speed are set using dials on the lens barrel. This took some getting used to, but really wasn’t a huge adjustment. It also means that you need to hold the shutter down for a little bit longer on longer shutter speeds so the rear shutter gate doesn’t close down in the middle of your exposure.
Mirror Lock: As a landscape long exposure photographer, I love the mirror lock function on the Hasselblad. After I’ve composed my shot, it allows me to lock the mirror in the “up” position prior to releasing the shutter, eliminating potential camera shake.
Viewfinder: Personally, I love the way the world looks through a waist level viewfinder. If you’re not used to it, the fact that everything is flipped when you look through it can feel a bit like you’re standing on your head. But once you’re used to it, it makes for a really unique shooting experience.
There isn’t a “double exposure” function on the camera, but you can still do them pretty easily on the Hasselblad. Take your first exposure, but before winding the film advance knob, put the darkslide in and take off the film back. After that it’s as simple as putting the film back back on, taking your second exposure, and winding the film advance as usual. I haven’t done any experimenting with double exposures yet, but when it’s so simple it’s a wonder that I haven’t.
The Hasselblad 500 C/M is a wonderful camera, but like I said, it isn’t perfect. While it’s not the heaviest medium format camera on the market, it’s still not light and you can’t fit it in your pocket. And when you add a couple of lenses and film backs to your bag, lugging it around can become a chore.
Also, with the use of film backs comes the ability to switch between films mid-roll, but it also comes with the annoying darkslide. It’s a piece of metal that protects unexposed film when you take the film back off. An obvious necessity, but the number of times I’ve forgotten to take it out before pressing the shutter, or misplacing it only to find it in my jean’s pocket weeks later makes it a frustrating detail sometimes.
The Hasselblad is a remarkable camera, but it is going to slow you down. It favors a slow, methodical approach to photography where composition and settings are checked and double checked. Depending on what you prefer to shoot, this could be a pro or a con. For me, photography is a slow process, out in nature with my tripod and my thoughts, and the Hasselblad fits this style like a glove. But if you’re looking for something that requires you to be quick to capture a fleeting moment, or photographing moving objects, then the Hasselblad 500 C/M might not be ideal. That being said, I know photographers who shoot with a Hasselblad as part of their wedding packages, as well as others who take it out on their street shooting sessions. So if you’re looking for a medium format camera that, above all else is going to deliver quality and precision, then the Hasselblad 500 C/M is an obvious choice.