beautiful piece of industrial engineering, there's
still nothing like the look of a Hasselblad. Here the
203FE poses all decked out with 110mm f/2.0 Planar FE,
PM 90 prism, and E12 film magazine.
While the whole photo world
is buzzing about Hasselblad's styling new H1 645 system, Hasselblad
quietly announced some stunning price reductions on some of its landmark
camera systems. Of particular interest to professional photographers
and those who enjoy fine equipment is the new pricing on Hasselblad's
legendary 203FE focal plane shutter system. This previously premium-priced
camera has been aggressively priced by Hasselblad USA at only $3175,
a price reduction of $2557!
While the new price is certainly enticing for a sophisticated camera
like the 203FE, even at the old price it was Hasselblad's best
selling 200 series camera body. For those of you old-school guys who
have been using Hasselblad leaf-shutter systems since the dark ages,
the 200 series represented a quantum leap for Hasselblad. While the
leaf-shutter system offered enviable advantages like flash sync at all
shutter speeds, adventurous photographers began to wish for faster lenses,
faster shutter speeds, and a more sophisticated camera platform. While
considered heresy by many Hasselblad devotees at the time, the focal
plane cameras and their truly excellent Zeiss lenses have become a familiar
site in the studios of top pros all over the globe. Even many wedding
and portrait guys who previously thought that the unlimited flash sync
of a leaf shutter was required for their work found that the slick handling
camera and brilliantly fast lenses were too good to pass on.
The meat of the Hasselblad system has always been the stunning
Zeiss optics. Here the versatile and super-sharp 60-120mm
zoom (left) poses with the really fast 110mm f/2.0 Planar
(center) and excellent 50mm f/2.8 Distagon (right).
Some Great Glass
Unlike leaf-shutter cameras that have a top speed of 1/500th of a second,
the 203FE sports a blinding 1/2000 sec shutter speed. This makes the 203FE
a perfect camera for sports, live action, and nature, especially when
using really long tele lenses. As luck would have it, Hasselblad makes
some amazing glass for this camera, including the 250mm f/5.6 Tele-Tessar
and the "wake me up I must be dreaming" 300mm f/2.8 Tele-Superachromat
with matched APO-Mutar 1.4x tele-converter. If you want 35mm-like speed,
reach, and wide-open apertures, this is your camera.
The Camera In Use
I spent several weeks using the 203FE and a handful of CFE lenses instead
of my regular dog-eared 500 C/M bodies and T* lenses. While Hasselblad
has maintained nearly the exact same body, control positions, backs, etc.
over the years, the 203FE still feels and handles like a thoroughly modern
camera. As with all Hasselblad bodies, the controls actually fall effortlessly
under your fingertips. Grab the body with your right hand, put your left
hand on the lens, and you'll notice your index finger naturally
falls over the shutter release, your fingertips gravitate toward the focus
ring, the thumb of your left hand perfectly positioned to change exposure
values. It may be a box with a lens, but it's a very smart box.
As with most Hasselblad products, the 203FE is fully backward compatible.
Older leaf-shutter lenses, from ancient chrome lenses to the latest CB,
CF, or CFi Zeiss glass, can be used with the 203FE. With the latest databus
connection enabled FE and CFE lenses the 203FE is capable of totally automated
exposure. In aperture priority mode you have the choice of "A,"
"Ab," or "D" modes. "A" mode is straight
aperture priority--set the f/stop and the camera chooses a shutter
speed. "Ab" mode is the motorized auto-bracketing mode--the
camera will automatically fire through repeated exposures set for 1/3,
2/3, or 1 EV-step bracket increments. (When used with an optional auto
film winder) "D" mode is differential--this is great
for finding out the contrast range of a subject. Take an exposure reading
of the highlight of the subject, lock it in, and then continue metering
about the rest of the subject--the camera will display the contrast
difference between the two areas. This is great for finicky transparency
films. (Or demanding digital backs!) Of course there is still full manual
mode for you traditionalists.
Motor drive operation is as simple as bolting on the speedy
and reasonably priced Winder F. This effective and somewhat
odd appendage turns the 203FE into a fire breathing 1.3
The 203FE has also become very popular with event photographers due to
its really well designed TTL/OTF flash capability. While only a center-weighted
system, 203FE owners tell me that the exposure accuracy with the correct
flash unit is extremely accurate, something that can't be said about
all OTF flash setups.
When using the camera with Hasselblad's "E" series backs
operation is incredibly easy. Dial in your exposure mode, set the film
speed on your back, and change backs all day and still have perfect exposure
automatically. I also used some 25-year-old "A" series backs
in manual mode with perfect results.
The whole reason to use the 203FE in the first place is the Zeiss glass.
While the leaf-shutter lenses offer some great focal lengths, the really
exotic glass is only available in FE trim. I particularly loved the speedy
50mm Distagon with its very, very bright f/2.8 maximum aperture. After
two decades of peering through an f/4.0 T* lens the extra stop was a godsend.
A really terrific lens for portraits is the excellent 60-120mm Zoom FE.
With a fixed maximum aperture of 4.8, this is still a reasonably bright
lens. Test transparencies showed that this is a super-sharp lens, with
no noticeable vignetting and tack-sharp corners even wide-open.
Motor Drive It
The 203FE also has a very inexpensive and effective motor drive option.
The motor winder F attaches to the film wind spool on the right side of
the body. (Just detach the crank first.) Operating on nothing more than
five alkaline AA batteries, it motored through roll after roll at a brisk
1.3 fps. Make sure you keep fresh batteries in this winder, since I learned
the hard way that the unit can run out of gas in mid roll.
Hasselblad has done a good thing by lowering the price on this desirable
and popular workhorse. While $3000+ for a medium format body is a decent
chunk of change, it's a Hasselblad--a brand that still commands
the respect of photographers (and clients!) the world over.
I love the 203FE and the CFE lenses. The square format is still a powerful
statement, and with numerous digital backs available that require a modern
electronic Hasselblad body, this camera is not destined to be discontinued
anytime soon. From the bright snappy viewfinder to the brilliant tack-sharp
lenses to the elegant and sophisticated metering system, the 203FE is
a photographer's dream camera. While other manufacturers, even Hasselblad,
continue to push the envelope of medium format ergonomics, autofocus ability,
and exposure automation, well designed and bulletproof cameras like the
203FE will continue to populate the professional photography landscape
for decades to come.
For more information, visit Hasselblad USA's web site, www.hasselbladusa.com.