Hasselblad 501CM

by Philip Greenspun; created December 2001

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Hasselblad's 501CM kit includes a classic mechanical 6x6 cm single-lens reflex body, a 120 film back, a waist-level viewfinder, and an 80/2.8 lens that provides a normal perspective for this format. In short, everything that you need to get started in medium format within a system that can grow to accomodate any photographic objective.


In the 6x6 SLR world, there are three contenders: Sweden's Hasselblad, Japan's Bronica, and Germany's Rollei. We'll consider Hasselblad versus Bronica first, then Hasselblad versus Rollei, and finally, Hasselblad versus Hasselblad (!).

The Bronica system is easy to describe: a cheaper Hasselblad. The Bronica, especially with the latest lens designs, is capable of producing competitive image quality and at a substantial cost savings. However, the Bronica system cannot grow to handle as large a range of photographic situations as the Hasselblad system. Over the years, Bronica mechanical quality and durability has not been comparable to Hasselblad's. Renting lenses for Bronica will be much more difficult than renting lenses for a 501CM. If you've got the money for a 'Blad, it is tough to see why you'd buy the Bronica.

The Rollei system is easy to describe as well: an electronic Hasselblad. But the comparison with Hasselblad is more difficult. I own a Rollei 6000 system and one thing that I hate about it is that it is never ready to use. The system relies on rechargeable NiCd batteries. The Rollei AC charger is extremely primitive and will damage the batteries if you leave them in the charger. But one of the reasons that the rest of the world has moved on to other battery technologies is that NiCds will self-discharge after a couple of weeks on the shelf. And if you don't remember to periodically run the battery down to empty and then charge it back up, the "memory effect" of the NiCd will reduce its capacity to around 50 exposures. If you're a professional photographer and the Rollei system is your daily user camera, this isn't a big deal. You charge the batteries every night. But if a 6x6 SLR is something that you're going to use once a month, it is awfully nice to now that the Hasselblad will always be ready to use.

On the other hand, if you are organized enough to keep the Rollei's batteries charged, the wonderful world of automation is opened up. The Rollei's in-body exposure meter will tell you what it thinks of your manual settings or set aperture and shutter speed automatically. The Rollei's in-body motor drive will wind up to the next frame.

[In 1989 I wrote a long review of the then-new Rollei 6008. This review is still available.]

For use with studio strobes, handheld exposure meters, or TTL flash, the 501CM is probably a simpler better choice. As a camera to hand down to your children, the 501CM is the hands-down winner--no company has a better track record of maintaining system compatibility than Hasselblad and a repairman in 2025 won't have to understand ancient microprocessors to maintain the camera. As a daily user camera for the photographer who expects to depend on an in-camera exposure meter, the Rollei is the winner (but see the next paragraph).

Finally one must look at Hasselblad versus Hasselblad: 500-series Hasselblad versus 200-series. If you want an in-camera meter in a 6x6 SLR you don't have to abandon Hasselblad for Rollei; you can get a Hasselblad 203 body.

Bottom Line

The Hasselblad 501 CM kit is a beautiful picture-taking machine. If you love it you can keep adding lenses and accessories within the system. If you don't like it, you can rely on the perennially high resale value of Hasselblads to trade it in for something else. If you sort of like it, you can keep it on a shelf ready for those times that you want to do serious portraiture or vastly enlargeable images.

Text and photos copyright 2001 Philip Greenspun.