Hasselblad CFV-39: First Review from the Rental

Hasselblad 501 c/M with CFV-39 digital back

Last night marked my first experience with professional rentals, and my credit card is very, very nervous. Given the volume of work I have this weekend, I thought that this would be an ideal opportunity to justify the $250 per day fee charged by Headshots Toronto for a Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back, especially when I get it for four nights due to the Easter holiday. However, the $15,000 damage deposit on my AMEX made me more than a little nervous driving home on my Ducati through long weekend traffic. Still, I need to decide whether a piece of equipment has real value within my professional workflow or if it is just a pie in the sky tool that has incremental gains for everyone but photographers who shoot buildings in Dubai or Jay-Z and an entourage of super-models.

My first experience with the back was…underwhelming. To be fair, I had no instructions on how to use it, the batteries were not charged, and I was stressed out about damaging the sensor due to clumsiness. I only had about 30 minutes to work with the back before V. arrived on the late night flight from Thunder Bay, but I figured that I should be able to get the back on and tested before leaving for the Island Airport. At the same time, there is no doubt that the look of this camera combination would separate you from the Canon/Nikon crowd at a wedding or portrait session.

My first attempts at capturing an image were disasters of blurred magenta and green colour casts. I was now stressed that I had rented a dud that would not work at all for four days. I tried both the SWC and 501 cameras with the same awful results. At first I thought it was a problem of lighting – too dark in the studio – so I fired up the lights that were still around from the previous night’s session with Sean Littlejohn. Better, but now just brighter streaks of lo-res noise. For this type of work I decided that I would need my prism viewfinder: it would hold the Profoto Air transmitter that would need to connect with the lenses to fire the flashes. Still nothing. After a quick read of an online manual, I noticed buried in the Hasselblad text that: due to the mechanical nature of back/camera connection, the shutter release muse be definite and short. Great…so all of my careful technique of squeezing shutter releases was out the window and I needed to bang on my release cord like a neanderthal. Done. Worked.

I had no time left to do much with the back, but I did manage to snap off a photo of India making a mess in the kitchen. While not a compelling photograph, there are two things I noticed right away with the CFV-39’s images: 1) every bit of dust and dog food will be seen [gone is the creamy bokeh to mask the harshness of the world 2) I was able to take an eighth of the frame in crop and get a more precise, clear image than the entire frame of my 10MP Canon 1DmkIII. Obviously, my exposure was way off on this shot, but I had not even picked up the Sekonic light meter by that point, so the highlights won’t blow out like you see on India’s fancy Polo shirt. Depending on the day, V. and I might tackle some photography tomorrow, or it might be left for Sunday. Regardless, the CFV-39 might be a tough monster to tame or it might result in my best commercial work ever.

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