They say you should never start an article or speech with an apology, so let’s break that rule from the outset and get two issues out of the way immediately:
- I have owned far too many cameras and, by extension, changed them rather too frequently…but I simply can’t help myself.
- I’m one of those odd beasts (there are a few of us around – just ask the editor or check the comments section) who prefers the process of taking photographs, and the haptics of using cameras, rather more than we enjoy the end results. That’s not to say I don’t feel pleased when I get a nice shot, or that I can’t appreciate others’ photographic efforts, but rather that I get most of my enjoyment from actually using a camera, not time spent in Lightroom honing an image to within an inch of its life.
Over the last few years I have owned – and this is not an exhaustive list – Leica M8s, M9s, M9P, M240s, M-P Typ 240, M262, M-Ds, M10, M10-P, and a couple of M3s thrown in for good measure, not to mention several Leica SLs, an SL2 and a couple of Q2s. And let’s not even start on the non-Leica list…
You might reasonably be forgiven for observing that I don’t spend enough time with any one camera to truly get to know it, and you would probably be right. Truth be known: I like variety, and I enjoy trying out and getting to grips with a new camera. It keeps photography fresh and interesting for me. Another known truth: I’ve rarely lost money buying and selling used Leica camera and lenses, so my ‘hobby’ is not as expensive as one might first imagine.
But is was time for a change. I was beginning to bore even myself with the endless stream of Leica Ms coming through the door (the most recent – a beautiful M10-P – had just been returned to store because of a ridiculously sticky ISO dial).
Time for a change
So what next? My favourite among the Ms is probably the M-D, closely followed by the M8. I really loved the simplicity and the pared down shooting experience, not to mention the feel of the cameras in hand. Similarly, the M3 was beautiful to behold, to hold and to use.
I had recently decided to purchase a lovely Hasselblad 503CW – one of the Swedish manufacturer’s more recent (1996) 500 series cameras – to get my haptics and aesthetics fix, not to mention the fact that the beautifully bright waist-level viewfinder was a joy to use and offered a very different, though horizontally reversed, perspective. And square format images from the 6x6cm negatives appealed too as something a bit different.
I enjoy using film cameras because of the haptics and simplicity – not to mention the reassuring build quality, if you buy something half decent – but film is something of a pain to use exclusively, to my mind. I was nevertheless enjoying using the 503CW and sending off the occasional roll of film for developing and scanning, when I stumbled across (on eBay) a beautiful Hasselblad CFV 50C digital back. It was quite an investment all in (think used M10 money, plus a further £1,200 for the ‘mint’ 503CW, plus lenses), but might it allow me to have my cake and eat it?
First foray into medium-format digital
The Hasselblad CFV 50C is a 50MP digital back which is fully compatible with the manufacturer’s famous 500 (or V) series camera range. Launched in 2014, it has the same Sony-built CMOS sensor as the company’s current X1D II 50C medium format camera, also found in Fujifilm’s GFX 50R and S.
Many Macfilos readers will be familiar with digital backs of one form or another, but I have to say I’d never been keen on the aesthetics of bolting a plastic box onto the back of a medium format body. The CFV 50C was, however, quite a different proposition.
Beautifully and robustly built to match the black and chrome looks of my 503CW camera, it integrates seamlessly and, to my mind at least, looks very handsome mounted on the camera. Indeed, Hasselblad has done a tremendous job styling the digital back to look like one of its A12 film backs.
What impressed me most, upon thumbing through a user manual before committing to the purchase, was that the digital back required no Frankenstein-like cable connection to connect to my very analogue 503CW. It just works, apparently. And so it does, on most Hasselblad 500 series cameras since 1957. In fact, I’d say it’s the closest thing to using “digital film” that I have ever experienced.
It brings a smile to my face because it’s a very capable product (more of which shortly) but also because it does not detract in any meaningful way from the thoroughly satisfying experience of using the 503CW as it was intended to be used. Hasselblad has somehow managed to bring together the best aspects of its medium format film cameras (they are not too pricey these days, by the way) with the quality and ease-of-use of a modern, medium format digital sensor. Ingenious… and maybe just what I was looking for.
Even a Leica M9 seems complex
The CFV 50C has not disappointed in use. Setup and menu learning took less than 15 minutes. This thing makes even the M9 look positively complex! Image output (Hasselblad’s proprietary 3FR RAW format or JPEG), ISO, image aspect (4:3 or the famous 1:1 of the A12 film back) – and that’s about it.
There is no light meter in the 503CW, of course. And, with the CFV 50C mounted on the back, shutter speed and aperture are still dialled in on the excellent lenses, which contain a leaf shutter.
There is a rudimentary live view which allows one to check composition whilst holding the shutter open in Bulb mode, and to double-check critical focus… but not actually to take a shot. For that, live view must be switched off again, the camera cranked once more as if advancing the frame, and the shot taken. How quaint! 10 FPS this ain’t, by any stretch of the imagination, and that’s what I love about it.
Images appear on the LCD screen for review and are saved to a Compact Flash card. Focus may be checked again by zooming in post capture, and a series of histogram displays allow the photographer to check exposure.
The camera may also be shot tethered to a Mac or (perish the thought) a PC via a Firewire 800 cable using Hasselblad’s excellent (and free) RAW converter and basic image editor, Phocus, which talks nicely to Lightroom and other editors. Surprisingly, I have experienced no problems getting the camera to connect to my 2020 iMac via a Firewire 800 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, and a Thunderbolt 2 to USB-C adapter.
You have to crank it by hand!
In use, the CFV 50C really doesn’t feel that different from using a film back. One still focuses using the waist level finder, and the camera must be wound on between frames – all very ‘old school’, just as I like things. I can’t help thinking about the M10-D users (and prospective users) who have asked for that particular camera to feature a mechanical frame advance lever. Well, here you have one…
To be sure, this is not a camera for taking photographs of fast-moving children, or discreetly snapping away on the streets; but if you want to enjoy the haptics of using an old-style film camera, with all the convenience of a modern digital sensor, then I don’t think it gets much better than this. And the Hasselblad V series lenses – I have three at present – are superb, though much larger than the jewel-like Leica M lenses albeit considerably less expensive.
Which reminds me: having sold my last Leica M8 I thought my days of multiplying by 1.3 to calculate equivalent focal lengths were well and truly behind me…but it’s worse! 6×6 format film has a reverse crop factor which makes the Zeiss Planar ‘normal’ 80mm lens about 44mm in full frame terms. The CFV 50C’s cropped medium format sensor is 0.79 of that (a 43.8mm x 32.9mm sensor versus a 60mm x 60mm negative). So the 80mm normal lens now becomes a 63mm when the digital back is used. Phew! It keeps me young, I suppose.
The 0.79 crop factor also means that it is best to use Hasselblad’s supplied focus screen (it’s a 30 second job to change it) when using the digital back. It has the crop marks for using the digital back in 4:3 and 1:1 modes, but also works equally well when you want to put the A12 film back on the camera to shoot analogue. Mine was supplied without such a screen, but Hasselblad had one in stock and are sending it to me (for a few hundred pounds). In use, it’s a lot like a rangefinder viewfinder: one can see a wider field of view in the very bright focusing screen, which I find aids composition.
I’m currently using the camera with the renowned Carl Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 Planar, 150mm f/4.0 Sonnar and the superb 50mm f/3.5 FLE (floating lens element) Distagon, which allows closer focusing distances. The latter is about 28mm (full frame equivalent) on the film back and 40mm on the digital back, which gives a very nice normal field of view.
Thus far, I have been out for a few brief photowalks with the camera and digital back, and also a few short, pre-planned trips where I have had the chance to use the camera and 50MP medium-format sensor in an environment where it really shines to my mind: shooting landscapes.
This is a digital camera setup that you really can’t rush. It’s probably at its best on a tripod, though surprisingly comfortable to hand hold, nestled against one’s waist. And, whilst you could ‘cheat’ by firing a test shot to gauge the accuracy of your ‘best guess’ exposure, I enjoy slowing things down a little and using a light meter. I’ve even got out my Lee filters again, too.
Image quality is superb and very pleasing to my eye (I’m far from being a pixel peeper). Hasselblad is renowned for its colour science and the RAW/3FR images are impressive. The CFV 50C has plenty of dynamic range – circa 14 stops – and is very usable to ISO 6400 if you need to go that high. With a top shutter speed of 1/500s on the V series, you probably won’t. Recovery of shadow details in Lightroom is good, with very little noise, but it is the way that the sensor protects highlight details that has really impressed me…for those occasions where my ‘best guess’ or metering simply aren’t good enough.
A touchscreen – whatever next?
Hasselblad is taking orders for, and is about to begin shipping, the second-generation CFV II 50C digital back and its matching 907X camera body. It has the same sensor, but a faster processor, USB-C interface, integrated battery compartment and a higher-resolution, flip-up touchscreen on the rear, similar to the upgrades the X1D II 50C enjoys over its predecessor. It can again be mounted on any V-series camera since 1957 but, when used with the 907X body, is fully compatible with the superb XCD series autofocus lenses.
In that latter configuration, eliminating the waist-level finder means focus is either autofocus or via the rear LCD screen. It may be a step too far for me, but some will enjoy having the option of owning a modern medium-format digital-sensor-equipped camera, which can also be mated to a 60-year-old body in the blink of an eye. The back and body are on sale for £5,990. The cheapest XCD lens will set you back a further £1,030, though you can also use V-series lenses via an adapter.
It’s still early days for me, but all the signs are encouraging and I’m really enjoying having the 503CW and CFV 50C digital back as my sole setup. Whether I will be able to keep my Leica itch under control for very much longer is quite another question though. I’ll keep you posted.