To hear about the Hasselblad XPan as a casual photophile is to become cursed. Cursed to desire one, cursed to break the bank buying one, cursed to realize that you have no real-life use for it. And then you sell it and you’re cursed again, to yearn for the time you had one and to know that you will never get it again (not at these prices).
I know about the curse because I lived the first part (desiring the XPan) for years. And I’ve witnessed the last parts (selling and regretting) again and again each time I looked up reviews of the camera. The analog community is full of regretful people and of cautionary tales about this camera. To succumb to the curse is to gamble, to place a bet on being the right audience. It’s a life-altering decision, and why it took me all that time to pull the trigger and spend the most money I’ve ever spent on a camera. Which was now two years ago.
Did I break the curse? Well, I didn’t sell my XPan. Because it’s the greatest camera in the world.
But let’s get back to the beginning (last chance to turn back).
What is the Hasselblad XPan
When trying to explain the XPan to my non-photoographic friends, I fall back to the classic Portal 2 quote, “Science is not about why, it’s about why not?”
At some point in the mid 1990s, somewhere between Fujifilm Japan and Hasselblad Sweden a team of people decided that they should try their hand at making a 35mm panoramic camera. Not a semi-toy camera like the Russian Horizon, and not a medium format hack like the 35mm Mamiya 7 back. No, they wanted to create a true, laser focused, state of the art panoramic camera for 35mm film. This goal was the driving force in the creation of what would be known as the Fuji TX-1 in Japan and the Hasselblad Xpan in the rest of the world.
Looking at the body in hand, everything has been perfectly engineered to serve one unique purpose and vision. They made a double length metal shutter, used bespoke medium format lenses for maximum coverage and minimum distortion, and built a one of kind panoramic viewfinder. And because it was the XPan was to be a late-90s, best of the best sort of camera, they added every feature that technology allowed: a flawless light meter, exposure compensation, burst mode, everything that 1990s photographers could dream of (except a LCD speed readout in the viewfinder, but we’ll get to that).
They had crafted both the best and only true panoramic 35mm camera in the world. It was a folly of engineering and hubris, a 1-kilogram beast, and I would wager that they didn’t even know who would want it, or what they’d do with it. “If you build it, they will come.” I don’t know if the Xpan met sales expectations (a few tens of thousands were made across two generations of the camera), but they built it. I believe, and will continue to believe, that they made that camera just to prove that they could.
My Personal XPan
I was terrified to get one. For years, I watched endless reviews on YouTube and marveled at high-res pictures on various websites. But I also read one too many blog posts about people realizing that once they shot a couple of landscapes with it, they had no use for the thing and promptly sold it. So, I didn’t buy in. I lusted, like a kid in the streets in front of a candy shop. Maybe one day.
Then the pandemic happened. Months shut in with my good old Minolta SLR as an unlikely companion. I took several rolls of pictures of these months, of daily life at home, of empty streets and long weekends with my partner. On some level, photography made all of this more bearable and the pictures we made were made of all the best memories of these troubled times. This is when I made up my mind. If taking pictures helped me, if this hobby had healing properties (as this website has shown time and time again), I needed to know. I had to make sure. If the XPan was “for” me, then I shouldn’t hesitate anymore. Setting some money aside every month, I started to look for one.
Securing my personal Hasselblad XPan could be an entire article in itself, but I finally found one in a remote city in the middle of nowhere, France. The owner had it from his uncle, who only used it in her studio. The camera was immaculate, not a single dreaded paint chip anywhere to be seen. And, he was selling it with two of the three lenses that were made for the system: a 45mm all-purpose kit lens and the portrait-friendly 90mm.
I will not disclose how much I paid but the (low) price never fails to shock my good friends at the Nation Photo lab (which developed and scanned every picture in this article). The catch: both lenses had early fungus (please do not store several thousands bucks worth of camera gear in your damp countryside basement). Fortunately, Paris is the home of Les Victors, previously known as Hasselblad France. When Hassy left the country, the team stayed and are now the best place to buy and repair Hasselblad cameras. And, for a couple hundreds of euros, I was able to get my Xpan serviced and its lenses cleaned of all fungus!
The XPan in Use
Leaving Les Victors, the XPan weighed heavily in my hands. It truly is a beast. You have to grab it by both hands if you hope to keep it steady. The weight also makes it feel important in your hands, both massive and fragile at the same time. The on/off switch is so tiny, and sometimes I have to check twice if I’ve turned it on. Both lenses I own are gorgeous, ultra-compact, solidly made, with satisfying aperture clicks. The viewfinder is large and bright, even if I came to distrust the frame lines, forcing me to always step back a little to make sure I will have everything on the final image (the technician did check and told me everything was fine).
My one and only gripe is that I wish I was able to see the aperture-priority selected speed in the viewfinder instead of on the LCD back (an oversight fixed on the subsequent XPan II). Pressing the shutter button takes the picture, which is logical but also all I can really write about the picture taking process. Which means that using the XPan is not a particularly pleasant experience, on a tactile and mechanical level. I love feeling custom-made ebony wood handle I’ve added to the body under my fingers, and I can appreciate the premium materials of the camera, but shooting a picture is just that, shooting a picture.
The Xpan is not a fetishistic camera the way my Minolta SLR or my TLR are, where I revel in the mechanical intricacies of using it, feeling every gear turn and lever actuate. The XPan is more akin to a laser scalpel. It’s made to do one thing and to do that one thing better than anyone else. And it shows on the final image: the high resolutions scans I’m able to get from this are breathtaking, the medium format depth of field I can get with the 90mm lenses is out of this world. I’ve made 1-meter-long prints with pixel perfect details, and I also enjoyed the most amazing-looking slide negatives of my photographic life. This is an end-result oriented camera. You want it for the images you’ll get, not the actual experience of using it (and don’t get me started on hiking with this monster in my backpack).
Which brings us to the actual question of this whole business: do I like it? Does this bring joy, as they say?
Before I stumbled on what would become my own Hasselblad XPan, I almost bought another copy of the camera. But at the last minute something came up and I couldn’t meet the buyer, we had to cancel the deal. He told me that this was a sign he was waiting for: he could not part with this camera. He felt it in his heart that selling would be a mistake, and while he would have sold it to me that day, every fiber of his being told him not to. He would have fallen victim to the final curse of the XPan, if fate hadn’t intervened. And he was right.
I will never part with this camera. If (when) it breaks and it can’t be repaired anymore, I will buy another one, and another one, until all of them are broken for all time. I’ll buy another and another at all costs. Because not only is this my dream camera, but I also make good use of it.
I did not fall into the landscape trap, I didn’t decide to let it sit on the shelf (and get fungus again). The trick is just grabbing it before I go, taking it with me and finding ways to put it to work. Place my eyes enough times on that viewfinder until I can see the frame lines in real life. It’s just a question of rewiring your brain, rewiring the way you view the world. A dream camera does that to you, it changes you. And sharing pictures is a way for me to share the way I see things, through my XPan. I feel proud writing this, and prouder if any of you made it this far into this review. But I also feel ashamed, as I’ve once again done the dark biddings of Fujifilm and Hasselblad.
I’ve cursed you. The way the previous articles, blog posts and reviews cursed me.
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Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…
Matthias Jambon-Puillet is a marketing executive in the entertainment industry in Paris. After 20+ years of using digital cameras as his main passion and hobby, he rekindled his love for photography by switching to analog. Now the proud owner of way too many cameras and a lifelong stash of frozen fuji color films, he is in the process of figuring out his favorites. A process that is thoroughly documented on his Instagram in real time.
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