first impressions: xpan ii

legendary panorama rangefinder

The Hasselblad Xpan II 35mm panorama rangefinder.

I recently was able to add a dream camera to my collection: the Hasselblad Xpan II. The Xpan II was produced from 2003 to 2005 by a joint effort of Fujifilm (in Japan) and Hasselblad (in Sweden). The original Xpan came out in 1998, and this successor only improved upon the first. These Xpan cameras use medium format lens technology, but expose standard 35mm film, making negatives the same height as normal, but nearly twice as long as a traditional 35mm film camera. This means the photographer gets large, panoramic negatives out of this camera, out of single push of the shutter. In addition to that uniqueness, this camera has all the hallmarks of a late-film-era top-of-the-line Hasselblad/Fujifilm rangefinger: solid construction, excellent lenses, and modern features.

In this article I will discuss my first impressions. I just laid hands on this beast four days ago – I don't have my film back the lab yet – but I've been shooting with it every day (I'm on film roll #11) so far. Once I actually see the photos I'm producing with this camera, I'll write another article to see how my opinions here hold up.

Xpan II shown with the "standard" 45mm lens

Getting started

This takes two CR2 3-volt batteries. I had to visit two drugstores and pay $23 to find these batteries. The batteries load into the bottom of the camera through a door that opens via a coin. This is annoying; I am not a battery expert so I will assume there's some reason that CR2 batteries are better for cameras than standard batteries, but I guess I'm happy that I didn't have to special order anything.

Film loading is as easy as any other high-end late-model 35mm film camera. You just put the canister in the appropriate place, pull the film out so it extends across the back, and close the door. The film winder motor takes care of the rest, and then the camera loads the entire roll onto the take-up, counts frames, and as you shoot it puts the film back into the canister. This is what I'd expect from a camera of this era.

Shooting

The camera is beastly heavy. I guess this is a consequence of the all-metal construction, but even compared to the all-metal Leica M3, this camera is heavy, and after several hours of carrying and shooting with the Xpan yesterday, my hands were tired. Focusing is trivial – the rangefinder mechanism is bright and easy to use (although slightly off-center?) and the viewfinder frame lines are just as bright (see below). Even the normal lens slightly eclipses your view, but that's a consequence of the huge wide view. Setting the exposure is straightforward, and even though the exposure meter is strictly center-weighted, I have enough experience setting my own exposures on the fully-manual Leica M3 that I'm not troubled by this.

Looking through the viewfinder. Note the off-center rangefinder window.

Composing

This may be a little premature, since I haven't seen my results yet, but I've found composing the Xpan to be a unique experience. Because the angle-of-view of the panorama scene is so wide, I first approached this as a wide-angle composition. But that doesn't work, there's no vertical room. So then I said "well, 45mm is a normal lens" and approached composition as I would a normal. But again, that didn't work, as I'd end up with unexpected and unnecessary junk around the extreme sides of the frame. I really must approach the compositions here on their own terms: full, true panoramas. This is even the case for the 90mm lens. Even though I tend to by frustrated by long lenses on my other cameras, I had no issue squeezing off two and half rolls of 90mm shots yesterday (which I am eager to see back). Usually I will, out of frustration, change the lens back to a standard long before that.

Straight on

Final thoughts

Obviously, I'm not ready to write a "conclusion" just yet, but so far, I am very happy with this camera. The panorama scenes are not just a gimmick – they truly are a legitimate composition of their own. Assuming everything's copacetic when I see the results, I will arrange my next few trips to use only this camera. I have had this camera on my "list" for many years, but the high price and low availability always kept me away from it. Obviously the anticipation of finally getting the camera can distort my perceptions, but at this point I believe I have a keeper.

Update

Six days later and I first attached the camera to my tripod bracket, and I've encountered an interesting (read: bizarre) problem. With the tripod mount securely attached, the film winder will eventually error. Once in error state, the only thing that gets the camera working again is removing the tripod bracket. I am not insane; this is actually happening. Internet searches find zero results for these symptoms. I'm guessing the problem is related to pressure on the bottom plate of the camera, but I'm too nervous to try opening the thing up myself. My current work-around is to not use the tripod mount.

First published on 1 Nov 2016; last updated on 27 Jan 2017.

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