Film Photography Flashback: Fstoppers Reviews the Hasselblad 503CW

Since the broad commercialization of photography, many brands of cameras have graced the shelves of camera stores across the world. Canon, Nikon, Leica, Mamiya, Pentax, and others have become common names in the lexicon of photography. However, of all the camera manufacturers, few have become as synonymous with quality as Hasselblad. Since I began shooting in 2004, I'd always heard how wonderful these machines were but never had the opportunity to play with one, as even a complete used system can command well over $2,000. Well, I finally got my grubby little hands on one: the Hasselblad 503CW. Spoiler alert: it's pretty sweet.

Hasselblad produced its 500 V-series of cameras from the 1950s until 2013, when they ceased production of all of their film-based products. The 503CW was the last in that line of cameras. It is an almost all-manual body, but provides TTL functions via external flashes that can attach to a TTL sensor via a port on the camera body. The camera doesn't have a battery, but through the port, certain flashes can read the sensor, providing TTL capabilities and powering the electronics inside of the body. That's fine, well, and good, but I have neither the correct equipment nor desire to use TTL on this camera. If anyone out there has the correct flashes and cables, though, I'd love to hear about their experiences. Moving on!

Ahmad, shot for a personal project on Kodak Portra 400.

Construction

One of the first things you'll hear from Hasselblad enthusiasts is about how well they feel in hand. There is a mystique about the brand, similar to that of Leica, about the build quality of the cameras. The 503CW is no exception.

The Body

This thing feels like it was magically chiseled out of a piece of solid metal. Every part fits together perfectly, forming a mostly seamless look to the camera. The camera body weighs in at 600 g, making it lighter than a Nikon D610 by a fair margin. However, when you add the waist-level finder, an 80mm normal lens, and a film back, it clocks in at almost 2,000 g. That's about the same as a Nikon D810 fitted with an Nikkor 24-70mm, just for comparison. In the hand, especially when you're using the waist-level finder, it feels much lighter as you're cradling the camera below you rather than lifting it to your eye.

There are few controls on the body. There is a dial on the side that controls TTL function through dedicated off-camera flashes. There's also a depth of field preview, a winding knob, shutter button, and a pre-release button that essentially provides mirror lockup. For myself, I pretty much used the DOF preview and the shutter button. Hasselblad sells a winder accessory for this camera that will automatically wind the film after the exposure, should you be so inclined.

At the top of the body is the focusing screen. Hasselblad calls it the Acute Matte-D, but whatever you want to call it, this thing is a revelation. I've never used a brighter, crisper, and higher resolution screen. The level of clarity it achieves is phenomenal and makes composing a scene a joy. The 500 series are square format cameras. Personally, I'm not so big a fan of the format, but I can see why others would be. You don't have to worry about the orientation of the camera and you can just shoot. I tend to think more cinematically, so I like a longer side. Also, if you print at traditional sizes, your image will need a substantial crop to conform to typical 4:5 ratio framing. Again, there's nothing wrong with the square format. It's just not my favorite.

 

Waist Level Finder

The waist level finder that comes with the body is pretty standard, built with typical Hasselblad quality. It flips open with minimal effort and comes with a magnifier that flips open with a light touch of a button for critical focusing. I'm more of a prism guy, as when I'm using an SLR-style camera, I like to view my scenes without the need for correction. Through the WLF, the image is uncorrected and horizontally flipped. Run and gun style shooting is much more difficult for me when you have to flip directions in your head, although with enough practice, I'm sure it becomes second nature.

A12 120 Film Back

The unit I'm using has an A12 film back that easily attaches to the body of the camera. It holds a roll of 120 film and provides 12 exposures. A twist mechanism enables easy access to the insert for loading and unloading of film. In the video, you'll see that I was having trouble with the insert, but that was only because I hadn't turned the knob before trying to re-insert the film. As usual, user error is the most common cause of problems. 

The Experience

As I said earlier, shooting a Hasselblad reminds me of shooting a Leica. It's so well built that it inspires confidence. Composing on the screen is effortless, and even the substantial weight is negated by the ease of use.

Connecting Flashes

If you're a strobe user like myself, connecting the camera to the flashes is done via a sync port on the lens. The lenses use a leaf shutter, so flash syncs all the way to the camera's fastest shutter speed, 1/500 s. Any cheap sync cable will do fine connecting your flashes to the camera, but if you want to use a wireless solution, things get a touch more complicated. There is no hot or cold shoe on the camera, so you'll need an external bracket to attach your wireless trigger. You'd then connect the trigger to the lens. After that, there should be no issues.

Using a cheap straight flash bracket to connect a wireless trigger to the camera via sync cord.

Shutter Slap

As with most medium format SLR style cameras, there is a fair amount of shutter slap. This buffeting by the mirror will cause some camera shake, so I definitely recommend a tripod when shooting slower than 1/60 s. without flashes. No matter how steady you are, a tripod and cable release will serve you well here. If you need extreme stillness in the camera, mirror lockup is also available.

Tyler. Here's an example of a bit of mirror vibration. I didn't have a tripod on me but still wanted to take a portrait. Kodak Tri-X pushed 2 stops.

What I Liked

This camera just screams quality. Everything from the build, the look, the lenses, the film magazine, and the image through the viewfinder shows you where your money went. The lens I used, the 80mm f/2.8 Zeiss, is very sharp, contrasty, and well built. Also, the screen is just stupid. It will spoil you for other focusing screens. Trust me. 

Meh

I'm still neither here nor there on the square format. I think without being constrained by dealing with a longer side, I'm less creative while composing. That's a personal issue, though, and I'm sure most other photographers are just fine with it. 

Dislikes

Having to use an external accessory to attach a flash is a little off-putting. The fix is simple enough, but for a semi-modern camera, a shoe of some sort would have been nice. The price is prohibitive for this particular Hassie as well. Paying over $2,000 for a used medium format body/lens/back combo is a bit steep in my book, especially when there are other Hasselblads available that don't have TTL or winder capabilities that sell for a fraction of the cost. A used 500 or 501 package can be had sub-$1,000, and you'll get most of the features of the 503CW.

Brian, photographed for a personal project. Kodak Portra 400.

All in all, the Hasselblad 503CW lives up to the company's reputation for quality, but with such a high price, there are definitely other cameras that provide more bang for your buck. Check out the video for more thoughts on using the camera.

Thanks again to Englewood Camera for providing the review unit.

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23 Comments

Michael Aubrey's picture

From the video:

"Zeiss 80mm Planar, T asterisk--I have no idea what that means..."

I'm so thrown by this statement. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you don't spend much time with Zeiss lenses generally?

Hans Rosemond's picture

I also say exactly that in the video. This is my first Hasselblad. No need for Zeiss lenses in the past.

José J. Soto's picture

The T* is for Zeiss' anti-reflective coating.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Ha. Well, now I know! Not sure it's important, but hey, knowledge = good.

This is what you call a review...?...omg, lol. I have used the Hasselblad V system my entire 30 year career as a professional fine art and advertising photographer, even today the system can not be beat. I use 2x 501CM bodies with 6 finders, 12 film backs and a CFV50c digital back with 9 CF and CFi lenses. So lets engage in meaningful educating shall we?

First off, It's not called "Shutter Slap", the shutters are in the LENSES and are actually quite smooth. The slap you refer to is called Mirror Slap and yes, it does play a role in possibly degrading image quality. Another thing that plays into it is if the lenses have T* multi-coatings or not. It's not just some silly term to poke "I don't care what it does" fun at, that would be like acting juvenile while wondering what Nikon's "Nano-coating" is all about. Hasselblad / Zeiss T* coatings have been a gold standard in multi-coating that still to this day allows the lenses in use to excel at color transmission and contrast, the images I get out of these lenses on film or digital blow the doors off of most other lenses with the exception of Leica. Hasselblad equipment is now a fraction of what it cost new so 2K for a camera that blows the socks off of most is pretty inexpensive all things considered. I have never needed what the 503FCW offers over my 501CM's which is really only TTL flash capability so a good 80/A12/501CM kit can be had for several hundred less.

So.....Fstoppers, for pete's sake folks, please use people who write about this kind of topic who either already know what it is about or will surely put in the effort required to get their facts straight.

Hans Rosemond's picture

The purpose of this series of "reviews" is more to have an audience come along as I explore cameras I know nothing about. It's more of an introduction to the cameras. If you'd like to get overly technical that's totally cool with me, but it isn't where I'm coming from with this series. I have about a week with each camera, and I'm not about to attempt to become a pro with each archaic camera I come into contact with. As for mirror slap vs shutter slap, I obviously misspoke, but if you'd like to take a dig at my knowledge base, that's totally your call as well.

I'm very impressed with your knowledge and skill with the Hasselblad system, but I have neither the time nor inclination to become an auteur with every system I get to play with for this series. So thank you for spreading your knowledge and educating me and the rest of the readers of these fun articles.

I'll look forward to the future nuggets of expertise you can share about the next camera I review. Thanks for reading!

Are you joking? You had a WEEK with this camera and couldn't be bothered to write anything more than this uninformed, surface-level garbage and then you have the nerve to argue back at someone, defending your complete lack of knowledge, effort, and competency? How is it that you were paid to write this? I have no problem with taking a dig at your knowledge base, as you have demonstrated you have none. Overly technical... if you had taken 30 minutes to out of that WEEK to do any research at all on this camera you would know drastically more than you presented here. Apparently that was too much effort. Somehow you "have neither the time nor effort" but you still consider yourself qualified to write an article about this camera system, which happens to be one of the most famous and coveted in the world. Oh, and you've got no idea what the word "auteur" means, either. This article is a joke and should in no way be considered a review. I do, however, think it is a great example of what happens when you give an amateur digital photographer a camera to look at, an audience to write for, and provide zero oversight as far as quality-control goes for the content on your website. F-Stopper editors, take note. Admit it, you spent 5 minutes looking at this camera and wrote this in-between bong rips an hour before your deadline. This wouldn't get a passing grade in a middle school English class. Clearly, Daniel Bayer should have your job — that is, if this website is concerned with having content that isn't a total embarrassment.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks for reading! I'd write more, but my bong is getting lonely!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

A camera reviewer who doesn't know or care to learn what T* is like a car reviewer who doesn't know what HP means or if its important. But maybe it's one of those peer to peer "lets's all learn about this together" reviews....

Hans Rosemond's picture

If there's anything I made abundantly clear by both the tone of the article and the accompanying video, it's that it's supposed to be a fun, "let me check this out because I have no idea what I'm doing with it and I've always wanted to try one" sort of post. That's what this whole series is about. I understand that that isn't everyone's cup of tea, but there you have it.

John de la Bastide's picture

Hans cool article ,it brings back fond memories .my Hassleblad was the 500CM,and yes the body really did not matter,the awesome glass made photography a pleasure.My favorite Hassleblad is the SWC aka superwide.http://www.kenrockwell.com/hasselblad/swc/810_8338-1200.jpg

Matt Barr's picture

Awesome post. The hassy just costs too much. The Bronica s2a looks and feels identical, I love mine.

A true Hasselblad owner will always call it a 'blad' and never a 'hassy'. Please!

Matt Barr's picture

Wouldn't know. Don't own a blad or a hassy, nor will I ever as long as my Bronica holds up.

In case you didn't know, the winder flips open to give you a little handle crank. Takes less than a second to wind. One motion. Glad you enjoy it. It's a classic.

Hans Rosemond's picture

You know, I thought about that later. Facepalm!

José J. Soto's picture

The solution to raising your camera while dealing with a waist-level finder is simple: hold the camera sideways or, if you need to go that high, upside down. It's a square frame, so it makes no difference. I do it a lot with my Yashica Mat-124G twin lens.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thats a good idea. Im not sure if I could get used to standing with my side to my subject, but with practice you can get used to anything!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

That is a real PITA, buy a reflex finder for a couple hundred. Looking 90 degrees away into a finder with the image reversed left to right / up and down is hard thing to get used to,

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yeeeeah...im all about the prisms

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Not sure what that means...I think you need an emoji.
A Prism finder comes in handy in some situations.

Benjamin Bateson's picture

I have to admit this review went well up to the the T* and Planar comment. Maybe I'm expecting too much but T* and Planar ought to be well-known. Heck, I used a Yashica point-and-shoot at one point , several years ago, that had the T* coatings. The Zeiss Planar lens has been around for a long time and was one of the standard lenses, with the Schneider Xenotar, for almost all Rolleiflexes. It's not something obscure. We aren't talking Alpa here. Anyway, it's nothing personal. I enjoy your other reviews and articles but just wish you had done a little more research on what those things meant before posting this.

Hans Rosemond's picture

It's funny that people get hung up on things like this. The point of me doing these retrospectives is to go in pretty clean, not having experienced the cameras, mess up a bit, share my experience, then have the community come in with things I may have missed. I find that the level of offense goes up with brands that have a very loyal fan base, such as hasselblad and Leica. I'm glad you enjoyed the article on the whole, and certainly don't mean to minimize any features of such beloved cameras. The fact is, though, we live in the age of Canon/Nikon/Sony and a lot of the tech that may have been common knowledge when these cameras were more popular are no longer part of the lexicon for most photographers.