Hasselblad XPan - A Pro User's Review
By Bjørn Rørslett, Owner of XPan # 933
Review Incepted 8 June, 1999
Hasselblad XPan, the wonder brain-child of mutual Swedish and Japanese ingenuity, has finally reached its first eager buyers. I for once ordered my XPan already at its press release this summer, but only got my camera several months later. Seems the factory has had teething problems and this delayed first deliveries of the camera. I'll give you more information on this later on in the review.
During the last weeks I have been busy trying out the camera in a real field situation, in which weather conditions ranged from pouring rain to sleet, snow and subzero temperatures. At first I tried to use the Hasselblad side-by-side with my largeformat gear (Arca-Swiss 6x9 and 4x5"), but that did not work well. The shooting principles were too different for my taste. So I ended up with XPan as an eXPansion (bad pun intended) of my usual Nikon system comprising the F5 and various lenses. Probably this is an approach of which many XPan users will feel comfortable.
As many know by now, XPan is designed as a neat rangefinder package sporting a dual-format capability. Both normal 24 x 36 and panorama 24 x 65 mm formats are supported and it is possible to switch between both formats while shooting without wasting film. The handy dual-format concept is a unique feature of this camera.
Although XPan prominently carries the Hasselblad insignia, it is very much a Japanese-built camera in the ways it feels and handles. Workmanship is in general excellent and the camera is quite substantial to hold and to operate. There is automatic film loading and a built-in motordrive advances the whole film with a minimum of external noise onto the take-up spool. While film loading is in progress, the film counter indicates remaining frames. After each exposure, the exposed section of the film is rewound into the film canister and the number of frames is decreased. If you switch to the alternate format, film position within the camera is adjusted so as to eliminate film waste between frames, and the film indicator is updated to show the remaining frames in the current format. All this is completely automatic and takes place without user intervention. Evidently this complex process does work in practice and I did not experience any uneven spacing between frames on any roll.
The shutter releases with a definite, but still soft click: No cheap solutions here! Unfortunately, the shutter speed range is limited to 1/1000 - 8 sec, plus "B". Speeds can be set manually or selected by the camera in "A" (Automatic) mode. However, the "B" setting isn't for real: The shutter closes after a maximum of 30 sec! A very strange design principle, indeed, and something that unnecessarily limits the usage of the XPan under adverse light conditions. As a nature photographer, I'm not very happy with this limitation to put it mildly. The situation is further exacerbated because multiple exposures are impossible. Try as I might, I haven't been able to trick the camera shutter into real long-time exposures. Have to live with this issue I guess, but I wish the bright Japanese engineer responsible for this deficiency could read my mind - he'll probably would drop dead on the spot ...
The viewfinder has a very clear parallax-corrected bright-line frame and a rangefinder spot that is adequate for fast focusing. However, it comes to mind that in this age of clever AF technology, rangefinder focusing has for ever lost its speed advantage to other systems. AF on my F5 is simply that much faster, and I can focus and shoot from the hip too. The silent shutter on the XPan and its lack of a bouncing mirror help give sharp pictures for casual shooting, though.
I nearly always do my shooting with a camera mounted on one of my Sachtler tripods. However, XPan has an awkward tripod mount located at the end of the body, and is delivered with a Hasselblad quick-release plate that didn't fit my standard Arca/Foba clamps. So I added my own plate machined from 15 mm aluminium and that certainly "welded" the XPan into place on my tripods. Composing and levelling the XPan was much easier using a video-type fluid head than with my ubiquitous Foba Superball head. Hasselblad delivers a cute little spirit level with the XPan and this accessory proved essential for my panoramic shooting. The cable release is located to the far left side of the camera and can be jammed when the camera is operated on a tripod. One simply has to pay due attention to this when setting up the tripod and camera.
XPan's shutter accuracy is by the producer conservatively estimated to be within 1/3 of a stop and the bracketing possibility of the camera thus is in 1/2 increments. There is a film-speed dial that can be set to 1/3 stops if DX mode is disabled but likely this will not allow the XPan to give more precise exposures than those obtained with "A" mode. Automatic bracketing can be activated by pressing a button on the rear of the camera but because three consecutive frames are taken without any possibility of stopping them, this feature is less useful in practice.
There are very few - if any - bells and whistles in the exposure system of the XPan. Basically it's a centre-weighted meter measuring reflected light from a horizontal strip across the shutter blinds. The meter is quite sensitive to sky and stray light and you'll have to help it out under some difficult light conditions. However, most seasoned users should find their exposures satisfactory even when running the camera in Automatic mode. XPan eases the task of manual bracketing by offering +- settings on the shutter-speed dial, the camera can also be set to run bracketing on its own, but then you have to let the camera mindlessly running its preset cycle of exposures. I much prefer using the manual override.
This leaves us with the optical results that can be achieved with the XPan. The camera has two dedicated lenses designed to give the large image circle necessary for the wide 24 x 65 format. These, a 45 mm f/4 and a 90 mm f/4, are in fact Fujinon lenses designed and built by Fuji for the Xpan. Optically these lenses are capable performers and complement the XPan camera. However, when compared to my 35mm and LF Nikkor lenses, they tend to give slightly lower contrast but this slight softness is accompanied with a pleasing and "rounded" rendition of image detail. I have seen similar results with other Fujinon lenses for the Fuji GX680 camera and also with some of the Fuji-built LF lenses I have tried. Colour correction was very good on both lenses with the 90 mm a little unexpectedly showing slightly more corner colour fringing than did the 45 mm. Light fall-off towards the corners is not a big issue with either lens although the 45 f/4 did exhibit a visible fall-off until stopped well down; this was evident for sky scenes. I learned during the winter that snow images indicated the light fall-of quite clearly. The longer brother of the 45 mm behaved better in this respect but did not cope equally well with stopping down, thus towards the minimum aperture of f/22 it rapidly lost detail sharpness. It seems sensible to refrain from stopping down the 90 mm lens beyond f/11. The normal 45 mm still renders images with good contrast and detail at f/16, but the image softens significantly at f/22.
In spring 1999, Hasselblad announced a centre-spot filter for the 45 f/4 lens and I obtained it in May, notwithstanding a truly horrendous asking price for this new item. Test shooting indicated that this filter helped enormously towards eliminating corner fall-off. In fact, even wide open with the centre-spot filter mounted, only vestiges of vignetting could be observed. The filter factor is +1 stop so effectively the 45 mm lens becomes an f/5.6 unit. Hasselblad states the filter also may be used for the 90 mm lens, however, illumination across the frame will not be optimal.
The rangefinder concept necessitates smallish-built lenses so as not to obstruct the rangefinder window. For XPan, this means both lenses are less than ideal in size for people with normally-sized fingers (we are not talking about the Japanese here). To make the situation even worse, the sunshades are nearly touching the aperture ring which is located to the front of the lens, and this ring itself is adjacent to the focusing collar. So, in practice it's too easy to knock off the aperture ring from its setting whilst focusing. This isn't perhaps disasterous when the camera operates on automatic, but certainly will give problems when used purely on manual. I definitively had to take off my gloves in order to operate the lens and this was mildly annoying at low temperatures.
Although the outer finish of the lenses is excellent, I did experience severe problems with my 45 mm that might indicate the Fujinon lenses to be less durable in build than would be expected for a professional camera. When a filter on the 45 mm lens became stuck and I had to exert some force to get it off, the focusing helicoid on the lens partly collapsed to turn beyond infinity. Afterwards I heard alarming grating noises from within it and focusing action was appallingly rough. I returned the lens immediately and for the time being awaits both a new lens and an explanation from the Hasselblad factory regarding the likely dubious quality of my 45 mm lens. Perhaps I did get a dog lens, but that should not have happened for a quality-concerned producer such as Hasselblad. Meanwhile, I'll have to make do with the 90 mm on my XPan.
However, my returning the faulty 45 mm f/4 lens stirred up a hornet's nest at the factory. Hasselblad now admits that the first series of this lens has a design flaw and has taken steps to change the focusing mechanism. The faulty lenses are to be recalled to have their focusing helicoid exchanged. In a few days, I'll get my rejuvenated 45 mm lens and will start shooting with it again. The lesson of this: Do not trust the advertising hype of any famous brand until you have done some real testing!
After a few weeks, I got my refurbished 45 mm lens back and happily started shooting with it again. The factory had reworked the lens so it felt more solid although slightly stiffer in its focusing action. After the first incident my 45 mm lens has seen some heavy action and there isn't a trace of the initial problem with this lens. Hopefully Hasselblad got its act together to give the customer the quality product they paid for in the first place.
Shooting with the XPan
The first time I employed the Hasselblad XPan for my bread-and-butter photography, something was obviously amiss. Because the info on the camera stated the angle of view of my 45 mm lens as approx. 70 degrees horizontal, or closely equivalent to a 24 mm lens for the 35 mm format, I initially regarded it as a wide-angle lens. Now, my 24 mm Nikkors (f/2 and f/2.8) have been favourites of mine for many years and I'm thouroughly familar with them. The 45 mm lens on the XPan simply didn't work that way. I was disappointed with the framing and experienced a great difficulty working myself into the scenes I had selected. Then it dawned upon me that I rather had to think in "normal" terms to detach myself from the intimacy inherent of wide-angles. Thus, with the XPan/45 combination set to panorama mode, it was like using both eyes to view through the windscreen of a car. Exactly the same scenic impression, in fact. Armed with this new insight into the way XPan should be used, shooting with it then became extremely natural and great fun besides.
After a few months of shooting at quite low temperatures I got an insight into the battery life expectancy of the XPan. Seems the 2 lithium batteries are able to power the camera for about 30 rolls at temperatures at or below zero (Celsius, that's what we Europeans use). I once did a cold days' shooting at -20 ° C with my XPan and there still was some battery juice left by the end of the day after 10 rolls going through the camera. The instruction manual warns about the LED display slowing down at subzero temperatures but I only got slowed down myself. The biggest issue working the camera under harsh winter conditions is the need for using your fingers - no gloves possible - to manipulate the narrow aperture and focus setting rings. This indeed does get a bit cold as the day draws to an end; however, such extreme days mostly occur when daylength is at minimum anyway so is no real issue for us Viking descendants ...
When browsing my Xpan shots I became struck with the fresh clarity of many of these images. Partly this results because the XPan lenses really are sharp and professional performers, but likely the new vistas opened by the panorama potential of the XPan also come into play. Earlier I did some panorama work with my Arca-Swiss F-line camera fitted with a 6 x 12 back, but that experience did not come up to my enjoyment of working with the XPan.
In the months since I got my XPan, it has helped me obtain a substantial number of excellent panoramic images. Clients appreciate the high print quality of these images whilst I personally find the "wide" view of my surroundings more useful than I thought possible.
I added the centre-spot filter to my 45 mm lens as soon as the filter became available. Although it is horribly expensive as filter goes, I think it is indispensable for the 45 mm and indeed should be welded onto that lens. With the filter in place, the 45 mm lens becomes slower by one stop so effectively is an f/5.6, but now it safely can be used even wide open. For all practical purposes, the fall-off so evident in the 45 mm design has been completely cured. Hasselblad claims that the centre-spot filter isn't needed when the lens is stopped down beyond f/8 or when shooting print film, but I for one heartily disagree on this issue. To repeat my firm point of view here: attach the filter permanently, with Araldite if necessary, and go on shooting without paying further attention to the rubbish you are told by the Hasselblad factory .... On the other hand, the filter isn't that much needed for the 90 mm lens and in fact, it can cause more uneven light distribution with this optic so reserve it for the 45 mm exclusively. Now, where is that tube of Araldite?
After having used my XPan camera heavily for about 1 year, I had to have the camera serviced by the factory again. Some body screws had by then fallen off, the rangefinder had gotten out of alignment, paint flaked off the rear of the body, the cable release socket had repeatedly twisted itself loose, and the exposure compensating dial had developed an alarming play. Hasselblad returned my camera in mint condition, with all of the scratched exterior panels being replaced. I hardly recognised my own XPan! They even had increased the poor "B" setting from 32 to 270 seconds - still a far cry from a true "B" feature, but significantly better than before. As to all the problems occuring with my XPan, I have mixed feelings. OK, so I had a very early production sample of the XPan, but a quality-conscious company in the Hasselblad class should have sorted out these production problems at an earlier stage. Nevertheless, as my XPan continues to deliver its stunning panoramic imagery, such teething issues are soon forgotten.
Well, not entirely forgotten, because my XPan again began developing new issues all on its own. After having seen several years of hard, professional use, my XPan had to be re-overhauled by the factory in August, 2001. This time, the automatic ISO settings tended to be way off , thus the meter intermittently assumed the camera was loaded with 25 ISO material (which I never loaded it with, thus gross overexposure resulted), films run through the camera developed bad scratches, the focusing action of my 45 mm lens grinded to a halt in cold weather, and rangefinder focusing accuracy was - putting it mildly - not accurate anymore. Well, the Hasselblad factory sorted out the problems and returned my camera in "pristine" condition again, even this time with all titanium panels being replaced, and there was nothing to pay for all those repairs and replacement of parts. Good on me, of course, but my esteem of Hasselblad quality is less than stellar. Frankly, I think they are having serious quality control issues with their XPan line, but you will never learn about this in public. Strange that my sample should keep on developing new issues, I'm not THAT rough a user?
So, I now can scan my XPan images on my LS-8000ED scanner and obtain superb file quality. However, that don't impress me much if the camera continues to give practical troubles. Time will show, but a tell-tale sign is that the XPan has been swapped for a Noblex panorama camera and a Bessa rangefinder on most trips so far in 2002.
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