Hasselblad system review – Trevor Saylor


by Bellamy /

8 min read

Hasselblad system review – Trevor Saylor
After Trevors last pieces he has decided to give us a review on the Hasselblad camera system (more specifically the 501CM). If you are not familiar with the square format this should be a nice little introduction for you.

For a change to my usual summer routine, I took my Hasselblad 501CM with me on my annual trip to Anna Maria Island, Florida in July of this year.  I had recently had my appendix out, and as a result I was unable to swim, giving me lots of time to make photographs. I decided that I wanted a challenge and brought along the ‘Blad in order to make some different kinds of shots for the book that I planned to make (you can see it here) once I returned home.

“Hannah” – Anna Maria Island, FL

Over the past year, I have become mostly interested in “street photography”, or “documentary photography”. This mostly involves approaching a scene and photographing it as it unfolds organically—but not altering, or interfering with, the scene at all. It is candid, unposed, and can yield great results if done well. It’s also not easy. As the style has become more popular, the genre has been watered down with a lot of silly snapshots that have very little, if anything, to offer artistically.  “Photography is nothing,” a founding father of both street photography and photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, once said, “it is life that interests me.”

“Kelsey & Kristin” – Anna Maria Island, FL

The Hasselblad is not really known for excelling in this type of photography, but is renowned as an excellent system for portraits and landscapes. Landscapes are particularly strange to me, and the results that I got while in Florida proved as much; portraits were a different story. Having shot some portraits in the past with my SLRs, I have a bit of experience with the medium, but I would not really classify myself as a portrait photographer. Armed with 50/4, 80/2.8, and 150/4 lenses (medium format focal lengths are not equal to those of the more widely-known 35mm format; as a rough rule, if you divide the medium format focal length in half, you get an approximate 35mm focal length value) I set off to make some portraits.

I did not venture into making portraits of strangers, or what are known as “street portraits”. Striking up conversations with strangers is really not a great strength of mine–which is one reason I think photography, and street photography in particular–appeals to me. Be that as it may, the Hasselblad was not the only camera system I brought along (since I had so much time to shoot this year), and I enjoyed exploring a new type of photography, and getting more familiar with the Hasselblad 501CM. It is (or was at that point) still relatively new to me, and its intricacies still amaze me. So does the output.

“Mom” – Anna Maria Island, FL

The camera is relatively large and bulky, although not incredibly heavy. My Nikon D700, as measure of comparison, is heavier, and about as bulky. The newer lenses for the Hasselblad V-system, like my 80mm f/2.8 CFE T*, are more plastic and far lighter than the older CT* lenses like the 50mm f/4 and 150mm f/4 I also brought along (borrowed from my father). The 501CM is solidly-built and robust; when using it I do not feel as if I need to baby the camera (but then I remember what it cost, and I do baby it a little). My 501CM was made in 2001, my father’s was made in 1998; the 500CM has been made for decades, and is essentially the same camera; the 501CM introduces a few minor changes that you likely wouldn’t miss unless you were a hard-core Hasselblad shooter.

Holding the camera at such an angle where you look down into it, as opposed to the more traditional in front of your face, when you make a photograph of someone is strange at first. Actually, I’m still not really used to it. By looking down at the mirror through the focusing screen, you also learn that the image is reversed, which can take some time to get used to. Due to the position that you have to hold the camera at, and its size and weight, a tripod is highly recommended. I haven’t gotten one yet, and there are some times I wish I had one. Then again, lugging around a tripod makes the whole rig even bulkier and heavier, so there is a balance to strike. The slow focusing, film advance, and general operation also ensure that each photograph is carefully selected before the frame is exposed. As someone I’m quite fond of would say, it’s a very “deliberate” pace.

The larger negative of medium format film can yield detail that a 35mm negative would not show you. The resolving power and sharpness of the Zeiss lenses for the Hasselblad V-system have a reputation that precedes them, and for good reason. They are truly excellent from shots I have seen, both of my own and from others.

“Kids” – Anna Maria Island, FL

For anyone looking at the Hasselblad system, would I recommend it? Well, that’s a tough call. This is only the second medium format camera that I have used (not counting the cheap, increasingly hipster-ish Holga). My first was the Mamiya C220 TLR, which is a twin lens reflex (TLR). A twin lens reflex camera is similar, yet different, in operation from the Hasselblad SLR (single lens reflex) camera. One key difference is that the TLR has two lenses, which allows the photographer to see through the lens even after the exposure and before the shutter is re-cocked. This is not the case with the Hasselblad, where the viewfinder goes black until the film is advanced and the mirror has been flipped back down. This may not be a big deal to some, but it can be to others.

Back to the question I just posed. So you know your way around a camera, and are interested in a medium format film camera? Perhaps you’ve shot film before, or even a different medium format-system, like the Mamiya TLR line, the Mamiya rangefinder system, or others. Perhaps this is your first inroad into the medium. Well, the Hasselblad does come with a few drawbacks. First, it does not have a meter built-in; you’ll have to bring your own external meter to this party. If you don’t know what a meter is, or what that matters, please stop reading now, head to your nearest Best Buy, and ask the salesperson to recommend a good camera for taking pictures of your dogs.

Still reading? Great, then let’s continue…

“Papa” – Anna Maria Island, FL

The Hasselblad also has other cons beside the lack of a built-in meter (which isn’t that big of a deal, since you can get a free light meter app for your smartphone which will do the job). There is no autofocus. The lack of AF may get some, but chances are if you’re willing to go without a meter in your camera and are already thinking of the Hasselblad, then you’re probably focusing a camera on your own without the assistance of a computer. The manual focus isn’t particularly fast on this line of cameras–unlike, say, my trusty Leica M rangefinder. Rangefinder focusing is really apples-and-oranges, however. I’m just using that as a way to compare.

So, we have a list of pros and cons. Let’s refresh our memories:

Image quality is stunning!
System is well-developed, meaning there are lots of accessories, lenses, etc readily available
Excellent for the portrait and landscape photographers out there
Shoots film–and the larger negatives are great for prints (but digital backs are available)

Body and lenses are comparatively large and bulky, and can be heavy
Lack of built-in meter, autofocus, flash
Slow to operate
Shooting at slower speeds necessitates a tripod; actually, a tripod is probably a good idea most of the time
Maximum shutter speed of 1/500 can be limiting (and may necessitate the use of ND filters)
Bodies, lenses, and accessories cost a premium
Qualified repair-people can be hard to come by, and are expensive when you do find them
Shoots film

“Salute” – Anna Maria Island, FL

You’ll notice that I listed the fact that it shoots film as both a positive and a negative. That’s because it is…sort of. I happen to love film, and the look it gives. I also love shooting with film cameras more that I do with digital cameras (if you have to ask, I can’t explain it). But film is getting expensive, and with medium format you only get 12 frames per roll, as opposed to the more traditional 24 or 26 exposures that you get with 35mm film. Additionally, processing and scanning add to the time–and cost–of shooting film. With a roll of medium format film costing around $5 these days, and processing anywhere from $5-12 per roll (depending on the vendor used and if you get your negatives scanned, to say nothing of having prints made), there can be a considerable cost involved. And that is after you already shelled out your hard-earned money for the equipment. To be sure, one can do much of this at home for far cheaper (particularly with black and white film) and Bellamy has had some great posts on doing so.

So…that is quite a list, with arguments for and against. The biggest barrier you’ll probably find is the cost of getting into such a system. There are no two ways around it: Hasselblad is expensive. Is it worth it to you? I can’t make that call. All I know is that I love mine, even though it is a bit of a “specialty” camera for me. I don’t take it everywhere with me, and it isn’t an all-purpose camera by any means. If you are looking for one camera, look elsewhere. If you want a camera for really anything but portraiture or landscapes, you should also look elsewhere, as the Hasselblad system isn’t suited to much else. But that isn’t to say that you can’t use it for anything else, just that there are better options for you.

“Elliot” – Anna Maria Island, FL

I have illustrated this post with portraits, but I have done other things with it as well. I used my old Mamiya TLR for years before finally investing in my Hasselblad 501CM when I stumbled on a great deal earlier this year. For me, the Hasselblad is a camera that I use for certain things. I love the results I get from the camera, but for most things it’s too large to carry around with me. When I am traveling light, or even just heading out for a day with my family, I much prefer the size and weight of my Leica MP and a lens or two.

All in all, I’m quite happy with the Haasselblad 501CM. I look forward to years of shooting with it, and I am already planning a vacation with it in the near future so that I can work on my landscape photography.

“Self-Portrait” – Anna Maria Island, FL

If this review was helpful to you, leave a comment and let me know. It’s not scientific by any means, but it’s as thorough as I can likely be. I’m not a qualified camera-reviewer, just a guy who actually uses the equipment and enjoys it, and figured some others might benefit from some thoughts I had on it.

If you enjoy my work, check out my website and/or blog. If you liked the guest post, let Bellamy know.


You can find out more about Trevor and his work by going to the following links:

My website – www.trevorsaylor.com
My blog – www.trevor365photo.wordpress.com
My twitter – @trevorsaylor

14 comments on “Hasselblad system review – Trevor Saylor”

    Jukka Watanen January 13, 2013 at 10:09 am / Reply

    A hasselblad system is very large and has lenses & accessories for most work imaginable. Sometimes young guys get into it and have maybe a couple lenses ( chrome barrell) and one cassette. That is no different set up than most other middle format cameras out there. Contemplating to buy a body from 1970 and and lenses as old, I rather suggest a mamiya 6 or 7. Better optical quality and easier handling.
    Also digital backs start to look like a bad choice when comparing to new Nikons ( D700 & D4). I personally shoot 70mm B&W perforated film with my hasselblads. You have 200 frames in one loading with unsurpassed quality.

      Prashant January 13, 2013 at 10:58 am /

      Hey. Hey.. Just saw you mentioning the usage of 70mm single perforated film.
      I was trying to find out some ways of using it. is there any where , where you have posted some of your ways of fooling around. I was also contemplating usage of C41 movie film, But then developing movie film was a different thigns i dint want to get into. But I would love to know your black and white 70mm film story. Any pointers? Please. :) Thanks, – P.

    Prashant January 13, 2013 at 10:55 am / Reply

    Very nicely written article. Review? You might call it. But it felt personal. ( Like, how some might call using film. But you can never really say why. )
    Beautiful pictures. And with the beach i can feel the real beach feel in every picture. I liked how you put across the idea of carrying it just for a special case. In which case, you probably exactly know what you are doing with the camera. Not like the street guys. Another things people could pick a cue from. It’s a camera for someone who wants it. Not for someone who can just afford it. I enjoy my Mamiya 645. I hope to put that to some good use over the next vacation. May be ill plan one after some ideas i got from this picture posts series.
    Again, nice post. really liked it.

    David K.K. Hansen January 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm / Reply

    Nicely written article. A heads-up for every new Hasselblad owner: Always have a small coin and a Philips screwdriver in your camera bag. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll need either one ;-)

    mondostic January 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm / Reply

    Thanks for the article, it was a good read and brought back good memories from last summer when I had the chance to borrow a 1960s Hasselblad 500 for a while. The reverse image in the viewfinder is a bit hard for the male brain. Also shooting with a camera which has the size, weight and ergonomics of a milk carton can be a bit difficult. Then again, the images are stunning, the viewfinder is like no other I’ve seen, and the system is quite well thought out to try and prevent you from doing anything stupid. Maybe one day…

    stanislaw riccadonna zolczynski January 13, 2013 at 6:14 pm / Reply

    D.K.K.Hansen- you could be a bit less cryptic about your advice but as Trevor has couple lenses, he must know. To others – don`t change lenses on uncocked Hassy.

    Af January 13, 2013 at 8:51 pm / Reply

    Looks like family potrait to me. Nothing much.

    Ralph Hightower January 14, 2013 at 7:58 am / Reply

    I want to get into medium format photography. But Hasselblad is to Leica as are $$$.

    But there’s one thing that is indisputable, image quality is fantastic. There’s also the benefit with most systems to be able to change films in mid stream by simply changing a film back without having to finish a roll and reload.

    Hasselblad used bodies may be cheap, but the used lenses aren’t.

    There are two systems that I am interested in, both Mamiya. There’s the RZ67 and the 645 for when I need the longer reach of a telephoto compared to the 6×7. I don’t know when I’ll see a rocket lauch again, but I would take a 6×4.5 over a 6×7 and my 35mm.

      cidereye January 14, 2013 at 5:08 pm /

      The RZ67 weighs a ton, just so impractical to carry around. The 645 system is way under rated IMHO and a good 645 Pro TL can be picked up for peanuts these days, the quality from these superb Mamiya lenses are fantastic too! I love mine and as you say they produce some long reach lenses too if you need them and the used lens prices are crazy low compared to Hassy.

    Paulo February 9, 2013 at 6:40 am / Reply

    First of all I would like to apologize for my limited English skills.

    “I’m not a qualified camera-reviewer, just a guy who actually uses the equipment and enjoys it”.
    That’s a plus in my book!

    I’m a Leica user, an Hasselbad user and a Contax G user.
    There are a couple of things in your text that can be misleading for those wanting to get into medium format and end up here reading this post.

    In the Cons list you wrote things like this:
    Lack of built-in meter, autofocus, flash.
    (Most Leicas apart from a small group, as you know, do not have built-in meters or autofocus or flash. Would you say this is down for Leicas?)

    Another thing is the size and many comments talked about it. The Hasselblad V system is the smallest and lighter medium format system around. You are right about older lenses, they are steel weapons (the 50mm and the 60mm in particular), but the body, back and even the older CT 80mm makes the Hasselblad the most compact medium format SLR camera.

    I’m saying this after using a Rolleiflex 6006 and 6008, Pentax 67, a Mamiya 645j, 645 Pro TL RZ and RB, a Zenza Bronica SQ-AM and a Contax 645. All of these cameras are heavier and bulkier than the Hasselblad. The Yashicas like the famous Mat or the twin lens Rolleiflexes are lighter but the Hasseblad is an SLR.

    Lenses are very expensive.
    The Zeiss lenses for the Hasselblad are unsurpassed and they are much cheaper than 90% of the lenses for the Leica M system. An example: IMMO the queen of lenses, the Zeiss 110mm/f2 can go around 1000 USD in mint condition and this is a high figure. How many decent M lenses can we get for that amount?

    It’s an old system from the 70’s.
    (at least the ones most people have including me, 500CM)
    The same with many, many M’s around and yet, we all know how good they perform.

    The Mamiya 6mf and the 7ii.
    These are two of the most amazing medium format cameras. The lenses are… razor sharp, very special “bokeh” and a very personal visual signature. I had both and sold them because I just couldn’t get close enough. I like tight portraits and the Mamiyas are not the right tools for the job not even with the 150mm.

    The Hasselblad V system like the Leica M system are mechanical wonders. They can take about anything and still they deliver the best images. They truly last forever.

    Like in everything in life there are amazing options, the Mamiyas are amazing cameras with amazing lenses available. The Pro TL is a great camera. Put a Leaf digital back on an RB or RZ and you have a lifetime studio workhorse.

    The Bronicas are also very competent medium format cameras and they can be found at great prices.

    Good text and good pictures Trevor.

    Phil Brown August 11, 2013 at 2:09 am / Reply

    I’m a Hasselblad and Leica user as well as Linhof and several others.
    Forget Bronica. They aren’t as reliable as Hasselblad. They break down. Frequently.
    I had a 2 week shoot partially ruined by a malfunctioning Bronica. I’ve never had a Hasselblad failure.
    I can happily shoot with a camera and standard lens so hauling a bunch of lenses is optional for me. I still do it, though, especially when I’m shooting the Leica.
    And most of the time I take both Hasselblad and Leica with me.
    But sometimes I just use a Rollei 3.5 TLR. Sometimes staying simple appeals to me.
    Phil Brown

    vinson smith October 8, 2013 at 12:49 pm / Reply

    I was wondering what film you were using on your trip to fl? I think the images are amazing. Also could you tell me how they were developed and scanned?
    I have the Hassy 503CW with the winder and the 80mm 2.8 for about a month now. I’ve only shot black and white but looking at your color images is inspiring.
    Thank you for your wonderful article and your time and consideration,

    Magic January 20, 2014 at 6:32 am / Reply

    Loved your “review”!
    I also just purchased 503cw with 80mm lens and have shot two roles of film, ektar 100 and trix 400. The only problem i have is the focus is hard to get right for me.
    My 50% of images was not that sharp.
    What would you guys recommend as light meter, app or real lightmeter?
    Last time I used a p&s digi camera for metering :D

    Thanx again for share.

    Joseph Pang October 15, 2016 at 8:42 pm / Reply

    I enjoy reading your article and like the way you share your experience with the Hasselblad. I am not a photographer as such but I do enjoy immensely shooting photos with my digital cameras. These days I am into reexploring film photography which I have dropped for 10 years after buying my first digital camera. Film photography presents to me a good test of my fundamentals of photography. I am fascinated by details achieved in film photography by those skillful photographers. I just wonder what will be the difference between photographing in 135 and medium format…….does the medium format give me the very unique photographic flavor I lust for. ………in the era when a computer takes the photos for me the skill required in film photography seems more precious. ….just wondering if getting into medium format photography will expand my horizon in film photography?

    Hope you can share with me your experience.


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