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Hasselblad 501CM

by Philip Greenspun, December 2001


Hasselblad's 501CM kit includes a classic mechanical 6x6 cm single-lens reflex body, a 120 film back, a waist-level viewfinder, and an 80/2.8 lens that provides a normal perspective for this format. In short, everything that you need to get started in medium format within a system that can grow to accomodate any photographic objective.

Competition

In the 6x6 SLR world, there are three contenders: Sweden's Hasselblad, Japan's Bronica, and Germany's Rollei. We'll consider Hasselblad versus Bronica first, then Hasselblad versus Rollei, and finally, Hasselblad versus Hasselblad (!).

The Bronica system is easy to describe: a cheaper Hasselblad. The Bronica, especially with the latest lens designs, is capable of producing competitive image quality and at a substantial cost savings. However, the Bronica system cannot grow to handle as large a range of photographic situations as the Hasselblad system. Over the years, Bronica mechanical quality and durability has not been comparable to Hasselblad's. Renting lenses for Bronica will be much more difficult than renting lenses for a 501CM. If you've got the money for a 'Blad, it is tough to see why you'd buy the Bronica.

The Rollei system is easy to describe as well: an electronic Hasselblad. But the comparison with Hasselblad is more difficult. I own a Rollei 6000 system and one thing that I hate about it is that it is never ready to use. The system relies on rechargeable NiCd batteries. The Rollei AC charger is extremely primitive and will damage the batteries if you leave them in the charger. But one of the reasons that the rest of the world has moved on to other battery technologies is that NiCds will self-discharge after a couple of weeks on the shelf. And if you don't remember to periodically run the battery down to empty and then charge it back up, the "memory effect" of the NiCd will reduce its capacity to around 50 exposures. If you're a professional photographer and the Rollei system is your daily user camera, this isn't a big deal. You charge the batteries every night. But if a 6x6 SLR is something that you're going to use once a month, it is awfully nice to now that the Hasselblad will always be ready to use.

On the other hand, if you are organized enough to keep the Rollei's batteries charged, the wonderful world of automation is opened up. The Rollei's in-body exposure meter will tell you what it thinks of your manual settings or set aperture and shutter speed automatically. The Rollei's in-body motor drive will wind up to the next frame.

[In 1989 I wrote a long review of the then-new Rollei 6008. This review is still available.]

For use with studio strobes, handheld exposure meters, or TTL flash, the 501CM is probably a simpler better choice. As a camera to hand down to your children, the 501CM is the hands-down winner--no company has a better track record of maintaining system compatibility than Hasselblad and a repairman in 2025 won't have to understand ancient microprocessors to maintain the camera. As a daily user camera for the photographer who expects to depend on an in-camera exposure meter, the Rollei is the winner (but see the next paragraph).

Finally one must look at Hasselblad versus Hasselblad: 500-series Hasselblad versus 200-series. If you want an in-camera meter in a 6x6 SLR you don't have to abandon Hasselblad for Rollei; you can get a Hasselblad 203 body.

Bottom Line

The Hasselblad 501 CM kit is a beautiful picture-taking machine. If you love it you can keep adding lenses and accessories within the system. If you don't like it, you can rely on the perennially high resale value of Hasselblads to trade it in for something else. If you sort of like it, you can keep it on a shelf ready for those times that you want to do serious portraiture or vastly enlargeable images.


Text and photos copyright 2001 Philip Greenspun.

Article created December 2001

Readers' Comments


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Manh Le , December 14, 2001; 04:15 P.M.

Good and to-the-point review. Battery is a major concern when it come to short preparation time. I have been looking around for a new, mechanical, reliable, medium format with waist level finder and found only two choices that seem to be available: Hasselblad 501CM or Rollei 2.8 GX. Although wide angle and telephoto lens are available for the Hassy I can't see how I can justify 4K for each lens. As fas as image quality is concern I think both cameras would be on par.

I also agree that these mechanical cameras would last a long time; perhaps 30 or 50 years or even more. Recently I bough a 70 years old, medium format camera and everthng still works. Yeah I mean everything, even the timer!

Darrell Jennings , February 23, 2002; 02:44 P.M.

I agree with the Hasselblad review. I have had a 500CM as my main camera that I bought new in 1974. It has never broken, and still looks and feels as good as it did 28 years ago. One point of caution. Hasselblads and their Zeiss lenses are very mechanical beasts. They need to be CLA'd every three years or so. This is not cheap if you have a couple of cameras and four or five lenses, but it is necessary. With the leaf shutters in the lens you have more opportunity to get dirt in the shutter (when using it outdoors) than you would with a typical 35mm SLR.

Hubert Figuiere , August 23, 2002; 06:22 P.M.

I know that Philip's schedule is quite busy, but I miss the eye pleasure we get when reading Philip's writtings: the pictures taken with that camera.

Please !

Panayotis Constantatos , October 06, 2002; 05:21 P.M.

I've used Hasselblads extensively, the first one I owned has been a 500C I bought used as a College Freshman is 1976. Since then, I kept adding bits and pieces, but the original 500C, despite seeing several thousand rolls of film go through it never presented a problem. Bodies added later on have exactly as good a track record. The Hasselblad is the only 6x6 SLR light enough to use while travelling or hiking. I carry a 500C or CM, 2 backs, 50,80,150,250 mm lenses, 21 and 55mm extension tubes, Pentax spotmeter and Luna Pro, plus filters, film and carbon fibre tripod as standard equipment on all my hiking trips that often last quite a few days. The weight is comparable to that of a Nikon F5 plus 80-200/f2.8, 24-120, and 18-35mm Nikkors, offering vastly superior image quality. Remember though, a tripod+mirror lock are essential. Hasselblads are, in my opinion, notoriously bad when handheld. Still, my favourite is the 500ELM. As for built in meters...who needs them when spot and incident light meters are available? To be honest though, I bought a Ukrainian-made Spot metering prism made for Kiev cameras a while back. Its dirt cheap and a great addition to any Hasselblad kit. Recommended

lenny lindstrom , April 03, 2003; 08:52 P.M.

HASSELBLAD GOOD.

Bob Becker , October 26, 2003; 09:43 P.M.

No question that the Hasselblad is a durable performer. But if you want to avoid trouble with the mechanical shutter speeds in the lenses -- especially the (1) second setting, listen to this advice: A Hasselblad repair man told me a secret years ago that solves this problem. EVERY month, exercise every shutter speed in every lens you have -- especially the (1) second setting. If you do this, you won't have any problems with the the shutter speeds. And he was so right! bob

Michael Seewald , July 02, 2004; 03:13 P.M.


"Canevarra Town, above Massa-Cararra, Tuscany, Italy" 40 mm/ 500cm/ Polarizer/ Kodak 160 NC

I travel the world making my images, a month at a time, three times a year. I don't have an option to use something that might not be dependable when out working in Tibet, Alaska, Peru or Iceland.

The Hassy system, used since 1992 on about 30 adventures, has never let me down, just CLA every couple of years, that's it. Purchased all used lenses - 40, 80, 150 and 250 for my equally slightly used 500cm with the PME45 finder and they all still perform like new. Thank U Lord for the Hassy. Michael Seewald

Warren Nagourney , January 03, 2006; 03:32 P.M.

My experience is a little different from some of those which appear above. Once I got used to the "different" ergonomics (lack of instant return mirror, etc.) of the 501cm, I had great success with the camera - while it worked. I fear that its reputation for reliability is not deserved. Due to the outrageous prices of new items, I purchased my system used from a very reputable vendor and all of the items were close to mint, cosmetically.

Every mechanical item failed soon after purchase. The 80 mm lens misfired, the body had a serious focus error and worn crank bearing and two magazines failed: one was jammed and the other failed to stop at exposure 1 during the loading sequence. The 250 mm lens had out-of-spec shutter speeds. All but the focus error and shutter inaccuracy would have escaped detection by the vendor, since the failures were intermittent.

The optics are very good, but no better than high-end Nikon glass (I tested my 80 mm and 250 mm CF lenses using a USAF resolution chart and found these lenses to have similar resolution to my high-end Nikon lenses). In conclusion, Hasselblad enjoys a mystique (like Rolex watches) which perhaps justifies astronomical prices but obscures a system which in my opinion is merely good, not superlative.

Derek Rader , February 11, 2006; 06:42 P.M.

Let us take a step back about durability. While there are very few "outliers" overall you will find most Hasselblad owners very happy about reliability and Hasselblad has some of the best technicians available out there for service, either through Hasselblad direct or one of the independent masters like David Odess. I think some of comments come about when people purchase ancient bodies or equipment that they may not know any maintanence history of, but at the same time expect it to work perfectly, no wonder it breaks, anything old enough is bound too. If you buy from reputable dealers, they have a warranty period, I recommend buying from David Odess: He will perform a Clean, Lube, Adjust and inspect every item prior to sale in addition to a warranty, then you can blame Hassy, but not because you bought some broken item on Ebay (Which I've done)

I have had the same system for 15 years of use and only had one failure, my A12 back needed a CLA, my 150 C T* was dropped, but due to the tank like construction (which you will not find in many other brands) it was repaired and got a CLA for only 250 dollars! Over 15 years none of the other equipment has ever let me down, however, a Mamiya 645 and Pentax have come and gone (catastrophic failure), oh by the way, while the Mamiya and Pentax were new, the Hasselblad was 20 years old when I bought it, so go think 35 year old 500 C/M outlasts two other systems. Some things may come and go, but Hasselblad and Zeiss quality do not.

If you want to contact Dave Odess his website is:

http://www.david-odess.com/repair.html

Jonathan petrinitz , May 27, 2007; 11:19 P.M.

My grandfather had a 500 c/m it is myne now I love it it is an amazing camera and will take some usage it will be a good hand down to my children. It will be compatible for ever more I love it.

Michael Seewald , May 28, 2008; 05:16 P.M.


DuckMan, LiJiang, Yunnan Provence, China March '08, Hassey 40mm

Now 16 years of use, same four lenses and body as mentioned 4 years ago above, with about 12 or so trips around the world added, one month per.

Color me happy.

One thing to mention, my back will leak light after two or three years. My repairman in Milano told me last November, after replacing one, to take the dark-slide out when not in use. It then keeps the hairs on the curtains edge expanded a lot longer.

Thomas Hardy , July 17, 2008; 05:47 P.M.

I really like the shots by Michael with the 40mm. Maybe i'll look for one.

Bruce Muir , August 24, 2008; 03:07 P.M.

Yes Mr. Seewald, that 40mm is superb. Wish I had one, but my 50, 80, 150 serve me well.

Indeed the Hasselblad system can grow as you do as a photographer. I bought a 500 cm and an 80mm shortly after I started photography just recently due to the digital innovations. My kit is ever expanding and Hasselblad seems to have the solution for almost any photographic challenge.

Love the look and feel that the excellent optics produce.

Dave Lee , May 24, 2010; 06:12 P.M.

I can remember in the late 1980s coveting a Hasselblad system after seeing some 8x10 enlargements in the darkroom someone who shot with a Hasselblad was making. The contrast and clarity was amazing. Back then you could buy a well worn 500c with 80mm lens, back and WL finder for $1000 in the back of Shutterbug magazine, but a decent 500cm was about $500 more. Now in the digital days you can find a decent 500cm for a lot less in working condition. I just took delivery of a 500cm for $575 on ebay and that includes the lens back and finder, with a crank already installed for the film advance! Needs some minor cleaning, I could clean the lens front and back elements but the mirror is dusty and my canned air can only do so much. This is the time to enjoy these classics while the used prices are so low.

T Du Vernet , November 22, 2010; 11:21 P.M.

The Hasselblad is actually a very delicate camera. Sure they can be bounced around and my survive, but to get the maximum of the lenses, all the specs must be true. Good advice on the dark slide! Same with the lenses. Don't leave the shutter cocked. Wonderful thing about the Hassy is that it will see new life in the digital age. New digital backs and adapters to use the lenses on other bodies. Using a 120mm macro lens on a D3X brings a new definition to awesome. Despite all the hype, and to counter, in a sense what I just said.. I preferred to take a Graflex XL with its 6 x 9 back on a trip, even bicycling. With an 80mm 2.8 Planar, it was just awesome. I still have one that happily survived bouncing along in a pannier through the forests of Scotland.

George Daniti , January 12, 2011; 02:53 P.M.

I have a Hasselblad 503CW with the CFV 16 digital back.  The photo quality is amazing. My first 500C was purchased when I got back from Nam in '68.  It was a big step up from the Kodak Instamatic I used overseas.  The digital back has it's querks, though.  Photos at 50 ISO are beautiful, but they start to degrade at higher ISO settings.  The highest setting (400) is almost useless because of the many artifacts I must edit with each picture.  My back was bought on eBay used so maybe there is something wrong, but I have read other posts complaining of the same symptom.  My love for the camera is nostalgic, but I would recommend the digital back to rejuvenate your existing Hasselblad and lenses to digital; and it's nice that wherever I go people stop to comment on it.

Tareq Alhamrani , August 17, 2011; 09:27 P.M.

I have Hasselblad 501cm, it is a great camera, but i have the problem with focusing, and comparing the scans out of it with the scans from Mamiya RZ showing me that it lacks that sharpness i want, i feel like the focus wasn't spot on, but regardless of that this camera is truly a nice tool in film world.

john gill , September 15, 2011; 12:01 A.M.

hi, new to medium format.. just purchased a new 501c hasselblad kit with the 80mm 2.8 lens. i just panicked a little when i realized there was a newer 501cm. have i made a mistake in getting the 501c instead of finding a 501cm? excuse the lack of caps... in blackberry panic mode. thanks. 

john gill , September 15, 2011; 12:15 A.M.

hi, new to medium format. just bought a new 501c hasselblad kit with the 80mm 2.8 lens. just panicked a little when i learned there was a newer 501cm. have i made a mistake in getting the 501c instead of the 501cm? excuse the lack of caps.... in blackberry panic mode. thanks. 

John Silvester , May 03, 2012; 12:43 P.M.

As an amateur, I've used these cameras for many years,with little or no trouble. I agree with the comment to remove the darkslide when out of regular use. To replace the light-trap is no big deal but it will last longer if this is done. The Hassle may not be the fastest tool on the block until you get used to the small delay in operation. For the sharpest pix with the 500c & cm when on the tripod, get the mirror up before tripping the shutter. Good advice too, about regular exercise of leaf shutters -- they will slow down if you don't do it ! Secondhand gear has often had a thrashing at the hands of busy pros and few cameras can take the punishment that the Hasselblad will.  Just be careful when you buy, as spares are expensive and sometimes hard to find. Keep that 120 rolling -- best regards, J.S

Michael Seewald , December 28, 2012; 10:03 P.M.


Motovun, Croatia 2012, my newest released series

Well, I ran across this thread while doing a reverse search of my images on the web, wondered what was on this page. So, I also see I posted in '04, and '08, so I may as well keep up the tradition of posting every four years! Besides, in a couple of more days that would not be possible.

And yes, the 500cm Hassey system is still functioning perfectly- all four lenses, 40, 80, 120 and the 250, and the two 12 backs. Yes, still shooting film, but have slowed down to only one month on the road per year, instead of the three per year as in past decades. Up to 59 trips around the world, 45 with the Hassey since -1992!

 

 

 

Michael Seewald , February 19, 2014; 04:52 A.M.

Update on the Hassey, still shooting it, but as mentioned, it will get used in the digital age. Sure, digital backs have been out for this for many years now, but never could afford one. Lowest priced Leaf Aptus 60 mp in the U.S. was $20K, used, but finally found one for $12K, although it was in China. The guy accepted my offer of $9,250, and I took it to Cuba last July and just loved it.

Image Attachment: fileTnCuC4.jpg


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