It’s no secret that Hasselblad has been in much financial trouble lately. And it’s also no secret that the company appears to have lost its direction following a large number of private equity CEOs, who frankly, appear not to understand the photography market at all. So it was with some surprise that I opened my email getting off the plane home from London to find that not only had they made an interesting product, but one that hinted at a return to common sense and a somewhat brighter future, too.
I don’t normally comment on product releases unless the product is exceptionally interesting, or moves the game in some way – the Pentax 645Z, for instance. Hasselblad’s announcement of the CFV-50c is one such product. I for one didn’t see it coming, especially after they announced the official death of the V system last year, citing lack of demand. I suspect that the real truth was lack of demand at the prices they were asking; from personal experience, the secondary market is healthy and very much alive.
The CFV series is perhaps the only digital camera solution that actually leaves you with a camera that feels like, well, a camera; most medium format digital feels clunky in operation with the camera-part (in the body) separated from the digital-part (in the back) or just like a large DSLR (Pentax, Leica) which is great for operational fluidity, but doesn’t do much for the experience – and consequently, we shoot much the same way we always have. I owned a CFV-39 up til fairly recently, having replaced it with the 645Z; other than the fairly limited shooting envelope, I’d always enjoyed the experience because it was the closest thing you could get to shooting a proper mechanical camera in the digital world. It was also an enormous discriminator: either your files looked awesome, or they were utterly irretrievable rubbish.
The CFV-50c uses the same Sony 33x44mm sensor as the H5D-50c, Phase IQ250, and Pentax 645Z. It sits at approximately the US$15-16,000 price point, which puts it at the lower end of the scale, but you must remember it does not include a camera*. Hasselblad claims 16-bit files, which is probably true – but I bet they only have 14 bits of information since the sensor itself doesn’t support 16 bit (and Phase One and Pentax claim 14 bit files). There’s also a supposedly redesigned UI and larger LCD along with live view, which is probably inherited from the H5D-50c. At least the design looks good. The cost of system acquisition, however, is pretty cheap – a body and 2.8/80 kit can be had for under $1000; lenses typically run $800-1000 a piece for good condition, late-model CF glass (excluding the exotics, of course). That means you could put together a workable 50-80-150 three lens kit for about $4,000, and a complete working digital medium format solution – with leaf shutters and 1/500s sync – for about $20,000 by the time you include a few accessories.
*Interstingly, Hasselblad’s official images all show the back with an older non-flagship 501CM and slightly worn CF 50/4 non-FLE – instead of a pristine flagship 503 and 40/4 IF FLE of previous digital products. Maybe there really were none left at the factory. Or maybe they’re trying to send us a different message.
There’s a catch, though. A number of them, in fact, and they’re fairly large. Firstly, the V system has no lenses wider than 38mm – which is 32mm in 35mm-e terms – which isn’t very wide. And you’ll need an SWC body for that, which generally doesn’t play that nice with digital backs (mine didn’t, at any rate, and other owners report the same). Next, there’s effectively no hope of any new lenses. The best lens for digital on the V system is probably either anything above 120mm, or the 4/40 IF FLE – which cost a fortune when new, and is even more expensive today. It’s also enormous and heavy – just for a 35mm-e FOV. You’re also limited to 1/500s, which is great for studio work, but not so good for available light – especially when there are no low ISO pull settings on the sensor below 100. This means very little depth of field control. Finally, you’re going to have to manual focus – and you’ll need a 90deg prism finder if you’re going to shoot portraits, because the sensor isn’t square (or a 33x33mm crop really isn’t that exciting). The V system was really designed to be shot square, and it shows.
I see the back as being useful for a studio shooter, except: you don’t need high ISO in a studio, and the older 37x49mm backs will serve you better because the lenses will be much closer to their real focal lengths. I could pretty much use them as intended without having to go ‘one length down’. Handheld, in the field, it’s going to be a bit of a mess unless you’ve got arms of steel and like telephotos. Remember that the maximum shutter speed for all V lenses (aside from the 200-series cameras using body FP shutters) is just 1/500s. You effectively only have one working handholdable shutter speed for 150mm – and that was on the much lower density CFV-39. Anything longer must have a tripod.
Hasselblad really needs this product to be a success – not just because they need the money, but to rebuild confidence in the brand from the photographer’s point of view. The last couple of years spent detouring into rebranding and overpricing consumer cameras without adding any value has done irreparable damage; this is what happens when you put a specialist brand in the hands of people who clearly understand nothing about their customers or the industry.
And here we come to the crux of the matter: it’s an interesting product, but also at the same time, not. On one hand, it shows us that somebody at Hasselblad is hopefully thinking straight again; I hope we’ve seen the last of the rebranded Sony rubbish. Or perhaps the only reason this exists is because of the rebranded Sony rubbish. I suspect a lot of potential buyers are going to be put off by the rather steep price, which means the product will never be anything more than a niche. Unfortunately, the sensor is really too small to use for technical camera applications, which is again a shame because it’s live view capable and quite a bit cheaper than the only other alternative for this – the Phase One IQ250. I’ve long wanted to use the FlexBody, but never got around the nervousness associated with swapping out the digital back for a focusing screen – especially in less than ideal weather conditions. And we haven’t even talked about the whole shimming/ planarity issue. Honestly, I really, really hope they sell a boatload of these so that it’s clear there’s still demand for the V system, and preferably with a full 6×6 sensor. Perhaps it’ll be their rebirth. I know I’d be first in line for one of these, cost be damned – that’s why we have two kidneys. MT
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