All of Hasselblad’s SWC (originally ‘Supreme Wide Angle, then Super Wide Angle, then abbreviated from ‘Super Wide Camera’) cameras are slightly odd beasts: they’re tiny for medium format, but large for anything else; they look very much like stunted miniature versions of the regular V series bodies. It’s as though somebody chopped the middle section out, taking the winding crank and waist-level finder out along with it. In place, the camera has grown a large megaphone-like viewfinder, and the shutter release has migrated to the top of the body.
The SWC is all about the lens – a 4.5/38 Zeiss Biogon, symmetric, and supposedly of great optical perfection; there were only two changes throughout the entire long life of the optic – one to add T* coating, and the other in the 90s to change an element or two from lead-arsenic glass to something a bit less toxic. It’s roughly equivalent to a 21mm diagonal on 35mm. In my mind, the camera to have is the 903: the earlier cameras have a finder that has a side prism to reflect a bubble level on top of the camera body into the finder; it catches dust easily and quickly starts to annoy. Cameras before the SWC/M had a short tripod foot and viewfinder foot that a) didn’t allow for certain backs, notably digital; and b) caused parts of the finder to be occluded by the lens. There was then a transition period where the shutter unit changed, and due to tight tolerances inside the lens, some late SWC/Ms had issues where one internal element was scratched by one of the shutter blades; this was fixed with the 903. Somewhere between SWC/M and 903, a new finder was introduced that integrated the bubble level into the top. I believe the later 903 and all 905 finders added markings for a 645 crop, which helps when using a digital back.
If you thought handling of the V series took some getting used to, the SWCs are even worse – due to their odd shape and eye-level finder, it’s not exactly simple to figure out how one should hold them; I use my index finger on the shutter release, but find it rather uncomfortable because it’s both quite stiff and has a hard ridge that becomes painful after a while; a soft release is a must. Oddly, despite having no mirror to recoil and only a leaf shutter in the lens, the break point for the shutter is quite hard, and the shutter ‘snaps’ – it’s higher in pitch and louder than the V series lenses, and still draws attention. The act of releasing the shutter isn’t low-vibration, either – it’s difficult to be smooth and apply a lot of force to something that suddenly trips and has no resistance.
Operation of the rest of the camera – focus/aperture/shutter rings, back loading etc – are the same as the regular V series (and it also takes all of the same backs the V series takes) – I covered this in the previous instalment in the series here. There’s one important catch, though: this is a scale focus-ONLY camera. Since there’s no TTL viewing or rangefinder, you have to guess (or measure) the distance from the film plane to your subject, and set it on the lens.
This brings me to the viewfinder: I love it and hate it in equal parts. The design itself is very clever. Firstly, there’s a bubble level built into the top and an internal mirror so you can always see whether you’re level or not (providing you’re holding the camera horizontally, of course); next we have a small convex element in the front portion of the finder glass that allows you to see all of the exposure and focus settings on the lens without having to take your eye away from the finder – even the regular V series doesn’t offer this! There’s also a very secure locking foot that prevents the finder from coming off, and needless to say, like the rest of the camera, it’s very well made. However, that’s where the good news ends: the finder is almost completely useless for composing with. Not only is there a huge amount of (understandable) distortion, but it’s almost impossible to determine exactly what you’re framing for – the line markings show far less than the film captures, but the outside shows too much; and of course neither are anywhere near accurate when you put a 1.1x 645 digital back on the camera. There has to be a better finder solution…either that, or you really need to start seeing the world in 21mm squares.
It’s worth noting that although the SWCs are capable of accepting the CFV digital backs, it’s not recommended by Hasselblad. The reason for this is a strong cyan-magenta shift across the image caused by the symmetric design of the lens; it’s a similar effect to what one sees in an uncorrected wide lens used on a digital M Leica. In practice, it’s correctable in postprocessing, but not at all easy. Furthermore, you also need to use an L-bracket to hold the battery so it clears the tripod foot; I suppose one could either remove it entirely or saw the back portion off, but this is not recommended for resale value!
On film, I found that the quality of the results very much lived up to the hype: this is one seriously impressive lens in every way – sharpness, microcontrast, resolution, color rendition and saturation – none can be bettered. However, on digital (now somewhere between 25 and 28mm equivalent), it loses quite a bit of its shine: between the color casts, impossibility of framing, sensitivity to camera shake (1/30s handheld was fine on film, 1/60s frequently showed motion blur on digital) and edge softness, you’re better off with then 40/4 CF FLE on a regular V body instead.
I felt that this was very much a love-it-or-hate-it camera; this has more to do with the deployment of the camera than anything else. For me, the main part of the problem was being unable to compose accurately; the best I could do was take a shot, review it on the CFV’s (very poor) LCD, and then rinse and repeat; this obviously doesn’t work for temporally-sensitive subjects like street photography and was a bigger annoyance than the color casts. Compounding this was the difficulty in focusing it accurately – the margin for focus error on a digital sensor is essentially zero, since the focal plane is really a plane – unlike film, whose emulsion has some thickness to it and is therefore a bit more forgiving of errors.
When shot on film, it was consistently wider than expected and suggested by the viewfinder, leaving me with a lot of extra empty space; I suppose the trick is to frame critical elements inside the marked square, then expect a bit of overrun. Try as I might, I could never help shake the feeling that my photography with this camera was a bit like playing the lottery: you’d either get something unusable, or something extremely unusual and special, but completely unexpected. That said, it’s worth concluding with the most important fact: it was a lot of fun to shoot with. MT
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