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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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