Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back review
Part two

User interface

Sidebar: Simplicity goes a long way and is a highly undervalued commodity. It cuts to the core and is about essence. Simplicity often goes hand–in–hand with clarity of purpose and concentration of vision. Powerful statements, be they in music, literature or any other art form, tend to be simple. Complexity, on the other hand, very seldom adds to strength and often has to be restrained so as not to get lost and degrade to the level of chaos. Simplicity, however, is an easy–to–perish treasure—it takes only a slight push to make things roll down the slope of complexity and once they start rolling untangling complex knots becomes akin to exercise in futility.

First and foremost, I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of user interface in general and menus in particular. Browsing through the menus for the first time one is bound to think, "What, and that is all?" Yes, there are not very many options—the CFV–39 is a professional tool that shoots RAW format only and, thankfully, does not have a gazillion of "features" that plague even the most serious 35mm DSLRs. At the same time, fundamental photographic functionality of the back has not been undermined in almost any way (but see below).

Black City / Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back

Black City
Black city, Ejin, Inner Mongolia, China (中国内蒙古额济纳黑城)
Hasselblad 503CW camera body, CFi 4/50 lens and CVF–39 digital back

Coming from 35mm DSLR world I first found user interface of the CFV–39 rather unorthodox. It is built around what Hasselblad call Instant Approval Architecture (IAA). It might sound very intimidating at first but its principle is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. Basically, once you have taken a shot and reviewed it on the screen, you rate it as "winner", "keep for now" or "delete", which is done by pressing a dedicated button on the back that assigns green, yellow or red colour to the image respectively; classification information is recorded in the file name, too. Indeed, this procedure is so central to the workflow that there is no dedicated ISO or Delete button yet, as already mentioned, there is one that specifically serves to classify captured images. If you do not classify an image after it is taken then the "winner" status (green colour) is assigned to it by default (default colour can be changed in settings to yellow or red). After a shooting session is over you start working on (or show your clients) the images marked in green colour, which significantly speeds up one's post–shooting workflow.

The CFV–39 boasts audio feedback that, on the one hand, is a part of the IAA that allows you to rate images without having to look at the LCD screen and, on the other hand, provides audio information on exposure and general operation of the back. Specifically, the back makes clearly distinguishable sounds for each of underexposure, acceptable exposure, overexposure, battery nearly depleted, CF card near full, etc. This might sound somewhat gimmicky at first but I found this feature very helpful—once you get used to the sounds and learn what each of them means, you can operate the back and photograph without having to look at the display as often; I found this particularly useful when shooting fast. And if you do feel that audio feedback is not useful to you, you can always switch it off.

As I have already mentioned the CFV–39 does not have a dedicated Delete button. It is possible to delete one single image but this takes quite a few button presses (menu –> storage –> delete –> OK). Instead, the workflow should be such that all photographs that are meant to be deleted should be assigned red colour and then deleted together in one go. This is akin to how, when working on a computer, you first send the files that you intend to delete to trash bin and then empty it to delete them at once. When a CF card is almost full the back starts deleting the files that have been assigned red colour as you continue shooting (with a previous warning that it is going to do so, of course). Neat, if you ask me.

Danxia landforms and the Moon / Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back

Danxia landforms and the Moon
Zhangye, Gansu Province, China (中国甘肃省张掖)
Hasselblad 503CW camera body, CFE 2.8/80 lens and CVF–39 digital back

White balance (WB) is set via menus and there are only two options available: set WB in Kelvin or take a test exposure of a neutral subject. When accurate colour reproduction was needed I used the ExpoDisk to set WB; most of the time, however, I set it to 5500K and then fine–tuned WB in conversion. The lack of a dedicated WB button did not bother me at all as, when shooting RAW, WB is only a nominal setting that can always be changed later.

One gets used to this workflow quite quickly and I really appreciate the simplicity of the interface. However, there are several crucial issues that need to be addressed. First, the CFV–39 does not show an indication of battery life on the display. Yes, you read that correctly—there is no way to know how much longer your battery is going to last, which is a major inconvenience when shooting in the field. When the battery is almost depleted the back starts sending warning signals (both audio and on the display), but that means that you have to change the battery now. Second, the back only shows luminance histogram, which is insufficient to asses whether or not individual colours have been clipped. RGB histograms should be shown, too. Third, as has already been pointed out, the display should be better specified to make an even better use of the IAA. Finally, appearance of the interface could be further refined.

To sum up, I find that Hasselblad got the fundamentals of user interface right. However, the drawbacks mentioned in the previous paragraph should be sorted out (some of them could probably be resolved via a firmware update).

The issue of dust on the sensor

During the expedition I used film and the CFV–39 more or less equally, for which there were a number of reasons. First, this was dictated by the issue of formats and crop factors. Second, I was very much concerned about the issue of the dust on the sensor and, having no way of knowing how bad it would get, I photographed the most promising scenes with both digital and film. As a result, I switched between the CFV–39 and film backs more frequently than I probably should have, more often than not in open, dusty places. I, naturally, did my best to protect the sensor against dust and used an air blower as often as I could but Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia are very dusty places and there is only so much that you can do. I have to say that changing the back in the wild was quite nerve–racking—you should see the massive CCD sensor in the nude in the middle of a desert to really appreciate the horror of the experience.

Populus euphratica trees in autumn / Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back

Populus euphratica trees in autumn
Ejin, Inner Mongolia, China (中国内蒙古额济纳胡杨林)
Hasselblad 503CW camera body, CFi 4/50 lens and CVF–39 digital back

I am happy to report, however, that to my great surprise sand and dust did not pose any problems whatsoever despite me changing the back so often in such adverse conditions. After the trip I made a simple test to see how dirty the sensor was to only discover that it was not much dirtier than the sensor of a 35mm DSLR would be after a similar expedition.

CFV–39 and Hasselblad Flexbody

Hasselblad Flexbody is a camera body that was designed to allow tilt and shift camera movements using Hasselblad V series lenses. The primary purpose of the former is to increase depth of field and the latter is mostly used to avoid converging lines. The Flexbody was (and still is) a great addition to the Hasselblad V system but its usefulness was somewhat limited by the smallish image circles of some Hasselblad lenses. In particular, shift movement was impossible with 40mm lenses and impractical with 50mm lenses.

The sensor of the CFV–39 is smaller than 6X6 film area (36.7X49mm vs. 56X56mm) and thus the shift capability is further expanded by approximately 9mm when the CFV–39 is used with the Flexbody. Below is a table of maximum shift for some of the Hasselblad lenses. As you can see, the CFV–39 allows to attain the maximum shift possible with the Flexbody (15mm) with almost all V series lenses.

Lens /
maximum shift

CFE 4/40

CFi 4/50

CFi 3.5/60

CFE 2.8/80

CFi 3.5/100

CFE 4/120

CFi 4/150

CFi 5.6/200

6X6 film


















The groundglass of the Flexbody does not show sensor format markings of the CFV–39 but since it has grid lines they can be used to fairly accurately guesstimate where sensor format markings would fall on the groundglass. Owners of the CFV–39 who also have the Flexbody will probably want to make permanent sensor format markings on the groundglass of the Flexbody.

When the CFV–39 is used with the Flexbody the back must be connected with the PC flash terminal on the lens with a sync cable. The SOP of using the Flexbody is such that the back must be taken off the camera after every single exposure (unless you photograph exactly the same scene more than once); sync cable, therefore, should be disconnected, too. This, naturally, is rather inconvenient as this operating procedure exposes the sensor to dust (but see above—I did not find this to be a problem); disconnecting the cable every time also significantly increases wear and tear. Flexbody, however, was never a quick camera to use and the operational advantage of using the CFV–39 with it vis–à–vis film backs is that one does not have to advance film after each exposure as well as remove/insert the dark slide before/after each shot.

Part one

Part two

Part three