Made in Sweden: Hasselblad 500 CM

Volvo, Saab, Ikea, ABBA and…Hasselblad. Sweden has exported famous brands. Quality and innovation. This certainly applies to the King of medium format cameras, the famous Hasselblad. What Leica is for 35mm, the Hasselblad is for 120 film. Expensive, but quality down to the last detail.

Victor Hasselblad makes no more than 10,000 cameras a year, all from a three-storey complex in Gothenburg. Rather a small number of handmade quality cameras than mass production. The history of Hasselblad goes back to 1841, from exclusive distributor of Kodak cameras to its own ‘Hasselblad 1600F’ in 1946. But only in 1957 came the change to the famous 120 medium format “Hasselblad 500”, the first in the now 60 year fame of the brand. Hasselblad made it even to the moon with NASA.

The probably most sought, vintage Hasselblad, the 500 CM.
The probably most sought, vintage Hasselblad, the 500 CM.

The Hasselblad 500 C was introduced in 1957, replacing the original focal plane shutter models 1600 F and 1000 F, which, despite their innovative concept never got rid of the problems associated with the shutter used. So they kind of returned to an older concept: the shutter in the lens that was much more reliable. For that, Hasselblad choosed the only one stable shutter system: the Compur shutter (based on Zeiss Ikon’s Contaflex), and the promise that Zeiss would produce a whole line of high quality lenses. The shutter would then be an integral part of every interchangeable Hasselblad lens. But another big advantage was that the Compur leaf shutter meant electronic flash synchronization at all shutter speeds, and automatic aperture stop down. The model name 500 reflects the fastest shutter speed and the shutter type: a 1/500th second.

Hasselblad 500 CM lens
The leafshutter in the Compur of the Hasselblad 500 CM.

The original model stayed in production until 1970. It was replaced by the here showed 500C/M (M for modified), featuring an easy interchangeable focusing screen and an improved automatic back, the A-series film magazines. The new Hasselblad camera gained a undisputable reputation over the years for its robustness, mechanical accuracy and for having a wide range of high-quality lenses, making it the medium-format camera of choice for generations of professional photographers (Wikipedia). Already time ahead of the principles of the later Ikea Hasselblad choose flexibility with 3 interchangeable elements, modules: not only the lenses, but also the winding crank, the focussing screen, the viewfinder and the film magazine are exchangeable during normal operation of the camera. The 500C/M included a ‘normal’ 80mm lens and the so called A12 film back.

Hasselblad 500 CM
The interchangeable back of the Hasselblad 500 CM. Each back holds 12 6×6 pictures on a 120 roll.

But a modular approach had it downsizes. Many mistakes could (and can!) be made by any photographer to make changes (remove the back, change a lens) before cocking the shutter on the body first. This can result in either a released shutter and a body already in a mirror-down position or a cocked shutter and the mirror up. In either situation, re-inserting the lens can easily lead to irreversible damage (Wikipedia). Not only Hasselblad cameras suffered from this problem, many look-a-likes copies, like the Russian Kiev cameras had similar issues. I too have already managed to disrupt the camera and it is certainly not easy without a coin, screwdriver or the special FotodioX CameraKey Tool for Hasselblad Cameras & Lenses to get the camera working properly again. Usually it suffices to turn a metal tab on the mount of the lens, so it will sync with the body again.

Hasselblad 500 CM
Always sync the film back with the Shutter on the main body of the Hasselblad 500 CM, colors indicate the ‘sync’.

With these facts in mind, the fun part starts with the camera. Once the shutter is cocked, the aperture set on the lens and focused, the rest is to only operate the shutter button, to be rewarded with the fantastic and unmatched Hasselblad sound. You quickly fall in love with this camera, by the sounds of winding the film with the crank, the release of the shutter, the flipping out of the waist viewfinder. The latter is by the way very bright and certainly with the special ‘split image’ focus focussing screen that works as a mini rangefinder. But again, Hasselblad offers a range of focussing screens and they are easy to get on eBay. Also the finders can be exchanged, from the standard waist-level with as standard to 45 degree viewfinders. Change your focussing screen? Here is how to it right!

Hasselblad 500 CM
The Hasselblad Zeiss Distagon T*, 60 mm F 3.5 wide angle lens

Hasselblad uses the 6 x 6 format, a square format, or a 1:1 ratio. Square photos were cool well before Instagram and remains a very popular format for 12 exposures on a 120 roll film.

Loading the film is pretty straightforward. Keep the dark slide inserted, open the (A12) back and wound the film the correct way, wind it till the arrows on the film correspond with the one on the metal back, wind it on with the little crank on the back till it automatically stops at the first exposure. Here is how to do it. Always keep in mind to sync the back to the body, meaning first cock your shutter before attaching the back again, so you do not wind the newly loaded film from exposure 1 already to 2. On the filmback you can put a little note that reminds you of the film used and even so can mark the ISO with the dial.

Hasselblad 500 CM
The waist-level finder with the clear focus screen on the Hasselblad 500 CM.

What about the lenses? There are up 15 distinct C (T*) lenses made for the 500 series, which covered focal lengths from 30mm to 500mm, all made by Carl Zeiss in West Germany. As with many cameras from that time the shutter speed and aperture rings are coupled (linked). Once you have a combination set, you are able to cycle through a number of available combinations by simply turning the shutter speed ring (e.g. 500 sec and f/4 keeps the same as 1/250 sec and f/5.6 and so on). If the current setting doesn’t give you the exposure combination you’d like, pull down on the tab on the lens, and set your own shutter speed (combinations). The C lenses are all synchronized for electronic flash at all shutter speeds, and have a “T” (for time exposures) and “V” (self-timer) setting (8 secs). A set of green numbers to the left of the shutter speeds are non-selectable time markings and indicate the number of full seconds the shutter should remain open for when the B setting is in use. The red scale is only for use with special Hasselblad cameras (2000CF). C lenses normally operate wide-open for focusing and stop down to the preselected aperture fraction of a second before the exposure is made (source and more can be found on T* on the lenses indicate a six-layer multicoating. A nice feature is the C lenses are equipped with red automatic depth-of-field indicators, which display how the depth of field changes for each aperture (the red arrows that change with the aperture). Here is a 60 mm, f/3.5 CT* lens mounted, giving a similar focus as a 33mm on a small film 35 mm camera (0,55 cropfactor with 6×6). The lens produces sharp, colorful and pleasant wide pictures. There are many accessories for the Hasselblad 500 CM. A special cold shoe can be attached on the side (slipped over the metal ‘Hasselblad 500 CM’ marking), shutter cables, straps, filters for lenses and so on. Even a digital Phase One back was made, but the prices for these (older) backs are skyhigh, even more expensive than the Hasselblad itself. And they just cannot beat the typical retro style of a authentic Hasselblad print.

Owning a Hasselblad for medium format is owning a Leica for 35mm. The cameras (and lenses!) are serviceable since they are all manual and common available. But even so, there is a big chance that an 50 year old camera still works as the first day it was used. They are very sturdy and reliable, handmade quality from Sweden. They were meant for professional photographers that had to rely solely on the proven and solid quality when doing wedding photography or other important, one time events. For 120 filmshooters a Hasselblad is a no brainer, even as old as it is. Looking for a manual, Mike Butkus of course has it.

Example pictures taken with the 500 CM and Kodak Portra 160 film (January 2021):

The Hasselblad 500 CM in 360° view. Please rotate the picture.

Hasselblad 500 CM advertisement
Hasselblad 500 CM advertisement

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