Medium Format 2010 – The Hasselblad Blues

When I was on the outskirts of Jaipur, my guide was surprised to see that I was using an old Pentax Spotmatic camera. All of his other clients had been sporting the latest in digital cameras, even then, and he was used to seeing the immediate results from their endeavours to capture his country. When he realized that I was using film he nobly stated: “Oh no sir, weddy good. As we say here in Jaipur, new is silver, but old is gold! Old is gold.” Ironically, old was gold, but broken, and the 50mm lens I was shooting with had broken shutter blades. It created a wonderful blurring, but it was not exactly what I had in mind when I was shooting in the blinding heat. Still, that phrase stuck.

Five years later I still cling to the concept that old is gold, and I flip between using a brilliant Canon EOS 1DmkIII digital camera  and a classic Hasselblad 501C/M black camera. I should note that the year previous I shot with a Mamiya 645afd camera, but sold it to finance the Hasselblad purchase. I really liked the Mamiya, but felt that if I were really going to shoot “big time” then it was not the camera for me. Between some negative experiences with Vistek’s Digital Capture Group, a weak demo [the digital back did not work] and just a lack of salesmanship, I decided to take my chances with Hasselblad and Headshots in Toronto. Laughingly, my experience was no better with them and I found myself deciding to stay put for awhile. When you are thinking about a $15,000-22,000 purchase you want the experience to be ideal. In the meantime, I decided to invest in Hasselblad lenses and a 501 body for film.

My first lens purchase was an 80mm f.2.8 CFE lens from KEH Camera in Atlanta. For $399 I scored a beautiful medium format lens that was built like a tank and was fully manual in the old-fashioned way; no auto-focus or aperture. I used it to shoot a few of my product package shots for Paderno and was really happy with the final results. The colour renditions were so different from the Canon or Mamiya lenses that I instantly fell in love with the lens.

Next up was a Christmas purchase of a Hasselblad 120mm Makro CFi lens. I wanted something that would work for close-up food shots, and while the 120mm was not a true macro it brought quite a few option shots together for packaging images. During the last catalogue season of work I exclusively used those two lenses on my Canon for digital capture with the white backgrounds being shot on my Canon 24-70mm f.2.8.

Truth be told I would have been fine with those two lenses, but then the opportunity came along to travel to Germany and Italy this summer. By all accounts the architecture and urban landscape there would require a wide angle lens. I had been able to pick up the 501 C/M body, so I decided to shoot film and to procure a third lens from KEH. I will admit that the second and third lenses cost much more than the first, but at $1200 each, they were still ringing in well below their new costs of $3500-4300 each. The 50mm…well, that was in mint condition and captures colour in a more vivid rendition than the other lenses. It was the best lens I could have taken for Europe and I shot with it exclusively on the advice of V. [ she is correct that I used to carry too much gear with me on the road].

A month ago I decided to pick up a 150mm that was on BGN sale and dropping $50 every few weeks at KEH. For $600 I received a war-torn hunk of metal, but the glass was perfect and the wear was superficial. If I wanted to spend $200, then I could refurbish a few plastic parts, but that would defeat the point: old is gold. I have not used the 150mm yet, but when I was in Japan the Mamiya 150mm I had was the perfect portrait lens. If V. and I head to China in 2011, then I will want the 150mm for precisely that reason, and to not attract the attention that shiny gear does.

So why the Hasselblad blues?  Actually, I am ecstatic with the lenses and the 501; they are heavy chunks of beautiful glass technology that make me feel like I have a craftsman’s tools whenever I use them. I would never trade these lenses for any new technology or new system. The problem is deciding what my next step will be gear acquisition. I am not convinced that medium format makes sense in the digital realm. $20,000 is a pile of dough for a current digital back that will be out of date in 2-3 years. Unlike film technology, digital bodies, backs and lenses are not so easily moved across platforms. Phase One claims to offer backwards compatibility, but with the new 645DF they are moving away from that, like Hasselblad did, so that they can offer better integration and higher performance.

At Photokina, Hasselblad announced two options for the V series lens owners: buy a H4D-31 and CF lens adapter OR a CFV 50 megapixel back for the V series bodies. The prospect of being able to shoot 50mp with the equipment shown in the blog AND be able to shoot film, too, is very appealing from an art/business perspective. The H4D is less appealing for me while I can still visually focus with my eyes – I am not a big fan of the H series body [even with a Ferarri badge]. What will I do? What will I do? Nothing for now. The whole game will fall apart once RED drops the Scarlet/EPIC onto the board. One thing  I am comfortable with though is that the investment I am making in glass is not a mistake. Even if it eventually falls behind exotic glass of the future, it is still making money for me now in a way that a digital back for the Mamiya would not have. Hmmm, old is gold, indeed.

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