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Hasselblad ArcBody

— A Pocket Viewcamera —

March, 2001

After a distribution life of only a few years the Hasselblad ArcBody has been discontinued. If you are interested in this unique camera system now is the time to search one out. Since they were never very common, used equipment will likely become quite rare, and in fact the whole system is bound to quickly become a collectors item.

You might want to check with Brian Lewington at HarrysProShop as he has access to some remaining inventory.

Photo © Hasselblad

This report provides a hands-on review of the unique Hasselblad ArcBody camera. It also chronicles the thought process that went into my purchase decision.

The first question most people ask is, "Why would anyone want this strange looking hybrid? There are so many other solutions to this problem. And now that we're talking about it, what exactly is the problem that you're trying to solve?"

The Why?

I am primarily a landscape photographer. I also do some wildlife and general nature photography but my first love and fascination is the traditional landscape.

Most knowledgeable observers would likely agree that large format is the most appropriate tool for landscape work. I do too. I have and use a 4X5² system (Toyo VX125), but because of my preferred style of shooting I mainly do my landscape work in medium format (Rollei 6008) and sometimes even 35mm (Canon EOS). I also work with a couple of wide-format or so-called panoramic systems, the Fuji 617 and Hasselblad XPan.

Why so many systems, and why prefer medium format to other film sizes? More importantly, why did I buy yet another medium format system, and a weird looking one at that?

If weight, bulk and speed-of-use weren't issues then large format would win the day for most of my shooting. But, of course, they are issues. Major ones. Here's why. Much of my photographic work frequently entails long and difficult hikes. A landscape photographer can't always shoot from the side of the road. Not and get the best shots.

I'm middle aged and though in good shape, the lighter and less bulky the kit I use, the better I like it. Also, I travel extensively to shooting locations by air, and so again bulk and weight are major considerations.

Finally, I prefer to work quickly. I like to do photography during that narrow window of time at the beginning and end of the day when light and subject are at their best. Large format, for all its advantages of film size and movements affecting perspective control and plane of focus is slow to use, and thus a more contemplative tool. Consequently, I find myself seldom using large format and preferring medium format instead.

A medium format SLR offers me acceptable weight and bulk combined with high image quality. It is suitable for air travel and is acceptable for all except the most arduous hikes. Landscape work doesn't usually need very fast lenses, very long or very wide lenses, high-speed motor drives, autofocus or any of the advantages of contemporary 35mm systems.

A medium format system does though offer a film size capable of print sizes as big as I ever require along with exceptional resolution and clarity. These days, with ultra-fine grained razor sharp emulsions like Fuji Provia 100F, and exceptional medium format lenses from companies like Schneider, Zeiss, and Rodenstock, large format doesn't have anywhere near the advantage that it used to in this regard. The one big advantage that it does have, and that I longed for is camera movements.

Matkatamiba Canyon ‹ Grand Canyon, May 2000

Frankly, it wasn't a longing for movements based on use of large format that influenced me. It was because I've recently been doing a lot of work in 35mm with the Canon 24mm f/3.5L Tilt/Shift lens. Time after time over the past couple of years as I worked in 35mm I found myself using the 24mm T/S because of the availability of movements. Consequently when working with the Rollei 6008 system I found myself frustrated by their lack. I had movements in large format. I had them in 35mm. But not in medium format!

The Search

Rollei does have a tilt / shift lens for the 6000 series cameras, the Schneider 55mm f/4.5 PC Super Angulon. Unfortunately at more than 1.6 kilograms and a size not much smaller than a baby¹s head, it¹s unreasonably bulky. The price is a killer too; USD $7,200 from B&H. For nearly 2 years I wrestled with the need for a medium format tilt and shift capability, but ultimately the Schneider PC lens was judged to be too big and too expensive. But what was the solution?

I looked at the various mini-view cameras such as the Linhof M679 and Technikardan 23S. Though somewhat smaller and lighter than my existing Toyo 4X5" monorail system (one of the smallest available), none offered a significant advantage. I briefly considered the Fuji 680 system, but it is very large, and more of a studio system — ill suited to field use.

In addition to the size and slowness of set-up entailed with a monorail or flatbed view camera ¯ of whatever size, the defining issue for me is ease of viewing and composing. I really dislike focusing clothes and upside-down ground-glass images. Even though I¹ve used view cameras for more than 30 years, and once taught view camera technique at the community college level, they're still a pain to use. The available binocular viewers and erecting prisms are awkward and bulky for field use. So, what to do?

The Solution

I had just about given up finding a solution when I came across the Hasselblad ArcBody. I suppose I must have missed class that day but somehow I was unaware of this camera's introduction back in late 1997. Too bad. I quickly discovered that it represents a viable solution to my search for a medium format system with moderate weight and bulk along with proper tilts and shifts.

At first the ArcBody's place in the scheme of things is hard to understand, but as you become familiar with its design goals, and match these to ones requirements, its elegance becomes obvious.

Visualize a standard Hasselblad, or other medium format 6X6 camera such as the Rollei 6008 or Bronica. There are four major components — the lens, the body, the viewing system, and the film back — each if which is removable and interchangeable.

Minnihaha Falls, Rabun County, Georgia. September 2000
Photographed with a Hasselblad ArcBody and 35mm Rodenstock lens on Provia 100F.

Additional Technical Notes: 

This was a challenging photograph from several points of view. Though shot in mid-afternoon the falls itself is in very deep shade. The light level was very low (8 seconds @ f/8) while the top of the frame was considerably brighter. A polarizer was a must to reduce specular highlights and a small amount of front rise as well as about 5 degrees of tilt were also required. 

The How

The ArcBody replaces the standard body, along with its bulky mirror box, with a thin assembly. This permits the attached lens to swing and tilt through two axes. A standard Hasselblad film back attaches to the rear as well as any standard Hasselblad prism or other viewing device.

Photo © Hasselblad

There are three Rodenstock optics available, a 35mm f/4.5 APO Grandagon, a 45mm f/4.5 APO Grandagon, and a 75mm f/4.5 Grandagon-N. These lenses provide a much broader circle of coverage than do normal 6X6 format lenses and are of superlative optical quality. I use all three lenses, each of which I regard as ideal for some aspect of landscape work. 

Operationally the camera is used much like a 6X6 SLR, while paradoxically also much like a standard view camera. Instead of viewing a ground glass image from under a focusing cloth though, you attach a standard Hasselblad prism or other viewer to the film plane to view and focus the shot.

Here's how it works. When you're ready to shoot just pop the reflex viewfinder off and replace it with the film back, draw the dark-slide and shoot. It¹s relatively quick, it¹s elegant, and as noted earlier the whole assembly takes up less space and weighs less than a large dedicated tilt/shift lens alone.

Of course, like any view camera you have to compose and focus using the lens' pre-set mechanism, but like a regular Hasselblad the winding crank advances the film. It really is a hybrid. Note though that there are no interlocks or warnings. You must remember to wind the film, cock the shutter, reset the aperture, replace the dark slide — all of which if forgotten or done in the wrong order can ruin a frame. 

It is worth noting that as far as the ArcBody's ability to use Hasselblad components goes, only backs and viewfinders can be used, not lenses. If you already own a Hasselblad system the Flexbody is available as an alternative. While it does not have anywhere near the range of movements that the ArcBody does, and regular Hasselblad Zeiss glass can't cover very much beyond the 6X6 image size, some photographers may find it useful. (The FlexBody also does not focus to infinity with a number of lenses, further curtailing its usefulness.)

On the downside, with the ArcBody, if you want to do a swing (horizontal axis) rather than a tilt (vertical axis) it means turning the camera sideways — not much of a hardship. But to do a lens "fall" rather than a "rise" you need to purchase an extra cost adaptor that allows the camera to be mounted upside down. The ArcBody Inverter Mount and how to use it is illustrated and briefly described here.

The Flaw

The camera's only major failing is that the RMfx reflex viewfinder (or any viewfinder for that matter) doesn't attach at a 90-degree angle and neither does the groundglass. This means that when the camera is used on its side, so that the front standard movement becomes a swing instead of a tilt, the reflex finder is unable to provide a convenient right-side-up image. A very minor redesign of the groundglass back would permit this and I'm amazed at Hasselblad's oversight in allowing this significant design flaw. The solution that I've come up with is to hold the reflex viewfinder against the groundglass manually, so the camera is usable in this configuration, but it¹s an annoyance to say the least.

In Use

Though the camera is small, easily transportable and simple to set up, it is only usable tripod mounted. There's no way of framing or focusing other than when the film back is removed and replaced with a groundglass and viewfinder of some sort. This doesn¹t present any problem for me since my medium format landscape work is always tripod mounted in any event.

Photo © 2000, Steve Kossack

It's worth noting though that because of the system's exceptionally small size it can be used handheld for determining the framing of a shot prior to setting up the tripod, as seen in the example above. I do this all the time and it is what really sets the ArcBody apart from other mini-viewcameras. 

I'll explore a location with the ArcBody in hand (it has a very convenient carry handle), just as I would any reflex camera, except that I¹m also able to experiment with camera movements while handholding. When I¹ve decided to take a shot I then mount the camera on the tripod in the position chosen. This simply isn't possible with any other view camera of which I'm aware.

Lens speed is an issue. It's on the slow side for medium format at f/4.5. When the mandatory central filter is added the aperture drops so that ISO 100 film becomes effectively ISO 25. I¹ve found that this really only presents a problem when wind causes foliage to blur.

Configurations & Accessories

The ArcBody come complete with all required accessories except for a lens, center filter and viewfinder. If you buy it as a "Kit" it comes with either the 35mm or 45mm Rodenstock lens and the required filter and RMfx reflex viewfinder. A film back is needed as well and is not provided either as part of the camera purchase or with one of the Kits.

The RMfx viewfinder is a simple mirror arrangement, not a prism. This makes it lightweight and an ideal companion to the ArcBody. It doesn't have an eyepiece dioptre adjustment but a mounting kit is provided so that any optical store can make one to your prescription.

One unusual addition is a set of 3 "Correction Slides". These are needed to correct for the change in angle of the light passing through the groundglass as the back is raised or lowered or tilted. On a camera without movements the film plane remains parallel with the lens plane, and the lens axis remains constant. No so with the ArcBody. Each of the slides corrects for a different amount of shift and tilt. (Reflex viewing devices for view cameras that use mirrors have a knob to change the angle of the mirror to accomplish the same thing.)

Since it's unusual for a shift of more than 5 degrees or so to be needed in landscape work I seldom use anything other than the "Small" slide. The Acute-Matte D groundglass screen is designed though to always be used with one of the correction slides, so keeping the Small slide installed is no hardship. Just be sure to carry the other slides along in their custom case for when more extreme movements are needed.

One very nice design feature is the lens shade cum filter holder. It is, in fact, a modified Lee filter holder. Since I already use Lee filters (100mm) on all my camera systems and have a large collection of filters, I was pleased to see this. The holder attaches to a custom lens-mounting ring, which also serves as a mounting point for the almost-mandatory 2-stop center filter (used with the 35 & 45mm lenses). There is a quick-release button on the lens mount which permits the whole center filter / Lee holder / lens shade component to be removed as one. Hasselblad provides a belt pouch for the whole assembly, which is very handy since you want to do framing and focusing with the center filter removed to maximize the brightness of the groundglass image. For fieldwork, this is quite convenient and well thought out.

There is no provision though for what to do with the RMfx viewfinder though. At first my solution was to put it in a pocket but now I've found that putting it on a lanyard around my neck is a more convenient solution.

Clingmans Dome Forest. Great Smoky Mountains NP. September, 2000
Photographed with a Hasselblad ArcBody and 45mm Rodenstock lens on Provia 100F.

Where to Buy

Unfortunately the ArcBody is not only expensive but there is hardly a dealer anywhere that has one on display, demo or for rental. Buying one then becomes an act of faith. That's one of the reasons that I wrote this review — to spare you from possible surprises.

Since local dealers will have to special order one I decided that there was no advantage in this approach. Also, given how expensive the ArcBody Kit would be I decided that pricing was the primary criteria by which I would select where to buy one.

Almost list price from a local dealer lead to a discovering a few U.S. mail-order companies with better deals. B&H for one, and they have most models in stock. Further searching on the net turned up a couple of international dealers with even better prices. Thousands better! On a specialized item like this it pays to shop around.

I can recommend two web-based dealers that you may wish to check for prices, both of whom I've dealt with extensively, and who are both very honest and efficient; HarrysProShop.com in Canada and Robert White in the U.K. Shop carefully, but shop aggressively — particularly for such expensive equipment. There are great deals to be had out there. You just have to look for them.

Conclusion

The Hasselblad ArcBody isn't for everyone. It is an expensive and specialized photographic tool. Users of view cameras will find it more limited in movements than what they are used to. Photographers accustomed to regular medium format and 35mm reflex systems will find the necessity of having to interchange finders and backs a nuisance. Everyone will find it to be an expensive solution.

But, if you're like me in needing an extremely small and lightweight roll-film camera with superb lenses and movements aplenty for landscape work, then the Hasselblad ArcBody may be just the camera system you¹re looking for.

March, 2001

After a distribution life of only a few years the Hasselblad ArcBody has been discontinued. If you are interested in this unique camera system now is the time to search one out. Since they were never very common used equipment will likely become quite rare, and in fact the whole system is bound to quickly become a collectors item.

You might want to check with Brian Lewington at HarrysProShop as he has access to some remaining inventory.

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Concepts: View camera, Camera, Photographic lens, Photography, Single-lens reflex camera, Sinar, Aperture, Perspective control lens

Entities: a standard Hasselblad, Canon, HarrysProShop, Rollei, Brian Lewington, Hasselblad Zeiss, Rodenstock, Lee holder, Technikardan, Robert White, Schneider, Steve Kossack, SLR, RMfx, Matkatamiba Canyon, Grand Canyon, U.K., U.S., Canada

Tags: camera, medium format, Hasselblad, view cameras, landscape work, large format, Hasselblad ArcBody, solution, viewfinder, camera system, reflex viewfinder, standard hasselblad, 35mm, center filter, standard hasselblad prism, RMfx reflex viewfinder, film size, Hasselblad ArcBody camera, camera movements, unique camera, image, regular hasselblad, format lenses, small, RMfx viewfinder, format 6X6 camera, landscape photographer, standard hasselblad film, Brian Lewington, collectors item, Hasselblad Zeiss glass, distribution life, medium format lenses, view camera technique, APO Grandagon, medium format tilt, Rollei, Hasselblad XPan, standard view camera, systems