I did promise, a little while back, to update everyone on my findings relating to the performance of the old Hasselblad Zeiss lenses on the CFV-39 digital back. Having shot a few hundred frames, I am now in a position to give you my first impressions. Perhaps first I need to explain the context for all this.
My camera system is also a camera collection. In my particular case, I have gradually built up a representative example of a Hasselblad 500 system from what I would term the “golden era” - roughly from 1957, when the 500C was introduced, to 1972, when the ‘C’ lenses changed from silver to a black finish. So I have all the bodies, finders, magazines and accessories from that period, and a set of all the Zeiss lenses which were supplied in the silver finish. Besides being a collection which gives me a great deal of aesthetic pleasure (I can just sit and look at this stuff), it also gets used every weekend as my shooting gear of choice.
Over the years, I have of course got very comfortable with these old lenses on film, but a 39MP digital sensor is a much more unforgiving judge of their quality. So, in no particular order, this is how they fare –
• The 80mm Planar. This of course is the “standard” lens for the 500, and I have two examples. The one I have been using is the relatively rare silver finish lens with the T* multi-coating. The quality of this lens on the digital back is outstanding. When I manage to get it focused correctly (!) it is razor sharp, very contrasty, and with virtually no CA visible even in the corners. It is also well corrected for both the near field and distant shots, unlike most of the other lenses in the range. So one can go from a distant landscape to a close-up shot with confidence.
• The 120mm S-Planar. This lens is optimised for the near-field, and I use it mostly for still-life work on a tripod. I was amazed by its performance on the digital back. I have always rated it highly with film, but with the 39MP files it is truly stunning. Obviously close-up the DOF is limited, but it will stop down to f45 if required.
• The 50mm Distagon. My “best” wide-angle lens. It’s a big, heavy brute, though. The digital back emphasises its strengths and weaknesses. Providing that you are further than 15 to 20 feet from your subject, the 50 is crisp and very contrasty. Closer in, though, and performance falls off quite rapidly, with detail getting mushy and the corners become very soft. There is a quite a lot of CA, too, especially towards the corners of the frame. But this is still my favourite lens for architectural work.
• The 60mm Distagon. This is the most disappointing lens of the bunch, really, which is a shame because I used it a great deal on film as it is small and light. It has the same problems as the 50mm on digital, only they are more pronounced – soft corners, very poor quality in the near-field, and some CA (though not as much CA as the 50mm). However, let’s be fair, it is the oldest Zeiss WA design and the oldest lens in my collection, too, at almost 50 years old. And if you choose your subject with care, it can produce a nice shot.
• The 150mm Sonnar. The classic “portrait” lens, although I rarely shoot portraits. This one is a great performer on digital, especially at infinity when it is tack-sharp. I’ve done some plant “portraits”, too, which show great internal contrast and a nice soft bokeh. But for really close work, the 120mm is a better choice. I use the 150 most often for coastal work and harbours, when you need a little more “reach” than the 80mm offers.
• The 250mm Sonnar. So far, I haven’t tried this one with the digital back. It is supposed to be at its best wide-open (at f5.6). On film, it has always been OK, but in my opinion not the equal of the 150.
All this, of course, is a work in progress, and my opinons may change in time. Be nice to know what others with the old Zeiss lenses think about all this.