Film diaries: A quick introduction to Hasselblad V-series cameras

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Since acquiring and shooting with my 501C, a lot of my readers, students and photography friends have been asking for more information about these beauties. I certainly don’t claim to have the depth of knowledge of some of the longer-lived collectors or photographers, but what follows is a (hopefully) handy collation of what I do know, from the point of view of the practical photographer.

The Hasselblad V series is a system camera: that’s to say that lenses, bodies, finders, backs and other general accessories are interchangeable. The body contains the reflex mirror, film winding mechanism and secondary shutter only, plus a way of triggering and rewinding the leaf shutter in the lens, of course. Lenses of various vintages can be used on all bodies, with varying degrees of functionality. Flash sync terminals – PC sync – are in the lens, since this is triggered mechanically by the leaf shutter. Several types of backs are available, including digital and polaroid (rare) options; the same goes for finders. The ‘classic’ configuration is an 80/2.8 lens, collapsible waist level finder and A12 film back.

Generally, for a shooter, you want to look at buy the 500-series (also known as the V series; includes 500, 500C, 500C/M, 501, 501C, 501C/M, 503CW, 503CX etc). The C means that it uses C-mount lenses which have built in leaf shutters (first Synchro-Compur and later Prontor); anything with /M means upgraded/ modified. The bodies contain the mirror, winding mechanism, and a secondary shutter to prevent light leaks. A nice user is better than a safe queen that’s never been exercised, because you must remember the whole thing is mechanical. Later versions have TTL flash metering and electronic coupling. I would go for either a 501CM or 503 of some description; the 500s are older. Mine is a 501C and dates to 1995; I also have a 1999 501CM. The 501CM and 503CW have upgraded mirror geometry that doesn’t black out at the top portion when used with longer lenses or extension tubes. The electronic 553 and 555 bodies have built in motor drives, but are bulky and eat batteries for breakfast. I think fully mechanical is the way to go; partially because of long-term reliability (gears can be fixed; small-volume electronics is often unrepairable without spares). There are also tilt shift bodies (ArcBody and FlexBody), and a super wide viewfinder camera – the 900 series (903 SWC, 905 SWC and earlier SWC and SWC/M), which has a fixed 38/4.5 Biogon but takes standard backs. Finally, we have the 200-series bodies – these have a built in focal plane curtain shutter that requires batteries to run, but permits much higher (1/2000s) shutter speeds and faster (generally by a stop) lenses; they share the same mount as the regular V series, and V series lenses can be used if the shutter speed is locked to the F position, but not the other way around – the V series require a shutter in the lens to operate, which the 200-series lenses lack.

When testing a body, the winding action should have some springy resistance, and the shutter action should be snappy – the mirror should get out of the way fast, and stay there; same goes for the secondary shutter curtains at the rear of the body. Note that the mirror doesn’t come down again until the camera is rewound. You can check mirror alignment by turning the lens all the way to infinity: find a suitably distant subject and check that it is indeed in focus with the magnifier. (The lenses have hard infinity stops.) Needless to say, there should be no loose or rattling parts inside. Check also that the lens drive shaft on the mount turns when you release the shutter and wind the crank, and that the vertical gear on the right also winds with the crank – this advances the film. Finally, the little lever that protrudes from the body on the bottom right where the back mounts should also be sharp and not worn – this advances the film status indicator.

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Related bodies
The ArcBody and FlexBody are two V-mount bodies that also take the same A-series backs and accessories (but not finders); these have bellows or bags in the middle that permit some technical camera movements; noticeably shifts and tilts. In some ways, they’re miniature view cameras. The ArcBody is primarily geared towards shifts; it has its own accompanying set of Rodenstock lenses and is ideal for architectural work. The FlexBody is mainly for tilts, and DOF control/ product photography or landscape. Personally, if I do move over to medium format for my work, I’d be looking at one of these – they also accept digital backs. Note that both are relatively uncommon and seriously expensive.

The type you want to go with the V series are C T*, CF T*, CFE T* or CFI T* lenses. The earlier C (non T*, i.e. no fancy coating) lenses work too; they’re cheap but low contrast and relatively high flare. The T* lenses denote optics with the Zeiss T* coating – their rendition and performance is much like the modern ZF.2 series. They all also have long back focus distances, so you can mount them on your SLRs too – though the resolving power may not be as high as the latest 35mm optics.

CF lenses are the best bang for the buck. They have coupled aperture/shutter speed rings (with the exception of the 80/2.8 CF T*) and upgraded shutter mechanisms; CFE and CFI lenses are later models with electronic coupling and are several times more expensive than CF, often for no particularly good reason. The bodies almost always come with the standard 80mm – it has a similar diagonal FOV as a 50mm on 35mm, but you have to remember it’s a little bit different because you’re comparing square to 3:2 aspect ratios. The good lenses – all CF or higher – are the 40/4 Distagon FLE, the 50/4 Distagon FLE, the 80/2.8 Planar, 120/4 Makro-Planar, 150/4 Sonnar and 180/4 Sonnar. These are roughly 24, 28, 45-50, 85, 100 and 120 equivalents. The FLE lenses have a separate correction ring for optimising close-range performance.

Note that the tip of one of the shutter blades may appear bent in the lens; this is a design feature to prevent catching at high shutter speeds. The shutter action of a lens should be snappy and crisp; the slower speeds tend to be where there are problems, so it can be beneficial to test the 1/2 and 1 second speeds with a stopwatch to get an idea if they’re roughly within spec. A slightly metallic noise when changing shutter speeds is normal, especially if you are traversing large ranges of shutter speeds – this is just the internal springs changing tension. Be very, very vigilant for broken drive shafts – these cost a fortune to fix!

One final note on lenses: they require bayonet filter adaptors (designated B-something) which allow you to mount standard screw-in filters. I suppose this is for ease of changing in case the threads get munched up, but it can be a pain if you’ve lost the bayonet ring. Fortunately, they take mostly standard sizes – except for the 4/40 Distagon, which requires an enormous 93mm (!!) filter.

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Three main kinds: A12, A16 and A24. There’s also an A70 bulk rolling back – it has a 200-shot capacity. The number denotes # of shots; A12 and A16 work with 120 film, and A24 works with thinner 220 film; it has no paper backing for twice the number of shots. Note however you can’t buy 220 film here anymore (update: I did see fresh Provia 100 in 220 at Yodobashi in Tokyo in November 2013), so it’s kinda useless – don’t buy an A24. You can load 120 film into an A24, but the difference in length means that it won’t wind or count frames properly. Just avoid it. The A12 is the standard back and gives 12 6×6 shots on a 120 roll. The A16 is a 645 back that gives 16 shots per 120 roll, but requires a separate viewfinder mask to show only the 645 film area – this should be included if you plan to buy an A16. Note that it’s not very practical because shooting a waist level finder in portrait orientation is nearly impossible. Backs should come with dark slides – the little piece of metal that goes between body and back – if you don’t have this, you can’t detach the back. It’s to prevent light leaks when interchanging backs – the ability to do this mid-roll is one of the huge strengths of the system. Buy multiple backs to make the most of this. Note: some sellers will note ‘matching numbers’ which means the roller mechanism inside’s serial # matches the housing – it doesn’t make any functional difference, but it does seems to affect prices quite a bit. If you’re going to use it and not collect it, it doesn’t matter.

You might see something called a ‘Lindahl dark slide holder’ mentioned – this is a clip on that goes on the back of the back (really) that holds your dark slide while you’re shooting. It’s functionally useful, but I personally think it looks ugly because it spoils the lines of the camera. A better solution is just to tuck the dark slide into your wallet.

There are also many digital options, both from Hasselblad (the CFV series backs) and other manufacturers. Note that none of them make a true 6×6 back; there’s always some crop factor involved. The earlier CFV and Phase backs did have square sensors, but these were 1.5x crop, 37x37mm affairs that were much like using FX lenses on a DX body. The newer backs – CFV-39 and CFV-50 – use 645 aspect ratio sensors in a 1.1x horizontal crop, and a 1.5x square crop. They are accompanied by viewfinder masks that I personally find very confusing – much like trying to compose with an overlaid tennis court. Note that some backs have sync issues with purely mechanical triggering, especially if your shutter mechanism is a bit worn. The solution is to use the PC sync cable off the lens to synchronise it with the back, but this can result in issues like worn terminals from frequent lens changes, and lack of anywhere to hook up your flash.

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There are two kinds: prism and waist level. Waist level is the collapsible, left-right reversed type with a built in magnifier. It’s the standard finder. Prism finders come in metered (PME-x) flavours and unmetered flavours (PM3, PM5). It’s basically an enormous SLR finder, but in 45 degree and 90 degree (the later PME-90) flavours. They’re all interchangeable, once you take the back off. Note that the prisms are meters only, and do not transfer the settings to the camera – you still have to do that manually.

Unless you have a metered finder, the cameras are fully manual and unmetered. This means using a trained eyeball, or getting a meter prism; otherwise, the simplest solution is to use a compact camera in aperture priority mode with spot meter set. Match apertures and ISO, then transfer the shutter speed reading to the lens. Important note: if you’re using a compact, I’ve found that the Hasselblad requires half a stop to a stop less shutter speed than the compact for the same exposure (i.e. if the compact reads 1/100s, the ‘blad will use 1/150-1/200s). This is partially due to the tonal response characteristics of film, and partially due to the transmission properties of the lens: T* coated V lenses have a T stop very close to their physical F stop, whereas compacts usually don’t because of inferior coatings or complex designs with large numbers of elements.

This is perhaps the most sensitive/ subjective topic here, but to give you an idea – a solid user condition 500CM, waist level finder, 80/2.8 CF T* or C T* and A12 back should run under a US$1,000. Price varies depending on variant and condition, of course. Later models like the 503 series will of course cost more – sometimes considerably so. That said, I still find it pretty amazing that you can buy a camera of this quality at little more than the price of a consumer DSLR kit – and you can be sure that the ‘Blad will outlast you, and probably your children. I don’t know what happened to the millions of 300D Digital Rebels they made, but I suspect that most bit the dust a long time ago.

Important notes:

  • The shutter should be stored in a cocked state, i.e. wind the back after every shot.
  • VERY IMPORTANT: DO NOT MOUNT OR UNMOUNT THE LENS IF THE SHUTTER IS NOT COCKED. The drive shaft for the lens (to cock the leaf shutter in the lens) can break if it is not in the correct orientation.
  • The dark slide needs to be inserted before removing the back
  • The dark slide needs to be removed before shooting (shutter button is blocked)
  • When you shoot, hold down the shutter button – do not release it immediately after pressing. The secondary curtains in the body only stay open as long as the button is held down.
  • Don’t lose or bend your dark slides; you won’t be able to insert them, and without the dark slide in, you can’t remove the back, and there’s nothing to block the shutter from firing accidentally in a bag. Get spares, if you can.
  • Always wind the camera before attaching a back – if not, when you wind it, you’ll lose a frame. The right procedure for assembling a camera is 1. wind body; 2. attach lens (check that the little slot in the lens’ mount lines up with the dot, if it doesn’t, use a coin or screwdriver to turn it in the direction of the arrow – this is to cock the lens shutter); 3. slide in finder of choice; 4. load and attach back – this is a whole separate section on its own.

I’m now wondering how many of you are going to give it a try…MT

The best place to find vintage gear is on the secondary market in Japan – send an email to Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter; he can source to spec and budget. I get a good chunk of my stuff from him and can’t recommend him highly enough. Send him an email and tell him Ming sent you!


Enter the January 2012 black and white challenge – win a multispectral Sony NEX-5 B&W machine modified by yours truly!

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