Medium Format Film: Bronica SQ-Ai and Hasselblad 500 c/m

These are 2 very popular 6×6 medium format film cameras. Both have their pros and cons, and there are people that love each… I’d like to compare them, for both technical features and qualities, as well as showing some photographs taken with each. Then I’ll tell you how I like them, and which I’d rather take on a photo excursion (which you know I love to do).

As far as the cameras – there are a plethora of threads on the internet asking, “Should I get a SQ-Ai or a 500 c/m?” and I’ve read through many of them. If you’re going to ask that questions, I’ll give you my 2 cents worth of advice (and I’ve seen this advice on many forums). Buy the camera that you feel most comfortable with, and that you can use to successfully take the photographs that you want to take. Remember, a camera is only a tool. These 2 cameras are very capable of taking any photograph that I would want to take – and, honestly, I’m not good enough to do anything that would push either of these cameras to their limits. I have seen other photographer’s work – photographers that use both Bronica and Hasselblad cameras, photographs that I think are beautiful works of art, made with both – so, I feel like either is capable of producing great photographs.

So, why choose one over the other? I can list some of the features of each – and I can show you some of the photographs I can make with each – and you can get a better feel for which camera is right for you. Based solely upon the years they were produced, I could be comparing the Hasselblad to other Bronicas, like the EC-TL, for instance. But the EC line employed a focal plane shutter, and I wanted to compare 2 medium format bodies that had leaf shutters. Both the 500 c/m and the SQ-Ai have leaf shutters in their lenses. And both work similarly, the Hasselblad with a mechanical shutter, and the Bronica with an electronic one.

Hasselblad has a great name, it is a very well-built piece of machinery, and (maybe this is important, maybe not) the company is still in existence today. Zenza Bronica also has a bit of a name (I always thought highly of them, and I always wanted one), however the company no longer exists, for what that’s worth.

The Hasselblad 500 c/m is an all-mechanical camera that does not require a battery. The Bronica SQ-Ai has an electronically coupled body, lens, back and finder, with an electronic Seiko shutter in the lens. It uses batteries, but they are only used to power the shutter (and the optional ae finder). For some that’s a differentiating factor. Electronics can be more difficult (if you can or cannot get parts) to fix – but they may not need periodic adjustments and cleanings like fully mechanical cameras may need to keep running and working properly.

Both cameras offer various accessories, including metered finders, but the waist-level finders are my favorite. With the waist-level finder attached, both cameras are extremely simple to use. They are very basic, although, since I’m familiar with other Bronica cameras, and have never used a Hasselblad, I’m a bit more comfortable with the Bronica in my hands at this point.

The Hasselblad is all steel, the Bronica uses a lot of plastic and molded parts but is still very solid feeling – the Bronica may be a bit newer than the 500 c/m. Production of the 500 c/m started around 1970 or 1971 and it was manufactured until 1994. The SQ-Ai was available in the US starting in 1991. My SQ-Ai is newer than my 500 c/m – although the 500 c/m (I believe due to its simplicity, and mechanical function) was very popular for many years, and remains very popular with film photographers today. My Hasselblad was manufactured in 1985 – I determined this by the instructions in the Hasselblad Historical page.

The Hasselblad feels solid in my hands, and it’s 100% mechanical. So, you never need to worry about batteries or electronics going bad. Yes, the electronics on these old cameras can go bad, and then it may be expensive or impossible to fix them – so this is definitely something to be aware of. The designers at Hasselblad have handled the synchronizing of the film back with the body – so, as the film advance lever is cranked, the film in the back is advanced. Some other mechanical cameras (like the RB67) require the film to be advanced separately from the shutter being wound. The Hasselblad has also made the removal of the finder very simple. First, the film back is removed, then the finder simply slides off – there is the feel of spring-loaded pressure when sliding it on – so it seats in place with a “click” and you know it’s seated. When removing it, sliding it back, the same “click” is present. It’s a very nice feel. On the 500 c/m, the focusing screen is removable, and again it’s a very simple process accomplished by sliding two small metal holders and turning the camera over to drop the screen right out. Very straight forward.

The Bronica is very, very similar to the Hasselblad in size and function. Looking at both, someone who doesn’t know cameras, may not be able to tell them apart – from a distance they may look like the same camera. However, when you use them, you will notice a difference. The first think I noticed about the Bronica (even though I’ve used many Bronicas, and like them) is that it does have a plastic feel compared to a Hasselblad. It feels solid and well-built, but if you have both, and use both, you can feel a difference. You may not notice if you never use a Hasselblad, but the Bronica just doesn’t have the same feel. One example is when you advance the film. There’s a not quite as solid feel about the film advance – and, if you don’t open the cranking lever, and try to turn the knob without using the fold-out crank, it gets stuck against the pin where you attach a carrying strap.

See how the crank is blocked by the silver pin.
Opening the crank allows it to move past the silver pin freely.

This isn’t a big deal, but (in my mind) it is a design flaw – something that the designers at Hasselblad paid attention to and did right. It isn’t much – just an indication of the attention paid to details by Hasselblad. Honestly, it doesn’t cause the camera to not work, or the images to be worse.

With either of these cameras, you will be shooting with a handheld meter, or meter app on your phone, or just guessing on exposure. Neither one, with the waist-level finder has any kind of metering built in. Hasselblad does have an external meter you can attach – it’s a replacement for the winding crank – and it allows you to take a reflective, average reading of your scene. It’s not that accurate, but it is something. One of my favorite features of the Bronica is the available AE metering prism.

Bronica SQ-Ai with AE finder attached.

The AE finder adds some size and weight – but it also adds another thing that is very helpful for me (since I have poor eyesight), built-in diopter adjustment. So, I can turn a dial and adjust the magnification in the viewfinder, so I can see clearly without my glasses. That’s a very nice feature!

Viewfinder with AE finder attached.

Notice the information at the bottom. It tells me it’s in AE mode (as opposed to manual, which merely displays the recommended shutter speed). AE mode allows you to set your aperture, and the finder/camera adjusts the shutter speed. If the shutter cannot be adjusted enough to give good exposure, the number flashes to indicate incorrect exposure. I’ve used the same finder on the Bronica 645, and it works very nicely, however I like the 6×6 format better than the 6×4.5, so I’m glad they made the same finder for this model. So, this is one thing that I like on the Bronica, one feature that (I don’t think) is quite nice on the Hasselblad. They do have a metered finder available for the 500 c/m, but it’s not quite as nice as this – since the Bronica has more electronics to support the finder better. Again, electronics can be a blessing and a curse – depending on if they work or not. If this finder breaks, I’ll very likely have to just replace it with another, very pricey AE finder. Depending on the exact problem, it’s likely not worth trying to repair.

Both of these cameras can be a little tricky at slow shutter speeds, speeds below 1/8th of a second or so. When you press the shutter release, you need to wait until the shutter closes before moving the camera. This is only an issue because the leaf shutter is so quiet, and you might not even hear it. Well, on the Hasselblad there’s a red mark next to the slower shutter speeds – the purpose of which is to warn you to make sure you pay attention to the shutter. On the Hasselblad, the other issue is the rear/secondary shutter. When you take a photo, as soon as you take your finder off the shutter release, the rear shutter closes. So, if you have a slow shutter speed, you need to keep your finger pressed on the shutter release until you hear the shutter close, or else you risk cutting short the exposure. The Hasselblad has a rear shutter, at the very back of the camera, to keep the film covered when you change lenses, which closes when the shutter button is released. The Bronica’s rear shutter closes when the mirror comes back down upon advancing the film. It also has a nice feature (since it has electronics) that alerts you to the shutter closing. It’s a red LED at the top of the viewfinder that blinks when the shutter closes – so you know when your exposure’s over. These features are just different, and you need to be aware of how each camera works. It was probably difficult, in an all-mechanical camera, to make the rear shutter function work better. By the way, since the SQ-Ai is electronic, the shutter speeds go all the way down to 16 seconds.

These are some of the pros and cons of both cameras. Again, I need to point out, both cameras are capable of producing very nice, medium format negatives. These are just tools. I like the “all mechanical” build of the Hasselblad, and I love some of the electronics of the Bronica. Let’s take a look at some photos from each.

First, here’s some Bronica Images. I will say, the Bronica, with a newer focusing screen was easier to focus than the Hasselblad with its standard focusing screen.

Here’s a few shots from my Hasselblad. Some are of the Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City, Texas. Some are just around my yard.

These cameras are both new to me. I have used other Bronicas, and have had good results. I’ve never used a Hasselblad before, and did run into a few problems, mainly with the film backs I had. I’m actually getting my film backs cleaned and checked to be sure they are in good working order. One had a light leak where the dark slide comes out. After I get these adjusted, I’ll likely take more photos, maybe even some color, and post again.

The Hasselblad is definitely a classic and gets recognized when I take it places – mostly by people my age (old) who remember them from many years ago. Either can make photos you’ll be proud of, if you use them right. If you get a chance to use either, I suggest you give them a try, and see what these old cameras can do, and have fun! I’d love to know which one is your favorite.