The Hasslblad CFV 16: The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Photographers

Crop of Fruit

Never underestimate the power of underestimation. The past little while has been spent shooting portraits and paintings for clients, working through the 3000 odd images taken for the school yearbook, and then contemplating the best way to move forward with my photography quandary of a five year business plan. Reality tells me that I can plan all that I want to, but that the actual narrative will require me to be open for the opportunities that will undoubtedly roll my way. Fortune smiles on the fool who finds a way to see a bigger picture so as to be able to find the pieces as they fall at his feet in lieu of in a set preconceived order. Enter the Hasselblad CFV 16 digital back…


If you have been following my blog, then you would know that my main focus this month has been to find a way to buy into the medium format digital arena. I have spoken with the wonderful Walter Borchenko from B3K Digital and Jim Anderson from S1 Group here in Toronto, and have been trying to figure out a way to come up with the scratch to get into the bottom rung of the Phase One camera system. I need the quality of the larger sensor and the dynamic range that such a system will afford me. It is not about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but rather that I am trying to keep my superb collection of Hasselblad CFi lenses while still moving forward.

Skull Ring King Baby

At $10,000 for a used digital back,  I could just not afford the next step. Renting would work for a while, but there is a larger learning curve with medium format systems than dslr cameras. If I have a big session, then too much time will be spent learning how to best shoot and light for the camera sensor. At $300-500 a day the challenge felt overwhelming, but so did committing to a system’s technology that might prove finicky. My nerves were shot, and despite the kindness of strangers, I felt like I had to take a chance…to risk it all in a game of pitch-and-toss.


During the week I found myself purchasing a new Profoto RFi 2×3 softbox kit, a Hasselblad to Mamiya/Phase One lens adapter, Lomography film scanning holders, 127 format and 120 format film from New York and a second Avenger light stand. If I could not get the back I needed, then I would be wise to at least invest in the surrounding equipment that makes the biggest difference to my time on a shoot: lighting, processing time and lens choice make all of the difference to me. I know that Profoto equipment is brilliant, and the Avenger stand feels like a tank that a real pro would use to hold his lights. About $1000 in, I felt pretty confident in my choices for the long term. Then came the Hasselblad CFV 16 from Keh in Smyrna, Georgia…

I have bought every single Hasselblad piece of gear that I own from Keh. Delivery has been flawless, prices are about half of what I pay in Toronto, and the quality of used gear has been between okay for what I paid and astounding. Randomly the first ever CFV digital back came up for sale on Monday. I bought it within minutes for $3,100. It was listed as EX+ which from my experience means that it is going to be pretty close to new. Still…$3000 is a lot of coin for digital bits and bytes. The back might look pretty, but be a lemon. The CFV could be beat up but work nicely. Hard to say, but given that a similar demo [the ii version] was selling for $7999 in Toronto, I felt the risk was worth the taking.


I have had the back for a whopping hour. I spent the first ten minutes admiring the perfect body. Next came realizing that the battery was dead so I would need to power up with a firewire 800 cable, which I fortunately own in an industrial variety. Ten more minutes realizing that the CFV sucks in low light and that my trigger technique needed to be worked on to properly signal the back to avoid weird colour casts. Then…I shot a series of images with the junk on my table, a D1 with a beauty dish reflector, and the CFV attached to my 501 C/M. The lens was an 80mm CFe, and for the close ups I went with a 32E extender.

What did I learn? I love this digital back. It will be the most important step forward for my work since the Profoto lights. Yes, there will be a few challenges, as I need to improve my actual camera technique and lighting. I will need to procure a CFV focusing screen with the smaller mask of the sensor ($225), but that is more for accuracy than the quality of the CFV.  At f.2.8 there is only a sliver of focus [as one can see from the images above], and that will force me to shoot at f.4 or higher if I want anything to be focus. The images featured here show what the camera can do with little or no practice. What I love is the richness of the colour, the huge dynamic range of the sensor, and the resolution is astounding. When I cropped the artichoke and blackberry image, the details pop out instead of turning to fuzz. The oil and fruit come to life where once they were just part of a composition. With the types of product work that I do this will prove invaluable to the client when he tries to blow my photograph up to a poster or crop it down for a catalogue or package.

So was the risk worth it? Yes. The game play resumes at a new level.


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