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Getting Started with the Hasselblad, Part 1

Posted February 02, 2015 by Aaron Brethorst

I want to tell you about how I ended up purchasing a Hasselblad medium format camera, why I decided to buy one, why you might want to consider doing the same, and how to go about selecting one for yourself. The first time you see a 6x6cm negative will be a revelation: you'll be hard-pressed to ever shoot anything smaller, digital or film. And heaven help us if you decide to shoot slide film; I sold my Canon 5D Mark II after looking at my first sleeve of medium format slides.

What's a Medium Format Camera?

Unlike 35mm cameras, there's no clear definition of what constitutes a medium format camera. For our purposes, it's easiest to think of it as being any camera that shoots 120 format roll film. Beyond medium format, you can also choose to purchase a large format camera, which will use individual sheets of film in sizes like 4x5", 5x7", or even 8x10". I think medium format cameras are awesome because they occupy a sweet spot in terms of portability and image quality. Unlike a large format camera, you can easily haul a Hasselblad around for casual shooting, just like a 35mm film camera, but the medium format camera will produce significantly better images than what you can get from a 35mm negative.

Why Hasselblad?

In Spring 2014, I'd been shooting with film cameras again for about five months. I'd purchased a Leica M6 and, although I loved it, I was interested in literally stepping up my film photography in a big way with a medium format camera. Hasselblad's V series camera system (which, for the purposes of this discussion, are all of the 500-503 series cameras) seemed like the perfect camera for me: they're relatively lightweight; they carry an amazing, historic pedigree; and their optics, supplied exclusively by Carl Zeiss are absolutely top-notch. The album art for Abbey Road? Hasselblad. Platon's amazing, luminous celebrity portraits? Hasselblad. You know those photos you've seen of Buzz Aldrin on the moon? Hasselblad.

I spent weeks researching my options, finally selecting the relatively new Hasselblad 501CM with a Zeiss Planar 80mm lens. I was able to purchase the entire system for about $1000, which seems like an amazing deal given that a similar setup would have cost several thousand dollars only ten years ago.

Medium Format Film

One common misconception I see is medium format film, or 120 film, described as 120mm. The film doesn't actually have a 120mm diagonal, but a 6x6cm negative is still about 4 times the size of a 35mm negative. Enlarging a medium format negative is significantly easier than enlarging an equivalent 35mm negative: dust problems are attenuated, grain is minimized, and the quality of the negative itself is just unreal. 3200 DPI scans of your 6x6cm negatives are the same size as the RAW files from a 50 megapixel digital camera.

One interesting note about medium format film is that you use the exact same film with a 6x4.5cm camera (normally referred to as 645), 6x6cm, 6x7cm (similar to the 645, this is referred to as 67), or even 6x9cm and 6x12cm. The only thing that changes between these cameras is the number of exposures you can create per roll. 645 gives you a generous 16(!) images per roll of film; the Hasselblad's square 6x6 format gives you a not-unreasonable 12 frames, and Mamiya's utterly monstrous RZ67 will let you create 10 remarkable photographs per roll. 6x9 and 6x12 cameras produce even fewer frames per roll. If you're coming from digital photography, the idea of being limited to 12 shots per roll may sound absurd, but it quickly becomes second nature. The 24 to 36 photographs afforded to you on a roll of 35mm film quickly seems luxurious, and you begin wondering why you wasted ten extra dollars buying a 64GB memory card for your digital camera when 4GB would've been more than sufficient.

Why You May Not Want a Hasselblad

Hasselblads are large and fairly heavy. Unless your standard photography kit contains a Canon 5D Mark III and a 24-70L, lugging around a Hasselblad will mean that you're carrying around several pounds more than you're used to. Additionally, Hasselblad V series cameras don't have built-in light meters, which means you'll also need to purchase and carry a handheld light meter. Finally, swapping film rolls 'in the field' can be a laborious process, requiring either a place to set down gear or an extra pair of hands.

All that said, if you do choose to purchase a Hasselblad (and I think you should), you'll be opening yourself up to creating breaktakingly large, detailed, and beautiful photographs, and making yourself a part of one of the greatest legacies in photography.

Stay Tuned

Check back soon as I describe the constituent parts of the Hasselblad V Series camera system, and tell you how to assemble your own Hasselblad camera system. I'll walk you through everything you'll need to produce beautiful images, tell you what I bought (and why), and give you some ideas about what equipment might be appropriate for you.

Please feel free to comment with any questions or feedback you may have!

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