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The Rewind #1: Hasselblad 501CM + Planar 80mm f2.8 CFE

25 January 2018

It is my great pleasure to introduce The Rewind, a series of hands-on field test reviews of film cameras currently for sale at Camera West. Before diving into the review, I’d like to briefly introduce myself. My name is Gabriel Binder. I am a photographer with degrees in both Photography and in History. I work at Camera West in web sales, testing, describing, researching, and photographing the cameras that we sell online. I got started in photography eight years ago when my grandfather passed down his father’s Rolleiflex to me. Since then, it has been my work and passion to make photographs on film and to print them in the darkroom. I am beyond excited to have this opportunity to work for Camera West and to describe and share in detail my experiences shooting with some of the most fascinating film cameras that we have in the store. So, onto the Hasselblad!

The Hasselblad 501CM is a medium format SLR camera that makes 6x6 cm images on 120 or 220 film. It accepts interchangeable film backs and leaf shutter Carl Zeiss lenses, as well as a variety of prism finders and other accessories. Hasselblad produced the 501CM from 1997 to 2005. This may come as a surprise, as the camera’s silhouette is remarkably similar to that of the classic 500C/M that Hasselblad produced from 1970-1994. While the camera does have a classic look, (and more than a passing resemblance to Victor Hasselblad’s original design, the 1949 1600F) it in fact represents the final era of Hasselblad’s production of film cameras. This means it received a host of upgrades, including the extremely bright Acute-Matte D focusing screen. Unlike its sibling the 503CW, it has no built-in metering system or provision for motor winder, and unlike the 200-series cameras, no focal plane shutter. This means that the 501CM is a modern camera in a decidedly classic form. It has every feature necessary for precision photography in a simple, beautifully engineered package unencumbered by any “aids” or extra features that can distract from the thoughtful creation of images.

This particular camera is something of a “dream” setup. To start, it is equipped with the Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm f2.8 CFE lens. As Hasselblad wrote in the data sheet for this lens:

“The Planar lens design is the most successful camera lens design every created…(it) is the the basis for nearly all professional ‘workhorse’ lenses on Earth and in space today.”

In other words, most photographers will reach the limits of their technical skill well before they approach the imaging limits of this lens. The CFE version has contacts for communication with metered bodies, but it has advantages for the 501CM user as well: a re-designed, smoother focusing mechanism with improved main spring and grip, larger numerals, reinforced rear bayonet, and new element design and coatings for improved contrast. This camera also comes equipped with a late A12 back with integrated dark slide holder. While some feel that this plastic pocket that holds the dark slide when shooting detracts from the classic look, I found it indispensable for keeping track of the dark slide, which could be easily misplaced otherwise. Finally, this camera has the Acute Matte D focusing screen, which is truly a revelation. It is not only extremely bright and evenly illuminated but also a joy to focus with both split image and micro-prism aids. The image on the screen “snaps” into focus with crisp authority, far outclassing most focusing screens I have used on other medium format cameras.

This is a camera designed for hand-held use and balanced well in my hands. It is not a small camera, but it is compact considering its capabilities and its film size. It weighs a little over three pounds, and is slightly front-heavy. Hasselblad’s designers took this into account by placing the strap lugs on the center of the camera body, which allows the camera to rotate downwards and rest flush against you while carrying the camera by the strap.

Winding is achieved with two short turns of the knob on the right-hand side of the camera, which makes a buzzing ratchet sound. Focus is controlled by the ring on the lens closest to the camera body. The focus is beautifully damped and rotates about 250 degrees, which allows for precise focusing without becoming cumbersome. The aperture and shutter rings are located at the front of the lens barrel and click between stops nicely. Depressing a button on the aperture ring allows you to couple the aperture and shutter together to maintain a constant EV value, which is notated on the shutter ring. With the dark slide inserted, a large circular button on the top of the camera allows you to detach the back, which feels very solidly locked to the body.

The waist-level finder is a small technical marvel in itself, extending and collapsing crisply. The focus magnifier is large and, unlike those found on many other medium format cameras, completely blocks out any stray light. As I mentioned earlier, the Acute Matte screen is one of the best I have used. Acute Matte D screens featuring both the split image and micro prism ring -- the ‘42215’-- sell for hundreds of dollars alone. Those unfamiliar with medium format cameras will be struck by the lateral inversion of the viewfinder image. This reversal of the image can be difficult to get used to at first, but I find it to be a useful compositional tool. Because the image on the screen is different than what we see with the naked eye, it can be easier to assess the balance of the image.

The 501CM fires with a distinct WHU-WHUMP that immediately draws the attention of anyone nearby. I have heard this noise likened to the pump of a shotgun or a massive suction cup. I find it to be a satisfying punctuation to commiting to a composition. Unlike many cameras, this Hasselblad does not have an instant return mirror, meaning that the view through the finder is blurred until the camera is wound again.

I decided to bring this camera along for a bike ride along one of my favorite coastal spots here in the Bay. I kept my kit simple, bringing only the Hasselblad, a few rolls of one of my favorite films, Kodak TMAX 400, and my Gossen Digisix light meter. The perfect concise kit for a day of active shooting. This setup fit in the top of my small pack easily, giving me plenty of room for a packed lunch and jacket. It’s a smaller kit than most modern DSLR cameras, and its compact bread-loaf shape means that it can be packed in the same space as many mirrorless outfits. Of course, part of the appeal of a Hasselblad is its ability to accept multiple lenses and backs, which would expand the size of the kit. But in its most essential guise, this camera is easily portable.

I found handling the Hasselblad to be intuitive once I had become familiar with its basic operation -- removing and storing the dark slide was the step that took me the most practice to remember. Loading the insert with film also takes a few tries to master. This is a camera that rewards a careful, contemplative pace, though it is certainly capable of rapid firing when the situation demands it. I found the camera most comfortable to carry slung across my body over one shoulder, which allowed me to slide it into place easily for shooting.

The most interesting aspect of shooting with the 501CM is the effect that the camera has on its subjects. The camera’s unique shape, its placement at waist level, and the pronounced sound that it makes make it a conversational piece that can lead to some nice shots. People have a familiarity with the shape of a Hasselblad, even 15 years after digital cameras supplanted these as professional shooters. We still associate this camera’s silhouette with professional photography, especially portraiture. This camera has stature, an implicit cultural association with a history of “serious” imaging, that opens people up to being photographed. I find this to be a very different effect than the reaction many people have to being photographed with modern DSLRs, which can have a weaponized / militant aspect to them, especially when shot at at burst rates. This camera perfectly straddles the line between looking “serious” and interesting while not seeming threatening, which is excellent for portrait work. Receiving positive reactions from your human subjects can increase your confidence in your other compositions. For example, I considered nearly all of the exposures I made on the two rolls that I shot to be “keepers.” In this way, the Hasselblad 501CM has a special ability invigorate picture making for both photographer and subject.

I am very pleased with the results I obtained from this camera, but I expected nothing less from the final iteration of one of the most precise photographic instruments ever created. I developed my two rolls of TMAX in Kodak D-76 developer diluted 1:1 and scanned them on an Epson v750 flatbed scanner. I very rarely scan my personal work as I find the experience of printing negatives in the darkroom to be crucial to my own photographic process. Even in these scans, however, the character of the 80mm CFE is clearly evident: this lens combines razor sharpness with a beautiful, progressive blur into out-of-focus zones. Contrast and tonality are excellent. This lens truly leaves nothing to be desired, and poses its lucky owner with the lifelong challenge of matching its abilities. The same can be said for this 501CM kit as a whole -- this is a camera that rewards the careful efforts of its user by providing direct tactile involvement with each step of the creative process.

If you are interested in handling this Hasselblad 501CM yourself, please visit us at our Camera West Walnut Creek location. Next time, I’ll be field testing a very different, but equally fascinating, piece of photographic history. Until then, I wish you good light, and happy shooting.

-Gabriel

Gabriel Binder

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