Earlier in the year, many of you saw me post the image of the Hasselblad 501CM hanging off a tripod at 90 degrees near the surf line. Several asked why on earth would I need to turn a square format camera sideways; apart from the obvious answer of ‘to shoot vertically!’ there’s definitely more than meets the eye. Firstly, Hasselblad did actually produce an A16 645 format magazine for the V-series bodies; they’re relatively rare nowadays and must obviously be used with the correct focusing screen to ensure accurate composition. In addition to being better suited to the typical print rectangles, you also get 33% more images per roll of 120 (16 instead of 12, as the name suggests). I was using something a little more exotic; though like the A16, it isn’t rotatable and so requires you to turn the camera through 90 to shoot verticals. It’s not very convenient, to say the least.
I’ve dallied with medium format digital on several occasions – pairing the Leica S2 off against the D800E here, for instance; taking the Hasselblad H4D-40 for a trial here. Neither of those cameras did it for me: the Leica had perhaps the best lenses I’ve ever seen, though the whole shooting experience was just far too similar to a large-ish 35mm DSLR to make me shoot and see differently. And there wasn’t that much gain over the D800E, either. The H4D-40 felt clunky, slow, a little loose, and quite frankly, enormous. I wasn’t able to shoot fluidly with it at all.
Shortly after getting my first V-series camera – a 501C – I borrowed the CFV-39 digital back from the regional distributors, Shriro, to take for a test run. In short: I hated it. So how come I landed up buying the very same back six months later? Simple: turns out the first body didn’t play nice with the back; not only did it have triggering issues, but it also had mirror alignment issues that meant that what was passably sharp on film thanks to the thickness of the emulsion was just out by enough on the digital back to cause noticeable back focusing issues. I thought it was the back, since the film results were acceptable*.
*I’ve since dismantled and re-aligned the mirror of that camera, and both film and digital results are significantly better. The higher the resolution, the more critical focusing precision becomes – as no doubt many D800/D800E users are now aware.
The second time I demoed the CFV-39 was back at the distributors’ offices; they were having a demo/ loan gear clearance after the official discontinuation of the V series. I went in to pick up some spare A12 magazines, perhaps a meter prism and bellows. The latter two items weren’t available, but an ex-demo H4D-50 and the same CFV-39 digital back was also in the pot: out of masochistic curiosity, I tried both the H4D and CFV again – this time with a different (and newer) 501CM body very generously gifted to me by one of my readers. I shot tethered and with the camera on my heavy Gitzo 5-series systematic tripod just to rule out any possible stability issues.
Let’s just say the difference was night and day: while the H4D-50 still wasn’t doing it for me from a handling point of view, the CFV was now on song. It’s relatively fat 6+ micron pixels were delivering wonderful levels of detail and acuity, and color was perhaps the most accurate I’ve ever seen straight out of camera. My credit card made an appearance, I took the customary anti-fraud phone call from the bank (“Did you just spend X at X?”) and the back followed me home. It might not have that much more raw resolution than the D800E, but the pixel acuity is still a notch up, I feel – to say nothing of color reproduction. Sadly though, the sensor was not full frame 6×6 – and aside from the 1999 Dicomed Bigshot series, there have not been any 6×6 sensors since – it’s a 1.1x 645 with 1.5x 6×6 crop – if that sounds confusing, it is. Basically, what we have is a 49x37mm sensor with 39 MP; there’s a special etched focusing screen you need to use in order to get accurate framing. You can shoot the back in either 37x37mm or 37x49mm modes; 37x37mm mode is a 1.5x square. In 37x37mm mode, you basically have a FX 35mm DSLR with 50% more at the top**. I don’t actually think it makes any sense to shoot in 37x37mm mode unless you’re really running out of card space; you might as well compose with the square lines, shoot the full area, then crop in post. You never know when the extra might come in handy – especially for commercial work.
**Not strictly a like-to-like comparison; if you cropped square from a FX 35mm camera, you’d be using a 24x24mm capture area.
The relationship is theoretically a bit like DX to FX, but somehow, just like DX and FX, the lenses don’t quite render the way you’d expect them to. The 80mm normal I’d become used to (and which feels extremely natural on a 6×6) was now a bit too long for both the 645 frame and the 1.5x 6×6 frame; 50mm works well to match the field of view, but you lose that slight telephoto compression from the 80mm that’s part of medium format’s ‘normal angle of view’ signature. It took me some time to figure out my focal lengths again, after having gotten used to a 50-80-150mm combination on 6×6 film to replicate my preferred 28-50-90mm fields of view (in 35mm equivalent). For 645, I find that the 150 and 120 still work great; the 50 is too much like 35mm on FX 35mm format for my liking, so I only ever shoot it square; the 80mm is slightly too long for normal, and becomes a short telephoto when used square. Confused yet? So am I. I think I need a 40mm to restore my wide field, and I’ll use that along with the 150mm and pretty much leave it at that for digital. I’m sure familiarity will come in time and with more use, though.
I have to admit that I haven’t really shot with the CFV as much as I’d like to; partially because of existing work commitments, jobs that aren’t really suitable for medium format (mainly watches) and the review queue backing up – in fact, most of the time when I do have time to shoot, it’s with cameras that are for review. (It’s a little frustrating at times because I’d really like to use my own gear.) I have tried shooting some street with the CFV; it’s not as bad as you’d think other than when it comes to getting a vertical, then people really look at you strangely. Otherwise, the experience is actually very much like shooting with the film V-series – so long as you remember the crop factor, and get your focal lengths right.
That brings us full circle: the camera was sideways because it was one of the few opportunities i had to try out the back properly; instead of going on holiday like a normal person, I packed a full medium format digital kit and proceeded to do some experimentation. If I didn’t, then there’s no way I’d be confident enough to use the gear on a future job – just too many unknowns. (It’s also just as well I did, because the back had an error with it’s DSP board and had to go back to Sweden for an interlude and a new board; it was repaired under warranty and came back about a month ago.) I wouldn’t have for instance found that the same battery seems to go forever; you can get hundreds and hundreds of images out of it before charging; nor would I have found that mirror lockup makes a significant difference, even at the maximum 1/500s shutter speed, and with pretty much every focal length. It doesn’t do anything above base ISO well, and you can’t really use it handheld unless shooting with at least 1/3x the focal length – the pixel density per degree AOV and huge mirror slap make it even more prone to camera shake than the D800E. It’s also got incredible native dynamic range, but very little latitude for correction or tolerance for error; this is the kind of camera that requires shot discipline of a whole different level to conventional DSLR gear.
I also wouldn’t have a couple of really nice 30″ prints from that vacation now, either; it’s very important to note that there’s really no way you can appreciate the output in a web jpeg; even full-screen on a good 27″ monitor still pales in comparison to a good print (and here’s why). Perhaps I’ll throw these into a future print run.
During the brief period I had 903 SWC in my possession, I tried the CFV on that camera too; it didn’t work that well simply because the rear element of the Biogon is too close to the sensor, and without microlenses or telecentricity, corner results were quite poor. Too bad, as it actually made for quite an interesting street photography camera – a 28mm-equivalent, hyperfocal/ zone focus medium format compact. In hindsight, I have to admit that purchasing the CFV-39 was much more of a case of ‘I want’ than ‘I need’ – probably a good thing it wasn’t the CFV-50 – but then again, isn’t that so much of photography for most of us anyway? MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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