There are two cameras that are synonymous with 6×6 medium format film: the Rolleiflex TLR, and the Hasselblad V series. (I may well do a piece on the former in the future). Today’s subject, however, is one of the final incarnations of the V line – the 501CM. I suppose you could think of it as the distilled essence of the V series – unlike the 503s, it lacks TTL flash metering; unlike the 200-series, it still relies on a lens-based leaf shutter and remains completely mechanical. But at the same time, the camera has interchangeable focusing screens and the gliding mirror geometry of the 503CW to prevent vignetting with longer lenses. (I have a brief intro to the Hasselblad V series here.) It’s my pick of the bunch because a) I have no intention of using it with TTL flash, and b) I’d rather not have to rely on electronics in any way – there are modern digitals for that…
Continuing the car analogy, I suppose one could think of the V series as being like the Porsche 911 – frequently changed in small but meaningful ways, but always instantly identifiable as being of the same lineage; the 501CM is therefore the stripped-down lightweight version with everything you need and nothing more – a 911GT3 with manual transmission and rollcage; or perhaps that’s the black version. It’s a serious camera for serious photography: you know this from the moment you pick it up because it feels solid and all-of-a-piece. Don’t let the chrome fool you into thinking otherwise. Both black and chrome versions are seriously beautiful cameras; I have a 501C and 501CM; the former is black with grey griptac, and the latter is original chrome/black – there’s an elegance about the chrome/black that reminds me of the trim details of classic Continental cars from the late 60’s.
I’m going to be very forthright here: these are not intuitive cameras to shoot at all. The first time you pick one up, it’ll probably confuse you: challenge number one is merely figuring out how to hold it. The manual states that you’re supposed to use your left hand to cradle body and lens, with your left index finger on the shutter release. The right hand operates the lens rings and winding crank. I find that this position is counterintuitive to an SLR user because the right hand normally holds/ winds/ shoots, and the left hand operates the lens; for the V series, if you’re not careful when using your left hand, your thumb can also accidentally depress the lens release – something that should definitely not be followed by turning the lens, because it will dismount! I prefer to cradle body and lens in my left hand, using my left hand for adjustments and my right hand to shoot and wind; the only problem here is that the ridges on aperture and shutter rings are positioned for use with the right hand, and can require a bit of fumbling to find the first time.
It’s worth taking a moment to mention loading, too: you can load backs independently of cameras (there’s a dark slide you have to remember to remove before shooting – the camera will not shoot with it in place, nor can you remove the back without inserting it first); you can interchange backs mid-roll; and you can even add digital backs – to any V-series Hasselblad that can take an A-magazine. Film must be loaded in the right direction and snaked through the rollers, then under the pressure plate tab (close the back opening key), onto the opposite spool, caught, then wound til ‘START’ shows on the roll. You’ve got to wind some films a bit further along or risk losing part of the first frame; Acros with its narrow spools and late start point is a bit notorious for this. Then you open the opening key, load the back, close the key, and wind until the frame count hits ‘1’. Let’s just say you won’t be doing this in a hurry, though it can be done in under a minute with some practice.
That’s just handling: we now come to the left-right inversion of the waist level finder (with folding hood), and the fact that the cameras have no meter unless you buy one of the meter prisms (which also fixes the inversion problem, but unfortunately also looks very, very ugly; it spoils the lines of the camera – especially the chrome ones, because the finders are black plastic). Assuming you can get used to that, and the pop-up magnifier required for critical focusing, then you’ll probably get over the hump and start to find the camera becomes very transparent in use. Since there are only three controls (aperture/ shutter/ focus) and two of them coupled via a button on later lenses in a sort of program mode (aperture/ shutter), there isn’t much to set; the viewfinder is truly enormous and bright, making composition and focusing a breeze – especially with one of the prism finders – and simply puts everything else I’ve used to shame. A full frame DSLR will look like a dark cave in comparison, and a consumer APS-C DSLR like trying to peer through a drinking straw. It’s very, very difficult to go back.
Figure out a grip that’s natural to you; train your eye to work as a meter (or pick up one of those little handy Voigtlander VC-Meter IIs) and suddenly you’re in a rhythm: compose, focus, hit the shutter, ‘whump’, wind; repeat. The solid, low-pitched ‘thump!’ of the mirror and secondary curtains is oddly reassuing in an addictive sort of way. There’s less vibration than you might think; partially because of good damping, partially because you’re not pushing down on the shutter but backwards, and partially because you can ease it quite smoothly. There’s also mirror lockup; use this and you hear no more than the very quiet ‘tic!’ of the leaf shutter. Of course you can’t frame precisely, since it is an SLR after all…
I think one of the high points of the camera has to be the lenses: with the exception of one Schneider zoom, all of the V mount lenses are Carl Zeiss optics, made in Germany, with T* coatings. They render in a very three-dimensional way with wonderful microcontrast and saturation; there’s a tonal richness present on film or digital that shows these lenses were the best in the day – and can still very much play at the top of the game now; hence the proliferation of adaptors (V to H, V to Leica S) even on newer cameras. Interestingly, the lenses also hold up very well on even high density digital sensors – I’ve tested most of mine on my D800E with an adaptor and was very surprised by the results, which were actually very consistent with the modern ZF.2 series in both resolution and overall rendering style.
Given the frequency with which I post images shot with my 501/501CM, you’ve all probably figured out by now that I’m extremely fond of these cameras; I find them creatively challenging, and the results hugely rewarding; in fact, almost all of my personal photography is done with a V series these days. They make me stop and think when I shoot – as a result, my keeper rate is astronomically high compared to digital – about 80-90% vs 2-3% – and of course black and white film delivers tonality that’s unmatched by digital, of course providing it’s properly developed. I will be honest: they aren’t for everybody; however, it’s very, very easy to get hooked on the enormous negatives that come out of it…MT
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