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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

The Perfect Camera System

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It takes a while to feel you've found the perfect camera system, but I honestly believe I have.

Sure, I have used 35mm for decades and I love my Nikons almost as much as I love my two cats. My new F-100 is an extension of my hand. The F5, which I love but can't afford, may be the finest SLR ever made. My Nikkor lenses are fast, sharp and easy to use. And I know that my colleagues who use Canon, Leica, Minolta, Contax and other high-end 35mm systems feel the same about their gear.

But 35mm is not the perfect camera system.

I also have used large format, marveling at the size of the negative it produces, and marveling too at how this admittedly bulky system forces me to slow down and actually think about the picture I am about to make. The lenses for large format are legendary and the cameras themselves–especially the wooden 4x5 and 5x7 field cameras–often seem more like works of art than camera gear.

Again, wonderful. But again, not perfect.

For me, the perfect system-the one that combines the best of both photographic worlds-is the one in the middle. The system that is appropriately named "medium format."

Medium format combines the portability and ease of use of 35mm with the image quality of large format. And as far as I am concerned Hasselblad makes the finest medium format system on the planet.

A long time ago, as I was borrowing some pricey bit of equipment from Nikon Professional Services in Washington, Scott Andrews, the head of the office, asked me why I kept raving about my Swedish-made Hasselblads.

"After all," Scott said, "it's just a box."

"Ah, but what a box," I replied, with Zen-like calm and detachment.

In truth, if I regard Hasselblad as the perfect camera system, then the all-manual 501CM may be the quintessence of rugged, dependable, trouble-free photography gear.

Think of it as a Volvo that runs on film.

A totally modular system, the medium format Hassy breaks down into its component parts with startling ease-so that it does look, in Scott Andrews's term, just like a box. The viewfinder comes off, the lens comes off, the film back comes off, leaving you with an all-metal chamber with a matte-black interior whose main purpose is to provide a way for you to crank your film to the next exposure.

This modular construction means you can customize your picture-taking with ease, changing viewing screens, focusing hoods, film formats, films and-obviously-lenses. No other system in any format affords such easy adaptability. For example, though I love my Mamiya 6 medium format rangefinder camera, it does not allow me to change focusing screens, or more importantly, to make Polaroid test shots with anything approaching the ease of Hasselblad.

But if a chameleon-like ability to change were all Hasselblad offered, I wouldn't be raving about this camera, or the rest of the Hassy line.

Simply put, in medium format, Hasselblad rules. I have used my three Hassy bodies for more than a decade and a half. Save for routine maintenance-and one time when I experienced a camera jam after working the better part of an afternoon in a swarm of sawdust at a duck decoy plant-these cameras have been virtually trouble-free. This is a ruggedness born of dogged testing and quality control. The boxy Hassy actually began as an improvement upon a captured Luftwaffe aerial camera, designed to help Sweden maintain its armed neutrality during World War II. Back then Victor Hasselblad was an ambitious photography retailer in his early thirties, who had left his family's importing business to pursue photography manufacturing. Asked if he could build a camera equal to the captured Luftwaffe camera, Hasselblad famously replied: "No, but I can build a better one." But it wasn't easy. The first Hasselblads were beautiful to look at but very delicate–not surprising since their innards were designed by watchmakers, unused to the mechanical strain a camera must endure. Modification begat improvement until finally, in 1952, the camera came into its own. Modern Photography magazine field tested the then-new Hasselblad 1000F and reported spectacular results. Modern's testers ran 500 rolls of film through the camera-even deliberately dropped it twice-without the Hassy breaking or going out of alignment. A legend was born.

The Hasselblad line of lenses includes some of the finest glass on Earth, made by venerable Zeiss Optical. My current trio of lenses includes the 80mm f/2.8 Planar (normal), 50mm f.4 Distagon (medium wide) and 150mm f.4 Sonnar portrait lens. There are many more, but at something like $1,500 a pop, I'm fine for now. [For specialized uses, I also have the phenomenal-and phenomenally expensive–Superwide CM, which I'll talk about in the future in a separate column.]

Though the Hasselblad is traditionally a square format system-in fact, it all but pioneered 2 ¼ square format-any Hassy easily can be turned into a 645 camera simply by slapping on a 645 film magazine. This will give you a slightly smaller, rectangular, image and therefore 15 exposures on a traditional roll of 120 film instead of the usual 12. Still, most Hassy users prefer square format, and I am among them. It has become fashionable among some these days to deride square format as, well, "square," but I find a certain formality to square that works well for most of the work I do. It is perfect for portraiture, less wonderful for landscape, but superb for product work. And, as someone who has shot his share of album covers, Hassy is made for CDs and, before that, LPs.

I said earlier I viewed this as the perfect system. Sure, I love 35mm for its flexibility and speed. No one can take away my Nikons or Leicas, and nobody ever said you would break speed records working with the agreeably clunky 501CM, or any of its more electronically sophisticated brethren. But there simply is no getting around the fact that square format film offers some triple the area of its 35mm counterpart. This gorgeously huge negative or transparency lends itself to proportionately huge enlargement.

Finally, with the 501CM there is another element of reliability that goes beyond mere ruggedness or smart design. This is an all-manual camera, i.e., no batteries anywhere. You determine the exposure [with your separate exposure meter]. You set the shutter speed; you set the aperture. Then, after you have made the shot, you crank the film to re-cock the shutter.

I don't mind any of this-in fact I love the fact that I never have to worry whether my camera's batteries are fresh-as I do with every other system I own.

And if none of this has convinced you that this is a great system, consider this: In 1962 astronaut and amateur photographer Wally Schirra was disappointed by the quality of photographs being taken in space. He bought a Hasselblad in Houston and had it modified by NASA technicians so that spacesuit-clad photographers could operate it. The pictures this camera made blew the doors off anything taken previously and NASA has been sending Hassys aloft ever since.

It was a Hasselblad, operated by Neil Armstrong, that made the first photographs on the surface of the moon.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

The Odd Genius Who Froze Motion

The Day I Shot Aaron and DiMaggio

When Technology Weakens Technique

The Ultimate Point n' Shoot

Picturing New York One Face at a Time

Mixing Light Sources for Dramatic Shots

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Freeze Frame: Eadweard Muybridge's Photography of Motion.

Through March 15, 2001, National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Daily (except Christmas Day) 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Free admission.

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