Medium format digital in the field

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There are quite a number of medium format digital cameras available today; the vast majority are designed to handle like oversize DSLRs, and in some cases, there’s very little difference size- and control-wise between these cameras – take the Leica S, for instance. This makes them both familiar and easy to use, but also somewhat liable to catch out the unweary. My digital field work with medium format is done with a Hasselblad CFV-39, mounted on a 501CM body. The method of operation constantly reminds you that this is most certainly not another DSLR; not least because you have to wind the camera after every shot to recock the shutter and lower the mirror! The intention of this article is to look at the practicalities – or impracticalities – of using medium format digital in the field or while travelling as a DSLR replacement, and more importantly, in a way that lets you actually see enough of a difference to justify it in the first place.

Myth number one: it’s expensive.
It isn’t. Second hand digital backs are falling in price; I suspect we’re about to see another drop – especially on the current generation – once the new CMOS censored cameras hit the market in force; already Phase One, Hasselblad and Pentax have announced cameras around the Sony 50MP chip. I think there will still remain some die-hard CCD fans who won’t switch to CMOS, however – there are a number of reasons to still favour a CCD for some applications. Using a camera that’s one or two generations behind is not going to yield poor image quality; remember that these were the state of the art commercial tools at their release, and frankly, the bar hasn’t moved all that much in this market. Limited sales and limited R&D budgets have seen to that. So long as you are conscious of the limitations of the large CCDs, you can still produce excellent results.

Myth number two: you can’t use the in the dark.
This is partially true: don’t expect to use your Phase One as a reportage camera; firstly, you’re already at least a stop or two down on the lens front compared to a DSLR with f1.4 primes; there’s no stabilisation on any medium format camera, and finally, your sensor realistically tops out at ISO 400, perhaps ISO 800 at a push with some noise reduction. Honestly: the CFV-39 at ISO 800 looks like the D800E at ISO 6400. That says two things: just how clean the D800E is, and how large its shooting envelope; but also that you’re not constrained to ISO 50 on the digital back.

Myth number three: they’re power hungry.
If you’re powering a whole camera off it, perhaps; I don’t have experience with the Phase One cameras, but I do know that the H series ‘Blads can manage at least 400-500 shots per charge; the Leica S is even more – easily a thousand – and even the CFV-39 and -50 will manage ~700-800. Bear in mind that you’re not going to be shooting one of these things like a D4 – in single shot mode, with carefully considered setup and framing, you may realistically shoot a couple of hundred images a day at most.

My choice of medium format digital has perhaps the most restrictions of any of its kind:

  1. Manual focus only.
  2. The body is designed for waist level work, since the concept of portrait orientation doesn’t exist for a 6×6 square frame. This has viewing and ergonomic consequences, that can only be solved with a right-angle finder – the HC-3 or HC-4 – and a jury-rigged hand grip made from an L bracket (that’s also useful for mounting the camera to a tripod).
  3. You have to wind it between shots
  4. The leaf shutter may be silent and low vibration, but the enormous mirror and auxiliary curtains are most certainly not: remember that this camera, its optics, its viewfinder system, and all of the moving parts were designed for a 6×6 frame – at most, the digital backs use a 1.1x crop of 645. That’s a lot of extra moving mass.
  5. The camera body is fully mechanical, and thus has no battery. Interface between the body and back is by means of the little pin that normally advances the film counter; it tells the back to wake up and fire the sensor, which is powered on for a preset duration, during which time the exposure happens. Surprisingly, there is almost zero noticeable lag. In any case, it requires winding to recock between each image – which means single shot only.
  6. The back was released in 2009, with electronics that I think date back even earlier. Certainly the LCD, graphics and other UI elements feel like it; it’s not slow, but it’s not really snappy, either. The LCD is only useful for a) confirming that the camera has taken a shot, and b) viewing the histogram. It is not useful for anything else, and unlike modern DSLRs, cannot be used for doing a first cut evaluation of images.
  7. There’s no meter: it’s not only very, very intolerant to underexposure and subsequent recovery, but also moderately intolerant to overexposure. Use an external spot meter, recalibrate your eyeballs for higher accuracy, or be prepared for iterations using the histogram.

You may be wondering why I chose it. One answer is simple: because the process of operating it most closely matches the experience of shooting film, whose output I like very much; the only difference is that you are composing for 645 and not 6×6, so portrait orientation or a crop factor comes into play. Nevertheless, the experience feels very, very similar and familiar – except you do have instant gratification – though admittedly I almost always shoot it with the LCD off, and treat the back like it’s loaded with film – very unforgiving slide film, because one of the properties of a CCD is that dynamic range is great – but only if you get the exposure right at the time of capture. Pushing and pulling a CCD file is not generally a good idea because the shadows aren’t anywhere near as clean, nor are the highlight transitions smooth and easily recoverable.

Note grip and eye-level prism; in this configuration, the camera is bulky but handles like a DSLR – albeit one that you have to wind and whose shutter button you have to trigger with your right fourth finger.

Many things that need workarounds, the biggest one of which is stability. The CFV-39 requires 1/2x at the bare minimum, or 1/3x preferably – we’re not talking 1/2x the 35mm equivalent, we’re taking 1/2x the actual focal length to be used handheld. That means 1/125s minimum for the 80mm, and preferably 1/250s+ to ensure a sharp image – assuming of course you focused it on the money to begin with. There’s another problem: the leaf shutters max out at 1/500s, which means you don’t really have a lot of latitude. Using the prism finder, jury-rigging a handgrip from an L-bracket and bracing the camera against your face might buy you one more stop – down to 1/60s – but you will only have a sharp exposure perhaps one third of the time, and that’s a bit too uncertain for me. You can of course control exposure with ISO, NDs and the aperture ring; however there are times when you need to go slower; much slower. ISO 400 is the point at which I set the threshold for acceptable image quality; anything higher will still be usable, but not really up to what you’d expect for medium format. As you can see – f2.8 (the fastest lens for this system), 1/125s and ISO 400 is really not very dark at all.

At this point, we have to revert to using a tripod; while we’re at it, a cable release and locking up the mirror is a must. Fortunately, this is very easy – there’s a switch under the winding crank that takes care of it, making it very much second nature to operate. During my last trip to Tokyo, I carried one with me all the time – a very lightweight Gitzo GT1542 Traveller with an Arca-Swiss P0 mono ball head, made slightly lighter and more rigid by the removal of the centre column. I personally find tripod bags very inconvenient, so it was clipped into a belt holster and carried much like a sword of old. The weight was noticeable after a while, but not too bad; more inconvenient was me inadvertently whacking the tripod against things. I’d much rather have a between-the-shoulder-blades quiver, but I can’t seem to find one. The tripod worked well, with one caveat: it seems that Tokyo has a lot of areas that are actually structures built over manmade underground caverns, which means that street level is really the surface of a bridge. And cars driving over that bridge will cause vibrations in the surface, which are beyond the scope of the tripod’s ability to damp – we’re talking about oscillations you can feel through the soles of your shoes. Needless to say, there’s a very visible effect on image quality, and especially for long exposures. The only solution is to carefully time your shots between traffic. In crowded areas, not blocking thoroughfares and avoiding getting kicked are also a bit of a challenge.


I didn’t find power or storage to be an issue – despite the files being anywhere up to 70MB each. One 32GB card saw me through the entire week-long trip without deleting anything, and I though I carried three batteries – I always had one full one left at the end of the day, and sometimes a bit more.

What the shooting experience does force you to do is be very disciplined: there is nothing stopping you from carrying a lot of lenses (they actually aren’t that much bigger or heavier than 35mm FF lenses because the apertures are fairly modest), other than backache; however, I personally got the best results when I carried just one, or at most, two – an 80mm and a 150mm. I felt far less encumbered, for a start. Beyond that, the 80mm was my staple simply because it extended my shooting envelope by two stops – firstly, being f2.8 instead of f4, and secondly, being a shorter focal length allowing for slower shutter speeds before hand shake became apparent.

One thing I haven’t touched on is focusing, and alignment. We’ve got a few moving parts here: firstly, there’s mirror alignment to ensure that your flange-to-focusing screen distance is exactly the same as the flange-to-sensor distance; it isn’t always the case, especially on older bodies whose mount surfaces may well have worn down over the years. It is imperative to calibrate the mirror zero to ensure that what you see in the finder is exactly what you get on your sensor; this is a slow process that requires a little manual dexterity and a lot of patience.Having the correct focusing screen and viewfinder are very important too: the 45 degree prisms are useless for this task, in my opinion. Not only are they disorienting and impossible to use in the portrait orientation, they also don’t offer enough magnification.

Fortunately, the digital backs are supplied with a standard focusing screen that also has markings delineating the sensor area, and a square crop within that – this screen has an excellent matte, crispy micro prisms and a split image rangefinder in the centre. I find that together with the HC-4 prism, I have more than enough magnification and brightness to focus consistently: firstly, the combination gives 100% field coverage and 100% magnification with the 80mm lens; you can shoot with both eyes open. Secondly, eye relief is terrible because of the magnification, but it has an enormous +/-5 diopter adjustment range – enough even for my extreme myopia. As an added bonus, there’s the stability increase afforded by bracing the camera against your face when shooting it handheld. Even so, you have to remember that not only is depth of field razor thin, but the resolving power of the sensor in pixels per degree FOV is even higher than a D800E; combine this with the significantly higher mirror slap, and you’ve got a camera that’s extremely demanding to shoot handheld. My handheld hit rate is very, very low with this camera: much lower than film, lower than normal digital, and frankly, pretty abysmal. It’s not a compositional thing: it’s an image quality one; there’s no point in keeping a slightly motion-blurred or camera-shaken image, simply because I might as well have used something else to capture it with. The additional magic of medium format is gone. (On a tripod, this is a different story, of course – my hit rate is nearly 100%.)

However, the biggest reason why I put up with all of these foibles is a combination of rendering style, colour and ‘bite’: the files are notionally 16 bit, which means a significantly wider gamut; the sensor has no anti-aliasing filter, either. The ability to discriminate between very close colours also translates into an ability to resolve higher-frequency and lower-contrast structures, which contributes to the impression of acuity and resolving power. Coupled with the nonlinear tonal response of CCDs – which coincidentally matches the impressions of human vision reasonably well – we’re left with a camera that produces extremely natural looking files; when you get everything right, almost zero post processing is required – it sees and replicates what you see; nothing more, nothing less. It is a different kind of transparency to the Otus/D800E combination: that still requires some tonal work for accuracy. The Hasselblad/CFV combination does not. By the same token, mess up the shot and you will not be shown any mercy: there is almost no latitude for repair afterwards. This level of clarity means that it’s much easier to convey the feeling of being there, or the illusion of reality, of course resulting in stronger images. MT

This set on flickr was shot entirely with the CFV-39.


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  1. Ming, when shooting your 150/4 CF on a tripod with MLU, what is the slowest shutter speed you can use before vibration becomes an issue, oh yeah and to verify in your opinion the 50/4 FLE does nor work well correct or it’s ok but you don’t like the FOV/DOF

    • Depends very much on your tripod and head. On the Gitzo 5/ RRS, no issue at any speed. The 50/4 FLE doesn’t have very strong edges til f8 or so, which I suspect is to do with non-telecentricity and the micro lens arrangement (i.e. none) on the CFV 39 back – I suspect it’d be a lot better on the newer backs because they do have micro lenses.

  2. Ming,
    Thinking about picking up a 503CW and a CVF 39 back, used of course. I am basically going to be using it on a tripod, would you still recommend the HC-4 prism or something else. I have no plans of hand holding.
    Which 80mm and 150mm lenses do you recommend? There seems to be many variants of them.

  3. Hello Ming… I’m really interested in your experience with the CFV-39. I have been a long time Hasselblad V shooter (500CM) and have started to think about picking it up again with digital back. The new CFV-50 is ideal, but is beyond my budget for such a thing. Like you, I have a specific way and process for using the 500CM. A few years back I used a Nikon DSLR with CCD sensor, and it was without question, my favorite ‘look’ for a digital file to date. It had a richer and more analogue output. I’m well aware of the reasons why the industry has mostly gone CMOS since then and I’m also aware of the limitations of using CCD in terms of the need for intelligent metering or judgment of the scene being shot. Also, limitations in high(er) ISO shooting. The preponderance of work I used my 500 for is daylight shooting. With my waist level finder, 80mm lens and 100 ISO Kodak Portra, I would strive to get a handheld 125th shutter speed (sometimes 60th) and all would be good. I meter the scene with a Pentax spot meter and expose so as to satisfy the desired look and density range for my print. With that said, the CFV-39 from the used market may fit the bill for the kind of landscape work I’ve described above. The only catch is, to capture the same angle of view and breadth as I did with my 80mm f2.8 (square), I would have to switch to my 50mm f4 to get about the same field of view in square format (which is the only way I use the camera). The 50 is much bulkier and I lose a stop in the transition. That ‘normal’ lens field of view is very important to me in my work. How do you think this new set up would work for me? My 50 is a C, T* lens. How do you think the 50 would behave with the CCD sensor? Any other thoughts are welcome… thanks, Mike

    • I had the 50 CF FLE. Short answer…it just doesn’t render or handle the same 😦

      • Thanks. Doesn’t render or handle the same as what?… the same 50 on film?… or are comparing it to the 80 on CCD?

        • Well, a 50mm for ‘normal’ FOV doesn’t have the same DOF properties as an 80mm, for starters. And you either crop to 37x37mm, or figure out how to deal with the odd aspect ratio and shooting vertical with a body that wasn’t designed for it.

          • So your only “rendering” and “handling” objection to the 50 is that it has less DOF than the 80? Well… that goes without saying! Any other objections to the 50 on the CFV-39 CCD sensor?

            BTW: I would shoot 37X37, so there is no issue with the handling of the camera. It would be classic waist level viewing.

            • ” the 50 is that it has less DOF than the 80″… more DOF, that is.

            • Weight and balance. I’m very at home with the 80 and a film back, much less so with the 50/CFV.

            • Hi Michael,

              Hope you don’t mind me chiming in here.

              A few thoughts.

              If you are insistent on shooting square format, and cost is of concern to you, may well be advised to look for a used CFV-16. The sensor is natively square and the cost to entry is very low ( relatively speaking ). The downside with this option are twofold; first you get “only” 16 Mpx to work with and secondly you MUST ensure that you purchase the later variant ( updated sensor glass cover )).

              Digital MF square. When you shoot a V series in square format, really, in my ( no doubt inexperienced ) humble opinion, you may as well use a standard 35mm cam coz the amount of imaging real estate that you get, at 37 x 37mm, isn’t significantly bigger. Of course, on the upside is the fact that shooting square means you are using only the central sweet spot of the lens.

              CFV-39. If you have been used to shooting MF film you may have become accustomed to the large real estate. So having a sensor that is twice the size of 35mm and then throwing half of it away to shoot square might seem like a waste. You may be better off just accepting the native rectangle 645 dimension of the CFV-39 sensor ( you can still use a WLF and avoid shooting verticals; whilst I know Ming disagrees with me for this, I simply refuse to shoot vertical because like he says, the body wasn’t designed for that ( and I be bothered with any awkward faffing around)).

              As an aside, I know Ming, a few other readers and I have all already come to terms with living life with just one kidney ( and perhaps no kidneys ) as the cost for a digital SQUARE sensor ( at least 49 x 49mm )! 🙂 and friendship will go out of the window in the race to one first ( it will be war! Ha ha ha ) 🙂

  4. Thanks. You just saved me $8000 or so. I have a V system with three lenses and I seriously considered getting a digital back for it. Your thorough explanation of the benefits and disadvantages has convinced me that I should not go that route. I also have a fairly complete Leica film system with several lenses and I also considered as an alternative to get an ME or M240 to make better use of it. That will be about $8000 less than the CFV or similar for the ‘blad.

    • I’d actually look at the new 645Z seriously and a V-645 adaptor; it’s what I’m doing…if you do get one, some of that $8k could be spent at one of my referral links 🙂

      • plevyadophy says:

        But Ming, will the cropped sensor be worth the bother? It seems to be what the APS-H Leica M8 and Canon 1D is/was to full frame 135 format.

        Is that really a large enough step up from your D800?

      • I had a P67 years ago with six lenses and plenty of other stuff. I waited for the digital 645 long after the announcement and finally gave up. I wanted a system that has a clear digital path and got more into Hasselblad at that time. And then they practically dumped the V system and only focused on the H. But to me that is now a dedicated film system for occasional use and the Leica M of some sort will become the digital conversion.

  5. Great article and it really makes me lust for such a beast. But since we do have different opinions about what is expensive and what’s not (even with a 1st gen CVF-16 it would set me back more than 3000 Euros including the camera and a lens), I wanted to ask you for your opinion about the older CCD-based DSLRs like the Nikon D80 or Pentax K10D. In every review I read about the tonal accuracy and pleasing color that a CCD-sensor gives. So obviously a D80 can not be compared to digital medium format, but maybe the tonal response might still be more pleasing without a lot of post-production than current CMOS-based DSLRs? I was just thinking… because a D80 or K10D doesn’t cost the world and maybe it would be fun using it from time to time.

  6. Carlos Esteban says:

    Hi, Ming. I’m now half way on your Tokyo journey, very happy. (Do you know anything about the suastica under that enormous temple lamp? I’m curious about that.)
    Back to mid format, I believe you’re very strong cause you look natural hand/neck holding that pack! By the way, I’m having a hard time to find that L-bracket that appear to easy handheld a lot. Do you can give any directions on that?
    What about B&W? I shoot (or pretend to) a square P20 (no plus) and the tonal is superb.
    Sorry but one more question: and about dust, how do you avoid it (there’s a piece of software that can remove it given you get a blank pic – no success by know to get that blank pic).


    • It’s a Buddhist thing that predates the German application by many hundreds of years.

      The whole rig is not much heavier than a pro DSLR and f2.8 zoom.

      L bracket – any old L bracket off ebay works just fine.

      Your question about B&W is not phrased as a question.

      Dust: clean the sensor.

      • Carlos Esteban says:

        I believe the symbol predates even Buda and means the humanity – it’s just rare for accidentals to see it so i went curious.
        About B&W I just wanted to know your opinion or comparison since you shoot a lot of B&W.


  7. plevyadophy says:

    By the way, MIng, what on earth did you shoot that third/final pic with,the one of you shooting dear Hassy on your Arca head?

    I am looking at it, and it looks kinda creepy. Why? Coz there is a level of clarity of tone, a certain transparency for want of a better description, that makes it look as though I am right there with you or at worst looking at you from a nearby window …………… a very very very clean window without any reflections.

    What’s the secret (in a few words, if you don’t wanna share the entire recipe)? Is it just the quality of the natural light?


    • Actually, that’s a screen capture from the HTS 2: Tokyo video, which was re-color graded afterwards. E-M1 and 75mm, if I’m not mistaken. No special recipe; light is one part, having a calibrated monitor and some experience with color adjustment is the rest of it…

      • plevyadophy says:

        Well, it looks wonderfully real.

        It’s just a shame that penny pinching clients, both corporate and the general public, don’t get to understand why an experienced and talented pro is worth paying for.

        With the ongoing threat to pro imagery, I think all the professional associations should make a joint effort to set up some kind of public awareness campaign to include class based workshops. I know that in any syllabus on which I had influence this image of yours would serve as one of the illustrations as to what one gets when one hires a talented photographer.

        Thanks for sharing.


  8. Martin Fritter says:

    Very exciting. Never occurred to me that the first generation of MF digital had become affordable. And many are.

  9. It seemed very unlike you to declare myth number one as false with no actual figures to back it up. All things are relative of course, but I would imagine for a very large number a photographers a MF kit built around even a used digital back will fall squarely in the “expensive” category.

    • Take a look on Ebay. First generation CFV-16 digital backs or earlier are US$2k and below – which isn’t much more than a midrange DSLR.

  10. Can you explain the technical reasons for these limitations? Is the low ISO related to CCD technology? The new CMOS also can “only” go up to 6400. How about the low apertures? Is this because because DOF becomes too small?

    • Yes, because we’re using CCDs with architecture from 2006. Even DSLRs back then had pretty crummy high ISO performance.

      New CMOS: 6400 native, like the D800E etc. The Pentax version will likely have higher boosted settings, again like current DSLRs.

  11. Ming,

    Good article, and really mirrors my own experience trying (hard) to get hooked on a 503+CSV50.

    In the end, I just found the combination of the F/2.8 max aperture, max ISO 400 and shallow depth of field too challenging and restrictive to getting the shot handheld. I loved the construction of the body, the 45 degree angle viewfinder and the split image focusing screen.

    In the end, decided that the Sigma DP2 Quattro (with a taped optical viewfinder) will be a suitable replacement for me.


    • I found the 50 more unforgiving than the 39 – not a lot of extra pixels, but enough to make your shooting envelope a little bit smaller…

  12. Brett Patching says:

    Thanks for another great article: I was hoping you’d write this one.

  13. Great to see YOU shooting this classic workhorse MT. Indeed the mirror pre-release is essential for tripod use. I would encourage anyone who has access to lab development/scanning to pick one of these cameras up used and try it with film. They are currently an outstanding value. The Swedish Hasselblad used Zeiss lenses made in Germany. Their quality and bokeh is outstanding. Let me assure you that handheld images are very possible with this setup having used one for ten years at weddings.

    • I shoot handheld with film all the time without issue. Digital, on the other hand, is far more demanding because of the discrete nature of the medium and the resolving power…

  14. How about a monopod? Do you think it will help stabilising the combo?

    Also, have you looked at the other finders? PM90 offers 2x magnification while PM45 gives 2.5x. I currently use a PME90 and I am blown away every time I put my eyes on it (the relief is good enough for me). However, I do notice that the ‘3D pop’ of a naked focusing screen (with a waist level viewfinder) disappears. Do you experience the same with the viewfinder you are using?

    Last question – any advice when expecting and buying a digital back? Thanks sir!

    • Forgot to ask as well, do you find the slowest shutter speed of 64 inhibit your capability to create images?

    • I honestly wouldn’t bother because a good monopod is about the same bulk as the 1-series Gitzo Traveller I use. The HC4 I use is 3.5x. You get that 3D effect with the WLF because you’re viewing it with two eyes.

      Digital back: test it first!

      • plevyadophy says:

        I am sure that the specs say HC3 = 4x and HC4 = 3x magnification.

        I am not a fan of the HC4, I find it very irritating having my face/cheek turned 45 degress or more to the left and mashed up against the back of the camera (as you are also having to do, as seen in the second image above). I guess it may well add another point of contact with the camera body and thus increase stability somewhat, but it’s not an experience I like (so my HC4 will be going on eBay soon).

        And as for that WLF 3D effect, I just LOVE IT, and its kinda wonderfully creepy when you first encounter the effect. When I first encountered WLF shooting, as recently as late November last, I was like WOW!!! WTF!!! THIS IS AWESOME!!!. But as always with photography, when the photography Gods give you in one hand they take from the other; there is always a compromise, the WLF is great to look at but then you have the disorientation, and in some people a feeling akin to see sickness, brought about by the reverse view that you are presented with. You may recall our recent chats on this, and how long it took me to get used to the reverse view even after practising EVERY day, and I still can’t lay claim to being totally at ease with it.

        Great post by the way, very helpful indeed and of great benefit to me and a great many other less experienced, or plain curious, photographers too.


        • Ah, a shame. I personally found the HC4 to be excellent.

          I look at the WLF though and think now THIS is live view…as for the reversal, you just need to shoot a bit more with it.

    • “the 45 degree prisms … don’t offer enough magnification”

      But you can readily fix this (useful when shooting square images that don’t require turning the Hasselblad on its side) by using the nice Hasselblad 2x flip up prism viewfinder eyepiece magnifier with diopter adjustment 42459 (about US$115-$145 used) on the PM or PM-5, or PME-5, etc. prisms. This magnifier is held on by simply unscrewing the prism eyepiece’s metal ring, attaching a metal ring from the magnifier, then re-screwing the prism eyepiece metal ring back onto the prism which takes less than a minute unless you find that the eyepiece ring is stuck and won’t unscrew. (The newer PM-45/PME-45 prisms require a different magnifier which is a kludge hanging off the accessory shoe instead.) My aging eyes now need the extra magnification for critical focus. [Similarly, I use a Nikon DG series Flip-up 2x Eyepiece Magnifier (about US$15-$40 used) on my Nikon F2 and other early film cameras and also on later cameras including the Nikon F3HP, F4, F100 and Nikon D700 with the addition of a tiny Nikon DK-18 (19mm to 22mm) Eyepiece Thread Adaptor (unreasonably expensive for what they are at about US$20).]

    • plevyadophy says:


      To be honest, I am not even sure how anyone uses that PME90 with its mere 2x magnification. That seems way under-powered to me.

      The PME45 which has 2.5x magnification, and which I have, is barely tolerable at certain distances, say up to around 15ft or 30ft if shooting/focusing on large objects.

      I ran some tests with a few other viewfinders, and in my view, the minimum magnification Hasselblad should have made on their viewfinders is 3x magnification; the difference between 2.5 and 3x magnifcation is actually noticeable when you try and focus on small details.

      I am not quite sure how anyone focus with a wide angle lens (60mm and wider) using the PME90 because I just don’t see how there is enough magnification to focus on anything. I wouldn’t use the PME45 for wide angle lenses either, for the same reason: insufficient magnification.

      You mention eye-relief on the PME90. It’s similar to the PME45, and I find that superb. In that regard I find it the best viewfinder I have put my eye to. In fact, I think I recollect that the brochure or product descripton for the PME90/PME45 specifically mentions that the PME finders were designed with glasses/spectacle wearers in mind and therefore good eye relief was a major consideration in the design.

      Then there is the view through the PME. In daylight, I have found that the PME45 gives a level of clarity and brightness that is jaw droppingly wonderful, its almost as if you have nothing in front of your eyes. It’s a massive improvement over the view through a digital SLR, even the best ones.

      3D pop. Yes, I find that too with the Waist Level Finder (WLF). It’s a beautiful view …………………. of static objects (I find it disorientating dealing with moving subjects when using the WLF because of the reversed view you are presented with on the focusing screen)


      • Hi Paul,

        Thanks for the very informative inputs. I currently use the PME90 and it doesn’t bother me as much as I am using the 2,8/80 exclusively. I can definitely focus better compared to my previous APS-C DSLR (it was like moving from a peep hole to a life sized tunnel!) and FF cameras I have tried. The clarity I have on my PME90 is astonishing and perhaps more so with the PME45 with the higher magnification.

        Next month, I am planning to get a 4/50 and most probably need to look at another finder with a higher magnification. The only reason I am using the PME90 is because it came bundled with the 503CXi I bought – PME90, 503CXi, Winder CW and Planar 2,8/80 all in excellent to mint- condition for only US$2000 which I figured was a very good deal (just need to scour the shops here in Hong Kong because they have bigger mark-ups compared to e-bay sellers). I can easily trade it in here in Hong Kong due to the condition and PME90 warranting a higher price tag compared to the older finders. The fact I have myopia warrants a bigger magnification as well hehe.

        And I do agree, Hasselblad should have made 3x magnification a standard. I’m not sure but I believe even for the H system, the viewfinders offer different magnification – 3x being the highest.

        • plevyadophy says:


          Thanks for the detailed response.

          I am glad you mentioned what lens you were using and how you came to be using the PME90, because I was wondering what lens it is that you are using but forgot to ask.

          I have to say though, even with a 80mm lens I would find the PME90 a little irritating, a bit of an eye strain. But like I aluded to earlier, it all depends on what you shoot and the distances from which you shoot as to whether or not either of the two PME finders are of any use.

          As for the deal you got when purchasing your Hassy kit, going by the prices I see here in the U.K., I would say your purcahse price was …………………. fantastic. You got the CW Winder as well? Wow!!! I had to buy my own and they are seriously expensive even on the used market (if they are in good condition). Did you get the infrared remote control with yours? When new, the CW Winder comes with that remote control in the box but annoyingly you often see it sold separately from the Winder for silly prices.

          As for viewfinder (vf) magnification on the H system, like you, I too can’t recall exactly what the magnification ratios are for H System vf kits, but I think I do recall that overall they aren’t that generous. However, the H System is autofocus based and digital so I guess the system designers felt that high magnification vf’s weren’t needed as you would simply look for autofocus confirmation and then check focus on your tethered computer screen. Personally, I disagree with that notion; I believe that a camera’s grip and its vf are the first things you come into contact with or notice when you pick up a camera so those two parts of a camera should be great. I even have a vf magnifier attached to my Canon 1D series cam; it makes a vast difference in terms of pleasure of use, and it has a practical purpose in that sometimes I can clearly see if the lens isn’t correctly focused even though the green focus confirmation dot in the vf claims otherwise, so I can half-press the shutter/AF button again to re-acquire focus without the need to take my eye from the vf and chimp on the rear screen.

          I see, that you too found the view through the vf to be something special. I recall the first time I looked through the vf in broad daylight, which was only a few weeks ago. I actually recoiled in a bit of shock; it was like a reflex action when I recoiled. I was taking some pics of a friend, I looked through the vf and it just seemed overbearing ……. all that clarity and detail that I could see. I think my instinctive reaction was that something was wrong as I even recall looking up at my friend to ensure she hadn’t come closer to me than I had thought. Anyway, after a short while my brain got used to this new way of seeing through a cam’s vf and now understands that this is the new, for me, highly absorbing way of seeing the world. I love it!!!

          Warmest regards,

          • Hi Paul,

            Nope, I didn’t get the remote control and the original waist level viewfinder and winding crank as well. And yes, the accessories sold in the secondary market are expensive for what they are. And it is common practice here in Hong Kong specially for the camera stores in the streets with signage ‘tax free’ (don’t walk into those stores if you ever come here – those are tourist traps) and second hand stores to separate the accessories that should have otherwise be bundled with the product you are buying. I once bought a Fuji X mount lens which they got from an XE-1 kit and sold the hood to me separately – I got fooled once, not going to happen again.

            As for the 2,8/80 and the PME90 combo, you are correct – sometimes it gets irritating specially for portraits at minimum focus distance. It is very hard to discern if I had the right part of the frame focused. For infinite focus, it is easy enough that I don’t bother as much. For using it on the street, I normally pre-focus and use the depth-of-field preview – let a subject walk into the frame and press the shutter.

            The problem I am having though with kit is stability specially for long exposures. I can’t use the mirror lock-up when the Winder CW is attached and I can’t find an electronic shutter release for the Winder CW. So I devised an alternative: release the Winder CW without removing it, push the mirror lock-up tab then cock the Winder CW to the locked position again. I’m not yet sure if it works, I’ll get my negatives today. But I’m pretty sure that it can introduce problems to the Winder when I do that long enough so off I go to e-Bay to search for that crank (I was surprised how hard it is to come by).

            Yes, I had the same initial reaction when I brought the camera to my eye I thought everything was larger. Having experience with tiny viewfinders and small magnifications, I was taken aback as well by how detailed and crisp the view was.

            It was a nice conversation by the way – I enjoy our correspondence regarding the subject. I can’t talk to the the wife with the gear experience since she wouldn’t get it. And being only the two of us here in Hong Kong (we were from Manila orginally), it sometimes get frustrating that you don’t have someone who can understand the joys and frustrations of handling gear. Hehe.


            • plevyadophy says:


              Hmm, I am now not so sure that I am excited by the deal you got for your camera. Have you ever used a Waist Level Finder for the Hassy? If not, then you might faint when you do because the view, the level of magnification is sensational at 4.5x; the level of detail that it’s possible to see and still see the entire frame is nothing short of breathtaking. To put it into perspective, at a distance of around 13 foot (approx 3.9 metres) for me to see the same level of detail through the viewfinder of a Canon 1Ds as I do with with the Hassy WLF, I have to use a 200mm lens with the Canon!!! I don’t own an optic between 100mm and 200mm, so maybe I could do it with a 135mm or 180mm lens, I don’t know, but the point I am making is that I have to use an optic longer than 100mm on the Canon. But like I said, the WLF comes with the downside of looking at a reversed image.

              It’s a real shame that you didn’t get the WLF and the remote for the CW Winder.

              I am not quite understanding why it is you can’t engage the mirror lock up (MLU) when the Winder CW is attached. Perhaps it’s the way you are handling the camera, the “wrong way” (like many of us do) rather than the official Hassy way. The Hassy way, is to hold the camera in your left palm and use the forefinger of your left hand to trigger the sutter release and your middle finger or second finger to push up the MLU button. Now, when you have the Winder CW in place obviously you can’t use that forefinger to trip the shutter because that job is being done by the Winder CW but you can still trip the MLU button. I hope that description makes sense? If not,I can send you a picture of the image in the Instruction Manual showing how it should be done.

              You also say that you can’t get an electronic shutter release for the Winder CW. What do you mean? Do you mean the official infrared remote that should have been bundled with the Winder or do you mean a release that plugs into the socket at the lower rear of the Winder CW? If you mean the second type,then I think I can help you there.

              I too was having problems getting hold of a release that plugs into that rear socket and then I stumbled across exactly what I needed whilst at my local branch of Calumet. The product description on my invoice is “CALUMET DIGITAL CAMERA CABLE RELEASE UNIVERSAL DSR/1” and the Product Code is “CF0076” and the price is UK£12.49 plus 20% tax. You can call them on +44 207 380 1144 and the website is Oddly I don’t think you will find the item on their website. Again, if you would like an image I can send you one so that you can clearly see what it is I am talking about.

              I really think you ought to try the hand-holding technique I described for releasing the MLU and if you are using a tripod you can still access the MLU with your right hand depending on the size of your tripod head’s clamp, honestly give it a try. I sure wouldn’t use that technique you just described as I would fear that some damage to the winding mechanism may result and that could be an expensive repair.

              Generally, for buying used gear for your Hassy you might want to try out KEH here:

              I hope what I have said makes sense and is of help to you (and others).

              Warmest regards,

              • Hi Paul,

                i have shot with a waist level viewfinder before with a 500C/M (sadly, I had to sell the camera to finance an urgent expense). And yes, the view is simply breathtaking. The waist level viewfinder for the Hassie sells about US$200 so I’m not sure if I want to pony up the extra money just for that. I can certainly live with the PME90 for now and trade it in later for a bigger magnification.

                Thanks for the tips on the MLU. I tried to do it previously but I was having issues with pressing it. Then I remembered that the dark slide was in when I tried it. Thanks again – you might just have saved me a fortune from a damaged winding mechanism. And yes, I was talking about the 2nd shutter release – the one that plugs in to the bottom of the Winder CW. So I gather from your information that I can use a 3rd party option for it as long as it fits, correct? That would be extremely helpful for very long exposures.

                Thanks again sir, you were really helpful!


                • plevyadophy says:


                  WLF for $200?!! Are you sure?!!! That price seems nuts. I am sure I have seen them much cheaper on eBay and other places.

                  Electronic cable release. Yes, you can use a third party one. In fact, from what I can gather Hassy never made one (or if they did, they did so in such small quantity as to make it not worth mentioning). The reason I say that is because in the Instruction Manual for the Winder CW it specifically talks of getting a third-party option even going so far as providing a schematic/diagram as to how one might make their own cable. On just now checking some notes I made, there was a Hassy Remote Cord, 3m Long Release Cord 44123. I am not too sure if this was the official cable release for the Winder CW, I think it was but it is as rare as rocking horse poo and, given that they have gone to the trouble of providing detailed diagram on how to make one, I guess Hassy thought of it as something users should just source from elsewhere.

                  The one I have is a cheap flimsy feeling thing that I don’t really like, I may even buy another one as a spare. But because I now have one I am not in any rush, so I will just take my time and see if something nicer comes up; and by nicer, what I really mean is better build quality. It so happens that I also bought from the same store a lovely traditional threaded cable release; it’s really nice and well built, way better than that horrid thing made by Kaiser that nearly every retailer has in stock.

                  If you are not minded to purchase from Calumet UK the one I recommended, I can if you wish send you a copy of the schematic so that you can have a cable custom made or at least use it as a guide for any retailer from whom you wish to purchase an off-the-shelf product.


  15. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Ming, you have presented fairly and in detail what the MF digital experience is. It isn’t for me. If I had MF gear, I would probably shoot B&W film in it. A good read at any rate.

  16. Taylor Yan says:

    Great article as always. I have a question, what spot meter are you using?

  17. Great article. I love medium format but never used a digital back. I particularly like the waist level finder cameras as it really slows down the process of taking a picture and makes me *think* about the shot.

  18. Good article. Inspiring! In the seventies I spent a year shooting smallpox eradication program in Bdesh with a 500 C/M hand held all the time. The last world case of variola major was shot that way. I have a quick (lazy) question: is it possible to put a digital back on a Rollei 6008? Thanks for your time.

  19. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Nice nr. 1 photo.
    A pity you couldn’t publish on april first … 😉

  20. Kristian Wannebo says:

    To sling a tripod over your shoulder:
    I usually tie a (not too narrow) luggage strap, with its clip removed, to the top of the tripod and adapt the other end of the strap so it can be easily hooked to the lower end of the tripod. ( A not too heavy camera can still be mounted.)
    An easily tightening loop (think: lasso) slid over the end of all three legs together works nicely – if you care to carry the tripod upside down.

    Car vibrrrations:
    For not too long exposures, how about a monopod (unspread tripod) standing on an air cushion of the right size ??
    ( I have not tried this, though.)

    Interesting read, thanks.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Just had a thought.
      A not too small clamp of some kind (e.g. a hose clamp on a layer of some turns of thick tape) near the bottom of one tripod leg would make a tightening loop work also for carrying it the right way up.
      ( Will try this next time.)

    • I found the Gitzo Belt Holster accessory works quite well for a small tripod. Over the shoulder tends to lead to legs digging into your back.

      Monopod might work, but the air cushion would probably introduce some bounce – perhaps monopod on a small beanbag or bag of rice might work better.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        With two of the legs against my back I find it quite comfortable, you might have to experiment with the strap to consistently achiev this.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Maybe a piece of foam rubber with a semi-stiff cover?

  21. Imagine shooting a Hassy hand-held!! Thanks for the great article. The sensor liberates one from a tripod which was a necessary evil in the film days.

    • Difficult but doable – you need a LOT of light. But the results are superb…

      I find I need the tripod more with the digital back than film; there’s a bigger tolerance of focus with film – perhaps because of the emulsion thickness, perhaps because of the non-discrete nature of the medium.

  22. birdwingfoundation says:

    Reblogged this on Birdwing Foundation.

  23. Hey Ming – good article, enjoyed reading it! Will get my first proper hands-on with a Hasselblad next time I get home. Let’s see if it leads to another expensive spiral….


  1. […] on the final product than the b-roll. I admit that I did consider using the Hasselblad 501CM and CFV-39; however, I didn’t need the 1/500s sync (balancing with continuous sources, remember), I […]

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