The humble little filter is important because the Xpan II, like its storied predecessor of just a few years ago, is made to be used as a panorama camera, even though its literature touts the camera's ability to act as a regular 35mm rangefinder as well.
Anyone who works ultra-wide knows that one of the biggest bugaboos of photographing this way is light fall-off at the edges of the image. As Hasselblad notes (a bit defensively, perhaps): "natural light fall-off (a basic law of physics) reduces the exposure at the corners of the image by roughly one f-stop [which can cause] visible effects in critical photography [especially] when using transparency film..."
Translation: light fall-off can ruin your slides, including those once-in-a-lifetime shots you made in, say, Tierra Del Fuego.
So it's no surprise that the dutiful Swedish camera maker (working once again in partnership with the dutiful Japanese camera maker Fuji) offers the odd-looking "Centre Filter" to deal with a problem that raised probably the only (albeit loudly voiced) objections to this remarkable camera when it first came on the market.
This special filter actually is a center-weighted neutral density filter that effectively equalizes the light hitting the film plane by reducing the amount of exposure at the center of the image. Thus you eliminate fall-off at the frame edges. The filter itself looks weird: the first time I saw the thing on an Xpan lens I could have sworn there was a round circle of condensation that somehow was covering up the center of the lens' front element.
But nope: it was just that good ole neutral density thing.
This is a novel, though not really new, use of an ND filter. In most other cases, a graduated ND filter, or "grad" filter, can be used when shooting a very bright sky and a fairly dark foreground. Only in that case, the ND filter often takes the form of a square glass or plastic gel, with a darker top section feathering into a clear bottom. The neutral density filter's darker, or denser, part, when used for the sky, will reduce the amount of light registering from the sky while allowing the darker foreground to be registered normally.
Its purpose basically is to bring extreme exposure values within the range of one's film or digital sensor.
Anyway, enough of this arcane filter talk and navel-gazing. This is about a camera, not some piece of funny glass. And I'm here to tell you that the Xpan II is a kick-butt reincarnation of a terrific camera one that may not appeal to every photographer, but one that will appeal bigtime to a specific kind of photographer who salivates for a wide image, yet who also loves the portability and ruggedness of, say, a Leica M6.
In fact, when you think of the Xpan II, think of a marriage between an M6 and a Hummer.
In terms of sheer portability, the Xpan II really is not much heavier than a Leica rangefinder body and lens (roughly 2 1/4 lbs vs. 2 lbs). It is significantly larger than Leica's famously compact M-series cameras, but at the same time it is positively anorexic compared to the Fuji 6 x 17, a popular medium format pano camera, or, for that matter, a conventional high end 35mm SLR Humongoflex and requisite 24-500 f.5.6-11 zoom.
Again, this is a true rangefinder camera, employing overlapping-image focusing via a coupled rangefinder, and therefore requiring no heavy and loud SLR mirror. What little noise the Xpan makes comes from its nearly breathless motor drive.
As for improvements over the original Xpan, they are welcome, but not so groundbreaking that, were I in the market for the camera, I would not try to find a good original Xpan on the used market. [Suggested list on a new Xpan 2 body is around $1850. Street price usually is a few hundred less.]
For example, a lot of picture-taking information now is contained either in a highly readable LCD readout, or in the viewfinder itself, where shutter speed and exposure info is easily seen.
Likewise, there are welcome, though again not earth-shaking, improvements in exposure options, especially in Bulb mode.
A disconcerting, though ultimately insignificant, feature of both the new and old Xpans: when film is loaded, the camera automatically extracts the entire roll onto the takeup spool, then feeds it back into the film cassette as each exposure is made. This means, for example, that your first image will be numbered "36;" your last image numbered "1".
A little counterintuitive, perhaps, but no big deal except if you were to inadvertently open the film back before rewinding. Sure, you'd ruin some film, but your exposed frames would be protected, previously having been sent back into the safe dark of the film canister.
Optics on the camera seem to be excellent no surprise given the Xpan's provenance. A joint project of Hassy and Fuji, the camera appears to be the end result of Hasselblad design in Sweden and Fuji production in Japan. Lenses, like those of the equally marvelous H-1, are made in Japan, not Germany (the source for previous Hassy glass) and all seem to deliver tack-sharp images. The Xpan currently takes three lenses: the 45mm normal, the ultra wide 30mm, and the medium telephoto 90mm.
My guess is that photographers who gravitate toward this camera will be those who photograph landscapes and interiors, and therefore may concentrate at first on the 45mm and the 30mm.
The Xpan delivers virtually everything it promises. Compact and rugged, it can be taken anywhere over the shoulder. Used for more formal landscape or panorama work, it will hold its own in the camera bag with most medium format gear and maybe even make some shooters think about retiring that bulky view camera.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.