Hasselblad CFV, 39 megapixel digital back – a User’s Experience

I was asked if I would like to try out a Hasselblad 503 with a CFV digital back on our PhotoSafari photo trip to Vietnam (PMPE3a). Why not? How often one would have a chance to test drive a medium format digital back?

I got the camera 2 days before leaving for Vietnam. I downloaded the operations manual and went thru it. It is a simple manual unlike the complicated operations manual of the DSLRs.

Yes, this is a professional medium format digital back and the workflow will be very different from a DSLR. The manual made assumptions that you are already an advanced photographer.

The manual explains specific practical aspects of camera operation and control, the menu system and suchlike details regarding these products. It is assumed that reasonable levels of general analogue and digital photographic knowledge as well as computer skills are already acquired, so these are not dealt with here.  “

These are only 10 points a Photographer need to worry about. Simple isn’t it?

1. It is essential to ensure you have a fully-charged battery, a spare fully-charged battery, access to battery recharging or access to a computer, depending on how you work. Remember too that a film magazine can act as a reserve for emergencies.

2. If you intend to work with a CF card, you must ensure you either have enough capac­ity on the card for the job in hand or have access to a card reader/separate hard disk/computer to off-load the images.

3. The sensitivity (“ISO /film speed”) of the sensor can be altered according to circumstances just as you would choose a fast or slow film, thereby providing a range of “speeds”. Just as with film, the lower “speed” settings produce finer quality.

4. Always check the three basic settings before starting:

•ISO (“film speed”)

•White balance (color temperature)

•Media (where the captured images will be stored).

5. Remember the size of the sensor causes an ‘increase’ in the focal length of lenses in practical terms. Compose within the masking on the focusing screen.

6. Remember there can be specific restrictions regarding longer exposure times and working with flash/strobe.

7. The display screen produces an image as a visual guide only. A histogram display will provide you with the technical information about the optimum exposure.

8. Minor color casts on the preview screen can be ignored as there are opportunities to adjust the files later in processing.

9. Be extra aware when photographing surfaces with a small regular pattern in the color­ing or structure (for example, fine-weave fabrics) as a moiré effect can be produced in certain circumstances. However, some of this can be removed in Phocus in many cases.

10. Most other usual photographic practices apply such as using a lens shade, using a tripod when you can, checking for depth of field etc. However good your post-capture skills are on the computer, for optimum results you should still aim for optimum image capture!

This operations manual is designed to alleviate the fears for those who have been using the analogue Hassleblad for years. They want to make the transition from analogue to digital photography seamless. It is just like taking off the film back and inserting a digital back. Everything else remains unchanged.

original image downsized for web posting

original image downsized for web posting

100% crop of the image

100% crop of the image

100% crop

100% crop

Long exposure

Early morning catch, Long Hai Beach

Market seller

Calligraphy ceremony, Long Son

The 503CW does not come with a built-in light meter or auto focusing aid. However, the lens has a very useful EV and a DOF scale. With its 12 stop dynamic ranges and histogram feedback, one does not really need a light meter. One would ask why would some high end camera come without a light meter? Well, most Hasselblad or Medium Format Camera Owners have learnt how to effectively use a handheld light meter. Using a medium format camera is more deliberate than a 35mm camera. Most users will take more care to composition, technicality and concept than using 35mm camera.

Hasselblad has provided a focusing screen specifically made for the CFV back. It is has a centre spot split image, a prism ring and a matt screen as a focusing aid. There are a few lines drawn on the screen to indicate the cropped factor of the sensor. You can use either the 645 lines or the square 45×45 lines. Initially I had a lot of problems because of the parallax error between the focusing screen lines and the LCD at the back of the digital back. Then I realize that I should follow the frame lines drawn on the focusing screen and forget about the LCD screen feedback. (Please read clause 7 above)

My first few shots were taken in a temple. I did not bring a tripod as I thought I could hand hold the 503 below 1/30s as in the case of an analogue camera. I soon realize that I can’t do that without camera shake. The main reasons are that the 503 unit with the 50mm lens and digital back are much heavier than a similar outfit using an analogue film back. Secondly, most negatives developed are usually printed up to 8x which gives  18”x18” prints. With the digital back, the native image size is already 30”x22” which is more than 14x from a 645 negatives. It is also very easy to enlarge the image up to 100% just by punching in Ctrl +. So a normal image that is only enlarge 8x will now need to enlarge even more than 15x hence any camera shake will be amplified.

I would recommend the use of a good and sturdy tripod in most situations or at least a monopod.

For those who have been using a Hasselblad 500CM, using this 503 with a digital back is a no brainer. In fact it is easier to use the digital combo. You focus, meter, shoot and wind the frame exactly the same way as you do with a 500CM. The only thing I find annoying is the battery that is attached to the bottom of the digital back. I find I can’t mount the tripod quick release plate normally like the normal camera. The battery always comes into play. I was forced to mount the plate sideways and that hindered the use of a panning head. I was told that there is an accessory mounting plate that solves this problem.

The digital files are huge, 40MB each. All files are in RAW format. There are no jpeg files available. This alone tells you that this camera is for serious photographers who would do post processing.

The manufacturer claimed that the digital back is able to capture 12 stops of dynamic range. This wide dynamic range is almost near the dynamic range of the human eye. I find that this claim was achievable.

The RAW files can be opened in the proprietary software by Hasselblad called Phocus. It can also be opened with Lightroom and Abode Photoshop CS4. I did not download the Phocus software so I used Lightroom and CS4 to process the image. When you first open the image it looks low contrast and the colors are dull. This is exactly how a negative projected from an enlarger looks in the darkroom. It gives the photographer numerous alternatives to process the image.  The colors however look neutral close to what the color of the actual object.

The battery life for the digital back is outstanding. After all it does not need to power the AF or metering systems. I think you can get about 300+ images per charge. I did not run out of battery unlike the H4D40 which is an energy geezer.  This is very good for a medium format camera. It is like shooting 30 rolls of 120 films per charge.


The image quality and dynamic range are really outstanding. This is the best digital camera I have tested so far. Then again a medium format camera always outshines a 35mm image by sheer image size. In the digital era it is no different. Size does matter.

One photographer remarked that you can get 10 shots in one image….a frightening thought.

Would an enthusiast buy this digital back? I think the cost is well within the reach of a well heeded photo enthusiast. The cost is slightly more than a high end DSLR and a good lens. Now digital medium format is within the reach of those who enjoyed finer things in life.

“Owning a Hasselblad is not about how good a photographer you are. It is about how good you want to be.”

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