This year marks the point at which I have been using Hasselblad cameras for over a decade. My first was a 201F in 2007, before moving to a 203FE in 2011 and adding a 202FA in 2015.
They’re the classic 6×6 V series models, although have some additions on the more familiar 500 series that I will get into later. Over the years I’ve put several hundred rolls of film through the various cameras, not a great deal but enough to appreciate the idiosyncrasies inherent in shooting with medium format.
The odd thing about medium format is that some photographers think, and others will tell you, that its purpose is only for studio shooting, product photography, high end fashion, and commercial work. Nonsense. In the previous decade I have used mine for shooting action, travel and road trips, as a walk around camera, for long term project work, and even above 2,000m in peak ski season. I’m certainly not the only one to do this.
Not once have I used these cameras in a formal studio setting… Yet the Hasselblad often gets left at home because, well, I don’t know why. The models of the camera I have feature built in metering, high shutter speeds, instant mirror return, fast lenses. They’re no less of a walk around camera than most DSLRs. So why do they get left at home?
I think the reason the camera gets left at home is because most of the work I shoot with it is long term projects, which tend to be sporadic in nature for those subjects I am documenting. When I take the Hasselblad to work on those projects it has a secondary function as a general camera for travel shots, and so on.
For a long time I did shoot skateboarding on a regular basis with it, but even then when I wasn’t shooting skateboarding I wasn’t really shooting anything else.
There’s no doubt that the camera improved my photography. When I traded in my Bronica and external lights I was left with one camera and two fixed lenses, one of them a fisheye, and I would use nothing else for almost eight years. It is only recently that I added a secondary body as a backup (with a different lens) and an Xpan.
I am still trying to maintain the discipline of one camera and one lens for one project, although have relented somewhat of late on that constraint.
In an effort to use the camera more outside of project work I have set myself a goal this year of shooting at least one frame a week with the Hasselblad, and ideally a formal portrait. The camera sits permanently on a tripod in my study to remind me to use it. The portraits included here are randoms shot over the past few years.
I thought it might be interesting to go over some of the things the camera has taught me. Medium format is about to become much more known, if not popular, with the release of the Hasselblad and Fuji mirrorless medium format bodies this year. While they do differ in form and function to the classic 6×6 SLR bodies, there is still much that can be learned from them.
So here are ten things I’ve learned from ten years shooting with a Hasselblad.
1. You need to change some habits
For example, thinking you can get away with shooting at approximately 1/the focal length. If you have a lot more resolution you will find some of those rules of thumb don’t hold up so well, like when you have a big mirror or larger focal plane shutter that adds more movement.
I’ll give you analogy—1/250 was seen as the best x-sync while skate photographers were shooting with 35mm. When everyone started shooting medium format then suddenly 1/500 was seen as the best. If you weren’t using external lights 1/1000 was the minimum shutter speed required to freeze action, when photographers started using higher resolution full frame 35mm digital bodies then that advice was changed to 1/2000 as the minimum.
Get used to shooting more at mid range apertures, f/4 to f/8. Although medium format lenses can be as fast as f/2, you usually don’t want to use them that open because a) they won’t be sharp, b) even if they are sharp you probably won’t nail the focus, and c) even if you do nail the focus they have so little depth at close focus that almost nothing will be in focus.
This has an impact on shooting in low light, but you can work around that in other ways. The photo above was shot with the 110mm f/2 at f/4 and on the full resolution scan you can see that I actually missed the focus point.
You are going to (near) miss shots, lots of shots. One of the worst habits I still have is to only shoot one frame of a scene, unless I have reason to think I messed up, I get the photo and move on. Consequently I have a number of photos that are misses because someone blinked, or I missed the focus, or the composition was a little bit off, or someone or something entered the frame and I didn’t notice.
The instant mirror return on the 200 series Hasselblad cameras does alleviate the last potential mistake.
But you don’t want to shoot many frames of a scene because medium format files are big. A reasonable quality scan from a single 6×6 negative weighs in at 150MB, get them scanned professionally and you can have anything up to 1GB per file. If you over shoot you’re going to add a bottleneck in your workflow because of the amount of data you will need to move around and backup.
It takes me about an hour to scan a roll of 120 film (12 frames) and about another hour or two to process the scans, most of which is removing dust and colour correcting. I can understand why some photographers left behind many rolls of undeveloped film, it’s easy to find yourself with a backlog if you shoot a lot.
2. Find at waist level, but don’t focus at waist level
One of the allures of a medium format SLR is a waist level finder. You will see lots of photos on Instagram, videos on YouTube, etc, that are shot through the waist level finder of a medium format camera;—photos of photos in progress, it’s all very meta. You will also see people shooting photos with the waist level finder at waist level.
This seems intuitive, because it’s a waist level finder, right? The problem is that the waist level finder is designed for finding a scene, and once you have found the scene you should bring the camera up to your eye for two very good reasons.
The first is that it’s almost impossible to focus accurately when shooting at waist level, and this is compounded by the focusing screens on Hasselblads not being fantastic. The newer brighter screens still don’t have focus “pop” and even when you are shooting a couple of stops down from wide open you can miss focus—if you’re at the closest focus distance with the 80mm lens you only have +/- 5cm depth even at f/8.
The second is to tighten your composition. If you bring the camera up to your eye you are not distracted by things outside of the frame and you can make sure to move slightly forwards or backwards to tweak the frame and straighten those verticals.
Related to tightening the composition is not pointing the camera up at close distance. If you are shooting a photo of someone, specifically a half body type portrait, and using the camera at waist level you will be pointing the camera up. This leads to an outcome that looks like you or your subject are falling over. Maybe this can be used for creative effect, but most of the time it looks bad. Bring the camera up to your eye and you prevent this.
3. Focus discipline
As I said above, bring the camera up to your eye and use the magnifier in the viewfinder. Make sure you don’t have a correctional diopter in the magnifier if you don’t need it.
BTW, when did you last get your eyes tested? What happens if you have very shallow depth and you move forwards or backwards slightly between focusing and firing the shutter? What happens if you focus and recompose? A lot of these issues are going to be moot with the autofocus systems in newer digital models, but they’re worth keeping in mind.
I struggle with medium format focusing screens as, again stated above, the Hasselblad screens don’t really snap into focus. Even the newer models seem to suffer from this. The nature of medium format having shallower depth of field can fool you into thinking the subject is in focus when they’re not critically in focus.
One of the best investments I made for the Hasselblad is to get a focusing screen with a split prism in it, however the problem with a split prism is that often you have to focus and recompose.
4. The lenses aren’t always that sharp
This shouldn’t surprise you, but there is a myth that medium and larger format lenses are of course sharper than 35mm lenses. In reality it can be either way: there are good 35mm lenses and bad medium format lenses. There are medium format lenses that are made for specific purposes, and there are lenses that offer something that no other lens has—like the f/2 aperture on my 110mm lens, a lens which is not sharp wide open, but is good enough when I get the focus correct.
The photo linked above illustrates an important point. It was shot on Delta 3200; had I shot this on a slow speed film and there had been enough light to get the same exposure then it would not look as sharp. The grain increases the apparent sharpness. What else? The contrast, resolution, calibration of the camera, quality of any tripod you use, the developer, the enlarger (scanner), the post processing.
Barry Thornton wrote a book on achieving optimal sharpness, “Edge of Darkness”, and in it he only devotes a single page to the quality of the lens attached to your camera.
There’s something else I have to address here: that sharp edges don’t exist so much in real life. Take a look around your immediate environment, find something that has a defined edge. A book maybe, your phone, a credit card, a cup, a piece of fruit? Whatever. Imagine how that object would look if rendered in a photograph. It would probably have a sharp edge, even though in reality it doesn’t.
This is the problem in recording something that has atomic definition on a medium that doesn’t, and one of the ways in which photography has changed our expectations of how that definition should be represented.
5. The backs are the worst part of the system
The modular nature of older medium format systems was a selling point: shoot different backs for different sizes and types of film. But the backs were the weakest part of the system, prone to light leaks, frame spacing issues, or jams. They would ruin a shoot without warning and carrying at least one spare was absolutely essential. You could pick one up for less than the cost of having them serviced, but ran the risk that a second/third/fourth/fifth hand back would just develop its own faults.
Light leaks were the most common issue due to the foam seals that are placed at the dark slide slot, and these could be replaced with little effort. You needed to do this at least once every other year depending on how you stored the camera/backs, but they could still suddenly ruin a frame or two without notice in bright light. I developed a habit of storing my backs with the dark slides out as much as possible in an attempt to preserve the foam seals for longer.
This is no longer an issue with new mirrorless medium format cameras, but does make me wonder what the weak part of the systems is going to be? Cameras always have something that causes frustration, so what is it this time?
6. You need a budget (regular service is a must)
I touched on this in covering the problems with the backs above. A medium format camera is not a single time purchase, you’ll need a budget for regular service and maintenance.
Medium format cameras have this myth (another one) surrounding them that they just go on working for decades without ever having a problem. I think part of that myth is perpetuated by people who own them for only a year or two and then sell them on, or who own them and only dust them off for a shoot once every six months.
This is not my experience.
All three of my Hasselblads have required repair, along with sending the 203FE for a general service. The 202FA developed a second shutter curtain issue, which thankfully was a trivial repair. The 203FE is currently very temperamental and needs “warming up” after not having been used for a few days—the second shutter curtain will not close unless I dry fire the camera a few times. My 201F completely jammed up and required an expensive fix, at which point I sold it to cover the cost of the repair and moved up to the 203FE.
Admittedly, this is the nature of the 200 series models which are very complex, over 400 parts in the body alone according to the service manuals, and only Hasselblad will service them. The 500 series are simpler but these still need regular service if you use them over the long term. If you travel with them this should be obvious, parts will loosen up or go out of alignment.
Also, consider if you pick up a ten/twenty year old “mint” condition second hand camera it probably hasn’t been used and therefore hasn’t been serviced.
7. A backup camera is a necessity for any important work
Given what I wrote above, this should be clear. I purchased the 202FA primarily as a backup camera when I started to travel further afield for the long term projects I am working on. Up until now it hasn’t needed to be used as a backup, so has been used instead as a secondary camera with a different lens on it. There has been moments when the 203FE wasn’t functioning, but I managed to get it working again by dry firing the camera enough times.
This is not cheap considering the investment in a single medium format body, but then consider traveling to the other side of the world only to have your camera fail. Not cheap either. Perhaps rent a backup body if you are going on a trip, or even pick up a cheap beat-up second hand body. This is trivial with the older film cameras, you can pick one up for a couple of hundred Euros. The digital versions? Not going to be so easy.
8. The square
Substitute “square” for whatever the aspect ratio your camera shoots in here. 24x36mm, 33x44mm (6×4.5cm), 6×6, 6×7, 4×5” (8×10). 24x65mm (XPan). These are all differently proportioned boxes, so they give you different ways to compose a scene. Sure you can crop, but you will see the scene differently when composing and that will probably start to influence the way you compose.
The square has become prolific over the past few years (thanks to Instagram). I’ve always been fond of it because I don’t feel as constrained to arbitrary compositional devices, or rules that are followed only because everyone says they must be followed. I can shoot a full body portrait and happily put the subject smack bang in the middle of the frame without hearing complaints about the rule of thirds. Having shot with the square for a long time I feel it has influenced the way I compose with other frames.
Ultimately this is a compelling reason to choose one format over another. It’s not about film versus digital: it’s about squares versus rectangles, big cameras versus small cameras, fast cameras versus slow cameras.
This has been a reason I have held off so long on getting a digital camera to replace the Hasselblad, I am too attached to the square.
9. Reactions to the camera
The curious thing about medium format cameras, especially those that you might wander around finding scenes at waist level with, is that people tend to react to them differently. My experience is that there is often a short moment in which the subject seems oblivious to the camera and then when they realize what is going on they become curious.
This reaction is different to the apprehensive or defensive reaction that can happen when you point a large DSLR at them.
I think part of this is because you can’t really hide behind a medium format camera in the way that you would a DSLR. The nature of the shooting process means it’s difficult to get candid shots and extreme telephoto lenses don’t really exist for the format. This means you have to get close if you want to fill the frame, you have to make your intentions clear, you have to relax, and many times it’s just best to ask.
This isn’t going to be the case with the new mirrorless models so I expect reactions to those are not going to differ much to their smaller counterparts.
The curiosity is often a good icebreaker, letting people look through the waist level finder and demonstrating the way the camera is used seems to put people at ease. This is not a fast camera, I’m not trying to catch you out. And, of course, if the subject has any interest in photography, which is often a given these days, this can lead to lengthy conversations.
10. Medium format is more than just “bigger”
It’s not about resolution, microcontrast, colour rendering, dynamic range, sharpness, or any other of those boring technicalities. At least not for me. My reasons for picking up a medium format camera, some thirteen years ago, was to facilitate a different approach to photography. When I ditched the last of my lights in 2008 my approach changed again.
Sure the technicalities matter, but you have to understand that shooting with a medium format camera is different to shooting with a 35mm camera. Just as shooting with an iPhone is different to a 35mm camera, or shooting with large format, or wet plates, or a rangefinder, or whatever. And I’m not talking about slowing down, because slowing down slows you down, I’m talking more about how you see the world through your camera and how the camera allows you to see the world.
“The best camera is the one you have with you” is an oft-repeated platitude that is now a meaningless phrase given we all have cameras with us at all times in one form or another. The choice of the camera informs your approach, and thus the image, and thus the direction you take.
This is important over the long term, and has been a key factor in the projects I have been working on.
So what next?
Part of my reasons for writing this post relate to the photographic cross roads I find myself at. The 203FE is the best camera I have ever used despite all of its quirks, failings, expense, and temperament. However, I find myself tiring of shooting film, not because of the process but rather the frustrating baggage that often associates with it, and I am approaching the end of the long-term project work I have been shooting exclusively with this camera.
I could get myself a digital back for the 203FE, which will involve some conversion work. Yet the cost of that back eclipses the cost of a new mirrorless medium format setup significantly, and I would be left with a camera that still has the quirks and failings. A camera that still needs to be serviced every two or there years, which is in no way guaranteed to be possible.
This is an unfortunate situation that Fuji/Hasselblad have now created. The market for new and used digital medium format backs for V series cameras, those of higher resolution and quality, is now essentially dead. Unless Hasselblad can release one at a much lower cost than the mirrorless cameras, which is unlikely to happen as that will impact the mirrorless sales. The V series in digital form is now over from a development point of view.
Medium format is at a turning point, the release this year of mirrorless Hasselblad and Fuji models stands to introduce a large number of photographers to it. I could sell my current equipment to just about cover the cost of one of those setups, and I have to admit I’m tempted.
The Hasselblad 203FE is the best camera I have ever used, but all good things must end. Maybe I’ll wait for version two or three of the new cameras though.
About the author: Lee Johnson is a Switzerland-based photographer and software developer. You can find more of his work and words by visiting his blog, or following him on Twitter and Instagram. This article was also published here.