This post appeared initially as a guest post on the Leica Store Miami/Camerawest blog. The original article can be found here.
When I was growing up, a guy I knew got himself a Lexus sports car. I don’t know what model. It doesn’t actually matter to this story. When I saw the car, the conversation went something like this:
Mid life crisis dude: Sick car right?
Me: Why didn’t you get the Porsche?
Mid life crisis dude: This car has a backseat and is convertible.
Me: It isn’t a Porsche
Mid life crisis dude: The maintenance is lower for the Lexus, the ride is better, there is a Lexus dealer here in town, and it is also brand new.
Me: It isn’t a Porsche.
Mid life crisis dude: It costs $20K less.
Me: It isn’t a Porsche?
This anecdote suggests that there are people in this life who may or may not be having a mid-life crisis and decide to drive a Lexus sports car. There are others who drive a Porsche. Lexus people are practical and care about features. Porsche people understand features but they know that with some things in life features, price, etc., take a backseat and, when it is all said and done, it is all really about “the show.”
Nobody is going to care about your features and logical decision when you drive down the street in that understated Lexus. Heads will, however, turn when your Porsche comes rolling down the street.
The Hasselblad CVF II 50c is the Porsche in this story.
There are very few practical or logically defensible reasons to buy a Hasselblad CFV II 50c. Nonetheless, for the right people, who already down a compatible Hasselblad film body, who understand that sometimes life is about putting on a show, the show is important, the show matters, and cameras are fashion – those people cannot afford NOT to own a Hasselblad CFV II 50c. It is magical.
This guide will help you decide if the Hasselblad CVF II 50c is right for you. Importantly, I hope to dispel some of the misconceptions floating around in the different camera forums about this medium format digital back and fill in some of the gaps that the sponsored reviewers seem to have overlooked. This post is #notsponsored
The Hasselblad CFV II 50c is luxury street fashion in a camera body
It is possible I am saying the quiet things out loud but after listening to and reading other reviews of the Hasselblad CFV II 50c and after owning and using this camera, I am finding that none of the reviewers stated the obvious. They hemmed and hawed, talked about the price, said they wanted one, said it was slow or innovative, but all of them missed the obvious conclusion. The obvious conclusion regarding the Hasselblad CFV II 50c is that it doesn’t make any practical sense.
Because I am either saying what everyone else quietly knows but was afraid to say or paid not to say; or I am introducing a new concept, I feel that a further discussion of the concept of “the show” is warranted. This camera only makes sense if you can accept that some cameras are luxury fashion and “the show” is important.
For the Lexus type of customer in the previous anecdote, logic and reason tell them that this camera doesn’t make sense. There are better and more modern sensors. There are less expensive options. For the price of the digital back, you can get a fully-featured camera with autofocus. It is a crop sensor appendage to a film Hasselblad that doesn’t shoot 6 x 6. The interface is slow. It is hard to use in the sun. The sensor is not stabilized. All of those arguments are relevant and are worthy of debate but if you are having that debate, please stop. It isn’t worth losing the 7 seconds you are going to waste having that debate in your head. You are going to lose because this camera is neither logical nor reasonable.
As an analogy, debating this camera is about as boring and irrational as are the debates between digital and analog photographers where the digital guys always say that shooting film is stupid, hipsteresque, and indefensible. Practically speaking, shooting film, much less a Hasselblad, is stupid hipsteresque and indefensible. It makes no practical sense, they are correct, and I do it all the time.
Analog photographers understand that film isn’t about practicality Film is about style, aesthetic, fun, a hobby, clicking clacking old cameras for the sake of clicking clacking old cameras, something to think about while grinding away in a cubicle or in Zoom call hell, a ready-built community of likeminded people, etc. Moreover, anyone who has seen others react positively when they learn you are shooting film, understands that film is (at the risk of saying the quiet things out loud again) a form of street fashion.
Unless you are an ex-wedding or music photographer who shot album covers in the 80’s and somehow just kept shooting film and missed the digital train for the first 20 years, fashion and style are part of the reason you already own a Hasselblad film camera, are considering owning a Hassleblad film camera, and/or you are considering a CFV II 50c – and I am here to tell you that is all perfectly acceptable at least as long as you have enough disposable income to buy something like this without digging into your long term savings. Please don’t mortgage the trailer to buy a camera.
If this is your first introduction to me, it may be of interest to note that even though I could be described as a drug dealer for fine photographic equipment, I drive a scooter and wear black t-shirts, black pants, and black sneakers for 99% of my waking hours. I am not a fashion icon, I reject shopping for clothes, and my lack of fashion is decidedly not ironically iconic or even ironically unironic. I am just lame and boring and even though I watched that Hype street fashion reality show on HBOMax last month, and I take pictures of Gucci sneakers from time to time, I don’t really understand why people do what they do or spend what they spend on clothing fashion. In a parallel reality, however, I understand the fashion of cameras. I literally (and unironically) find the Yashica Samurai camera drool worthy. I own a Ricoh FF90.
Many photographers are loathe to admit that fashion is a driving force in the film renaissance but it is. Fashion in this context does not refer to style. Fashion is art. Fashion is a way of life. Fashion is self-expression. Fashion is an affinity to a subculture that outsiders find odd. If you don’t understand why people horde or pay thousands of dollars for sneakers, you won’t get it. If you don’t understand why Supreme is a billion-dollar streetwear company, you won’t get it. If you recoil in horror when you think about Lenny Kravitz and his alligator-clad Leica rather than drooling like Pavlov’s dog, you certainly won’t get it.
Fashion is important and there is no other fashionable showstopper like a film Hasselblad except for a Hasselblad attached to a CFV II 50c where you can take more than 10 images without stopping and then woo the crowd by sending the images directly to your cell phone. Why you need medium format images on a cell phone is a topic for another discussion but it is a nifty feature nonetheless.
If you are still reading this, I predict that you already own or are thinking about owning a Hasselblad film back. I also predict that it is likely that you understand (or at least don’t reject the possibility) that cameras are fashion. I also predict that you feel that a Hasselblad takes everything you know and love about film, fashion, and “the show”, cranks it to 1000, and then tweaks your dopamine better than social media, coffee, and crack when you hear that guttural clack of the internal shutter mechanism. If any or all of my predictions are correct it is possible that this camera is for you. If you don’t understand this discussion and/or reject any part of this discussion for any reason, this camera is not for you. On your way to the Lexus dealership, I suggest getting a Fuji.
Who is this camera for?
This camera is for anyone who already owns a compatible Hasselblad film body and would like to use that film body and lenses with a digital back. The main reason I purchased it is to get more use out of my Hasselblad 500C/M. Specifically, I can now bring a Hasselblad film back, the CFV II 50c and a single camera to a shoot rather than bringing separate film and digital systems. I am also inclined to bring the Hasselblad for personal use when I don’t want to shoot film as an alternative to my Sony. The Sony makes great images but I feel like I am using a VCR from 1992 while I am making them.
It is probably of interest to note that in my particular use case, I do not in any way require medium format resolution for my work. Medium format is nice to have but 30mp would be just fine for what I do. It is very much possible that if you are considering this camera it isn’t in yours either. It doesn’t matter. The image files are exceptional and huge but that is just icing on the cake.
If you don’t already own a compatible Hasselblad film body and/or you don’t plan on owning one in the near future, I would pass on the CFV II 50c. Style is one thing but there are better options for making medium format images if you don’t already own a Hasselblad camera. This is not unexpected as I am pretty certain that existing Hasselblad camera owners were the target market for the CFV II 50c.
If medium format is an absolute requirement for your photography (e.g you are a professional and not a hobbyist) my bet is that you will choose a different tool and you probably should. For a professional, I contend there are enough usability niggles with this system that I would not want this as my primary use system for day to day work.
It is probably worth mentioning that this camera is sold with a 907x “body” that is compatible with XCD series Hasselblad lenses. That is pretty much all I have to say about the 907x given that I cant find a use case for the 907x. I supposed I would use the 907x if an XCD lens fell out of the sky or was given to me by a dying relative but I don’t have any relatives who shoot Hasselblads and I don’t foresee the tail wagging the dog and going out and buying XCD lenses because I have a 907x sitting on the shelf looking lonely.
Digital medium format is unforgiving. Hasselblad film cameras didn’t consider this in 1980.
Film photography is forgiving with regard to focusing issues and slight motion during exposure when compared to digital.
With film, you can miss focus by a bit and the resulting image will still look sharp. A little unsharpness with film can even appear “charming” when you throw in some grain. To wit, people seek out vintage lenses with character that are a little bit unsharp to use with film. With digital medium format, however, missed focus is readily apparent and is as ugly as a smashed pumpkin the day after Halloween.
With film, you are able to handhold your camera to a shutter speed according to the old maxim of 1/focal length. With a medium format digital camera that does not benefit from lens or sensor stabilization, at least in my hands, that formula does not work reliably well for me. I cannot reliably handhold my Hasselblad lenses at 1/focal length without unsharpness resulting from camera shake. I will get back to this in a minute.
Traditional film Hasselblads are great film cameras but they were not designed for the exactitude of digital medium format photography. Online you will find reports that it is impossible to handhold the CFV II 50c because images will be unsharp. In my opinion, this is likely user error and failing to understand a medium format digital workflow using traditional cameras and lenses. With the Hasselblad CFV II 50c you are going to need to change your shooting technique and, possibly, upgrade your existing Hasseblald camera rig.
Upgrading and modding your technique and gear if you plan on hand holding a Hasselblad CFV II 50c.
- 1. Reconsider the waist level finder: Hasselblad’s waist level finder is iconic. Unfortunately, however, I can’t make mine work without the magnifier for the type of critical focus necessary for digital medium format. if you are going to use a CFV II 50c you will need to use the magnifier on your waist level finder or a prism finder. This is not negotiable. You are going to also need the waist level magnifiers or the prism finder jammed against your face as a third point of contact when shooting to stabilize the camera. If you have a prism finder consider getting a magnifier for that too. Remember, the CFV II 50c is essentially a crop sensor body. The magnifier will help you focus and you wont care about the image outside the magnified area because that is, for the most part, getting cropped away anyway.
- 2. Reconsider your ground glass focusing screen: Critical focus is a requirement. I had an older ground glass focusing screen and I could not make mine work sufficiently well for the CFV II 50c. Everything was soft. In my opinion, you are going to want a split prism focusing aid on your screen or at least an updated ground glass screen. The good news is that the new focusing screens designed for digital Hasselblads are readily available and relatively inexpensive. They also have crop sensor lines. Unfortunately, the microprism around the split prism can be difficult to focus. Therefore, if you don’t have a subject with a good hard line to use with the split prism the whole thing can be difficult to focus. After using the newer digital Hasselblad screen with the crop sensor lines and an Acute Matte D with a split prism I greatly prefer the Acute Matte D with the split prism. The bad news is that the updated ground glass screens (e.g. Acute Matte D) are unreasonably expensive even if you can find one. If you decide to use an older screen you will need some sort of markings to show the crop area. Search for H-3042264 as a compatible Hasselblad screen with markings. If you use an older screen, this is one option for an aftermarket mask
- 3. Reconsider your lens selection: The CFV II 50c is a crop sensor medium format digital back when compared to medium format film. The sensor does not take up the entire 6 x 6 medium format film area. You only get a rectangle in the middle. This will impact your lens choice. The crop factor of the CFV II 50c is 0.79 (the normal 6x 6 is 0.55) so you might need a wider angle lens than you currently own. With the digital back I don’t foresee getting much use out of my 150mm lens because I don’t generally shoot telephoto with my Hasselblad and the requirement for additional shutter speed to avoid camera shake is too great. It is possible that you will want different/additional/wider lenses from what you already own if you are going to shoot the CFV II 50c.
- 4. Reconsider ISO: One area where I was unexpectedly surprised was the ISO performance of the Hasselblad CFV II 50c. High-resolution full-frame photography (at least in my hands) has pretty awful high ISO performance. This is not true for digital medium format. Getting into the physics of why this is the case is outside the scope of this post. Nonetheless, I am comfortable shooting at 3200 or 6400 ISO with the CFV II 50c. This opens up new possibilities that I did not have with my relatively slow Hasselblad lenses. I pair these higher ISO’s with Topaz Denise AI and always increase the ISO to get a faster shutter speed.
- 5. Reconsider shutter speed: this is a corollary to #4. The old maxim of setting a minimum shutter speed of 1/focal length doesn’t work for me while hand holding a digital medium format camera. As a rule of thumb, I use 1/2x focal length. For example, if I am shooting a 50mm lens, I will use a minimum shutter speed of 1/125. Fortunately, with the CFV II 50c, as stated in #4, it is easy to increase the ISO to maintain proper exposure. With Topaz AI and the huge dynamic range of this sensor, I will even underexpose slightly and then fix the underexposure in a post in an effort to increase my shutter speed.
- 6. Don’t worry too much about exposure settings: The Hasselblad CFV II 50c is reported to have 14 stops of dynamic range. I can’t state if this is accurate or marketing nonsense but it is vast. Don’t worry about one-stop here or one-stop there of exposure. It doesn’t matter.
- 7. Three points of contact and use your left index finger: When shooting, I like to have three points of contact. The first is my right hand on the base of the camera. The second is my left hand on the front and bottom of the camera. The third is the prism or top of the WLF jammed hard on my face to stabilize the camera. I trigger using the index finger of my left hand. With three points of contact and my 1/2x focal length shutter speed rule of thumb, you can handhold without worrying too much about camera shake.
- 8. Bokeh comes pre-crushed. Don’t crush the bokeh: If you follow me a leicalensesfornormalpeople.com you already know that I am not on board with the whole “crush the bokeh, slay the bokeh” thing that is in vogue these days. People are carrying around unnecessarily large/fast lenses to get gratuitous bokeh shots on full-frame digital cameras and I don’t get it. With digital medium format camera sensor like the CFV II 50c, getting good bokeh is easy. Getting sharp images is tougher. I encourage users to stop down and don’t worry about the bokeh. Stop down, increase your shutter speed, and let the bokeh chips fall where they may. This bullet point is more of a general-purpose statement regarding medium format and bokeh slaying than something specific to the CFV II 50c.
- 9. Don’t be surprised at the weight: The CFV II 50c feels heavier than you think it would feel by looking at it. It is heavier than a normal film back. Be prepared. Also, be prepared that if you add a prism finder the whole contraption becomes something of a behemoth.
- 10. Think twice before switching between film and digital: The beauty of this system is that you can switch between film and digital. I wish, however, they had some sort of dark slide you would use to cover the sensor when switching. When you remove the back the sensor is right there staring you in the face and attracting dust. My suggestion is that if you are out in the open or in a windy environment you might consider going back to the car to change backs. I keep An Arctic Butterfly sensor brush on hand at all times.
The following image shows the ISO performance. This image is handheld at f/5.6 at 1/250 sec using a 50mm lens at 3200 ISO. On the left is a full-size image resized to 2000px. On the right is a crop showing the noise at ISO 3200.
Your Lenses might not be as good as you think. At least not wide open.
It has been said that there are no bad legacy Hasselblad lenses. This may well be true but what was true for film might not quite work out as well on digital medium format.
My experience with Hasselblad lenses is limited given that I only own 3 and I never use my 150mm on the CVF II 50c. Nonetheless, my 80mm F/2.8 CF Planar isn’t the best operator at f/2.8. It sharpens up nicely stopped down. Conversely, my 50mm F/4 Distagon FLE works great at f/4.
I cannot responsibly comment on other Hasselblad lenses. This article will be updated in the future should I add additional lenses to my arsenal.
Hasselblad Phocus vs Lightroom
Hasselblad makes a Lightroom and Capture one competitor called Phocus. If you look at the marketing materials and the forum posts, people swear by Phocus to give you the best colors and images from the CFV II 50c. I don’t use it and you don’t need to use it to use the CFV II 50c.
I did a bunch of side-by-side tests when I got the camera and didn’t see any appreciable difference between Lightroom and Phocus. It might be of interest to note that I am proficient in Lightroom so learning a new program to squeeze out an extra 1% of IQ didn’t make sense for me. I can’t imagine that anyone buying this camera who doesn’t already use Lightroom or Capture One but what do I know. Maybe you are the white whale who shot film for 20 years and your first foray into digital will be the CFV II 50c. If that is you, Phocus seems fully capable and fully featured. It also has lens correction profiles for the Hasselblad lenses that Lightroom doesn’t have. Phocus is also free so there is that. I don’t routinely use Capture One so I didnt test the images in Capture One.
This camera is for people who understand style but it isn’t style over substance. The Hasselblad CFV II 50c is a very capable camera.
If you made it this far, you can afford it, and you can accept the changes in your workflow if you want to handhold this camera, I encourage you to just get one and stop trying to find a reason to talk yourself in or out of the camera. If you are already invested in the Hasselblad V ecosystem, the CVF II 50c will allow you to get much more use out of your Hasselblad V series camera. I certainly do.
Matt Wright is a part-time photographer in San Diego and Salt Lake City. As a sometimes lapsed Leica fanboy he is currently researching rangefinder lenses at leicalensesfornormalpeople.com and can be found on Instagram @leicalensesfornormalpeople and @themattwphoto
I have nothing to disclose. I purchased this camera. This is not a sponsored post.