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Hasselblad “V” System – End of an Era

Last month, Hasselblad announced that it was ceasing production of its 503CW camera, the last in its historic line of “V” System cameras.  This camera was the latest, and final, iteration of Hasselblad’s storied line of medium-format film cameras.

For many years, Hasselblad was considered the pinnacle of medium format cameras – those that used film roughly 2.5 times greater in area than standard 35mm film.  This was before the days of rapid digital obsolescence, when camera models tended to last for years, and evolved slowly.  While these cameras evolved over time, they kept many of the same basic design features for more than 50 years.

Hasselblads were famous as “the camera that travelled to space”.  This started rather unofficially in 1962, when Astronaut Wally Schirra went into a camera shop in Houston and purchased a Hasselblad off the shelf prior to his flight aboard the Mercury Mission’s “Sigma 7”.  After the success of this flight and its photos, the relationship between NASA and Hasselblad was formalized, and specially adapted Hasselblad cameras were used for future missions.  Hasselblads documented the first space walk, the first manned orbit of the Moon, and the first lunar landing.  A Hasselblad was lost during a space walk, making it the only camera in orbit, and thirteen cameras were left behind on the surface of the moon to reduce weight during the return trips.

A Hasselblad was my first “serious” camera.  I was aware of Hasselblad’s mystique, and had read that Ansel Adams used one in his later years.  That was good enough for me, so I made the commitment, a big one for me, and purchased a Hasselblad 500C/M in 1987 for the outrageous price of $1,800.  I remember driving back from the camera store, thinking that my new camera was worth more than my old car.  I used that camera for many years, until I eventually moved up to a larger format camera.

The camera was entirely manual.  There was no winding mechanism, no light meter, and no batteries.  The standard viewfinder showed the image right side up, but reversed left to right, which provided just enough departure from reality to feel like you were looking “at” an image rather than “through” a camera.  Anyone who ever used one will remember the distinctive “thump” when the shutter was released.

I always felt attached to that camera, and kept it, even after moving on.  Hasselblad and other manufacturers eventually started making digital backs for the legacy “V” system cameras.  Although the prices were initially astronomical, as with all things electronic, they eventually started to drop.  Two years ago, I purchased a used Phase One P45+ digital back for my old Hasselblad, which has again become my primary camera.  I find this gives me a great combination of tactile ergonomics, high-resolution digital capture (39.1 Megapixels), and a smooth, film-like tonality.

Although Hasselblad has now officially moved on to their digital “H” Series cameras, the venerable “V Series” cameras continue to live on.


Digital photography with a 26 year-old camera – Hasselblad 500C/M and Phase One P45+ Digital Back


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