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Hasselblad 500 Camera

First published May 26th, 2006

The Hasselblad brand has become the Rolls Royce in cameras. Often thought to be German, Hasselblad is in fact Swedish. The classic Hasselblad camera is the 500C, introduced in 1957 - the first in what is known as the V series. It is a medium format single-lens reflex camera, using German-made Carl Zeiss lenses with built-in leaf shutters. The 500 series has long been renowned for its superb optics, sturdiness, reliability, and compact size, and a modified 500EL/70 model was used by the astronauts who took part in the Apollo moon landings.

The Hasselblad 500C was one of the first system cameras. Its primary components - lens, prism/viewfinder, cranking knob, and film back - were interchangeable for flexibility. The square 6x6 (56mm x 56mm) format made the most of the lens image circle on the film and allowed more efficient cropping in the darkroom. Using a standard film back, 12 shots could be taken on a standard 120 roll of film, or 16 shots by fitting a 6x4.5 format back.

With the 500 series Hasselblad also demonstrated that a camera can be beautiful. No other design of camera, including later Hasselblads, has achieved such a classic look with its exquisitely composed straights and curves and the elegant counterbalance of dark textured surfaces with bright shining edges.

The Hasselblad pedigree

F.W. Hasselblad & Co. was formed in Gothenburg in western Sweden in 1841. It was an import-export company and became associated with photography when Arvid Viktor Hasselblad, son of the founder and a keen amateur photographer, established a photographic division to import film into the country. The popularity of photography was increasing and Arvid Viktor formed a business partnership with George Eastman (founder of Kodak) to become the exclusive Swedish distributor of Kodak products. The photographic division grew rapidly and in 1908 a separate firm, Fotografiska AB, was formed to deal with the increased business.

Victor Hasselblad, great-grandson of the founder, continued the company's association with Kodak and the family friendship with Eastman. He became a keen photographer, publishing a book of photos of birds in flight, but he fell out with his father and in 1937 opened his own photo shop, 'Victor Foto'. During the Second World War the Swedish military 'captured' a fully functioning German aerial surveillance camera. Victor had acquired a reputation as a camera expert and the authorities asked him if he could produce a replica.

The first Hasselblad camera

"I can produce a better one" said Victor. In a shed in an automobile workshop in central Gothenburg, with the help of his brother and a motor mechanic, he produced the first Hasselblad camera, the HK7. A small factory was built and in 1941 he received an order from the Air Force for a new camera, with a larger negative format and a fixed mounting on aircraft. Interchangable lenses and film magazines were a feature of both designs, establishing one of the hallmarks of the Hasselblad medium format camera.

By the end of the war Hasselblad had manufactured 342 cameras for the military and was also producing watch and clock works, but the company's attention turned to the mass consumer market for the hand-held camera. The Hasselblad 1600F was a single-lens, mirror reflex, 6x6 camera with interchangeable Kodak lenses, film backs, and viewfinders. Although it was acclaimed as a groundbreaking camera its shutter mechanism was very intricate and prone to malfunction. The 1000F, with a new series of six lens series, was more robust and was pronounced a success in 1952 by the American magazine Modern Photography.

The Hasselblad 500C 'moon camera'

Launched by Hasselblad in 1957, the new 500C had lenses with a central leaf shutter. It was a true 'system' camera and became the bedrock of a line which became celebrated as the now-famous 'moon camera' used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to record the first images of man on the moon, and perhaps more importantly, of earth from the moon.

The astronauts actually used a motor-driven Hasselblad 500EL/70 (70mm film back) Data Camera fitted with a Reseau plate and a Zeiss Biogon 5.6/60 mm lens. Conventional lubricants were replaced by a special low friction alternative and metal plating was used instead of the standard black leatherette covering. The thirteen cameras taken are still somewhere on the moon. To save weight, only the detachable film backs were brought back to earth.

The 500 C/M ('M' for modified), with user-replaceable focusing screens, was produced from 1970 until 1994. Hasselblad eventually introduced a brighter Minolta-made Acute-Matte fresnel focusing screen and the 500 line, with a succession of new variants (through-the-lens metering was included on the 503CX), became the industry standard for commercial and portrait photographers throughout the world, as well as well-heeled creative photographers.

Page last modified: November 30, 2014

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