The Hasselblad 203FE Revisited
New Pricing On This Pro Workhorse

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The Hasselblad 203FE Revisited
A 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 fps monster!

TTL-OTF Flash
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.

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