Hasselblad 503Cw with CFV II 50C: a new digital back with a 25 year old camera

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Last week we reviewed the new Hasselblad 907X 50C. This week, in Part 2 of the series, we used the latest Hasselblad digital back with a vintage 503CW made from 1996. How does it work? Here are the details.

Using the Hasselblad CFV II 50C digital back with the 503CX

If you have not read my review of the Hasselblad 907X 50C, click on the link first. As discussed in the review, the 907X 50C comprise of a thin body – the 907X, coupled to a standard digital back – the CFV II 50C. Hasselblad claimed that the digital back is backwards compatible to all cameras and lenses they have ever made, a span which stretches back to 1957. So was keen to try this claim out.

The opportunity came when I met up with my friend and photographer Jimmy Sng (IG: @momofuku) to try and use the CFV II 50C digital back with his vintage 503CW, which is about 25 years old. The CFV II 50C back is designed with the retro looking chrome on leatherette styling that many 500 series cameras had. However, Jimmy had the black paint edition, where instead of chrome, the metal edges were painted black. It did not look as seamless as it would have been when coupled with the CFV II 50C if it had chrome edges. And would look much better with the Special Edition of the 907X, which featured black paint edges.

The Hasselblad 503CX with the new CFV II 50C and Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm lens. Click here to see the 907X Special Moon Edition design, with all black trim.

But the fit was perfect. Slot off the A12 film back, and just slide in the CFV II 50C back. It is amazing that a digital back made a quarter of a century after the body, initially designed to shoot only film, fits so well.

The Hasselblad 503CX with Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8

But first, perhaps a short look at some Hasselblad history, and the 500 Series of cameras. Hasselblad is one of the early pioneers of classic analog medium format cameras. The first camera introduced in 1948 was the 1600F, which had a focal plane shutter built into the box like single lens reflect body. The camera featured a modular construction where the lens, viewfinder and film back can be removed and interchanged. The initial 1600F suffered from reliability issues with the focal plane shutter, and in 1957, Hasselblad introduced the 500C – which used a leaf shutter built into the lens. The 500C nomenclature was for the 1/500s fastest shutter speed, and C refered to the Compur shutter built into the lenses, which were made for Hasselblad by Carl Zeiss. Hasselblad later fixed the focal plane shutters and introduces the 200F Series (cloth focal plane shutters with max speed of 1/200s) and the 2000F ( titanium focal plane shutters with a max speed of 1/2000s). Together, the 500, 200 and 2000 (as well as the 907X) series cameras are referred to as the V series.

The Hasselblad 503CW with A12 film back attached. The Waist Level Finder (WLF) is closed in this photograph.

Perhaps Hasselblad was most well known as the cameras selected by NASA for the Apollo programs and modified versions of the 500EL (EL stands for electric motor drive) were used in the Moon. Almost all the still photographs during these missions were taken with these modified Hasselblad cameras. Unlike the Omega Speedmasters which were also supplied to the Apollo missions, the cameras had to be modified so that it had no leatherette (glue from the leatherette can evaporate quickly in the near vacuum of space) and was painted silver to help regulate its performance as the temperature fluctuations on the moon can be huge.

“The leather covering, auxiliary shutter, reflex mirror, and viewfinder were removed. A new film magazine was constructed in order to allow for 70 exposures instead of the usual 12.”

Hasselblad press release. So the Hasselblad camera used on the Moon was in fact a Mirorress medium format device!

It also had a electric motor drive in place of the hand crank used in the standard 500, as the crank posed to be difficult for astronauts to operate with their space suits on. Lenses chosen were also mostly wide angle and standard focal length, and in fact, the famous photograph taken by Neil Armstrong of Buzz Aldrin, with his selfie reflection on Aldrin’s helmet visor was shot in a point and shoot style. The Hasselblad was strapped onto his chest on the outside of his space suit. And he did not have to focus the lens as it was a 60mm f/5.6 Zeiss Biogon, set at its hyperfocal distance, so Neil knew everything from about 1.5m in front of him to infinity was in focus. Neil had just to press the shutter release, and the camera did the rest, including advance the film to the next frame.

The Hasselblad Data Camera (HDC) included a Réseau plate, which imprinted the fixed cross-marks on the negatives and allowed for photogrammetric measurements to be made from the images. This is the camera that was strapped to Neil Armstrong’s chest during the mission. The film back was removed, and the camera was left on the surface of the moon, to save on payload restrictions for the flight to return to Earth. Some 12 Hasselblad cameras and lenses are still on the moon. In a 1969 Press Release, it was estimated this was worth USD 1M, no doubt, worth much more today. Photo source: Hasselblad

The 500 Series of cameras were made by Hasselblad from 1957 to 2006, and had the same basic design with modifications. The 503CW (C=Compur leaf shutter, W=possible to attach an electric grip winder) used in this review was made circa 1996. The lens attached is the Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8, which is a legendary lens designed for all round use on the Hasselblad 500 Series cameras. The 80mm focal length on the 6×6 film back is the approximate equivalent to a standard 50mm full frame lens. The lens is very versatile, and a version of it comes standard with almost all 500 Series cameras.

In comparison to modern lenses, such as those the H Series and more so in the X Series, the Zeiss optics are softer. The lenses still render beautifully, and can be critically sharp when needed. But technically the newer H lenses and the even newer X lenses are much better. Especially when comparing resolving power, micro tonal character and other technical characteristics. The older Zeiss glass is more romantic, more genteel, perhaps a reflection of the years goneby.

Using it in the field

With the CFV II 50C attached, the 503CW looks almost exactly like it did with the A12 film back. The weight is slightly more as the A12 is about 400g, and the CFV weighs in at about 540g. The weight balance is also shifted to the back.

The CFV II 50C found on the 907X, detached. Click to see the same back delivered for the Special Moon Edition. The Special Edition had a lower specifed read LCD panel, but all else was the same.

Composing and focusing is done the usual way, via the Waist Level Finder, as shown below. The 503CW WLF is large, bright and clear and focusing manually (its the only way, the lenses and systems were pre-autofocus) is not only easy to do, but a joy to operate.

Using the digital back on the 503CW is no different from shooting the same camera and lens with a film back. Handling, workflow during the shoot is exactly the same. The only difference is the digital back is slightly heavier than the A12 film back. And post shoot processing workflow is digital instead of analog.

Shooting with the old/new combo comes naturally to one who is used to the 500 body. Using the digital back this way is no different from shooting with film, with the exception that one can immediately “chimp” the rear LCD to see how the image looks like after each frame is exposed.

Jimmy in action outdoors in Chinatown Singapore. The sitter is a famous street photographer – Chia Aik Beng. Note the light meter on Jimmy’s neck, as the WLF equipped 503CW does not have a built in meter.

There was also some adjustment needed when composing due to the rectangular 4×3 format of the sensor as opposed to the 6×6 square format native to the 500 Series cameras. Remembering to allow for space above the head, so as not to chop it off in the image. A mask can be procured to show these on the viewfinder, but we did not have access to one.

Hasselblad 503CW / CFV II 50C, Zeiss Planar 80. Photo by Jimmy Sng.

There is no communications between the lens and the back, hence no EXIF data is passed to the image. As shown below, the Phocus Raw processing panel shows ISO set at 100 as this is set on the back, but the image specifics like shutter speed and aperture are “Unknown”. These parameters are set directly and manually on the Zeiss lens. However, one can still select Lens Correction, and a drop down menu allows CF 80 to be selected which applies digital lens correction to the Zeiss 80mm lens. Keep in mind that versions of this lens existed since 1957, and the back was new in 2020. This is remarkable use of technology.

On Jimmy’s 503CW body, however, there is a slight back focus which is consistent throughout all the images we shot. Below is a young lady at a cafe where we were shooting, and we asked her if she would pose for a photograph. And she gamely agreed. Here the focus was set on the eyes, but it missed slightly, back focussing. But with 50Mp, the image, when reduced to a print smaller than A4 or for the web the image looks fine, and back focus barely noticeable.

Hasselblad 503CX/CFV II 50C with Zeiss Planar 80mm. We missed critical focus, but with 50Mp, and reduced, it looks fine. The old lens renders rather nicely. Her back is the cafe, with their tungsten lighting showing up as very warm. Color balance is based on her t-shirt which is grey. She is facing the natural light, which is very subdued as it was cloudy and raining. Photo by Jimmy Sng.

This back focus seems to be consistent on almost all the photographs we took, so it is either a user issue which means we needed more time to get used to the camera, or a small misalignment between the camera body and the digital back, which can be solved by the addition of a shim.

The combo can also be used in LiveView mode, which completely avoids the issue of back focus, as the image captured is what you see in LiveView. This has the additional advantage of being able to zoom in 100% on the rear LCD to set critical focusing, but I also find this troublesome to use. I can only have LiveView when the mirror is up and shutter in B mode. I will need to reset the mirror and set shutter to correct speed by exiting LiveView and then shoot. By which time, if the subject is live and in motion, we would have lost all the moment. May be ok for use of still subjects like buildings while the camera is on a tripod, but not particularly so for portraits, especially street style.

Concluding thoughts

It is very impressive to be able to use a modern digital back, released in 2020 with a film camera designed and released in the mid 1990s. When the 503CW and its elder brethren had a basic design which appeared way back in 1957, when digital not autofocus did not exist. But Hasselblad has made the modern CFV II 50C backwards compatible to all the gear they made over the last 60 plus years. Amazing. And for it to work so in a more or less seamlessly is remarkable. Chapeau Hasselblad.

Note: Hasselblad CFV II 50C was part of the 907x 50C package loaned to us for review by Cles Distribution Singapore.

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6 Comments

  1. In analog feel with digital results we get something reminiscent of the film days. I think it’s a bold move and there was a Kickstarter project where someone was trying to make it digital back for film based medium format cameras but I don’t know how that ended up. We’ve also recently had some people using raspberry pi single board computers to make all 35mm cameras functional again in a similar fashion.

    • Thanks for your comments Tim. The Hasselblad attempt is, of course, a much more serious one than raspberry pi or any Kickstarter project can possibly muster. Indeed Hasselblad has been making the CFV 50C (first gen) for a while. But this latest attempt with the 907X 50C and it’s removable CFV II 50C back takes integration and elegance of execution to yet another level. With the XV adapter, you can also use vintage V series lenses on the 907X. They even make a speed booster adapter, as the V lenses cover 6in x6in and the CFV sensor is only 44mm x 44mm. Making Hasselblad possibly the most versatile vertically integrated system ever.

  2. True…. However, isn’t the character of the old lens lost with the use of a digital sensor instead of a negative?

  3. Why would you use a digital back on a film camera? For what reason? Why not just use a modern digital camera?

    • If you already own a vintage Hasselblad, adding the 907X 50C will also allow you to use the old camera. Old cameras and lenses have their own look and feel, and some prefer that. And having more options is always better than not having any.