Mastering the medium
My Hasselblad 503CW has been asleep in its padded cell for nearly seven years. That is roughly since I lugged it along the Milford Track, hauled it over Mount Tongariro, and retired it for something smaller and faster in the form of my first (of three) Leica M.
Every few months since I have opened up the bag and admired all that beautiful Swedish engineering with a faint sense of guilt. I knew I was neglecting something beautiful, but film was just too much trouble and expense. Especially since my ineptitude meant that I wasted at least half of any given 12 shots on a roll of 120 film. Now my like-to-trash ratio is more like 1:10, but it doesn’t cost me anything to be fussy. I know I used to lavish a lot more care on each individual image when it was a physical object that cost me actual money, but I also know I was keeping a lot of not-so-great pictures because they were hard to take, not because they were good.
So when digital backs for the V-series came down in price from stratospheric to merely exorbitant, I finally invested. It has been quite an experience going back to hauling nearly 2kg of slow, moody camera after the speedy weightlessness of Leica. Both high-performance and technically unforgiving cameras, but utterly different in feel. The Leica is like a racing car, tricky to control around the corners, but fast and responsive. The 503CW is like an old Rolls Royce, slow and considered, but if you are prepared to make the commitment, a wonderfully smooth ride.
The biggest challenge in going back to Hasselblad is that you are completely manual. With the Leica you still have light-metering. With the 503CW I was relying on my 50-year old analog light meter which, as its irreplaceable mercury batteries are now probably failing, tended to throw up random opinions on appropriate shutter speed (mostly wrong). So I was doing a lot of guessing. I had also forgotten some of the other fun quirks of the Hasselblad, like the mirror-image view you get in the viewfinder, the sheer bloody weight of the thing, and focusing without a rangefinder.
But though I have forgotten almost everything I ever knew about shooting medium format (admittedly not much), I had a lovely time. It was an absolute joy being back with a madly difficult camera. Wrestling for every shot just made me appreciate how much skill, experience, and patience matter in taking a good picture. So in the end I landed with a 16:103 like-to-trash ratio – actually better than I usually do. But my models were my some of my best friends and their instruments, so I’m sure that made a difference.