'Portraits and Play' with the Hasselblad 503CW

The Hasselblad V series, one of the classics. Shots from the Summer of '16

Hasselblad 503CW, 120mm f/4, Ilford Delta 400

Hasselblad 503CW, 120mm f/4, Ilford Delta 400

The Hasselblad 500 series (classic V series) is a camera system that has always appealed to my retro streak. It's black leather and shining chrome frame is as iconic as Leica's M, the operation is, to my mind at least, as minimally pure as well. Personally I feel Hasselblad was wrong to discontinue it. It was a piece of their origin story and DNA that should have been kept alive and cherished the way the Rangefinder M has been for Leica.

So despite having used Leica's M series for years, the V system is a camera I kept coming back to. It's an SLR, so for the shallow depth portrait work I enjoy so much it has a significant operational benefit over the Leica M. Simply that in the Hasselblad's viewfinder I am seeing the picture live with no parallax errors to worry about - something most SLR shooters take for granted!

That said the Hasselblad, as a medium format (MF) system has several unique traits worth noting.

Hasselblad 503CW, 120mm f/4, Ilford Delta 3200

Hasselblad 503CW, 120mm f/4, Ilford Delta 3200

Sex, Lies, and Medium Format

Firstly it's a medium format system camera, and like most such systems the system is modular. In this case comprising of body, lens, viewfinder, and 'back' (the cassette that holds the film), all items are bought used these days, so be cautious buying them, it can be too easy to get a dog on ebay from a seller who doesn't actually know what he's selling.

Secondly, MF systems need more light than 35mm. All the lenses are a stop if not two slower than an equivalent 35mm prime, so the 'standard' lens is the 80mm f/2.8 rather than say a 50mm f/2 on 35mm. The fastest glass here tends to float at f/2 rather than f/1. You'll see people saying that Medium Format (MF) is a slower system - and this is principally what they mean, but the other issue with MF is that as the surface area of the neg is so much bigger than 35mm, the depth of field is much shallower as well. For many this makes shooting wide open impractical. I found this out the hard way the first few times I tried to shoot one of these hand held at close range with the waist level finder and it's magnifier... trust me it doesn't work, here's a fiasco shot so you can see just how badly it doesn't work.

Lastly, theres a filthy great big mirror in that body, and mirror slap can throw your whole image around if not properly braced at slower shutter speeds.

Now you know why MF shooters are frequently meticulous, tripod based creatures, and none moreso than Hasselblad V users!

I say that as the V series uses a 6x6 frame format - almost 30% more surface area than 645 MF, which makes the DoF significantly shallower again than 645 already was over 35mm. In fact if you play around with photobuddy or an equivalent you find that shooting the 80mm f/2.8 is equivalent DoF to shooting a 50mm f/1.2, the 120mm f/4 is on par with a noctilux 0.95. These are not apertures for moving subjects, because although the DOF is thin, we have not gained any of the stops of light we'd normally associate with that.

So, having figured all that out after my first disappointment, I made sure for round 2 that i'd I shoot these with a PM45 viewfinder, allowing much more accurate focus than the waist level finder.

Hasselblad 503CW, 80mm f/2.8, Ilford Delta 100, pushed.

Hasselblad 503CW, 80mm f/2.8, Ilford Delta 100, pushed.

For lenses I used the 80mm f/2.8 and the 120mm f/4, the equivalent 35mm focal ranges would be roughly 50mm and 80mm. I also used the Hasselblad motor winder for the 503CW, and a leica branded tabletop tripod I have that can be folded into a shoulder stock or chest brace for extra stability without anchoring myself to a full tripod. For metering I used the Lumu app and widget. For lighting I used two Arri Junior 150w Fresnels, with the key light either pointing into a white reflector for a diffuse fill, or focused as a spot. For film stock I ran a small pile of Ilford delta through. I managed to avoid killing any unicorns.

Since I slowed myself down and used the PM45 viewfinder combined with the tripod for accuracy and stability, this time I had no problem getting the shots I was after, which for me are about shooting wide open to get the super shallow DoF. A signature part of an old Hollywood glamour portrait that should not be done in photoshop... well, I would say that wouldn't I?

Hasselblad 503CW, 80mm f/2.8, Ilford Delta 3200

Hasselblad 503CW, 80mm f/2.8, Ilford Delta 3200

Summary and observations.

The V series is a fun camera to use for available light photography, it's 'brass tacks', tank like reliability and ergonomics are easy to work with, and its plain to see how it was a pro workhorse for over half a century, even if the shotgun slap of the shutter recock does alarm your model the first few times it fires!

That said, I'll make the following observations:

  • The CW Motor Winder - simply eats AA batteries, six at a time. I would not consider taking the winder on a field or road trip where I did not have a box of batteries to hand to feed it. Given what its doing, this seems extremely inefficient.
  • The waist level finder is great as a compact finder for landscapes and wider scenes, but useless for accuracy at wide apertures and close range, the accuracy just isn't there. So the PM45 is a great addition, clear and accurate, but it adds a LOT of bulk. So really you want both types of finder in a V series rig, one to keep it light in your pack on a hike or day out, the other for accuracy.
  • Choosing a V series body and lens. A quick search on ebay will show you a lot of variants in the lenses and bodies - the V series was produced solidly for over fifty years and it was refined several times. I'd actually avoid the original 500 and 501 models, just on age I'd assume it needs a service and that extra cost needs to be born in mind. Consequently I'd go for a 503CX, CXi or CW. the CX doesn't have the newer clearer focus screens or gliding mirror system, but that's small beer given how cheap they are in comparison.

I hope you found this useful, if you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments.

John's website is at: http://john.tuckey.photography

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