Over the years there have been cameras that fill a specific niche and they do it better than any other cameras out there. These are the sort of cameras that ‘make photography make sense’ in their design, the way they fit in your hand, and the way they function. When When these three attributes come together with the right lens (or lenses), these cameras have a way of making composing an image and going ‘click’ a creatively, technically, and for some, an emotionally satisfying experience. Hasselblad’s Superwide-series wide-angle technical field cameras is one of ‘those’ cameras.
I was blown away by the Hasselblad Superwide the first time I saw one. Unlike traditional Hasselblads, which are single lens reflex cameras, the Superwide is a viewfinder camera. The reason Hasselblad broke with tradition is because of the camera’s lens, the Zeiss Biogon 38mm/f4.5, which is really what the story is all about.
The original medium-format Zeiss Biogon 38mm/f4.5 was first introduced at Photokina in 1954 in the form of Hasselblad’s Super Wide Supreme, a 6x6cm medium-format still camera with a fixed lens that offered unparalleled image quality and a 90-degree angle-of-view on the diagonal plane. From its inception, Hasselblad Superwides have stood out as unique in design, but more importantly, one of the sharpest and distortion-free wide-angle cameras ever made.
Unlike the more complex inverted telephoto, or retro focus wide-angle lenses found on reflex cameras, Zeiss Biogon lenses are true wide-angle designs and their rear elements are positioned too close to the mirror to facilitate a reflex viewing system. There are some truly fine retro-focus lenses available, but as a whole, non-retro-focus wide-angle lenses are smaller and sharper.
Even Hasselblad’s optically-superb 40mm Distagon, which has an 88-degree diagonal Aov and was designed for use with the concurrently manufactured Hasselblad 500 (or V)-series reflex cameras, is not quite as sharp along the edges nor distortion-free compared to the 38mm Biogon. The 40mm Distagon is also notably larger and heavier compared to the 38mm Biogon.
To get around the problem, Victor Hasselblad simply had a new shallow-profile camera body designed that did away with a reflex viewing system and in its place relied on a shoe-mounted viewfinder that approximated the Biogon’s 90-degree AoV.
The new camera, which uses the same A12, A16, & A24 film backs as Hasselblad 500-series cameras and is compatible with many of Hasselblad’s reflex camera accessories, retained the same basic size and form factor over the course of five upgrades in as many decades.
Taken as a whole, the Superwide is the quintessential camera. It requires no batteries because it contains zero electronics. The lens’s Scale Focusing requires measuring, or as most Superwide owners quickly learn to do and do well, guesstimating the subject to film-plane distance. As for a viewing system, your primary means of composing the image is through the camera’s shoe-mounted viewfinder, which has a field-of-view comparable to the camera’s lens, calbeit with far more noticable optical distortion.
For precision through-the-lens focusing, Superwide owners also have the option of mounting the camera on a tripod and attaching the optional Focusing Screen Adapter with a Hasselblad Focus Chimney, a waist-level finder, or any of Hasseleblad’s reflex prisms attached to the camera in place of a film magazine.
Like all Hasselblad 500-series cameras, the camera’s Synchro-Compur shutter is built into the lens, and has a top shutter speed of 1/500th-sec for both ambient and flash exposures. The lens’s separate shutter speed and aperture rings interlock, and once engaged, allow you to quickly switch between equivalent EV aperture/shutter speed combinations without having to break concentration in a single move.
With a film magazine attached, the Superwide is well balanced, relatively compact, and despite it’s boxy shape, feels more at home in the palm of one’s hand compared to many professional DSLR systems. The camera itself weighs about 2lb and the body without the lens is a mere 1″ deep, or about a fifth of the length of the Biogon lens. Total size of the camera and lens is 5-3/4″ x 4-1/2″ x 5-7/8″ (145 x 112 x 150mm) Though most accurate when used on a tripod, the design of the Superwide makes the camera equally adept for hand-held shooting in the studio or out on location.
Aside from the exposure controls on the lens, the only other controls are the single-stroke film advance (or starting with the SWC/M in 1980, a multi or rachet-stroke film advance) located on the right side of the body, and a shutter release located directly above it on the top of the camera.
The beauty of the Superwide is its ability to capture wide-angle pictures that for lack of better words simply don’t look ‘wide-angle’. They are ‘wide-angle’, but unlike 35mm wide-angle lenses with equivalent angles-of-view, i.e., 20 to 21mm, Zeiss’s Biogon renders the spatial relationships between people and objects to and from each other as well as the camera with perceptively less distortion than a comparably wide lens on a full-frame 35mm camera.
Though initially conceived as a technical camera for capturing detailed distortion-free images of tighter spaces, it soon proved popular among journalists, commercial, as a well as portrait shooters due to its unique imaging qualities. With few exceptions the 38mm Biogon, Zeiss’s 38mm Biogon remains the gold-standard of wide-angle lenses for going on 80 years.
Shooting with a Superwide takes a bit of getting used to. One must remember to focus, and you must also keep in mind the camera’s viewfinder is only an approximation of the final image, most notably when shooting at closer distances.
Note – If the wide-angle perspective distortion you see in the camera’s viewfinder is unnerving to you, rest assured the finder is nowhere as well corrected as the camera lens – you simply won’t see these viewfinder distortions in the final images.
Measuring depth-of-field is made easier by a pair of red FoV indicators that conveniently shift closer or further apart automatically when you change lens apertures.
As for focus, it’s important to keep in mind the extreme angle-of-view of the lens makes critical focusing, most notably when shooting outdoors under brighter lighting conditions fairly easy and quite accurate.
As an example, if you are shooting Tri-X on a sunny day your exposure will be in the neighborhood of 1/500 between f/11 and f/16. With the hyperfocal distance set to a bit past 5’, the focus range at f/22 goes from about 26″ to infinity, which pretty much includes everything within view of the lens.
Because the camera is designed for eye-level viewing while being palmed close to the body with two hands against the head and has an ultra wide angle-of-view complimented by a vibrationless shutter mechanism, the Superwide is outstanding at capturing low-light photographs at slower shutter speeds.
The original Superwide was called the Superwide Supreme, or Super Wide Angle (SWA), which was improved and updated as the Superwide, or SWC, which as manufactured until 1979. Zeiss T* coatings were introduced in the late 70’s and all lenses from this point on had ‘T*” engraved on the barrel. In 1979 the SWC/M was introduced, which along with a few other upgrades had a shortened tripod mount plate to facilitate Polaroid film holders.
In 1988 Hasselblad updated the camera with a newer ‘CF’-version of the 38mm Biogon T*, an improved viewfinder, and other upgrades including a new name – the 903SWC.
The last Superwide manufactured by Hasseleblad – the 905SWC, was introduced in 2001 and contained a Biogon lens that had to be redesigned to compenste for the ban on arsenic and mercury in glass production. The new lens contained eight rather than ten lens elements and is in some circles to be inferior to the original design while others find little if any noticeable difference.
Production of Hasselblad Superwide cameras ceased in 2006, but many of these hand-assembled cameras, many of which were assembled during the 1970’s and 80’s by a single employee named Forence, can still be found in clean if not mint condition used. It’s also worth noting that even though the camera remained relatively unchanged during its 50-plus year production as a professional film camera, most all of them can be coupled to a digital capture back and used for electronic image capture.
Following the introduction of the original Hasselblad Superwide Supreme in 1954, there were seven follow-up generations of the Superwide along with three updates of the camera’s viewfinder. These cameras were as follows;
- Hasselblad SWC (Silver Lens, Silver Body, original ‘megaphone optical viewfinder) 1959-1968
- Hasselblad SWC (Black Lens, some with T* coatings and some without, updated optical viewfinder featuring rubber eyeglass protector on the viewing end) 1968-1973
- Hasselblad SWC (Black T* Lens/Silver or Black Body) 1973-1980
- Hasselblad SWCM (Black T* Lens/Silver or Black Body – Polaroid Back compatible) 1980-1982
- Hasselblad SWCM (with new CF-series T* Lens, built-in bubble-level, Black or Chrome bodies) 1982-1985
- Hasselblad SWCM (same as previous model, minus the built-in bubble level, with updated viewfinder) 1986-1988
- Hasselblad 903SWC 1989-2001
- Hasselblad 905SWC ( NewCFi lens – arsenic and mercury-free lens elements) 2001-2006.