Back in early 2011 a good photographer friend in the UK, Roger, emailed to tell me that he had bought a Hasselblad 500C and lens for an excellent price and that classic Blads were going for pretty keen prices.
It did not take long for me to follow Roger’s new enthusiasm. Over the many years that I had been taking photos I had always looked at the Swedish Hasselblad camera as an icon totally out of my reach financially. But then the world changed and, following Roger’s prompt, by careful buying here in Australia and in Germany I quickly collected a complete Blad outfit—body, three beautiful lenses, assorted hoods and filters, spare magazine and a meter prism—for just over US$1000.
There was no holding me back. The thought of the magic of film entranced me—again. A few years previously when moving house I had thrown out or given away all my darkroom gear as I never envisaged that I would be using it again. Developing tanks, measuring beakers, thermometer etc, etc all went. I had to start again.
I bought film—Kodak Tri-X 400 monochrome and Kodak Portra 400 colour negative film from the wonderful Foto Riesel store in Sydney. My film adventure was all set to start again. Reality soon bit. The Hasselblad 500C is a wonderful piece of mechanical and optical engineering but boy is it heavy. And that wonderful waist-level viewfinder is excellent for composing the photo but it is dim—very dim—and focusing is really difficult due to a combination of the limited depth of field of the lenses and the dimness of the viewfinder. The eye-level prism viewfinder is better for focusing but it makes the camera even heavier.
When you take a photo with the Blad the back shutter curtains open first,then the mirror flips up and finally the mechanical shutter fires. The result is a lot of noise and a lot of vibration. Handholding a 500C at shutter speeds of less than 1/250th second is very difficult. That must explain why all those 60s and 70s fashion photographers had their Blads on tripods. That shutter speed would not be a problem if film were ISO 800 or ISO 1600 but it’s not—ISO 400 is fast film.
Now handling the 500C is a wonderful tactile experience. The Zeiss lenses perform superbly and their focusing action is silky smooth but they are heavy. A Blad 500C with a prism viewfinder and a 150mm Sonnar lens is a big beast. Not something you would want to walk far with.
After the reality check of the camera came the reality check of the film and processing. Kodak went bust. The price of film went up and up. There is no local lab near me to process the colour film. I have to post it to Sydney or Adelaide. Australia Post keeps putting its prices up. Now the film/processing and postage costs mean that one single 6×6 Portra shot costs me just over US$5 or $60 a 12 exposure film. That is not cheap fun. And Foto Riesel in Sydney went bust and the very useful Sydney Vanbar store where I bought the black and white chemicals shut soon after. Now film is difficult to find. Importing film from overseas is not an option as the Australian Customs x-ray many postal packets looking for drugs. A packet of fogged film is not a good investment.
My home processing fared little better. I rediscovered dust. Australia is a dusty place. I live near the beach with two Himalayan cats (and a wife). My home-processed negatives were full of dust, not to mention cat hairs. And keeping the developer down to the desired 20ºC processing temperature is not at all easy in this climate.
Then, when eventually I got some of those very expensive spotty negatives, what could I do with them? Well, I scanned them into my computer and processed them in Lightroom. So my analogue photography became hybrid analogue photography—part analogue and part digital. A lot of effort to create a digital file.
Now this sounds like a tale of total woe. Yet it is not all bad news. Despite all the obstacles I have managed to take some photos with the camera which I am very pleased with. In the five years I have probably shot only 15 films but these have yielded a high percentage of what I call “satisfying” photos. I put this down to the fact that the process of using the Hasselblad forces me to slow down and practice a different sort of photography.
Sadly I have not used the Blad for nearly a year now. The magic really has worn off, I am not getting any younger and all those constraints—the weight—the dim viewfinder, the need to use a tripod so often —the cost—and the dust are too much. Friend Roger came to the same conclusion and sold his outfit a few months ago. The magic of film? Yes, maybe it is magical but before you leap in or leap back in just consider the unmagical side first.
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