I’ve been photographing with analog cameras for over a decade now and this isn’t my first Hasselblad (previously owning a V-Series 500CM). I now shoot mainly on 35mm and for the most part, a rangefinder, so picking up another medium format camera such as the 903 SWC (Super Wide Camera) was not something I thought I wanted to explore.
The Hasselblad SWC was mysterious, and a camera I had never heard of before stumbling across one online. Seeing the examples of what could be achieved was enough for me to take the plunge and see what I could accomplish.
The SWC family began in 1959 with the “Super Wide C” camera and has changed and updated through various iterations. Later models, such as the penultimate 903 SWC don’t often come on the market, and fewer still in mint condition. I was lucky enough to buy mine from a private seller in Northumberland in the UK, who hadn’t used the camera in years.
With a little haggling, I purchased this beauty and the guy even included five rolls of film to start things off. I did initially have reservations about the focusing system, and how I could maintain sharp images while using this camera for street photography. I’m also the first to admit I did find this medium format camera slightly intimidating to use because of its unfamiliar construction and large field of view. However, after a few rolls of film, handling the stocky cousin of the 500 Series became highly intuitive with its simple and ingenious design. In short, it felt completely natural to shoot with and comfortable in hand.
Here’s what I cover in this article:
Table of contents
The photographic styles of the 903 SWC
Before I get into how I use the SWC, I want to talk a bit about the type of photography it is capable of. Not being particularly easy to focus in comparison to a traditional SLR, TLR or rangefinder camera, the camera is often thought of a tripod queen and thus limited for other forms of photography.
For me, documentary and reportage photography are two areas in which the 903 SWC really excels, but with the correct accessories, it can be adapted for landscapes, architecture and portraits – tripod and ground glass spring to mind.
For the quicker, handheld approach to shooting with the SWC, I normally walk around with the camera strap around my neck and the SWC in one hand, keeping it safe and secure from any unforeseen knocks. My light meter and additional film magazines are stored in any external pockets, for easy access.
Setting up the 903 SWC
There are two ways I normally shoot with the SWC – handheld, a fast run-and-gun style of photography, and in a more subdued, precise and timely manner, which I use for more dedicated landscape and interior photography. I’ll be focusing on the latter for the most part of this review.
Any dedicated trips with the 903 SWC start off with me unpacking the tripod and securing the base securely onto the ball-head. This is followed by lining things up and making sure the camera is level.
I predominately shoot black and white film, so always use a yellow filter to “bring out the clouds”. The filter works by darkening blue sky, giving a greater visual separation between light and dark. With my lens hood attached, I begin thinking about the camera’s settings; first of all the desired EV (Exposure Value) combination. From an initial meter reading, I move onto inputting this manually into the lens.
It’s all about that lens
This camera is all about the insanely sharp ZEISS BIOGON CF 38mm f/4.5 lens, which is permanently attached to the camera’s body. The EV numbers sit at the front of the lens barrel in bright orange text beside the shutter speed ring. You can input the meter reading by rotating the tabs individually or by depressing a small interlock button which lies next to the aperture dial. Holding the button links the shutter speed and aperture dials, moving both at the same time.
This enables the EV numbers to change both settings together, at the same time, giving you the correct exposure combinations for any desired effect. For example, let’s say I have an EV reading of 12 but now require a slower shutter speed, by using the EV combination button I can reduce the shutter speed or aperture (whichever I desire) with a new EV number and still keep the correct exposure every time, voila!
In the (focus) zone
Focusing is determined by rotating the lens’ focusing ring until the measured or estimated distance is achieved. Alternatively, because of the very large depth of field, one can zone focusing or alternately use hyperfocal distance charts to achieve more accurate focusing.
The latter method is very useful for capturing “street” scenes when using the camera handheld.
It’s possible to almost guess the distance and set the scale on the lens for correct focus – it’s that good. I do however attach the additional Hasselblad Reflex Viewfinder (RMFX 72530) and focusing screen, which attaches the same way as any film back (see below).
To use it, you need to slide the small switch under the shutter release to ’T’ and rotate the shutter speed to bulb (B). This locks-up the lens shutter and enables viewing via the RMFX viewfinder. The Hasselblad RMFX and focusing screen give an extremely clear and accurate view for precise focusing. As any normal viewfinder, look through, compose and focus with the large and grippy lens barrel.
Shooting the 903 SWC
With the camera set up and subject focused, I remove the focusing aids and attach my desired film magazine, making sure the SWC winder is fully cocked in order to avoid losing a frame.
I usually use a soft shutter release, which attaches to the shutter button located on the top right of the small and compact body – this helps reduce camera vibration.
Metering composition and other considerations
Unless using the “Sunny 16” rule to determine exposure I would most certainly recommend carrying a light meter with this camera, as you don’t have the convenience of any in-built meeting or even a traditional viewfinder for that matter.
Talking of the viewfinders, the SWC is equipped with a detachable optical viewfinder with a very smart built-in spirit level and lens scale viewing system to read and adjust the lens settings without removing your eye from the viewfinder. Very handy indeed, however I did find at times this obstructed the bottom part of the image where you might be composing your picture.
This was something I thought I’d struggle with initially, but once you look beyond the normal ways of composing and capturing an image this camera really comes to into its own.
I would recommend carrying at least two film magazines – fully loaded – for all situations, as well as a dedicated strap, as this camera does get heavy after a few hours in the field. For more precise focusing I’d also recommend the additional focusing screen and viewfinder, which definitely helps for more dedicated captures.
More photography with the 903 SWC
Because of the camera’s fully mechanical nature, 90° diagonal field of view, the lack of a traditional viewfinder and no exposure metering, the SWC is not for everyone. Focusing can be tricky at first and you might initially end up with a few frames which are softer than expected. However with time, things become more intuitive and this camera does eventually deliver, but not without some hard work and persistence.
In the beginning, this camera was very intriguing to use, almost gimmicky, but after time it has now allowed me to become more focused on seeing, rather than focusing on the dozens of settings found on other models. The SWC has given me a new approach to analog photography, a new way to see the world. It is truly a thing of wonder and incredible to use once mastered. I’m still learning every time I get this camera out of its bag.
For me one of the best analog cameras I have ever used, and I’m very pleased to own this classic Hasselblad medium format camera.
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