If someone asked us to design a home entertainment system that would be compatible with systems 60 years into the future (the year 2079), we would probably respond, “Impossible!” Not only would it be difficult to predict whether hardware would still be compatible, but what about the media and software? Designing anything future-proof is a monumental task even with the help of industry standard organizations such as DIN, IEC or ISO. As an example, it took almost 100 years to come to a universal ISO standard in 1974 for film speeds.

In the 1940s when Victor Hasselblad started designing and manufacturing cameras for the Swedish military, there was no clear market position for medium format cameras. Initially it was an amateur film format (think Kodak Box Brownie) that pre-dated 35mm cartridge film, not the professional film format that it eventually evolved into. In fact, Victor Hasselblad’s goal was that his cameras would be for the average person, not a high-end tool for only the rich or the professional photographer. Little did Victor Hasselblad know how his ingenious design would allow his camera system to survive 60 years into the future and beyond. Let’s look at the history of the Hasselblad System and how it came to be the iconic 6×6 medium format camera.

The late 1940s experienced a postwar industrial boom. During WWII, like many industrial machining companies around the world, Hasselblad became a parts manufacturer, producing parts for watches and clocks in addition to making cameras for the military. After the war, these companies had to find new things to build, and making consumer cameras was a natural evolution for Hasselblad. Although we know this Swedish brand as the iconic medium format camera manufacturer, F.W. Hasselblad & Company started 100 years earlier in 1841 as a trading company. Victor’s grandfather, Arvid Hasselblad, met George Eastman (founder of Eastman Kodak) by chance on his honeymoon, and Hasselblad became the exclusive distributor for Kodak in Sweden. It was no coincidence, when Victor Hasselblad made his first commercially available roll film camera, the 1600F, in 1948 that it was equipped with a Kodak Ektar lens. Since Hasselblad was already manufacturing precision watch and clock parts, building cameras was not a huge leap in complexity. Unlike other manufacturers, however, Hasselblad’s vision was far more complicated than most available non-system medium format cameras at that time. It was the first modular 6×6 medium format single-lens-reflex system camera with interchangeable backs, lenses and viewfinders. Although the now iconic 500C wouldn’t be released until 1957, the 1600F was the beginning of the Hasselblad System as it was known for over 50 years. In 2002, Hasselblad renamed it the V-System (as a memorial for Victor?) to differentiate it from the new 645 H-System.

The iconic Hasselblad 500C was finally released in 1957. Although it looked similar to the 1600F and 1000F, there was a distinct internal design change. The more complicated and fragile focal plane shutter system was replaced with a more accurate and stable leaf shutter system (albeit with a slower top shutter speed). The new Carl Zeiss Compur lenses for the 500C system had the shutters built right into the lenses, allowing for faster flash sync speeds (to a maximum of 1/500th sec), as well as being more accurate, stable and less fragile. If I were to guess, the “C” in 500C stood for Compur, the then-king of premium leaf shutters. The 500 stood for 1/500th sec top shutter speed. This makes sense since the previous 1600F (top shutter speed of 1/1600th sec) and 1000F (top shutter speed of 1/1000th sec) both had focal plane shutters, hence the “F.” Later in their history, Hasselblad would make the 200 and 2000 series equipped with electronic focal plane shutters that were stronger and better designed than the previous models and could accept both standard and leaf shutter lenses. However, the legacy started with the classic Hasselblad 500C system, which included the famous 80mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Compur leaf shutter lens system. 

Let us first examine how this camera takes a photograph. The release cycle and precision timing of the Hasselblad 500C is an engineering marvel. Each part, the lens, the mirror and the body, must all work together to make the image. When you depress the shutter button, the first thing that happens is that the leaf shutter closes, and the aperture diaphragm stops down to the preset aperture value. Next, the mirror for the viewfinder (remember the Hasselblad 500C is technically an SLR) moves up and out of the way, blanking out your view, and the rear auxiliary shutter opens up to reveal the film to the inner chamber of the camera body. Finally, the leaf shutter opens and closes for the proper duration set by the shutter speed ring, thus exposing the film. In the end, the mirror returns to its closed position and the auxiliary shutter covers the exposed film. The single cycle must occur in this order and within a fraction of a second every time, without the need of a battery. It’s all springs, levers and gears, like a good watch. That’s precision engineering.

As fascinating as the camera’s release cycle is, the most important feature of the V-System is the interchangeable backs or magazines. Imagine today if you could swap out the 35mm sensor on your digital camera and pop in a medium format sensor, or a black and white only sensor, depending on the subject you’re photographing? In 1948 when the 1600F was first released, that’s basically what you could do with your V-System. Remember that before digital photography, your film was the equivalent of the modern sensor and memory card combined. The film and format you chose determined the size, aspect ratio, and the total number of images you could take with your camera. If you loaded one type of film at a specific aspect ratio and roll length, that’s what you were stuck with until you finished that roll of film; not so with an interchangeable camera back. With a Hasselblad camera you could swap your magazine mid-roll for another film type (colour, b&w, slide, Polaroid, etc.), film speed, film length (120, 220, sheet) or aspect ratio/orientation. Initially, the greatest advantage of having a swappable magazine system was having various types of film loaded while you were in the field: one magazine with Kodak Tri-X, another with Kodachrome 64, and still another with a colour print film. This makes sense. However, as time went on, many professional photographers realized that the speed of reloading film was another major advantage with a modular back system. Instead of handing the camera to an assistant when you ran out of film and grabbing another pre-loaded camera body and swapping out the lens (or having two of the same lens for speed), the photographer would simply swap out the finished magazine and grab a new one; no need to move the camera, lens, or take the camera off the tripod. One lens, one body, but multiple magazines. In fact, on certain projects, you could rent or borrow extra backs loaded with the same film so you could resume shooting as quickly as possible.

The rear interface of all V-System cameras (with a few exceptions) has been the same since 1948 with the original 1600F. This doesn’t mean that every magazine will work with every body (some backs had special features with electronic contacts that communicated with the body), but the physical connection is the same. For instance, the CFV-50C digital back will physically fit but will not work with the 1600F or 1000F. This is because the focal plane shutter must be overridden in favour of the leaf shutter lenses while in C-mode, something that wasn’t invented before the 500C. Beside the few exceptions, the Hasselblad digital backs basically act the same as the film backs. There were multiple film magazines available over the years from 120, 220, 70mm, Polaroid, sheet and glass plate. There were also multiple formats other than 6×6: from 4×4 super slide, 645 in landscape orientation (with 16 frames per 120 roll film), and 645 in portrait orientation (cropped 6×6 with only 12 frames per 120 roll film). With the Polaroid pack film, although the film size was larger than 6×6, the image itself could expose only a 6×6 image square. 

Although 120 film is still readily available, Polaroid and Fujifilm pack film is now discontinued. However, it was the Polaroid back that pointed to the possibility of a digital future for Hasselblad’s V-System. Even though it is something we take for granted today, being able to immediately see your images was a luxury feature for any camera system, even as late as the 1990s. As advanced as my Fujifilm GA645i medium format camera was (auto load, auto advance, autofocus, auto exposure, data imprinting along the edge of the frame), I still had to run to the photo lab if I wanted immediate feedback from my images. To include instant viewing in my 1990s workflow, I bought a 1960s Polaroid Land Camera and carried around a pile of 667 and 669 film. I wasn’t alone. Having a 1950s Hasselblad in the 1990s was still a wise and, in many ways, advanced option for many professional and hobbyist photographers.

Moreover, being able to use a modern digital component on a 60-year-old camera system is not only ingenious, but also serendipitous. The passing of time can be cruel to older technology (remember Sony’s Beta, DAT, MiniDisc, SACD?). External forces can make an otherwise advanced piece of hardware or software obsolete. Although many lens mounts have transitioned from film to digital (Leica M, Nikon F, Pentax K), not many camera systems have done so, or at least done so successfully. Even if film disappeared today, although the film magazines would be dead, digital backs would keep the V-System’s bodies, lenses and accessories alive and well. Victor Hasselblad couldn’t have foreseen the future of photography in 1948, but the modular V-System that he invented allowed for the system to evolve and accept the newest technologies. The recent announcement of the new Hasselblad 907X body and CFV II 50C digital back for the V-System is solid proof that Victor Hasselblad had it right when he envisioned a modular medium format camera system in the 1940s. 

This is the first in a series of articles on the Hasselblad V-System by Take Kayo originally published in the Medium Format Magazine. Take will continue to discuss the history, the future, and the advantages of shooting with a modular SLR medium format camera for both film and digital photography.

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