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Xpan outings

Back off the shelf

in Hasselblad XPan , Wednesday, February 02, 2022

For about a decade and a half, my Hasselblad XPan was a regular fixture in my life. I rarely went on any significant trip without it. But various things combined to make my use of it tail off. First of all my flirtation with the Linhof 612, which eventually burnt out. Then my use of the Sigma dp0 as a digital alternative. Finally, a few years ago, I decided it was time for revival, and I took it with me to the sun scorched lands of southern Puglia, were it promptly blew a fuse. This was kind of reminiscent of my first XPan tragedy in Svalbard 10 years ago, but at least this time eventually a repair was possible.

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I ran a few desultory test rolls through it when it came back from repair, but after that it pretty much sat on the shelf for 18 months. It seems to have a market value - even to a dealer - north of €7000, which is nuts, but I can’t bring myself to sell it.

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So last weekend, on a whim, I grabbed it along with a couple of rolls of expired Provia 100F, and took it for a couple of outings. The first, to Como lakeside, in the sun, and the second to Andermatt, in the Swiss alps, also in the sun. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The experience of the widescreen optical viewfinder never gets routine, especially now I found an 0.5 diopter correction, and the simplicity of use is remarkably refreshing. I still miss the exposure compensation dial from the XPan I: adjusting it using the LCD screen is an absolute horror. I understand why they made the change, but still, it’s shockingly bad design.

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The results were fine, nothing spectacular, but everything well exposed and in focus. Scanning was a bit of a disaster as the developed film had a very pronounced curve, and I should have waited until I flattened it. Most scans are out of focus, so I’ll have to start again. Silverfast largely behaved itself.

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I’m not sure if this will become a habit. I can shoot “XPan frames” much more efficiently on my X1D, but the experience isn’t the same. On the other hand, the cost of film and developing, the time it takes to scan, is all a bit of a drag. Nevertheless, a well exposed, well composed XPan shot of something interesting looks absolutely spectacular on the light table.

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End Frame

the Fat Lady is warming up

in Hasselblad XPan , Thursday, September 17, 2020

This is quite possible the last frame I ever took on my Hasselblad XPan II:

Xpan 2020 08 01 17 copy


After I pressed the shutter, the familiar film winding sound did not come. The film counter LCD showed "E". Pressing the film rewind button had no effect. All I could do was open the back and try to clear the jam.

Having removed the film, I tried to load another. Instead of winding completely, onto frame 21, it quickly stopped, showing frame 1. I tried several times. I tried resetting everything by pulling the batteries out. I tried changing the batteries. I tried cursing. Nothing worked.

This was the first serious outing for the XPan in several years, two weeks in Puglia capturing midday sun-baked inland towns and villages on Portra 400. But it wasn't to be: just a few frames of a masseria near Monopoli.

Xpan 2020 08 01 09 copy


On returning home I contacted Hasselblad customer support. They did actually reply, and did not totally rule out repair. They required that I first send it to a "local dealer", though, rather than direct. Given the likely difficulty of persuading my "local" dealer (who is on the other side of the alps and speaks a weird variant of German) to handle an antique, and also my experience with said dealer's speed, not to mention the notorious sloth of Hasselblad service, I decided instead to send it to Les Victor in Paris. They haven't promised anything, but then again they have fixed my 30mm viewfinder, which Hasselblad customer service said was impossible.

So, fingers crossed, but I'm not optimistic. XPans are heavily reliant on electronics, and they are dying. People, please, do not blow $5000 buying one on eBay. Mine is relatively young (late XPan II) and well looked after, and this came out of the blue. XPans are on borrowed time.

UPDATE, Sept 18th: I heard from Les Victor this morning. Seems they can fix it, and they are going to do a complete service as well. Seems like it's got a reprieve.
 

Medium Dilemma

end of the roll?

in Film , Wednesday, August 28, 2019

This time last year I was fully into a major return to film photography.  In fact I hardly made any digital photos for the whole summer. Things like the reintroduction of Ektachrome (albeit late) and the ArsImago LabBox (ditto, very) were galvanising, as was the new (in English at least) dedicated film photography magazine, Fotoklassik.

And now? Well, so far I have just about managed to finish one of my 5 rolls of first batch Ektachrome E100, and I struggled to shoot a total of 4 frames (plus 1 screwup) of 120 film. I’ve just stopped finding film photography, and film cameras, particularly motivating. Instead I now find them clumsy and heavy, and the whole end to end process unwieldy, unreliable and a massive timesink. And although it’s certainly just me, I’m not finding the content of Fotoklassik very enthralling. The LabBox arrived but so far it has just sat in its packaging (actually I did shoot two rolls of the Ars Imago 320 roll film that came with it, to try out developing. The first ended up as a fat roll, the first I have ever had, ever, in my Bessa III. So that’s a great introduction to the world of Ars Imago).

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Film not dead in 2019

What is dawning on me is that by and large for me shooting film is mainly about finding something to point the camera at, whereas shooting digital is about wanting the photo.  There are a few exceptions, in particular when it comes to using the XPan, but to be absolutely honest I think the last time I wasn’t forcing myself to use it was in Antarctica in 2012. I did use it somewhat extensively in Calabria last year, but it was a bit half-hearted. And I can still remember just what a pain it was carting a full XPan kit along with DSLR around Argentina and Antarctica. I can’t see myself doing that again - or maybe I can, that’s the great thing about being indecisive!

There are some glimmers of renewed motivation from my first roll of E100. It does look very good indeed, seems to have slightly wider exposure tolerance than E100G, and the same slightly muted neutral colour balance I like. And I still enjoy using the XPan, which for quite some time was my primary camera. But can I face packing it up and carting it all over the place? With boxes full of film in hand baggage? I’m far from sure. These days it needs to compete as a second system with my Sigma sd H, and honestly, that’s a competition which is most likely to have no winner. The Olympus stuff is much less cumbersome, and at least as if not more competent in most scenarios.

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Film service industry is big business in 2019

Still, I have two imminent trips. The first to Puglia in Southern Italy, and actually for that film really does work, in the shape of Portra 400 in my Bessa 667.  The next is Scoresbysund and nearby fjords in East Greenland. For this the Olympii are already packed: two bodies and three pro zoom lenses = 6kg, which is pretty remarkable. The question is, is this enough (well of course it is) or should I add either the XPan kit, the Sigma sdH, or even a kind of hybrid of the two, the Sigma dp0. This time last year the XPan would have gone in first, and I’d probably even be rationalising about taking the Linhof 612.  Now… I’m inclined to just accept that simple is better. And film, actually, isn’t simple.

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XPan / E100 in 2019

 

 

The Hasselblad XPan - a very long term review

better late than never

in Hasselblad XPan , Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I acquired my first Hasselblad XPan in the spring of 2000. So maybe it’s about time to write a few words about it.

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My interest in so-called panoramic photography began in the mid-1990s, when I was professionally involved in the emerging multimedia world. In particular I adopted very early versions of Apple’s QuickTime VR technology to generate immersive walkthroughs of various scenes. As time was generally limited, initially I used an Apple QuickTake 200 camera to generate content (640Kpx images, approximately 30 per set of 4 very expensive lithium AA batteries), then experimented with Polaroid instant slide film. At some point I realised that it could be interesting to unwrap the 360 QTVR files to create widescreen stills. I used these in creating a couple of CD sleeves, which was a sideline of mine at the time, and in personal work. So when the Hasselblad XPan appeared on the scene in late 1998, I was fully primed.

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2000: Lago di Lugano, infrared.

It was another year or so before I could actually afford it, but by then end of 2000 I had the camera and all three lenses, and took them with me on a 5 week trek around New Zealand - which later turned out to be the spiritual home of the XPan :-).

The same kit travelled with me to Canada and the USA, to Spain, Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Italy, before finally setting off on a tour of Svalbard by yacht in 2010. A couple of days into the trip, when distracted from photography by a storm, I inadvertently left the camera in the inflatable dinghy lashed to the deck. Several hours later it was discovered submerged in a puddle of salt water. And that was game over for XPan number one.

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2001: New Zealand

There was no way I was going to be without an XPan though, and I was lucky to find an unused XPan II for a reasonable price, in fact under $1’000 once I traded in my little used Fuji GS670. Fortunately this was before XPan prices passed ‘stupid’ level and reached ‘absurd’. The XPan II carried on where it’s predecessor left off, and has visited Iceland, Norway, Patagonia, Antarctica and various places around Europe. It had a bit of a rest in 2016, where it got a bit eclipsed by my Linhof 612 obsession, but this year it has regained favour.

So, that was a long intro, but it shows that I should be in a position to write a long term user review of both versions of the XPan.

Snhg ref 55

2002: Andalucia

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2003: Switzerland

First though let’s clear up a few things. The camera was fully designed and built by Fujifilm in Japan. For some reason Fuji felt that it was not commercially viable under their name alone, so they sought an international marketing partner. Reportedly it was first offered to Leica, who turned it down: just as well, otherwise the red dot tax would have made it unaffordable. Hasselblad said yes, and turned it into a marketing success. Far fewer people know what a “Fuji TX-1” is than recognise “Hasselblad XPan”. It is said that the lens designs were specified and quality controlled by Hasselblad, but this seems hard to believe. Fuji was, and remains, a top tier lens designer and manufacturer. Hasselblad has never built a lens in-house. In any case, Hasselblad XPans were delivered with quality control certificates from both Fuji and Hasselblad, and all of the system components were stamped “Made in Japan”. Possibly the TX cameras did not come with the esoteric and little used Hasselblad tripod plate. In any case, it was a successful partnership, which was later extended with the H-1 camera and lenses.

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2004: Iceland

Basic specifications are very well known, but let’s summarise them anyway. The XPan is a coupled rangefinder camera with a large, clear finder with framelines for 45mm and 90mm lenses. The body is made of aluminium with a magnesium skin, which is a bit prone to scuffing and paint flaking (it doesn’t matter). It has a fully electronic metal shutter with controlled speeds from (remarkably) 8 seconds to 1/1000th. Using the bulb setting exposures up to 30 seconds (early XPan I), 270 seconds (later and updated XPan I) or 540 seconds (XPan II) can be made. Note though that since the shutter is electronic, holding it open for long exposures is bad news for the batteries. It has an LCD panel on the back which displays exposure info, and provides access to several settings. On the top plate there is a small LCD panel which shows remaing frames and the mode (panoramic or normal). So far this applies to both version I and version II, but from now on there is some divergence.

Xpan eolie 210509 7

2005: Vulcano

A criticism of the XPan I was that did not show exposure information in the viewfinder. The only display was a set of LEDs showing under- or over-exposure. A particular complaint I had is that it did not show any indication that exposure compensation was set. This was fully addressed in the XPan II, but a high price was paid. Both versions support DX-encoding for setting ISO, but on the XPan I, a lockable dial on the front panel allows this to be over-ridden manually. A dial on the top plate, integrated with the on-off-mode switch, allows up to 2 stops of exposure compensation to be set. The XPan II loses all of this. The front dial disappears altogether, and the top plate loses the exposure compensation dial. It all looks rather bare - all that remains, apart from the exposure dial, is the switch with off, single shot, continuous shot (1 frame per second) and timer positions. The exposure compensation and ISO have to be set using the LCD panel and its very fiddly buttons, and this is really no fun even in good conditions. In the cold it is a nightmare. In exchange, you get a very clear film speed display in the viewfinder. And an extra $1000 or so on used prices. The only other difference is that the XPan II supports a custom electronic cable release, if you can find one. But you can also use a standard threaded mechanical cable, so, whatever.

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2006: Tuscany

The exposure dial includes the setting for aperture priority. I have always found the upper-biased, center-weighted metering to be very accurate, and therefore aperture priority works well. Note that the metering seems to be biased towards landscape photography with slide film. With negative film it may be a good idea to dial in an extra stop, or to compensate using the ISO setting. The meter reads down to the 4EV, which I’ve always found to be a little restricting - a little more sensitivity would have been nice, especially given the up to 8 sec timed shutter release.

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2007: Switzerland

Returning to the back panel, there is a recessed button to rewind the film before it reaches the end, and a backlight to illuminate both LCDs. Settings include a rewind mode which leaves the film leader out, which is very useful for those doing their own development, or for changing film mid-roll (if you remember the frame count you can reload it and advance over exposed frames in manual mode with the lens cap on). Note, the very first batch of XPan Is, with long shutter speed restricted to 30 seconds, had an issue with fogging infrared film. The Xpan II was advertised as fixing this issue, but in fact the later batches of XPan Is did not show it either. Personally I only used IR film in the XPan in 2000-2001. I don’t remember getting any good shots, but I never had any issues with fogging.

Ice0803 sunlit mountain2

2008: Iceland

The XPan is very pleasant to handle. It is well balanced with all three lenses, and the shutter button has just the right half/full pressure resistance. The viewfinder is gorgeous and the rangefinder patch easy to see, although as often as not I preset focussing at hyperlocal distances. I’ve always had the impression that the 30mm viewfinder is polarised, but I guess at that angle of view it can’t be. Nevertheless, the world actually looks better through the 30mm viewfinder than in real life! The body viewfinder framelines change with lens, with mode /standard, panoramic), and adjust for parallax. The 30mm viewfinder is fixed, but it has frameline notches to indicate the standard frame size. The XPan II handling is slightly improved by the viewfinder display, but with the already discussed tradeoffs. The lens focus rings are silky smooth and nicely weighted, and the aperture rings are firm and precise. However only full stop steps are possible. Generally the XPan is a real “feel good” camera to use. It can get a bit heavy if you carry it around all day with a full set of lenses, it is solid metal after all, but nothing too dramatic.

Krossfjorden

2010: Svalbard

Many XPan owners have a preference for a particular lens, usually the 45mm or 30mm. I’m more equal opportunities - I find all 3 lenses to be excellent, and of the three I actually prefer the 90mm for landscape use, although I’ll admit that for street it is less adapted. I’ve owned two copies of the 30mm lens, and both have come down with so-called “Schneideritis” even though it is not a Schneider lens. Possibly there is a related Fujinonitis strain. My first one was replaced (somewhat reluctantly) by Hasselblad for this very reason. The replacement soon came down with the same symptoms. However, there is absolutely no impact on the optical behaviour of the lens, and it doesn’t seem too be contagious, so I just ignore it. Another blight to strike the 30mm lens, or rather its viewfinder, is the bubble level drying up. This is annoying, but it seems quite common. I have contacted the French Hasselblad specialists “Les Victor” about a repair, apparently they can fix it at a reasonable price.

Stromboli

2011: Stromboli

One of the first issues to hit XPan users is of course, how to actually deal with the output. In the early days, Hasselblad (I suppose) promoted the format to a network of labs which could print the panoramic format, and supplied sheets of special stickers in the camera box which could be fixed to the film canisters to indicate to the lab that they contained XPan frames. I know I had my first XPan roll lab printed, probably by Jessops pro shop in Oxford Street, London, where I bought it, and probably on the day I bought it. But from then on, pretty much it has been the hybrid route for me: lab developing, home scanning, home printing. I don’t think I’ve ever shot a roll of traditional black and white film in the XPan, only colour negative, colour positive and Scala. Maybe a few rolls of Polaroid instant film too.

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2012: Switzerland

To start with, scanning XPan film at home was tricky. Unless you were basically a millionaire, there were no film scanners that could take anything other than standard 35mm frames, and flatbed scanners outside of the unattainable Linotype-Hell or Scitex were hopeless. So initially, using a Microtek 4000 scanner, I painstakingly scanned each frame in two halves, and merged them in Photoshop. Even with a high end Mac, this was tedious. So the barriers to entry were actually pretty high, and the XPan was very much considered a professional’s camera. Gradually things got easier. Just about affordable Medium Format desktop scanners emergec from companies such as Polaroid, Microtek, Nikon and Minolta, several of which specifically handled 35mm panoramic format, and I eventually settled on a Minolta MultiScan Pro which lasted me over 10 years. When after these years of service it started getting troublesome, I finally replaced it with a Plustek Opticfilm 120, which has been efficiently devouring both XPan and medium format film ever since. I thoroughly recommend this scanner, by the way.

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2013: Antarctica

It’s been a long journey with this camera, and although the current valuation (based on eBay) sometimes makes be think of selling it and using the proceeds to buy a small island, I’m not done with it yet. After all, I’m still waiting for my rolls of Film Ferrania slide film, not to mention new Ektachrome, to put through it. As an aside, Ektachrome 100G was the film that really made the XPan sing for me. At present I have to use Provia 100F, not a great hardship, but back in the days when there was choice, it wasn’t always the film I reached for.

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2014: Sardinia

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2015: Norway

So, should you buy an XPan today? Frankly, at eBay prices, no. It’s not worth it. The camera has crossed the border from “working tool” to “sought-after collectible”. Get a Fuji GSW690 and crop. Or use a digital camera with suitable framing, such as the Sigma dp0 (my candidate for the “digital XPan”). So far, fingers crossed, unlike several other electronic film cameras, the XPan is not displaying any chronic failures that I know of, but they will come, and it will not be repairable. So paying crazy money like $6000 - $7000 for a so-called pristine model on eBay is very unadvisable in my opinion, not to mention well over $1000 for a non-working body. In particular the markup on XPan II bodies is absolutely not justified from any photographic point of view.

If you do find one which is more realistically priced because it isn’t collector-pristine, bear in mind that any XPan body actually used for photography will inevitably acquire scuff marks and paint chips, and this is not an indication of over-heavy use. Although note, the extreme beaters you sometimes see on eBay do surprise me. My camera is not mollycoddled at all, so to get it in the beaten up condition of some I’ve seen must take real dedication. Having said that, I do remember in 2004 seen an XPan belonging to US landscape photographer Steve Kossack practically stripped of paint, so I guess it is feasible.

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2017: Switzerland

Up to a few years ago you could still buy good used models with a warranty through reputable second hand dealers, but that supply seems to have dried up. Who is going to trade in their camera to a dealer for maybe $1000 when $3000 on eBay is now considered “cheap”?

Passion

2018: Calabria

The XPan has acquired mythological status. Personally, to a great extent, it defines me as a photographer, but that’s because of circumstances. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, with adequate cash, to get in at the ground floor. But it is only a camera. Today, there are other paths to follow, and plenty of other ways to pursue “widescreen” photography. If you happen to come across an XPan in fair condition with no bits missing for under $2000, then go for it. Otherwise, be sure you know what you’re getting into!

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More of my XPan photography:

More XPan reading:

 

Chromatic abberations

vario, panned

in Photography , Monday, September 25, 2017

A few posts ago, I wrote a rather dismissive impression of the new Rollei Variochrom film. Unfortunately, I’d bought 4 rolls of the stuff, so I felt I should do something with it. Having discovered what it actually does, which is to transport one back to the Good Olde Days of wildly inaccurate colour and grain you could eat for breakfast, it occurred to me that the part of the world I’m constrained to wander during the working week might actually benefit from this treatment. Well, it would be hard to make it look more dull than it actually is - although Dog knows I’ve tried over the years.

I’m pretty much at odds with todays retro film community, which seems only interested in the flaws and weaknesses of film. There are certainly people doing fabulous work today with film, for example Bruce Percy, but the film camera hipsters don’t actually seem to be interested in photographing much else than their cameras. 

Oh dear, have I got off track again ? Where was I ? Oh, yes ... Variochrome.

When used forewarned and with intent, I have to admit it can be quite interesting.  I quite like the following sample, although its not really my thing.  In the right context Variochrome is interesting, but I still pretty much stand by my earlier comments.

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xpan-variochrome2-20.jpg

The canister light leak I encountered on the first roll repeated itself, by the way, despite my taking special care in loading, unloading and handling the film.

Oh well, only another 2 rolls to go.

 

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