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The Classy Hassy H1: Portable Studio Camera

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Just look at this thing.

I remember the first time I saw the much-talked about Hasselblad H1, at the annual photo trade show at the Javits Center last year, my first thought was that its silver and black exterior made it look like a scale model of a German racing car. Or maybe a spaceship.

But the other day, during my own test of the camera, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror descending the stairs of our house, holding the H1 at my side by its well-balanced pistol grip. Then I had another thought.

Machine pistol. Automatic weapon.

I admit: there's a certain Terminator quality to this kick-ass camera. Holding onto it you can't help but want to squeeze off a few rounds, er, make a few pictures.

But that's enough macho-posturing. The simple fact is that the Hasselblad H1 – the latest joint-manufactured hybrid from Hasselblad of Sweden and Fuji of Japan – is a superb piece of photographic equipment. A very specialized piece of equipment, to be sure, that will not appeal to everyone. But it does offer so many features to so many different kinds of photographers that it redefines the studio camera; it redefines the wedding camera; it redefines the location camera.

Add the fact that it also is a dual-platform camera ( i.e. can work as both a film and a digital camera) and you have the makings of a new classic.

The H-1 is clearly meant to compete with Mamiya's ground-breaking 645 Afd camera, another dual-platform camera that boasts its own share of bells and whistles. But where the Mamiya was, is, and always will be a studio camera (the beautiful, if ungainly, thing simply is not designed to be used well handheld) the H1, though heavier than some cameras, shouts to be used handheld and on the fly.

That is one reason the camera will appeal to wedding shooters, many of whom still prefer to shoot in medium format. The fact that the H1, like the Mamiya, is a rectangular format 645 means that these photographers have the benefit of working in what many regard as the perfect format – similar in proportion to 35mm but with, oh, so much more information on the larger negative or transparency.

This bonus of additional visual info also is what will make the H-1 a favorite of location portrait photographers, especially those who work for publication. Sharpness, detail – everything that sets the pro apart from the amateur, especially under difficult shooting conditions – is made easier to get with this camera.

Chalk part of that up to the H-1's superb autofocus system – every bit as fast and accurate as that found on the best 35mm rig. [Note: this is the first time that Hasselblad has incorporated autofocus into its venerable system, and it has done so with aplomb.] Too, the optics are spectacular. The Japanese-made f.2.8 80mm normal lens that I tested simply looked sharper in the viewfinder than other lenses I had used – and the results were borne out in the razor sharp images that came back from the lab. [Note: diehard Hassy fans may bemoan the fact that the H1 does not feature the legendary Zeiss optics that made cameras like the groundbreaking 500C/M an instant classic. But this is foolish. For the record, Hasselblad designed the H1 and partnered with Fuji to produce the optics and film backs. Every component in this modular hybrid is a winner, especially the optics.]

As I said, this is a specialized camera, albeit one that will appeal to many different pros, though not all. This is not, for example, a sports camera. I don't care how much Hassy touts the H1's "lightness" (trust me, this is not a lightweight) it is not the rig you would choose to shoot fast-sequence action. Likewise, I do not see spot-news photojournalists flocking to this camera, even if they could get their employers to fork over the money for one. Most of the newsies I know work a job carrying at least two, and sometimes three, 35mm cameras. Lugging two or three H1's at the same time (each with a different lens, film, or digi-back) would be unacceptably more punishment on already weak backs, hips and knees. And, in fact, Hasselblad to its credit notes that most 35mm Digital SLRS still offer faster "burst rates" (for sequence shooting) than the H-1.

What I do love about this camera is how much high-tech stuff it crams into its rugged steel and aluminum body without making the photographer feel as if he or she needed an advanced degree to make a picture. A longtime square-format Hassy user like me found it a cinch to load the H1 film magazine – and loved the fact that the camera automatically advanced to the first frame, and automatically advanced the film after each exposure. The flash sync of up to 1/800th of a second also was refreshingly familiar – since the H1 retains, if in souped-up form, the traditional Hasselblad leaf shutter that loves high-speed flash shooting.

And any Hassy user also will love the fact that, even though the camera retains the great benefit of separate film magazines, it no longer features removable (i.e.: losable) dark slides. A darkslide (the metal shade that lets a film back be removed at will, even in mid-roll) is permanently incorporated into each magazine and is opened and closed via a convenient side crank.

The H1 also offers custom film imprinting (tech data, copyright info, etc.) that, of course, appears in the film edge, not on the image.

On the digital end, the H1 is compatible with the Phase One as well as the Kodak DCS Pro back and, as the literature says, "offers a degree of compatibility that provides handling and functionality of an integrated digital camera." This is borne out by the fact that a histogram (a vital electronic profile of an image's properties) can appear on the H1's own LCD read-out.

And to those of us who still prefer film to pixels, the H1 also takes an instant film back for Polaroid and other proofing.

The bottom line, I suspect, is that there will be photographers who read this who will say, "Oh that's nice" and those who will say, "Sweet God a-mighty, I have to have this camera!"

The H1 – innovative, rugged, reliable – is like that, and deservedly so. A basic rig, with body, 80mm lens, film back and prism hood will set you back about $5700. A digital back can go for another ten grand or so.

But make no mistake: if the H1 fits into the way you make pictures, you will be delighted with it – even if you have to eat a lot of mac n' cheese dinners to pay for it.

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.

©Frank Van Riper
I wanted to give this shot a futuristic, Schwartznegger-esque, feel so I played with the lighting a bit. The Hasselblad H1 really is a cool-looking camera...

©Frank Van Riper
...but, in fact, this latest Hassy/Fuji hybrid, not only looks cool, it IS cool: a brilliant combination of location and studio camera.

©Frank Van Riper
Typical rocks from Maine – outside our house in DC. The rocks may not tell you much about the H1, but the metering to photograph them, the autofocus to shoot them and the lens sharpness to render them all were flawless with this remarkable camera.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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