Look at a Hasselblad catalogue from 1998 to 2006, and you will find a family album of similar Nordic cameras. They are the same shape; they weigh much the same, they use the same film; the list goes on. They are all true Nordics, except one; one exceptional one. This one is different. It does not take square photographs; it does not even take 120 roll film. The camera in question is the Hasselblad XPan series of cameras.
What makes it so different from other Hasselblad cameras is almost everything, except the quality of the design and manufacture. The XPan series of cameras take 35mm film. They can switch aspect ratio mid-roll. Each comes with an excellent TTL light meter and incredible lenses. All of this lives in a titanium body. Focusing is manual using a bright viewfinder, and the aperture is manual. Don’t think it is old school; it isn’t. It is a late model 35mm camera and so will happily read the DX codes on your film. It will wind and rewind your film and set the exposure for you.
This blog isn’t a review of the XPan, as such, this blog is about what it is like to use and what type of photographs you can expect to produce, or more honestly, what kind of images I can create! A better photographer will produce better images. And while I am being open, I should also add, I have very few regrets in life, but not buying an XPan sooner is one of them!
In use, the XPan weighs in at 955 g. So, you will notice you have a camera, but it is not very heavy. It has excellent build quality which is comparable to a Leica M camera. Some people think it is equal, some not so, I am not going to venture an opinion on that question! The titanium body makes it sturdy and light. The downside of this is that the paint does not adhere well to the titanium body; thus, these cameras often look very battered, even when they are actually in perfect condition.
Loading film is easy, open the catch on the left-hand side, insert the canister and pull the leader across to the green indicator line and close the cover. The camera will then pull all the film onto the take-up reel. The effect of this is twofold, which means that the images are rolled back into the canister as they are taken, which means they are safe in the film canister. Secondly, the photos are in “reverse order” on the negatives. The last picture taken is in position number one on the negative.
With film loaded, the camera is simple to use, but it has to be said it is going to feel different from any other camera you have used before. You will notice that the minute you look through the viewfinder. The rangefinder itself is quite large and very bright. But what will feel unusual is the shape. It is, of course, panoramic, and that means composition will be a different experience. I won’t say it will be a negative experience, just that it will be a different experience. Composition in this format is a different process. Some people find it hard to find a good composition. If that is a problem, a quick change in the panoramic/standard switch will offer you a regular image size and corresponding guidelines. I have never done this!
Operation mode is either aperture priority or fully manual. Either way, you will need to take responsibility for focusing and setting the aperture yourself. As this is a “modern” film camera, you are assisted by an accurate built-in light meter.
The lenses are manual medium format lenses. They are small for medium format lenses, but what makes them really special is the sharpness and the colour rendition. The colour is rich and vibrant. Pop in some Velvia film, and you will see what I mean. I have included images at the end of this post. In addition to the colour rendition, the lenses are also wonderfully sharp.
The XPan system supports three lenses, the most popular is the 45mm, there are two more lenses the 90mm and the prohibitively priced 30mm. I have the first two but have never used the third, so I can not speak to that. But the 45mm and 90mm will not disappoint. And I hope one day to be able to say the same of the 30mm lens.
The result is a lightweight medium format camera that is excellent for landscape, cityscape and architectural work.
The camera has proven to be useful as a street photography camera too. In my opinion, there are a few reasons for this. The main ones are the camera is small and not noticeable. This is made all the better if you can master zone focusing, the art of pre-focusing the lens the camera can be used while still at waist level. As mentioned earlier, the lenses are sharp too, even if fully open, allowing the street photographer plenty of latitude. For me, and I have to be honest; I am not a street photographer; the real strength comes from the aspect ratio. This works in two ways; the first is you can create a composition that encompasses the whole scene. I can see that this might be a disadvantage for some photographers because they want to isolate the subject; it might be a double-edged sword. The second advantage of the aspect ratio is that since it is wide people can be in the frame and not realise it. You can appear to be taking a picture of a street sign and capture what is going on far to the left and right of it. German Photographer Robin Schimko is a great exponent of this sort of technique, and some examples of his work can be found here. He has also used his XPan camera for portrait work too.
Is this a perfect film camera? It is almost perfect for me, but it has some drawbacks. Let’s list them:
- The price: A good condition XPan 2 camera, you will find yourself looking at a very high price tag. How high? Think £4000 to £6000, when you add import duty for a high-quality example from Japan or Hong Kong.
- The camera has not been manufactured for years, and the result is sourcing parts and people with the skills to repair the camera can be a real challenge.
- The paint finish flakes, and so you will see many very battered-looking examples, which in truth is cosmetic, as they look battered, it does not mean they are battered.
- The 45mm lens does exhibit some vignetting. This is not major and can be addressed either by using a graduated filter, which is expensive or in post-production.
- You probably need to use a spirit level in order to keep the horizon level.
There is one other upside to mention; the lenses can be fitted to most, if not all, mirrorless cameras, using an adaptor. So even should the camera fail you still have beautiful lenses to use.
My conclusion, I have tried to give you a feel for just how simple this camera is in use, but I freely admit to being biased. I love my Xpan 2. That said it is costly but unique. It is superb quality, but it is electronic and could become a beautiful brick that can not be repaired if it fails. So, if you have one, I say go out and use it and enjoy it, if you are considering one then you must decide is its uniqueness worth the price, for me it is. I said at the start of the blog I said this was not a review of the camera as such but how it is to use. In use, it is reliable and straightforward. It allows you to capture scenes, panoramic scenes, in a single exposure. It is not taking multiple images. Not stitching them together, only to find the person has moved and appeared twice. It excels at panoramic photography, landscapes, buildings and street scenes.
The following are example images taken on the XPan; more can be found here.