Hasselblad 500CM – The Victor Hasselbad Legacy

Hasselblad 500CM

The Hasselblad 500CM. Whether it was Helmut Newton and his “little box”, as Sigourney Weaver commented, or Lee Friedlander occasionally looking for a bigger negative, there’s no doubt the Hasselblad 500, in its various forms, is in itself an icon. I don’t think there is a serious photographer in the latter 20th century that hasn’t at least given a nod to the Hasselblad 500CM.

The Hand Built Hasselblad 500CM

The originals were hand-built in Sweden, and eventually became the medium format system to have. Victor Hasselblad released the original in 1957. A true modular system. And married to the Zeiss lenses, it was an almost instant hit. The Hasselblad 500CM was probably the pinnacle of mechanical camera flexibility. (although the 500C was great) With easily interchangeable lenses, film backs and viewfinders it was what most considered the perfect marriage of mechanical reliability and ease of use,…with the addition of being a square medium format, ala the Rolleiflex TLR of the time.(but no parallax) Add to that, future bodies were compatible with everything that came before.


Hasselblad 500C with Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 CF


Probably the smartest move Hasselblad ever made was hooking up with lensmaker Carl Zeiss. (although they have used Fuji and Kodak at various times) And the ones produced for the Hasselblad 500CM were beyond expectations in sharpness and contrast. The original lenses produced had Prontor or Compur in-lens shutters. I.e., the bodies had no shutters. The later F series were for bodies with focal plane shutters.

Zeiss Rules

I’m sure every lens was great, but I think the series CF type was the high point in their lenses. (Including the standard  Zeiss T* 80mm Planar) Leaf shutter lenses can look a little complicated, but they were quite simple. Shutter speed, aperture and focusing are ALL on the lens. Even the PC sync connector is on the lens. It synced at all speeds. With the T* multi-coating prevented flaring and added contrast. EV could also be set and locked right on the lens. With all these variables addressed right on the lens itself, it wasn’t a wonder why people thought of these lenses as “complicated”. In use, it was quite simple.



The body, without the lens, viewfinder and back attached, is basically a light tight box. Or is it?. The actual complexity of an all mechanical camera becomes apparent. When the body and lens are in the “cocked” position, the shutter has to be open, the mirror in an exact angle and the aperture open. Remember, shutter and aperture are in the lens, not camera body. When I just think about all that “non electronic” synchronization, my head hurts.


Lee Friedlander with his Hasssy


So, while all mechanical, the following series of actions must occur on hitting the shutter release button; the aperture must close to position, the mirror must flip out of the way, the lens shutter must trigger then close. All with utmost precision. The rear flaps must open and close. The viewfinder is now dark. (the mirror is in the way)

Easier than it Appears

Wind the crank and the following happens; The lens shutter cocks, the film is advanced one frame, the aperture opens to maximum, the mirror returns to its’ viewing position. Whew! In other words, there’s a very complex series of events occurring in this little “box”. From shutter release to winding the crank. And it’s all solid, precise and smooth as butter.


Hassy Landscape


There is a mirror lock up switch for shooting at very slow shutter speeds. The mirror slap, while no Pentax 67, is substantial enough to cause recordable vibration at slow shutter speeds. You can mount a cold shoe or other accessory on the rail on the left side of the body. The lens release button on the front is pretty self explanatory. (opposite side of shutter release)

The Backs

Of course you have the film backs. With their dark slides, you can change backs in mid roll. Going back and forth from color to B+W, 120 to 220, or even switching to Polaroid backs. Or just have multiple backs pre-loaded for fast shoots. You are prevented through some mechanical mumbo-jumbo from removing a back without its’ dark slide in place. The later A12vbacks did have one major tweak by making a cradle that prevented dark slide metal from bending. Sounds minor, but it was a great addition to protecting the very thin metal. The film insert, for loading film, turn the little keyon the back, and it will slide out. You can load the film backwards. So,…be careful. Go to YouTube if you’re not sure. I think everybody who’s ever loaded film backwards in a Hasselblad has made a video!



Hassy Portraiture


Another cool thing is your ability to shoot with different backs. An A12, 120 film (6x6cm), A24, 220 film (6x6cm), A16, 120 film (6×4.5cm), and Type 100 film pack Polaroid. Plus the really weird 70mm perforated roll backs. But I’m not sure you can get film for that back any longer. (I’m sure someone will comment if I’m wrong)


Besides the chimney finder which is a collapsible waist-level finder, there are metered and non – metered 45 and 90 degree finders. The standard finder has a flip up magnifier. What’s strange is that most of the people I know who bought these finders, myself included, (though mine was on a Rollei 6008), go back to the chimney finder. Not that they’re bad. Sometimes you just realize simplicity rules! But the prism finders are very easy to use. And bright and accurate. I liken them to an F4s. The advantage over just a plain F4 is minimal,….but it is much heavier and bulkier.



80mm Planar


If I were coming from a 35mm system,…especially mechanical, this is the camera I’d advise. There is not much you can’t do with this camera. It’s solid, hand built, beautiful, and with the Zeiss lenses, the images are without compare. With a Leica like lens, but in Medium format? Well, there is no contest. This is a system that has actually made believers out of camera pagans.


Victor Hasselblad

Victor Hasselblad by Halsman


Although even a Helmut Newton used a Rollei TLR in the early years, and a Plaubel Makina for casual shooting, he always went back to the Hasselblad 500CM when it was “important”. From Robert Mapplethorpe to Bruce Weber, this camera has definitely made its’ bones in the photographic world. If you can dream it, this camera can do it. Roll after roll. Can you buy a digital Hassy with all the bells and whistles and 100MP for $35K to $50K? Sure. But your images will be just as good with a nice used 500 with Zeiss lens. Really.  Find Hasselblad 500C/M

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  • Reply
    January 16, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    Would be great if you had a menu for all your camera reviews as they are quite good!

  • Reply
    January 16, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    As a drop down menu? I’m mostly promoting film users. But analog equipment reviews are actually quite popular. But they are certainly not at a DPReviews level. Now those are REAL reviews!! It may be a good idea.

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