After graduating from college in 2020 my parents gave me a Hasselblad 500CM as a graduation present. I had been wishing for a Hasselblad since learning about them. As a quick introduction, Hasselblad is legendary within analogue photography circles, from photos on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission (I can recommend the 2019 documentary Apollo 11, there is some amazing original footage motion picture film used in it and it is exciting), to famous photographs of celebrities and landscapes. The camera doesn’t make the photographer but a good camera makes the shooting experience more enjoyable and good optics help to show the photo in high and life-like quality.
As I write this I am sitting inside looking outside in the fog and rain. The fog is thick and I am — with my eyes — framing images I would take with my Hasselblad. The rain means I have not taken more than 1 photo outdoors with it today. Still, this is the experience of knowing what shooting with a Hasselblad is, it is more than pressing a button. It is the resistance of the lens as I adjust the aperture and shutter speed, pulling the dark slide gently out of the camera and the decisive moment of pressing the shutter and hearing the sound it makes, it is hard to describe but the sound is beautiful.
In fact, many of the sounds this camera makes are nice, the sound of opening the waist-level viewfinder, the sound of advancing film, and the sound of opening the film back where the film is loaded. When I shoot with my Hasselblad people ask me if it’s a Hasselblad, the design is so iconic and I find that subjects for portraits are fine with the time it takes to set up a shot and will stand still and maybe because taking a photo is a special occasion.
This camera is enjoyable in part because of the high quality and craftsmanship that it was made with. I’m Swedish and when I look at the side of the camera where it says it was made in Sweden I also think of home, of cold winter days, long train rides and bright summer nights waiting for the sun to set and rise. When people say something they associate with Sweden it’s often IKEA and IKEA is ok but considering much of high-quality analogue photography equipment was and is German (Zeiss and Leica to name 2 of many companies), there is something to be celebrated in that Sweden produced the camera that is probably the Leica of medium format.
I do not know much about modern-day Hasselblads, they are still manufactured in Sweden (Gothenburg I think), and apart from releasing digital backs to fit older analogue models their focus is digital medium format cameras. Hasselblad putting all focus on making and engineering digital medium format makes sense, Kodak famously patented a digital camera and then didn’t put focus on it, instead focusing on film at a time when there was not long left for film being the primary medium all photographs were made with. While I don’t think digital is the superior or more enjoyable option I know that companies need to know the market and demands for photographic products to make money so in modern-day digital makes sense.
When I am not taking a photo with my Hasselblad I look forward to taking a photo with it. I don’t have this appreciation for my digital cameras, they’re good but they are also perfect; I expect them to be perfect, to fit in my bag, and to not overheat when shooting RAW, when they do it bothers me knowing that they are new. If an analogue camera breaks, I don’t get annoyed, because I know that the camera has been used for longer than it was under a guarantee or warranty. When it breaks I try to fix it myself, I don’t blame the quality of the camera because the fact that these cameras still work is a testament to quality and of course, they would need repairs.
Digital does not deliver as much as film, there is noise and things like chromatic aberration annoy me; grain and lens imperfections on a lens made for analogue cameras do not bother me as much because I also get the high quality of the lens and grain structure that can only be copied in post-production with digital. The time spent storing and backing up files from digital images or editing takes more time than photographing and I would rather spend a long time taking a picture than in front of my computer making it look good. There are several possible causes for choosing film, there are also many for choosing digital, I prefer both and knowing that I can pick the one which works best and which I want to use.
Back to when I opened the box containing my Hasselblad 500CM. I had wished for a Hasselblad and suspected I would be getting one, so, when I held it in my hands it was surreal in a way that I had to remind myself that it really was my camera. I held it in my hands, touching it just to feel the surfaces and hear the sounds. I became entirely captivated by this camera and what I would shoot with it. Watching many videos on YouTube and reading websites about how to use the camera, I wasted a few rolls figuring out how to load it but eventually, I succeeded and it quickly became intuitive, where now I can load the film without having to worry if I will waste a roll or miss lining up the arrows of the start.
When I began using my Hasselblad I had good knowledge and skill of using manual settings and film, when people say manual scares them I don’t know what they mean, in a way I find manual much easier than any setting priority or auto settings where the camera doesn’t allow me to choose everything and be in control of how it will shoot, even automatic film advance makes me a bit uncomfortable because it gets closer to digital where I don’t have to physically move the exposed image forward. Having mentioned this it is yet another reason why the Hasselblad is the perfect medium format camera for me, it is heavy but not too heavy, big but not massive , and a camera that is both portable and still worth carrying a tripod to shoot with.
When I use my Hasselblad I plan to only take photos that I think are really good, not every photo I take is amazing but I have taken some of my favourite and best photos using it. Shooting with a Hasselblad is both intimidating because of its legendary reputation of prestige and exclusivity but also one of the most enjoyable experiences with a camera. I will not photograph on the moon or climb Everest, I don’t want to either because I am not interested, but I do photograph relatives, still life, and incredible landscapes — when I do, these are the moments that interest me, it is not the location or the number of people who know about the place I am photographing but rather my version.
The Hasselblad 500CM has a modular build, meaning that it is made up of parts that can be easily interchanged, the lens, body and film magazine (film back). The viewfinders can also be switched, I choose to use the waist level viewfinder because I like the experience but it is possible to use eye level, prism viewfinders instead of waist level. There are strap lugs for attaching a camera strap, places to insert flash cables and as with many cameras, a base plate where a tripod can be attached. The shutter button is threaded for a mechanical release.
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The camera backs can be changed while a roll is still unfinished, so you can switch between different film stocks if you want, by attaching and removing the backs. I haven’t tried this but I have 2 backs so I could if I wanted to, I tend to be focused on one film stock but the point is that this camera does not control the photographer by having settings or a build that force compromises to be made, I know that if I want a light meter I have one as an app on my phone and I could use a handheld one. Some lenses have a setting for a timed shutter release, this could be good when taking self-portraits but my lens does not do this, I have seen that there are mechanical self-timers that can be bought or if longer shutter cables are available then this is a good choice.
Writing a review of this camera is strange because, unlike some cameras that are underrated or don’t have a reputation that goes beyond photography communities, this is a camera that (like big brands) is recognisable simply by the brand name. I think many reviews are important because to photograph is an experience that is affected by the photographer, by their skill and style. “Hasselblad” is basically synonymous with some of the greatest photographs taken in the previous century. There were other medium format cameras and some such as the Rolleiflex are also synonymous with classic photography, Diane Arbus used a Rolleiflex and when I think of a Rolleiflex I think of photos taken by her.
I wrote this review not to write about how fantastic owning this camera is, I am aware that many people will never shoot with this camera, and the fact that I not only have shot with one but own one is something I still have to remind myself about because I thought I would — at most — get to borrow one. I wrote this review to share what this camera is beyond its reputation.
Few cameras are as tied to people’s opinions and ideas of how to correctly shoot with it, shoot with a tripod, take good photos, use a cable release. While I do not like gear snobbery I admit that I also have opinions on these things. I almost always use a tripod unless my subject is moving and a tripod would potentially mean not having time to take the picture, this also requires a fast shutter speed, I will usually only shoot at 1/250 or 1/500 when handheld because although I know 1/60 or !/125 would technically also be ok, I don’t want to increase shake that already could be increased by not using a tripod. I also use a tripod because I think part of the experience of this camera is the work done before opening the viewfinder.
Different cameras are for different ways of shooting I think, I will rarely use a tripod with my Pentax MX because I enjoy the portability and pace that I can take a picture while still obviously shooting manually, I can take a photo quicker with my Pentax MX than with digital cameras because the aperture ring and focus are well placed and the light meter is quick. The Pentax MX gives me the simplicity needed for street and candid photography where less than a second can be the decisive moment for the photo.
As mentioned I shoot manual, I always shoot manual and I know that some say aperture priority or autofocus is better but I like the camera to be in my control and putting one setting on auto takes away freedom to make the photo I want to make. I get enjoyment from shooting manual, this is what I like because like film it is the basics of capturing a photograph and the more that is done by my camera instead of me, the less I am in the moment taking the photo.
The Hasselblad 500CM is a camera that takes time to shoot with, it is a camera that you don’t just throw in a bag, it is a camera that I plan shoots for, I plan the shoot before taking the gear with me because the gear is not practical to carry if it is not going to be used or worth carrying. I don’t think that I’m a gear snob, maybe I am, I believe that shooting with this camera as if it were a point and shoot, handheld, not double-checking focus more than once, shooting through a roll quickly, is wrong, again it is not anyone’s right to tell people how to use this camera but I think treating this camera as less than the incredible thing it is taking away it’s value. As a comparison, if someone can afford to own as many Leica camera or process as much film as they want do they still appreciate the experience as much as someone who cannot afford a Leica and uses what little money they can spend on developing?. I think something is lost when you own one of your dream cameras if you don’t remind yourself of how special it is.
If you haven’t shot with this camera I would recommend it but I think recommending you get one would be hard because they are an investment, and if I had not been given mine as a gift I would not have one because I can’t afford a Hasselblad. I would recommend this camera if taking less than 5 photos in one day can be enough for you when the quality is the best available. If you enjoy medium format photography and making a photo a special occasion then this is a good camera. If you also like street photography maybe use the Hasselblad for non-street photography or street photography that is slow-paced, or where you won’t accidentally break your camera.
If you’re like me spend almost all of your time thinking about photography and a shoot is more enjoyable than most things that people enjoy in their free time, then this is a good camera, it is like seeing a good movie or eating a really good avocado. It is quality and enjoyment combined. If manual settings are intuitive to you, this camera is for you. If you want a camera that will show the film stock you load at its finest then this is for you. It is a camera that gives quality and customisation. I am always aware I am shooting with a Hasselblad when I use this camera but I also feel it is my Hasselblad with my choices making up what kind of camera it is.
Thanks for reading.
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Amazing! I took my Hassy 500CM to Rome and floated there from October 2010 to February 2011. I couldn’t have chosen better equipment. Great text! It made me want to photograph again. Thanks!
There really never has been anything that did the job as well. I inherited the set that dad bought back in the late 50s. We were on Cyprus at the time. From there the set went to Turkey, then Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and what is now part of Israel. Then we headed back to the US. In 1964, the cameras again were off. This time to Africa. When he returned a year and a half later, they were again off with us to Japan. We again returned to the US. In 1970 they again were off with dad to Germany and returned in 1971. My part in all this, carrying the camera case as I got older and taking some pictures with them in the 80s. They were one of the best investments he made. And you can’t beat the detail that you got with the medium format camera. Now if the digital film backs didn’t cost what a cheap car costs, that would be my only upgrade to them. And yes, they still are heavy.
Great writing, Astrid. My love for photography began when I was 7 years old, and in 1962 watched my dad in the darkroom develop our “Christmas photograph” to be mailed to friends and family. When I was 18, my dad gave me his Leica IIIg, which I still have. I have taken over 3,000 photos with that camera, mostly Kodachromes. In my mid-40s, I went to a camera show and took home a Hasselblad 503cx (the model that has the film emulsion light detector which is great for fill-flash and other purposes). I have lenses for that from 50mm to 180mm. Now in my 60s, I have a pair of 503cx cameras and have been embarking on stereo medium format photography. I mount the cameras on a horizontal adjustable rack, for inter-ocular distance compensation, which then mounts on a tripod. It has been interesting, and fun. A source of camera joy. Let’s keep the conversations going here.
Great discussion. I first held a Hasselblad 500C in my hands nearly 50 years ago and I still remember my sense of awe. I also remember my mentor placing the slim leather strap around my neck and saying “That’s not for carrying it. That’s for when you slip. It doesn’t matter how careful you are, someday it’ll slip from your grip.”
Thank You so much.
Many years ago, … I have a own a new Hasselblad 503 CXi with the Makro-Planar, the pro flash system, and a Sekonic. I have all sold them for a Contax G2 with nearly all the basic lens.
Now for this format, I prefer the TLR, especially the Rolleiflex or the Yashica or the Minolta. In good hand, without any checking, the Blad could be a great camera, I had not the good hand to make it my camera.
You show that with talent and good skills we can transform the Blad into a great camera. One which is wonderful this is the 903 with the Biogon.
Well written, Astrid–thank you. I am a film photographer a few years older than you (I developed my first roll of film in 1956.) I am enchanted by the build quality of my Leicas, but I greatly prefer medium format. My photos come from the hard, wild places left in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I could never justify slinging a beautiful camera like your 500cm into my backpack, but my cheap, rugged German folders can produce negatives that are just as good. I recommend them, not just for what they can produce, but also for their small size and negligible value.