I might just be attuned to the theme, but I hear and read a lot about storytelling in photography. This, of course, is what photo essays are about - the narrative form perfected by Life magazine among...
Hasselblad is one of the most venerable names in photography. For more than 50
years it has designed and manufactured a series of 6X6cm (2 ¼ inches
square) cameras that have essentially defined the format. From fashion
photographers to astronauts, a Hasselblad camera has been a professional tool of
the first caliber.
Why have Hasselblads developed such a firm foothold in the minds and camera
bags of so many professionals? Certainly they are not without problems.
Hasselblads break about as often as other cameras, given the use and abuse of
One reason has been marketing. Hasselblad, especially in the US market, has
done an excellent job of positioning its products. How many other cameras have
gone to the moon? Another reason has been the lenses. Zeiss optics have a
reputation second to none, and those for the Hasselblad series of cameras are
But as Dylan reminds us, thetimes they are a changing. With the
exception of the Hasselblad XPan, which is designed and built by Fuji and
marketed by Hasselblad everywhere in the world except Japan (more on this in a
while), two things have defined Hasselblad and its products: the cameras are
designed primarily for 2 ¼ square format and feature manual focus. While
every other maker of 35mm and medium format cameras has embraced autofocus (even
Contax), Hasselblad alone has resisted the siren call.
Hasselblad’s First 645
Even with the hefty HC 50-110mm f/3.5-f/4.5 zoom the H1 handles well.
This has now changed forever. At Photokina in September 2002 Hasselblad
announced the H1, the first in a new series of medium format cameras. The
H1 is unique in several important regards. The main ones are that it is
Hasselblad’s first 645 format camera, and it features autofocus
lenses. In addition it is in large part manufactured by Fuji and it features Fuji
made lenses. All of these will be controversial to many of the faithful.
I was very intrigued when the H1 was announced. The 645 format autofocus
market already has some strong contenders; Contax, Pentax and Mamiya being the
other players. How would the H1 stack up?
At the PhotoPlus Expo show in New York, just a month after Photokina,
Hasselblad held a press event to introduce the new camera system to photographic
journalists. This would be the first opportunity that anyone has had to work with
this new camera. I was asked to report on this by photo.net, and since I was
already going to be in New York for the show I enthusiastically accepted the
The Press Event
The venue for the event was the New York Botanical Gardens. About a
dozen photographic industry journalists were invited and participated in one of
two sessions that day. Attending as well were a large number of
Hasselblad’s senior executives from both Sweden and the U.S., and several
engineers and designers from the factory.
Other than the formal and social aspects of the event about which I’ll
only say that Hasselblad is a class-act there was a brief introduction and
overview, followed by a one-on-one half hour session with a factory
representative, during which I was given an introduction to the camera’s
controls, film loading etc. Since there were no manuals available, and time was
short, this was an excellent opportunity to become familiar with operational
issues and to ask a few questions.
We were then turned loose inside and outside the gardens (the inside part
was welcome because it was a blustery N.Y. Fall day). Several attractive
models were provided. A Fuji rep was also on hand and everyone was given as much
film of whatever type was desired.
The following are my impressions of the Hasselblad H1, based on about 2 hours
of concentrated shooting and examination. There was an assortment of lenses
available. I worked mainly with the HC 50-110mm f/3.5 – f.4.5 zoom, though
for a while I also used the standard HC 80mm f/2.8. I shot with Fuji Provia 100F,
Provia 400F and Astia.
When you first pick up the H1, your first impression is that the handling is
going to be great, and two hours of almost constant use showed this to be true.
The ergonomics are first-rate. The design is in the current idiom, with a
right-handed grip on which is the majority of the controls as well as a large
monochrome LCD display.
When I first brought the camera up to my eye I was immediately taken with how
bright and clear the viewfinder is. Up until now my gold standard for camera
viewfinders has been the current Pentax 645 NII. I didn’t have one
available for a side-by-side comparison, but my impression is that the H1’s
viewfinder is at least as large and bright as the Pentax, and certainly among the
best that I’ve ever used.
I’ll have more to say about various aspects of handling in a while, but
let’s look at some of the camera’s more interesting features and
Since the camera is a hand tool, along with its ergonomics (how its various
function fall to hand and are used) the actual “feel” of a camera is
critical. For a working professional a camera will be in his or her hands for
many hours a day, day in and day out.
While the H1’s body has an aluminum core with stainless steel housing,
the external surface has some sort of plastic coating. This will be a bit of a
shift for anyone used to the traditional metal and textured leatherette finish of
traditional Hasselblads. But, it makes the camera very comfortable to hold. It
won’t become as hot in the summer or as cold in the winter. Let’s
face it: as much as traditionalists enjoy the beautiful machined finish of camera
designs from the 1960’s, plastic camera body finishes are what we get
today, saving both weight and manufacturing costs.
With the H1 as Hasselblad’s first autofocus camera, users are bound to
wonder what compromises, if any, have had to be made over the feel of traditional
manual focus lenses. I’m pleased to say very few. Incidentally, with the
exception of Leica (which will probably get around to it in 2023),
Hasselblad is the last major camera manufacturer to make the move to
The autofocus works well, and quickly. I was told that it can track from
closest focusing distance to infinity in 400 milliseconds. The single large focus
point is at center screen, but as with most autofocus cameras a light press on
the shutter release will hold focus while the frame is recomposed. Focusing in
low light appears to be good, with little hunting, and while the number of
sensors and absolute focus speed are not on a par with the top 35mm cameras,
it’s as good if not better than any other medium format camera that
I’ve used. The lenses have a very large rubber-textured focusing ring, and
manual focusing always overrides autofocus. Manual focus feel is excellent, with
none of the looseness that is found in some other similar lens systems.
Speaking of lenses, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The
H1’s new HC series lenses, while specified by Hasselblad, are designed and
built by Fuji. While this is no bad thing (Fuji’s medium and large
format lenses carry truly excellent reputations), there are some who will
bemoan the departure of Zeiss glass -- a hallmark of Hasselblad cameras since the
1950’s. My response to anyone that expresses such concerns is Get over
it! Based on both reputation and the results from my initial tests, H1 users
will find this lens family to be absolutely first rate.
At launch, in late November, 2002, there are four lenses in the line up:
HC 35mm f/3.5
HC 80mm f/2.8
HC 50-110mm f/3.5-f/4.5 zoom
And a 1.7X extender
In mid-2003 there will be three more lenses added:
HC 50mm f/3.5
HC 120mm f/4
HC 210mm f/4
This is a quite comprehensive line-up. Even the initial four lenses will
likely satisfy most users, especially those in the wedding / portrait /
commercial photography world that Hasselblad expects to make up the majority of
purchasers. The next three lenses nicely round out the line. The only hole that I
see is at the long end. I would have expected a 300mm, or a 400mm. I for one
would find the absence of such a lens to be a serious impediment, since I use
long lenses extensively for environmental wildlife and some landscape work.
There is a partial solution on the way, and this will also make owners of
current Hasselblad lens systems happy. There will be an adapter made available
that allows earlier Hasselblad “V” system lenses to be mounted on H1
bodies. Exactly which features will and won’t work is currently uncertain.
The company is still designing this device, and one factory engineer confided
that it was not going to be an easy task. Imagine what must be involved in taking
purely mechanical (and some hybrid) lenses and allowing them to work on a totally
electronic lens mount body. Apparently Hasselblad hopes to have this adapter
available by mid-2003. I was told that we can expect the camera to provide focus
confirmation with all earlier lenses.
This frame was taken with the 80mm f/2.8 lens. The scan represents about
50% of the full frame. Film used was Provia 400F.
Backs are of course removable. Instead of a removable dark slide (I have
either lost or sat on dozens of Hasselblad dark slides over the years), the
H1’s backs feature a fold-out lever that opens and closes an internal dark
slide for back removal. It takes 3 full turns of this lever and I found this to
be somewhat slow in operation. I much prefer the rapid-acting laminar dark slide
of the Rollei 6008.
Film inserts may be inserted and removed while the back is on the camera.
Unlike with previous generation film inserts, there is no need to match inserts
and backs. Any insert will work with any back. Also, and this is quite elegantly
designed, the backs and inserts can accept both 120 and 220 film without any need
for the user to set or indicate which is being loaded. The back senses the type
of film being used and automatically changes the pressure plate position. Very
neat. To my knowledge not only is this is a world first, but also a real boon to
busy photographers who work with both film types.
Each back has a small LCD screen that allows you to set the film’s ISO.
There is also automatic ISO sensing if you use Fuji encoded film, not surprising
given the involvement of Fuji in this project. There is more than a passing
resemblance in this regard to the windows found on the Fuji GX680iii film
When film is loaded there is no need to line up arrows on the paper backing
with a mark on the insert. Simply attach the paper leader to the take up spool
and place the insert in the back. Film advance to frame one is automatic, as is
film wind at the end of the roll. There is a recessed quick wind-off button on
the camera body for emptying a back before the roll is finished.
This brings me to two of the only quibbles that I have with the H1’s
design. The first is that the backs don’t have a manual film wind knob.
This means that if a back has a partially completed roll and you want to remove
it, you need to attach it to an H1 body and either fire off the remaining frames
or press the “rewind” button. Not a show-stopper, but I can see times
when this will be annoying or problematic -- such as when driving to the lab with
a rush job.
The second concern that I have is that there is no interlock to prevent
removing a film insert while film is loaded. Of course you can tell if it’s
loaded by checking either the camera’s main LCD screen or the back’s
smaller one, but I can imagine situations where this could happen. Earlier
Hasselblads had a small crescent-shaped window that indicated by showing red
whether film was loaded or not, but other manufacturers (Rollei for
example) have designs that prevent such accidents, and I’m surprised
that Hasselblad hasn’t addressed this in their new design.
In addition to 120 and 220 film the H1 can take both instant film (Polaroid
& Fuji) and digital backs. I didn’t bother testing the Polaroid back
since I normally don’t use one, but other journalists did, and from what I
saw operation was straightforward.
What did interest me though was the use of the H1 with digital backs. In a
conversation with one of the Hasselblad engineers (and as is clear from the
camera’s product literature), Hasselblad saw as vital the need for the H1
to have comprehensive integration with digital backs. As the industry makes its
inexorable transition to digital this makes the H1 the first medium format camera
of the 21st century.
Yes, digital backs can be placed on some earlier Hasselblads. But it’s a
klugey solution at best. The H1, on the other hand, was designed from the start
to have a comprehensive digital back interface. There will be two digital backs
available as the H1 starts to ship; the 16MP Kodak DCS pro back and an 11MP Phase
Unfortunately neither back was available at the press briefing, but to give
you an idea of the level of integration that is possible, as soon as a shot is
taken, a histogram is displayed on the camera grip’s monochrome LCD. Not
the back’s LCD — the camera’s. Clearly, the communication bus
between the back and the camera can convey a broad range of information, and
consequently we can expect that the H1 will offer a level of handling integration
when using digital backs that approaches that of all-in-one 35mm digital
One thing that disappointed me was that as I walked around the PhotoPlus Expo
trade show floor the day after the press preview I went to various digital back
manufacturers and asked them about their plans for the H1. The story I heard was
the same — that Hasselblad is choosing to only work with certain back
manufacturers and that the H1’s databus specification is not being made
generally available. In my opinion this is a mistake on Hasselblad’s part,
and will hinder the growth of this otherwise exemplary camera. Closed systems
benefit no one. Open systems engender broad acceptance. Enough said.
Menus -- We’ve got Menus
After the first few moments of holding an H1, feeling its handling and heft
and looking through the viewfinder, the top panel of the camera’s
right-hand grip catches your attention. It contains a large illuminated LCD
panel, six button and two control wheels; one wheel next to the shutter release,
where it can be controlled with your index finger, and the second on the back of
the grip where it falls under your thumb. This combination of controls provides
the photographer with comprehensive and easy to access control of virtually all
of the camera’s features.
I won’t bore you with a recitation of what all the buttons and wheels
do. What I will say is that I found the user interface of the menu design to be
quick and intuitive. There are three buttons on the top panel control for
Flash, Auto Focus and Drive modes which allow you to change
these settings quickly But I particularly like the fact that when you enter
“Menu” mode (by pressing the menu button of course), these
three buttons become “soft keys”, changing their function depending
on the functions being changed. It sounds complicated, but in reality it speeds
up adjustments and minimizes the number of buttons needed.
Though I didn’t have time to explore them fully, the H1 allows the
setting of a number of “profiles” which let the photographer
customize the camera in various ways to their style of shooting.
Photographed with the HC 50-110mm f/3.5-f/4.5 zoom at approximately 55mm.
Film used was Provia 400F.
Like other recent 645 cameras, the H1 permits data imprinting on the film
margins. This shows the usual information such as shutter speed, F stop, time /
date and even the photographer’s name!
The battery compartment takes a small insert, which holds 3 CR-123 lithium
batteries. There is an optional holder available that will take 8 AAA
rechargeable NiMh batteries. At this point it’s too early to tell what
battery life will be like, though Hasselblad claims 2,000 shutter releases on a
set of batteries. Where autofocus and film advance fit into this equation remains
to be seen.
The H1 uses a totally new electronic shutter of Hasselblad’s own design.
These are leaf shutters in each lens and offer timing from an impressive 1/800
seconds down to 18 hours! Flash sync is available at all speeds.
Surprisingly the camera has a built-in pop-up flash located in the meter
prism. It has a Guide Number of 12. Just the thing for creating a catch light in
the subject’s eye or filling in the shadows on close-ups! The meter prism
also has a hot shoe and can take Metz SCA 3002 system flashes using the new SCA
3902 adapter. Of course there’s a PC socket as well for attaching studio
Of course there’s motorized film advance, at 2 FPS. Not quite in 35mm
SLR territory, but just fine for fashion and wedding work.
The camera has a built-in intervalometer, which lets you set the number of
frames shot from 2 to 32, and at intervals from 1 second to 24 hours. There is
also auto bracketing available with 2, 3 or 5 exposures in ½, 1/3rd
, or full stop increments
The H1 body is of moderate weight at 800 grams. Add a film back, meter prism,
film, batteries and the 80mm lens and you end up with a total weight in hand of
just over 2 kilograms.
So Who Makes The H1?
A lot has been made by some people about the fact that H1 is the result of a
joint venture between Hasselblad and Fuji. I asked one of the Hasselblad reps
about the details of this partnership. Hasselblad conceived the H1 camera system
and lenses and was responsible for their design, including the specification of
the lenses. The unique new shutters that are in the lenses, and the camera body
itself are also built by Hasselblad in Sweden, while the lenses, meter prism and
film backs are built by Fuji.
The project began in 1997, and was committed by 1999, with a projected late
2002 launch date. The entire project has cost Hasselblad approximately $35
million, which must represent a major component of the company’s
anticipated sales and revenues.
In this era of the globalization, an arrangement where a company designs a
product and then finds the best engineering and manufacturing resources,
regardless of where in the world they may be located, makes perfect sense. Many
companies market products that have components made in one country, designed in a
second, and assembled in a third. So why not Hasselblad? As long as the design
(the gestalt) of the camera remains true to form, I see no harm, and in fact
there are many potential benefits from bringing more fertile minds to bear than
can be found in one company. My brief time with the H1 shows it to have the full
Hasselblad DNA and to be a worthy member of the Hasselblad family.
The price of the H1 has been announced at about U.S. $6,000 with 80mm lens,
one film back and metering prism. Add a digital Kodak DCS Pro back and the tab
comes to about $18,000. Second mortgage anyone?
I have no doubt, though, that Hasselblad will sell as many as it can make, and
that professional photographers around the world will embrace the H1. Just as
they did with the 500C almost a half-century ago, many professional photographers
will regard the H1 as a standard tool for the industry.