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A Review of the Hasselblad CFV-50c

The Best Digital Camera You Can Buy Is 50 Years Old


Tech : Cameras By Photo by Henry Phillips

A good-condition Hasselblad 500 c/m medium-format camera with all the necessary shooting equipment and a great 80mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss lens can be bought for about $800 these days. It will be anywhere between 20 and 50 years old, shoot beautiful 6cm x 6cm images (about four times as big as normal 35mm film) and be one of the most rewarding photo experiences you can have. The downside? You’ll have to deal with film and all the hassle (and fulfillment!) that comes with shooting analog. Thankfully, if you want to shoot a Hasselblad 500 with the modern convenience of digital, there’s a recently released accessory called the CFV-50c. It replaces the film portion of any Hasselblad since 1957 with a medium-format, 50-megapixel digital sensor, taking a fun camera to play around with and turning into one of the best cameras available on earth if you have $15,000 to spare. I decided to see what it’s capable of by shooting it in the studio, through the tire smoke of a Formula Drift event and heli-skiing in the Canadian Selkirk mountains.

Hasselblad began its dive into camera manufacturing in a rather strange way. In the early years of World War II, the Swedish Air Force managed to capture a German aerial spy camera and asked Victor Hasselblad to design a duplicate for the Allies. Hasselblad famously replied, “No, but I can make a better one.” Between the resulting camera (called the HK7) and the succeeding SKa4, Hasselblad made 342 cameras for the Swedish Air Force during the war while also supplying watch and clock parts.

After the war, Hasselblad began to experiment with civilian cameras, beginning with the 1600 F in 1948 and hitting the nail on the head with the iconic 500c in 1957. From then until it was finally discontinued in 2013, the V-System’s (Hasselblad’s name for their manual, medium-format SLRs) signature modular, cube-shaped design with interchangeable film backs was incrementally improved but remained amazingly similar to the first iteration.

The Hasselblad’s biggest test came first, and it was one that I frankly wasn’t expecting the camera to pass.

As a result of the camera’s legendary mechanical durability (no doubt aided by the company’s watchmaking history), image quality, ease of use and unbelievable life span it managed to embed itself into popular culture like no other camera. The first color picture of earth, the cover of Abbey Road, and one of the most iconic photos Ansel Adams ever took were all shot on a Hasselblad.

It wasn’t too much of a surprise, then, that although Hasselblad no longer makes their most famous camera, they decided to release the CFV-50c, a digital back specifically designed to match — both mechanically and aesthetically — the design of the 500 series cameras right down to the leatherette cover.

While the CFV-50c looks like it might have been made in 1965, the internals are all 2015. The back attaches just like any standard film back but offers a 50-megapixel CMOS sensor, an ISO range from 100 to 6400, raw file recording to either a computer or compact flash card and compatibility with every Hasselblad camera made since 1957.

The Studio

Hasselblads have been used in photo studios around the world for the last 50 years, so it seemed only natural to begin my test of the CFV-50c deep inside of GP headquarters with a couple flashes, a pile of white shoes, some summer fragrances and an unsuspecting colleague who needed to be photographed.

This is the exact type of shooting situation that the CFV-50c will be used for most of the time, and it absolutely shows. Like every medium-format camera, the Hasselblad feels perfect with a ton of light, a tripod beneath it and a static subject in front of it. What’s maybe more impressive than the sheer resolution of the digital back is how well the mechanics of the 500c/m and Carl Zeiss optics held up after 30 years. These lenses that (I assume) was sweat on by some West German factory worker as he drove it down the factory line absolutely blew away the hermetically crafted Canon “L” lenses that are used for nearly all of our editorial content. That being said, the 50mm, 80mm and 150mm lenses that I use most often (and which have an average age of about 25 years old) managed to retain all the idiosyncrasies that made them famous in the first place. Their color rendering, depth of field and handling of flare and ghosting are unique to a specific era of Zeiss lenses, and without the CFV-50c they couldn’t be used on a digital camera.

It should come as little surprise that a $15,000 camera performed excellently in ideal shooting conditions — and most digital medium-format cameras have been good at this kind of thing for a while (just about all studio commercial photography you see these days is shot with digital medium format) — but strangely enough, where they’ve always had trouble is where 35mm DSLRs excel. While a Canon 5D’s full-frame sensor can shoot happily at high ISOs in low light, track fast moving subjects with excellent autofocus and keep going in pouring rain thanks to weather sealing, a digital medium-format camera has to be treated like an A-list celebrity, being pampered and coddled before it gives you the excellent performance it’s capable of.

With its latest crop of digital backs and cameras (including the CFV-50c) Hasselblad is promising increased flexibility thanks to a better user interface, a new CMOS sensor that is miles ahead of the old CCD sensors in terms of low-light performance and a more refined, more durable design than previous generations.

All that got me thinking it was time to take this studio camera out to see the world. Were the “revolutionary” advancements in medium-format sensors really as promised? Is it even remotely worth the stress and cost to shoot a digital medium format instead of a pro DSLR? Does it even matter how good the back is when it’s attached to a fully manual camera that’s older than Charlize Theron? The first stop was Formula Drift in Long Beach, California.

The Race Track

The Hasselblad’s biggest test came first and it was one that I frankly wasn’t expecting the camera to pass. Formula Drift is, in essence, a bunch of overpowered cars sliding their way through a closed race course at surprisingly high speeds. This is the land of the guy in the funny bucket hat with a Canon 1D and a lens the size of a toddler shooting at 10 frames per second, so I felt sufficiently out of place with my hand-cranked Hasselblad and manually focused lens. After casting the herd mentality aside, though, the CFV-50c held its own during its first day in the field. The back’s menus were easy enough to navigate to change ISO or check focus (though it takes an impressive nine clicks to delete a photo), two batteries were enough for a day of shooting and when the camera hit focus the results were astounding. Where the camera excelled during this test, though, was in color rendering and how it managed depth of field and distortion at wide angles; it was a similar feeling to the first time I shot a full-frame DSLR after shooting on cropped sensors for years.

With all that said, there’s still a reason you see so many DSLRs with long lenses at these events, and that’s because they work. I probably kept one in 10 photos, which isn’t high enough for a camera that can only shoot one or two frames every time the cars pass. And, in order to get images anywhere near as sharp as the camera could produce, I had to pre-focus to where I thought the cars would be, shoot with a high aperture setting, say a couple Hail Marys and hope for the best.

Despite all these caveats, the Hasselblad proved that even when entirely out of its comfort zone it could produce some great images, and the handling and operation of modern medium-format digital cameras is miles above where they were even a few years ago.

Now it was time to hit the snow in Western Canada.

The Mountains

It only occurred to me as we were flying up to the first ski run of the day that I’d forgotten to ask if the CFV-50c featured any kind of weather sealing and, seeing as it was a little bit late to do anything about it, it was another chance to hope for the best and try not to think of what could go wrong.

Old medium-format digital cameras were notorious for being clunky and fragile, and for needing a life-support-esque attachment to a computer for both file transfer and power. Luckily, the CFV-50c is miles ahead when it comes to usability and durability. Even though the camera (in an F-Stop Loka UL bag) was slung into a basket on the side of the helicopter about 20 times a day and took more than one tumble into the snow, it kept on chugging, managing to continue working long after the made-for-the-outdoors photo backpack had retired because of a broken zipper. The back did use a significant amount of battery power — requiring four batteries to get through a seven-hour day of shooting — and by the end of the trip the sensor was covered in more dust than I’ve ever seen on a camera sensor. But these were about as far from ideal conditions as I could find.

As for the images that came from the trip, the CFV-50c managed to show off exactly why medium format is such a covetable thing. The dynamic range was astounding: white snow was never blown out, even when exposed next to shadowy rock outcrops or skin tones, and the out-and-out resolution of the 50-megapixel sensor demonstrated just how good of a camera this is for landscape photography.

After 10,000 miles traveled and 2,500 frames shot, I had learned a lot about the CFV-50c and the state of digital medium format photography. You can absolutely use a modern medium-format camera everywhere for everything if you try hard enough, and when everything falls in line the results will outperform any DSLR available — but they won’t be replacing Canons and Nikons on NFL sidelines any time soon. These cameras are getting exponentially better in the usability department and they’re even becoming slightly cheaper (okay — less unaffordable); but they’re still out of reach, both financially and skills-wise, for most consumers. More amazingly, Zeiss lens engineers and Hasselblad designers in the era before computer-aided design knew exactly what they were doing and there are absolutely no issues with using a 30-year-old camera and a 30-day-old camera back together. All told, medium-format digital photography is taking big strides toward becoming accessible to more pro photographers, and the CFV-50c is helping a 50-year-old camera lead the way.