Film diaries: medium format revisited, with the Hasselblad 501C

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Many of you might remember my earlier serious revaluation of medium format photography (article here) – and the conclusion I reached from a couple of months ago, which was that whilst there was a slight but noticeable gain in image quality, it simply didn’t work for me – not only would the solution for my regular commercial subjects be rather clunky and impractical. For my personal work, it didn’t feel different enough from shooting FX digital to force me to think different; in fact, the slow AF and generally sluggish UI made me frustrated. You’ll probably also recall that I very briefly evaluated the CF-V 39 back for the V series and quickly abandoned it because somehow it just left me confused – “…somewhere between the combination of the multiple crop lines, the left0-right inversion and everything else that was different, my brain shut down. I just couldn’t see anything other than what should have fit into the square 6×6 frame…”. Logically, this shouldn’t have been the case, given that rangefinders have far more confusing framelines, and any DSLR has a maze of AF boxes and grids and the rest inside the finder. But it did, and I summarily ruled out shooting with any of the V-series cameras.

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This actually wasn’t my first experience with the V-series. Many, many years ago, one of my students acquired a 503 and CFV-16; I played with it briefly and found that to be equally frustrating and counterintuitive. (I also remember the back just shutting down and refusing to cooperate at one point, too.) It didn’t leave much of an impression, and certainly not a positive one.

Yet somehow despite all of this, I seem to have performed an abrupt 180 degree turn in the last couple of months. I acquired a rather nice 501C, which according to its serial number, is around 17 years old. For some irrational reason – and that’s the only thing I can put it down to – I am taking to this camera in a way that I certainly didn’t with the others. It doesn’t feel counterintuitive. It doesn’t feel finnicky or fragile. And it certainly isn’t confusing. Unlike the others, it makes me want to go out and shoot; it’s also got me seeing square compositions, which I certainly didn’t do before. In fact, I like working with it so much – and of course the results it produces – that I’ve also ordered a second back and 50/4 Distagon FLE, and the 120/4 Makro-Planar to complete the kit.

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The obvious question is of course, what changed?

I’m not entirely sure myself. Other than that perhaps the shooting experience is different enough to give me the kick I was looking for; the basic controls are all still there, in a logical layout, without so many quirks that you go mad trying to remember them. Don’t get me wrong: using a V-series Hasselblad is still very much an exercise in masochism; your finder is reversed, the focus throw is extremely long, you only get 12 shots per roll (24 if you can find an A24 back and 220 film) and your shutter speed tops out at just 1/500s. Not to mention little quirks like having to remember to cock the shutter before mounting or unmounting lenses to avoid breaking the leaf shutter drive shaft, or putting the dark slide in before changing backs/ taking it out before shooting, the oddly positioned shutter release etc. And let’s not even talk about how fiddly it is to load the backs in the first place*. Somehow, the experience works for me.

*That said, unlike my first film Leica M, I managed to load it properly and not get a blank roll at the other end. I think I was just more careful this time.

It also helps that the experience is a pleasantly tactile one. ‘Serious’ cameras from the film era were built like the proverbial brick outhouse; the choice of materials and attention to detail made them objects to last, and objects that were enjoyable to use and handle. If you’re holding your camera for hours on end every day, believe me, this matters; that little, rattly, cheap-feeling plastic switch can drive you nuts after a while. The 501C, on the other hand, is every gram a real camera with a feel that is unmatched by just about every modern piece of gear, excepting perhaps the Leicas and Zeiss lenses – certainly not anything from a mass manufacturer. Historically, the cost of these things was non-trivial, and it certainly shows. What I do find amazing is that a very, very good condition complete outfit can be acquired for around the same cost as a midrange prosumer DSLR – yet I still get comments from people fawning over it as though it’s a Bugatti.

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I suspect the latter may be as much to do with the perceived (historical) costs of entry, as much as the masochism required to pilot one well which results in quite a large psychological barrier overall. I personally have no issue with meterless cameras, or manual focus; I’m training my eyes to be a light meter, and for the most part, I’m within about a stop of the intended exposure. For commercial flash work, it’s usually manual through a mix of experience and quick guide number calculations. It’s actually quite liberating to be in full control of the outcome and not have to second-guess whether the camera is going to give you what you want or not.

There are also some very clever things I like about the V system: firstly, the ability to change backs mid-roll means that you can carry a high ISO back and a low ISO back, and not waste film or miss shots. The lenses are calibrated so that turning both shutter and aperture rings in the same direction by the same number of stops maintains a certain EV exposure; most of the CF lenses even have a coupling button to lock the rings together. Not letting you take out the back without a dark slide in place (and blocking the shutter if it is in place) makes sense too, if you think about it: you don’t want to accidentally waste a frame. You can also easily interchange finders and focusing screens; later cameras also take winder grips and motor drives.

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With film, the shooting experience is only half the story. To control the output completely, you also have to develop and scan your own (assuming your output is digital rather than print). I’m still refining my process for both, so I’ll refrain from commenting too much on that for now; suffice to say that the grain is a bit large for my taste, probably because tap water here is 27 C and far too warm for slow development. As for the scanning process – I’m using a single-shot capture from a D800E and Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar, duplicating the negatives sandwiched between glass for flatness. The tonality and conversion process definitely needs some refinement, too.

It seems like a lot of work – and it is – but I am enjoying the process. And all up, I don’t think I’m spending much (if any) more time than I would with a digital workflow – I have fewer, but better, images to work on; the conversion process after scanning is largely written up as a macro, so I don’t have to do anything other than load my files, crop, dust spot and press a button; there is no curve or dodge and burn work involved anywhere. If I wanted that level of control and cleanliness, I’d use the D800E. That said, if they did ever offer a ‘full 6×6′ (or close to it) digital back, I’d probably mortgage a kidney and buy one. I could see myself using this thing commercially if throughput and control were faster and more consistent.

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In short: so far, so good. I’d highly, highly recommend the experience if you have any interest in shooting film, or trying something different – the best thing about it is that if you don’t like it, you can resell the camera for pretty much what you paid for it. If you do like it – I did the economics – I’d have to shoot 25,000 frames with my complete (two lenses, two backs, two finders, including film and chemical cost) 501C setup to equal the cost of a new H4D-40. And there’s no way I’d be shooting in such quantity with either camera – I have other workhorses for that. More thoughts to come soon. MT

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Comments

  1. Ming…if you ever want to go into limited production for a rail system to dup the 6×6 developed film, I am in…still trying to get my Hassy output into my D800…there is a real market for a clean set up…can you partner with RRS? Keep up the great work…Steve

    • I’d do it on my own if it happens. Still waiting for various fabrication quotes at the moment. I think it will happen, but the question is now around price – if it’s too high in small runs, or the large-run investment cost is too big, it may not be worth doing.

  2. John Lockwood says:

    Agree with PaulB above regarding the V-Series ergonomics. May I suggest a Quick Focus Handle for your lens? It allows the right hand to do TWO things; focus and wind film. The left hand also has TWO jobs; cradle the camera and trip the shutter. Perfect. Unless you’re going for a minimal kit, get a PME and see the world properly!

    Have fun!

    • I actually prefer to trip with the right hand and focus with the left – I think it’s too long spent using a DSLR. I have the PME and find myself using it more and more often…

  3. Ming you inspired me to go down the MF route with Film again. Initially sending off some Fuji PROVIA slide and processing my own ILFORD HP, chemicals my god im worried been a decade plus.
    That said I have been seeking to slow down with slow moves to MF lenses on D800’s.

    Alas my thoughts on the D800e for digitising the negative, left me thinking how you might be doing it.

    So I loved the 2 pieces of glass, using museum grade glass means minimal reflection and no colour cast from the glass, next a bench copy stand and lastly a cheap light box to sitting the glass on.

    These two last items are £80 UK, so I will wait to see what the first rolls out of my Bronica SQ-Ai (cheap mans V series) comes like and take it from there.

    I think many photographers want to get back to the feel of film, to have an original from perhaps a set of bracketed originals, rather than a million shots of something. Perhaps that is just me. But its not right for everything for sure, but im gonna try.

    • I would use fresh chemical. So far I’ve been going through about a bottle every two months, so it hasn’t had time to oxidize and go out if date yet.

      As for scanning – I have a custom rig I’m using to hold the D800E and macro lens perpendicular at the right distance and perfectly perpendicular to the film plane. It also has a diffuser for flash. Looking into producing a limited run if I can make the economics work…

      I’m starting to think the difference between shooting film and digital is that instead of wasting time immediately after the shot on reviewing, you’re up and looking for the next shot straight away. Maybe that’s what makes the experience more focused.

  4. One more thing has occurred to me — Ming you might want to give Diafine a try. It’s relatively temperature-insensitive, and relatively fine-grained. It is a compensating developer so you get an apparent EI push, so you can shoot slower film. You mix up the two baths A&B and reuse for quite a long while. Something to consider.

  5. Charlie Z says:

    Ming: There isn’t a bad HB lens, unless someone has dropped it. There are those that argue the “best”, but it is an academic exercise. Zeiss datasheets are trustworthy, too, and uniquely I think among manufacturers describe their intended use:
    CF List: http://lenses.zeiss.com/camera-lenses/carl-zeiss-camera-lenses/service/download_center/hasselblad_cf.html

    I agree with the gent above, there is something about 150 in MF and they are very inexpensive.

    The problem with the SWC is that you can sell it easily for what you paid for it at any time, but I doubt I ever will. The focal length matters little; if you hold it flat, you cannot easily guess the focal length. Cock it a bit for perspective ‘bend’. Once ‘set up’ for the light, simply frame, trip and crank.

    The 500 w/150, SWC and a meter reside in the excellent TT UD 60 (based on your recommendation, btw) for business travel when I get a free moment, and the DSLR stays at home for chasing the kids. The semi-cheesy (I’m on my second) Gossen Digisix is tiny and accurate and reads in EV, which matches HB method.

    All the best.

    • The Zeiss datasheets use measured data rather than theoretical data (as a lot of other manufacturers are guilty of). I’ll have to check out the 150, then. Can’t see myself carrying three lenses though – just too much weight, and the 50 and 150 carry a one-stop penalty over the 80. I keep looking at SWCs but feeling slightly ill at the prices, though I suppose I could sell my 50 CF FLE to partially cover it and go with just the SWC and something longer on the 501C. I’m still metering by eyeball, but I’ve now taken to carrying both the RX100 as digital notebook (and in case I run out of film or find something outside the 501C’s envelope) and a small Voigtlander VC-meter II.

  6. Ming, I recall reading a short bit on how you are digitalizing your medium format negatives. I’ve tried shooting medium format in Uruguay. I have a Rolleri and borrowed a Hasselblad. The challenge is that development is scarce down here, and printing or scanning practically unavailable. I need a way to bring back the images to the digital realm to share and also to print until I’m in a place where they are printing at a reasonable price and availability. Any tips on ow you are doing it? Thanks.

    • Still refining the process, but basically you need a stand that will hold your camera perfectly parallel-plane to the film, a lightbox/ flash and a macro lens (for flat field and low distortion copying) – that’s about it. Then you’ll need to do some messing around in the conversion process to get output that’s matched to your digital camera and film stock. I do plan to do an article on this once I’m 100% happy with the results. Fortunately, self-developing seems fairly easy.

  7. Ming,
    You wrote: “With film, the shooting experience is only half the story. To control the output completely, you also have to develop and scan your own (assuming your output is digital rather than print). I’m still refining my process for both, so I’ll refrain from commenting too much on that for now; suffice to say that the grain is a bit large for my taste, probably because tap water here is 27 C and far too warm for slow development. ”
    This is obvious, that when You develop in 27C instead the 20C, which is default for most of the modern film developers You get grainy negatives even in medium format. The higher temperature the bigger grain and higher contrast You get. This is what You can easily find in all old and modern photography books about black and white developing techniques. It also depends of the developer and the way you agitate the fluid. The scanning is more complex story – Your scanning technique is very smart, but it is always tricky how to get the proper tonality of the BW negative when You digitize them with camera and only experience in the processing can help get satysfiing results.

    Gregory

    • The problem is to maintain an average of 20C, you have to start out much colder. And then it becomes a bit of hit and miss trying to figure out what your average temperature is going to be, and how that affects development time…atmospheric temperature here is 25-28C generally. Still, I’m quite happy with the results so far – it seems that using old (i.e. pre-used) developer and constant agitation seems to yield better results in hot climates – the tonality is absolutely gorgeous.

      As for scanning – I’m still refining – but once I have a preset that works for each film I use, I stick to it and try to keep the ditization process as transparent and consistent as possible.

  8. Ming, your results are fabulous. I’ll forgive you for digitizing through a Bayer filter for a while :-).

    I’m a total Hassy bigot and am happy to see you shooting one. I have a pretty large collection of Hassy gear (shared a photo of it with you on Facebook). The 50 FLE is a good move. I might have gone for a 150 Sonnar rather than the makro, though. Not dissing the makro, but I think your portrait shots may work better with a Sonnar (and they come pretty cheap).

    I do recommend that you force yourself to shoot the camera “as Victor intended” foe a while. Soon it will feel completely natural and you will be more efficient. I agree that the 45 degree prisms are a double-edge sword: I find they upset the balance of the camera.

    I think it’s great that a high-profile photographer like you has picked up a V-series. Folks that say film is dead are only picking convenience. Film still has a lot to offer (I have tons of digital gear as well, though).

    In case your article has turned anyone onto the idea of a Hassy, I have a shameless plug for my series of YouTube vids (I hope you don’t mind):

    Looking forward to more of your great work with your Swedish beauty!

    Mike

    • I’ve heard mixed reports on the 150, but the 180 is supposed to be superb. The 120 I picked up with the intention of doing some experimentation with product and watches later on – along with the requisite extension tubes. The whole thing is a bit ungainly in use; optically superb, though. I actually like the 80 a lot even though FOV is close to my dreaded 50mm…

  9. You wrote: “I personally have no issue with meterless cameras … using a V-series Hasselblad is still very much an exercise in masochism; your finder is reversed … ”

    You might enjoy trying an uncoupled metering 45 degree prism which displays the image unreversed. I use a Hasselblad PME-51 Prism (c.1994-2000) 45° 2.5x digital metering finder 42296 with an attached Hasselblad 2x flip up prism viewfinder eyepiece magnifier 42459 on my Hasselblad 201F body [the 203FE body which I don't have is nicer and has built in metering but is more expensive]. (I chose the Hasselblad 200 series focal plane shutter bodies instead of the 500 series so that I could use faster shutter free F or FE Hasselblad lenses like the favorite Zeiss 110mm f/2 – which can also be used with stop-down aperture priority with a Fotodiox Pro 04HBNKP regular or Mirex 105 tilt-shift lens adapter on my Nikon full frame DSLR.)

    • I’ve got the PM-5 actually, but find it makes the camera a bit cumbersome and heavy in practice – the viewfinder is awesome though. Picked up the Voigtlander VC-Meter II, which I now have handy in a pocket instead of the RX100 (though its handy to have that too for digital grabs).

  10. I own a 501C myself and I haven’t used it for years. Having read this article I shall go and buy a few rolls of 120 and take it out for a spin again!

  11. Hi Ming, An interesting development back into film. The Hasselblad is a beautiful piece of mechanical engineering and will stand the test of time, unlike todays digital cameras which can be thrown away after a couple of years…However it was best on a tripod, usually in a studio and was little used for street photography. If you want to get the best handling out of it, I would suggest you use a left hand pistol grip and a 45degree prism.This makes it a somewhat heavy but handy portable camera. If you can get one, a SWC body and lens makes a great street camera. I now use a Mamiya 7 it´s lighter,quieter and had a nicer format. Look forward to hearing of your progress.

    • I love the square. Ideally the SWC would be a bit faster and a bit longer…some sort of 28mm equivalent. But I handled one recently and loved two things about it – the low vibration leaf shutter and the finder/ lens layout – you can see all of the focus and exposure settings on the lens barrel through the bottom of the finder!

      • Charlie Z says:

        Ming: I was going to recommend the SWC to you, but I see that it is already calling to you. It completes the HB system and is a very different shooting experience. It’s my favorite, by far. It is very versatile.

        Using the HB system becomes second nature, too. You could re-write your article to reflect my present trouble with adapting to digital cameras.

        • Haha, that’s an interesting (and reverse) point of view…the SWC would be even more interesting if it had interchangeable lenses. Now if only it weren’t so darn expensive.

  12. Another interesting article, thanks Ming.
    I keep myself wondering if I should try out film. Either complement my M9, stay small and reuse the lenses or medium format. One (mental) blocking point for me is the inconsistent tap water temperature here in Delhi. Now you wrote that you manage with 27 degrees, so it seems to work on the expense of grainier pictures, right?
    What are the little “gaps” in the corner of your black frames and on the left side?

    • Thanks Frank. Give it a shot, the nice thing is the equipment can be bought pretty cheap and resold for little loss if it doesn’t work out for you. I’ve found so far that with warmer water, used developer inexplicably seems to yield much smoother results than fresh – both totally and grain-wise.

      The little gaps are where I cropped the entire negative including the extra bleed area…

  13. Ming

    These are nice images for a return to medium format film, and you do seem to have a good sense on the square. Use this system to allow your mind to rest and stretch. Eye level photography can be over rated at times. So can working fast most of the time. But, you probably already know this.

    The layout of the Hasselblad may seem quirky until you get the proper grip, then things fall into place. Give the following a try. Place the camera body in the plam of your left hand. Place your left thumb on the front left corner of the camera body. Next adjust how the body sits in your hand until the pad of you left index finger is centered on the shutter release. The camera should now sit pretty comfortably in your left hand and you should be able to easily press the shutter release, with your remaining fingers curling around to the right side of the camera. This now frees your right hand to advance the film, focus, adjust exposure, and manipulate the dark slide and film back. This may feel different to start but it is much better than the needed gyration to handle a Rolliflex TLR.

    PaulB

    • I tried that for a while, but I think I’m too used to manipulating the lens with my left – so I tend to do the reverse and use my right index to shoot and cradle the camera, and left to adjust focus and exposure. Does require a bit of shuffling, though.

      • Yes, we do what we need to to make things work. More practice are your process will settle out. Just keep shooting with it.

        But don’t forget to buy a Hassleblad to Nikon adapter so you can play with the lenses that way also.

        PaulB

        • Got one! The lenses are good but fall off somewhat in the corners; not as good as the best of those designed for smaller formats. Also, the FL/aperture combinations aren’t terribly useful – 50/4 or 80/2.8, for instance…

  14. perhaps ur just looking for challenge. on the web images, seems like nothing that u can’t easily do with ur existing d800E. i did recall eric kim going thru somekind of similar phase whereby jumping from one stance to another and self contradicting in many ways . just my “narrow” opinion film is dead to this world, and some gurus like u are constantly moving to different challenges in order to fill in that need for the elusive andrenaline-photography joy.

    • Yes and no. There are limits to what is practical to present online – an 800px wide compressed JPEG isn’t going to do any file justice, and images are for illustration purposes rather than critical evaluation of tonality and image quality; that’s only possible with original files/ negatives, or better yet, large prints.

    • Steve Jones says:

      Funny you should say film is dead to the world Marc. I keep seeing articles about rolls of film discovered and developed that are showing us amazing images of a bygone era. I wonder how many digital images will be saved for future generations? Who knows? Everyone who compares film and digital does it on a technical level but a lot of the magic in the creation of an image is in the process. The doing of it, if you like. And as Ming has said that is rather different with film. If you could take a picture just by looking at something with your eyes, wouldn’t you want to do that? Film has a kind of purity about it like that. the light goes straight through the lens and on to the film. You aren’t looking at menus. You aren’t messing with pixels with in camera circuitry or doing any converting.
      For me digital somehow killed a lot of the enjoyment I got out of photography. I find myself trying to get that back by shooting film.

      • Actually…to display and share the images, digitization is still required. But I’m trying to keep the digital postprocessing to an absolute bare minimum – both for speed and to retain the tonal map I see.

      • Steve Jones says:

        By the way..just in case you haven’t seen it,
        there is a video on VIMEO. Just enter SILVER AND LIGHT into the search box on the Vimeo site and have a look at what Ian Ruhter is doing to make photographs. Quite inspirational and wonderful!
        Not digital and not film. Really makes you ask yourself what you are doing with your own photography.

        • Hmm…interesting. I’m not sure I like it – has a faux-instagram feel to it…but oddly reminiscent of a daguerrotype or a tintype. A distinctive style, for sure.

      • Stave

        I agree with you that digital is not as enjoyable as using film, and needing to use a computer all day for work does not help either. There is something about the process and the esthetic of looking at film. Not to mention all the extra gadgets you get to use are fun too.

        PaulB

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Many of you might remember my earlier serious revaluation of medium format photography (article here) – and the conclusion I reached from a couple of months ago, which was that whilst there was a slight but noticeable gain in image quality, it simply didn’t work for me – not only would the solution for my regular commercial subjects be rather clunky and impractical. For my personal work, it didn’t feel different enough from shooting FX digital to force me to think different; in fact, the slow AF and generally sluggish UI made me frustrated. You’ll probably also recall that I very briefly evaluated the CF-V 39 back for the V series and quickly abandoned it because somehow it just left me confused – “…somewhere between the combination of the multiple crop lines, the left0-right inversion and everything else that was different, my brain shut down. I just couldn’t see anything other than what should have fit into the square 6×6 frame…”. Logically, this shouldn’t have been the case, given that rangefinders have far more confusing framelines, and any DSLR has a maze of AF boxes and grids and the rest inside the finder. But it did, and I summarily ruled out shooting with any of the V-series cameras.  [...]

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