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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.