I had high hopes for the Hasselblad XPan-ii, I genuinely felt that it had the potential to provide me with a unique perspective, that it might challenge my framing, enable me to shoot frames that felt cinematic, and even give me a sense of medium format photography with 35mm film. Actually, it did all of those things on the odd occasions I used it, the problem was, I hardly ever picked it up.
Gear acquisition syndrome is a funny thing – I once created a somewhat tongue in cheek GAS horseshoe diagram plotting its various incarnations in a bid to help explain my opinions around it. One of the types of GAS I defined was what I called Curiosity GAS – the specific symptoms of this type of GAS boil down to buying something out of pure curiosity, then selling it after you realise it is completely impractical for your needs. I also define Delusional GAS which is based around the idea of buying a piece of kit under the false illusion that it’s somehow going to positively impact your work. For me, the purchase of the Hasselblad XPan-ii fit somewhere between those two points on the horseshoe – which is why ultimately, 18 or so months down the road, I’ve just sold it.
Having sold it, I must admit I now feel slight pangs of regret – though I find it easy to console myself when I look at the sum total of shots from five rolls of film I shot with it in that whole time. I love the results, don’t get me wrong, but five rolls in all that time just doesn’t justify the ownership of such an valuable camera. What they do justify is a few words penned on here – especially as I wonder how many other people have or would experience the same as me were they to try this camera…
The Hasselblad Xpan-ii
Along side it’s elder sibling the Xpan, and of course the Fujifilm equivalent TX-1 and TX-2, the Xpan-ii offers a unique shooting experience. This uniqueness is defined pretty much solely by its format. It shoots normal 35mm film, but rather than the conventional 24×36 frame, its gate is 24x65mm. In laymans terms it shoots “panoramic”, or more accurately “wide aspect ratio” photos.
I shan’t go into all of the technical details of the camera to much, but for saying it’s a manual focus, aperture priority rangefinder camera with full manual overrides. The Xpan-ii’s big advantage over the earlier Xpan is supposedly the shutter speed readout in the viewfinder (which I personally found indispensable). It’s disadvantage over the original is the lack of physical dials for setting the ISO and under/overexposure. It’s always struck me that the original Xpan looks easier to use, since both those features are locked in clumsy menus on the Xpan-ii. But, since I haven’t tried one, it’s hard to comment specifically – though even with the dials, I’m genuinely unsure how I would have managed without that shutter readout.
Possibly the least appealing nature of all of these cameras is their reliance on batteries. I’m not wedded to fully mechanical function, but as these particular cameras age, it’s my feeling that their nature poses an ever increasing risk of heartbreak – especially given their ever increasing value.
That particular concern aside, my experiences with shooting the Hasselblad Xpan-ii were technically speaking largely positive – at least on a basic shot by shot level. Once I got my head around the fairly simple metering pattern, I found the automation to be akin to using an M7 which made it feel comfortable and familiar if nothing else.
Shooting wide frames
What wasn’t familiar was the wide frame, or at least it wasn’t familiar to the feel of a rangefinder. I actually don’t find framing in a wide aspect ratio difficult at all. The same rules apply really, and if you’ve watched enough films, and found yourself (like I quite often do) commenting on the cinematography, then you should find yourself at home with it quite readily.
I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson films, his work with Robert Yeoman is just wonderful. I had images of buying an Xpan-ii and capturing some of that feel in my framing. I don’t think I was entirely unsuccessful either – though clearly in these frames I only embraced the framing and not the vivid colours of Anderson and Yeoman’s work.
… that didn’t come true
But, looking at the dates on those images, I realise it’s been 18 months since I was inspired to capture something of that look. Since then, on the odd occasion I’ve used the camera I’ve fallen into the “landscape trap”. I was even warned this might happen by my pal Marco North. He warned me off it, he challenged me to challenge myself with this camera, and frankly I didn’t – not past the first roll at least.
Where it went wrong
The problem was, I just never jelled with Hasselblad Xpan-ii – I had idea that we would be a natural partnership, and we just weren’t. I found no issue using it really, as mentioned it felt familiar, functionally (outside of the clumsy menu) it was fine to use, and I only found myself with one or two underexposed negs on the first roll – after that I had no problems.
This puzzled me for quite a time. I expected to want to use it, then never picked it up. I took it on holiday last year and didn’t use it at all. In fact in the last year (nearly) I’ve only used it once when my sister in-law asked if I could take a panorama of her near by countryside for her wall. “Yes”, I said enthusiastically remembering I had the perfect camera. Ironically, it was this enthusiastic moment that put the nail in the coffin for the Xpan-ii. I realised I had the perfect camera for a type of photography I wasn’t really that bothered to use it for. I like landscape photography, but I don’t like it enough to have such a valuable camera dedicated to a specific format of landscape photography – I’m certainly no Peter Lic!!
It was at this point I realised I’d never had the thought to pick it up in all that time to use it for what I’d originally bought it to use it for. The unfortunate reality was that it had been little more than a novelty that had worn off, and actually it had worn off rather quickly. I’ve tried to rationalise why this novelty wore off. Perhaps it was down to the fact that the aspirations I had felt so derivative, and in that they somehow lacked depth. Perhaps I was trying to buck against my own growing style and shooting desires – I’ve spent a lot of this same period fascinated with Zeiss and Sonnar lenses, the Xpan-ii offers neither of these things. Or perhaps it was simply down to the camera not being right for me, or more accurately it not being quite right for what I wanted to achieve. To be honest, I’m not sure myself. But there are shortcomings with the camera that I can isolate as potentially not helping the situation.
Shortcomings in found the Hasselblad Xpan-ii
I should emphasise here, if you’re looking at buying one of these cameras, it’s perhaps not to wise to read too much into this, as I do wonder if really all I have done is attempted rationalise and find reasons not to like this camera. But for me, I think the three biggest sticking points were the speed of the available lenses, the cameras size, and what – I did or more accurately didn’t do – with the results.
To a certain degree I find issue with my own complaints with the lens speed. F/4 isn’t that slow – I’ve shot cameras with slow lenses in quite crap light and had perfectly good results. Unfortunately it was just slightly too slow for what I felt I wanted to use the camera for. Had I been able to use it indoors more easily, I think it would have found more favour outdoors too. That said, my reluctance to put too much blame on this does come down to an awareness that perhaps I just didn’t try hard enough…
Where I’m quite comfortable criticising the Hasselblad Xpan-ii is for its size – this is after all supposed to be a blog about small cameras, and small camera are pretty much all I shoot with. I don’t really like carrying and shooting large cameras – almost regardless of how good they are. Unfortunately, there’s little way around it – despite the lenses doing a great job at helping it pretend to be small, it’s just not. It’s heavy too.
I believe this was most likely to be the single greatest reason I never found much of a desire to just carry the Hasselblad Xpan-ii for just the sake of carrying it. Ultimately most of my photography – my personal photography at least – comes from just carrying a camera and finding photos. This simply wasn’t going to happen with the Hasselblad Xpan-ii.
Finally, the thing I perhaps least considered when I bought the Hasselblad Xpan-ii was how I was going to display the photos. I wanted to mention this as Despite it highlighting a personal shortcoming, I think this is somthing that everyone who’s thinking about buying one of this cameras should strongly think about. If like me you don’t print enough of your images, with most of them residing on a computer or online, the Hasselblad Xpan-ii is not a great choice of camera for you. The frames are just too wide for adequate display on a computer screen. They need to be printed to be enjoyed! I know this can be said of all photography, but thanks to the wide format it’s more true than ever here. Perhaps I should have used the camera as inspiration to print more – in fact, I might have if it was otherwise a better fit for me…
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In short, my lack of desire to shoot the Hasselblad Xpan-ii largely came down to its large size and it not feeling quite fit for my specific purposes. My desire not to keep it came down to my personal failing at using it for what I originally set out to use it for, it being far to valuable to keep just for the type of photography I ultimately did use it for, and my lack of desire to be pushed into printing images by a camera’s native format.
That all said, I strongly suspect that the millage of others may vary. Really, I have to admit that the Hasselblad Xpan-ii is a stunning camera that when combined with its incredible glass (or even a Nikon shift lens) is capable of producing really quite incredible results. Yes, the menu system is clunky, but (and this is a big deal for me) I forgave it this because it’s offer was so unique. I think most people would feel the same too… assuming it’s electronics didn’t fail that is!
My advice to anyone looking to buy one of these – especially now their value is so high – would be to know exactly what you want to use the camera to achieve, stick to that goal and print your images. Don’t do what I did and let it be a rarely used shelf queen for 18 months – The Hasselblad XPan-ii deserves more than that!