When I first learned about medium format, and how even though the film comes a roll similar to 35mm, different cameras can expose different lengths of the roll (such as 6x4.5cm, 6x6cm, 6x7cm, 6x9cm, etc.) I immediately asked "why don't 35mm cameras do the same?" The answer, of course, is that while rare, there are a few 35mm cameras that don't shoot the standard 36x24mm frames. And among those cameras, the Xpan is king.An illustration comparing different common frame sizes
But anyone interested in the Xpan is soon to notice the price. It is an expensive camera, even so many years after production has ended. It's not as if the cost is unreasonable in light of the quality of the camera – for this is a very nice camera, indeed. But in the world of old film cameras, the Xpan is infamous for its price. So that's why, even though I yearned for the Xpan for years, I had to content myself with my pile of other, non-Xpan cameras. All that changed a little over a year ago: I blew my savings, and rested my mittens on my very own Hasselblad Xpan II, complete with 45mm and 90mm lenses.
Ok, let's talk about the camera.
Very Short Introduction to the Xpan
Just in case you've made it this far but are still unfamiliar with what exactly the Xpan is, here's a quick overview: the Xpan is a high-end, compact, heavy, manual focus, rangefinder camera with a manual and center-weighted automatic exposure modes that has only three lenses available (wide, medium, long) and was made by a joint effort of Fujifilm and Hasselblad with two iterations, produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
There, now you're caught up.
This camera is awesome. It is heavy, solid, and well made. The lenses are excellent in all regards, from size, to settings, to image quality. Its looks are timeless and classic yet subtle – toting the Xpan in a crowd, your camera won't draw attention (unless the crowd is a crowd of photographers). The shutter and film advance motor are quiet, and operating the camera is very simple and straightforward. There is no learning curve here.
Despite the camera being a solid performer, I have developed a few specific gripes – nitpicks I had discovered through use but hadn't heard enumerated in reviews.Caltrain passenger car, Fujifilm Superia
The rangefinder focus window is slightly off-center in the viewfinder window. Not majorly off-center, but just slightly, which is worse, because it's close enough that I compose the shot as if it were the center, and then my resulting photo is unbalanced. There are other markings in the viewfinder to indicate the center, but as I'm usually staring at the focus window to set focus, they're not where I'm looking. Also, while I'm complaining, the focus window is small.Looking through the viewfinder. Note the off-center rangefinder window.
The tripod mounting socket is on the far left side of the camera, right underneath the viewfinder. You'd think it'd be lined up with the center of the exposure area, but no. This complicates tripod use, since the heavy camera must always be supported in an off-balanced position, which can add camera shake, defeating the purpose of using the tripod. And small table-top tripods are right out – attach the camera to one, and it tips over.Downtown San Jose, Fujifilm Superia
Film loading is automatic, which is great. Just slide the film across the back and close the door, and now your film is loaded. But the camera is extra wide, so the film must lie flat across an extended surface, which makes loading film in windy conditions (or excessively curly film) a trick.
In "nobody cares land", I've also noticed that some old 70s era film stock simply won't trigger the auto film take-up. I don't know why this is, but since that film is now 40+ years old I don't think anyone but me cares, or has even noticed.San Francisco, Kodak Pro Image
Composing with this camera is a whole different ball of wax. Using the "normal" 45mm lens, I'm tempted to treat compositions as a wide-angle shot (resulting in compositions that feel cropped on top and bottom) or as a traditional normal (making photos that have irrelevant parts on the extreme left and right sides). In truth, the extreme (nearly 2.5:1) aspect ratio has to be seen as its own, unique thing.San Francisco, Kodak Ektachrome E100SW
"its own thing"
My trick to composing any scene is first being able to visualize it in my head. Picture the photo first, then set up the camera to make that photo happen. But with the Xpan, I struggle with this again and again – the framing is difficult for me to grasp, and frequently small details creep into my shots that I don't notice until I get the film back from development.San Francisco, Kodak Ektar 125
So slow down, you say? Maybe taking my time and carefully setting up each shot is the true path to success with this format, but that's not how I shoot, and that doesn't even seem what this camera was designed for. After all, it is a compact 35mm rangefinder.Natchez Trace, Kodak Ektar 100
This isn't to say that all my photos with the Xpan turn out bad; no, I do make some images I'm very proud of. But it's the "keeper ratio" where I see my struggles. There are times where an entire roll of film comes back and I don't care for any of the images on it, not something I'm used experiencing anymore.Sisters, Fujifilm Provia 400F
What will I do moving forward from here? I haven't arrived at any decisions, but I have backed off using the camera for now, leaving it at home more often than not. Even though the Xpan packs in modern technology, and is fun to go out and shoot, I have lost my confidence in its casual use. This crazy wide aspect ratio isn't a gimmick – but is it too much a specialty purpose? Is it enough to warrant an entire separate camera just for the panorama? I suppose that this question is why this camera is far into "luxury" territory.Footprints, Fujifilm Provia 400F
Let's face it: anyone shooting an Xpan in the year 2018 is deep into cameraphilia. So don't fight it; acknowledge the Xpan for what it is and what it isn't, embrace it openly and without judgement, and have fun shooting.