Hasselblad Sonnar CFi 4/150 vs. Sonnar CFE 4/180—making the choice

It is rather interesting how one falls in love and feels comfortable with lenses of some focal lengths and might be very ambivalent about others. For many photographers who use Hasselblad 6X6 cameras the 150–180mm focal length range is one of those vague zones where choosing one particular lens is complicated by the lenses' reputation. Unfortunately, the so-called "reputation" (or lack thereof) paints things either black or white and skips all the midtones—it does not take into consideration all performance factors as well as their correlation to varying priorities of photographers. For instance, the Hasselblad CFi 4/150 is said to be "the classic portrait lens". Does this mean it is not suitable for architecture or landscape photography, or that it does not provide sufficient sharpness when focused at infinity? The CFE 4/180, on the other hand, is often referred to as one of the best performers in the Hasselblad lens lineup. Does this mean that it is equally outstanding in all performance aspects, that the rest of the lenses are "under par" and that one should definitely choose it over the CFi 4/150 (or the CB 4.8/160 for that matter)? This review compares performance of the two lenses at length in an attempt to answer these questions and provide a better foundation for choosing between them.

For your reference, technical performance data on the CFi 4/150 can be found here and on the CFE 4/180 here.

Angle of view

Angle of view is one of the most important characteristics of a lens. The difference in angles of view of the CFi 4/150 and the CFE 4/180 is 21° (29° diagonal) vs. 18° (24° diagonal). The test shot below illustrates what this difference translates into in actual photographs—full frame is what was captured by the 150mm lens while the red rectangle indicates what would have been captured by the 180mm lens. The lenses' fields of view seem quite comparable and this, indeed, is the main reason why very few photographers choose to own both lenses.


In practice, however, the difference is much more pronounced than it seems at first or a comparison photo as above would suggest. Having extensively used the CFE 4/180 for cityscape and landscape photography I personally find its angle of view a bit too narrow for a general–purpose telephoto lens and many a time I wished I had a lens of a slightly shorter focal length. Nevertheless, some photographers feel that 180mm is the perfect focal length in the telephoto range and the CFE 4/180 is apparently more popular (otherwise, why would Carl Zeiss choose it for their newly introduced ZV–Classic line of lenses?). I, therefore, would like to urge you not to disregard the difference in the angles of view—try using at least one of the lenses to determine which focal length suits your style of photography (and overall lens set) best.


The CFE 4/180 is noticeably longer (128mm vs. 101mm) and markedly heavier (1080g vs. 850g). While theoretical difference between the numbers might seem not huge, in practice it is significantly magnified by the fact that the lens, quite peculiarly, is front–heavy. When you attach the CFi 4/150 to a Hasselblad 500 series camera the combination feels almost perfect in your hand; by comparison, when the CFE 4/180 is mounted on the camera the weight is not distributed evenly and the camera tends to "nose–dive", thus making hand–holding quite strained. This difference is very obvious if you compare the lenses side by side and really grows on you when you use them extensively in the field. This is not to say that the CFE 4/180 is not suitable for hand–held photography—I am sure that one can get used to it; nonetheless, the CFi 4/150 is much better suited for hand–held work and/or situations when you need to travel light.


In my tests I used a solid tripod (Gitzo 1227) extending only middle leg sections, a heavy ball–head (Kirk BH–1), a cable release, very fine–grained slide film (Fuji Velvia 100F) and mirror lock–up (prerelease). At infinity and f/4 I could barely distinguish that the CFE 4/180 was slightly sharper in the furthest corners at 10X magnification; when stopped to f/8, though, I could not see any difference even at 15X magnification. At close distances and f/4 the CFE 4/180 was a tiny bit sharper than the CFi 4/150; when stopped down, though, I had to pull out my 15X loupe again to see any difference—and even then I had to look back and forth and was not sure whether whatever difference I thought I might have seen was not simply the question of different image magnification. In other words, I find that the difference in sharpness between the two lenses is rather academic—you will never see it unless your shooting technique is perfectly stringent, you photograph objects in one plane at f/4 and then produce huge enlargements. The only field I can think of where this might matter is astrophotography.

Light fall–off

Four photographs below were shot on the same roll of film (Fuji Velvia 100F) with the same EV setting and within a couple of minutes. They then were scanned using an Epson 4990 flatbed scanner and adjusted in Photoshop (levels only) as one image, thus completely preserving image quality differences that can be seen in slides. The picture was cut into four separate shots you see below only after all adjustments were done (except for the same amount of sharpening applied to each of the shots in the end).

Hasselblad CFi 4/150 light fall–off at f/4

Hasselblad CFi 4/150 light fall–off at f/11

Hasselblad CFE 4/180 light fall–off at f/4

Hasselblad CFE 4/180 light fall–off at f/11

The CFi 4/150 has a larger image circle and, consequently, noticeably less light fall–off (this might also be important if you use a Hasselblad Flexbody). This being said, however, in both instances light fall–off is very gradual and not noticeable in real–life prints unless you juxtapose two identical pictures shot at f/4 and, say, f/11.


Both lenses are extremely good performers in terms of this aberration; if one insists on splitting hair, though, the CFi 4/150 shows less distortion. I am not posting scans of test slides here because curvature of field caused by the glassless plastic film holder of the Epson 4990 is likely to be much more pronounced than the lenses' distortion. Nevertheless, to put things into perspective I would describe the difference as follows (note that I am being quite picky here): if you examine test slides (i.e. pictures with a perfectly straight line running along the entire length of and close to the image edge) on a light table with a naked eye, none of the lenses shows immediately observable distortion; if you use a ruler and examine the slides with a naked eye distortion of the CFE 4/180 is noticeable while the CFi 4/150 still does not show it; if you carefully examine test slides with a ruler and a 10X loupe the CFE 4/180 clearly shows pincushion distortion while the CFi 4/150 exhibits very, very mild distortion of the same kind. For all practical purposes I would say that CFE 4/180 shows very gentle distortion and that the CFi 4/150 is pretty much distortion free.


To see how the contenders render out–of–focus areas I composed and photographed two roughly equivalent head-and-shoulders portraits of a model—the CFi 4/150 was focused at about 2.1 meters and the CFE 4/180 was focused at approximately 2.5 meters; below are crops of the out–of–focus background (I believe that this test is the most relevant for portrait photographers; note that degree of background magnification is different due to the deference in focal lengths).

Hasselblad CFE 4/180 bokeh at f/4

Hasselblad CFi 4/150 bokeh at f/4

Hasselblad CFE 4/180 bokeh at f/5.6

Hasselblad CFi 4/150 bokeh at f/5.6

Hasselblad CFE 4/180 bokeh at f/8

Hasselblad CFi 4/150 bokeh at f/8

Bokeh is a very subjective criterion and you will have to draw your own conclusions from the crops above; if you are interested to know, though, my opinion is that both lenses offer equally smooth rendering of out–of–focus areas. The fact that the CFE 4/180 offers a greater magnification of background might be appealing; the downside, however, is that the lens requires longer working distance to the subject.


First and foremost, none of the two lenses is better technically on an absolute basis—one has to choose between less light fall–off and distortion (CFi 4/150) and a very slightly better sharpness at large apertures (CFE 4/180). Second, the differences in optical performance of the two lenses are much, much smaller than it is generally suggested or one might be lead to think when looking at MTF graphs or other technical specifications—they are detectable only when juxtaposing slides and/or dissecting them at very high magnifications (10X +). Third, in real–life shooting differences in angles of view and handling are much, much more significant than the diminutive discrepancies in optical performance. Due to this, I suggest primarily basing your choice on the first two factors outlined in this article (unless your work imposes very rigorous requirements on a particular aspect of a lens' optical performance).

Related article: Hasselblad Tessar CB 4.8/160 vs. Sonnar CFE 4/180—the ultimate shootout