Go West Young Man (And Take A Hasselblad X1D With You)
A while back, ok a long while back, I had a medium format camera, a Mamiya to be exact. I had this medium format camera because if you were a professional, you had one. Now mind you I wasn’t a professional, I just thought I could be, and I was operating under the delusion that having a high-end camera would make you one. It turns out it’s a little more complicated than that. Many years later and I have now fully realized how little I knew about exposure and composition back in those days. That doesn’t mean I know it all now, far from it, but it does say that all the gear in the world can’t save you from own your shortcomings.
Fast forward thirty years and lord knows how many exposures later and I am taking another shot at this medium format thing. Of course this time around forsaking the film world for that of the large-scale digital sensor genre. As I think back now, I remember the disappointment when I developed my first couple of rolls of medium format film. I didn’t get anywhere near the stellar results that I hoped to get. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was getting stellar results from my 35mm film efforts either. I guess I just expected the medium format experience to be something magical, maybe this time it will be.
Let’s step back a little bit, as the digital imaging world began to come of age; I wholeheartedly embraced the technology and all that it had to offer. As an IT professional, digital imaging just made sense to me, and I immediately related to the mathematical nature that is the basis of digital photography. Along the way, as I worked with one digital camera after another, I often thought about what it would be like to capture medium format images digitally. While print size drives this thought process, anyone who is familiar with the medium format world will tell you that typically the glass and optics are superior in these systems as well. Couple this with a heightened sense of composition and you have an artistic bend itching to get out.
Unfortunately, this thought process comes with a downside in the form of expensive medium format digital bodies. It is not unusual to see a medium format digital camera body in the $50,000 to $100,000 price range. No matter how professional I might have thought I was then or now, it is tough to justify that amount of coin. The advent of the Hasselblad X1D-50c seriously changes that equation, because along comes a medium format digital camera in roughly the $10,000 ballpark. Now that’s not cheap by anybody’s yardstick, but it is indeed more attainable than a $50,000 version. Its introduction into the marketplace has had me seriously thinking for quite some time.
So let’s get past my shortcomings in composition and my underfunded gear budget and look at the object of this articles’ medium format obsession. I am indeed fortunate to have at my disposal, at least for two weeks, a Hasselblad X1D-50c medium format camera body, along with two Hasselblad X series lenses. The timing couldn’t be any more perfect as I am about to embark on my annual Southwest Landscape Tour.
The annual Southwest Landscape Tour provides an approximately 12-day loop of some of the most iconic national parks in the American Southwest, including such wonders as Zion National Park, the Antelope Canyons, along with Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Surely an ideal place to take this camera for a spin and test not only its abilities but my approach to medium format composition.
Meet The Camera:
Hasselblad has ingeniously merged two cutting-edge technologies into a compact chassis, being the first manufacturer to place a medium format digital sensor into a mirrorless camera body. Utilizing a mirrorless approach to the design, Hasselblad has been able to markedly cut down on the overall footprint of the camera itself, as well as allow for more compact lens designs. Indeed the camera itself is smaller than most typical 35mm digital SLR bodies. The body itself is sleek and elegant, with minimal controls, ergonomically placed, and the lenses that I tested are another study in minimalism. Low-profile and functional seem to have been the watchwords that the designers followed in crafting this camera system. The body, milled from a solid block of aluminum, feels solid and well formed in one’s hand. It doesn’t take long to become comfortable working the controls, and it seems that this camera just wants to be out shooting in the field.
The body touts a 50 megapixel CMOS sensor encompassing 8,272 x 6,200 pixels, covering a footprint of 43.8 mm wide by 32.9 mm in height. The camera is capable of shooting stills in the TIF, JPEG and proprietary 3FR raw formats. Additionally, video can be shot in high definition at 1920 x 1080P, at 25 frames per second. The camera supports a range of ISOs from 100 to 25,600. Features 16-bit image files, with a dynamic range of up to 14 stops of light, utilizing the Hasselblad Natural Color Solution color management system. Shutter speeds of up to 1/2000 of a second and down to 60 minutes in length are available in the camera. The camera features autofocus metering via contrast detection with an instant manual focus override mode. Exposure metering supports center-spot, center-weighted and spot metering modes. The camera is capable of shooting images in the 1.72 to 2.3 frames per second range.
Below is an inventory of the camera’s specifications as listed by Hasselblad:
- Sensor: 51.4 MP, 5.3µ pixel size
- Sensor Size: 43.8 x 32.9mm
- Resolution: 8272 x 6200
- Native ISO Sensitivity: 100-25,600
- Weather Sealing/Protection: Yes
- Leaf Shutter: 60 minutes to 1/2000
- Storage: 2x SD slots (UHS-I only)
- Viewfinder: 2.36MP XGA Electronic Viewfinder
- Speed: 2.3 FPS
- Built-in Flash: No
- Autofocus System: Autofocus metering via contrast detection; Instant manual focus override
- Autofocus Points: 35
- Focus Modes: AF-S and Manual Only
- LCD Screen: 3.0 inch TFT type, 24 bit color, 920K pixels
- Touch Functionality: Yes
- Battery Type: Rechargeable Li-ion battery (7.2 VDC/3200 mAh)
- WiFi: Yes
- GPS: Yes (must be mounted on the hot shoe)
- USB Standard: 3.0
- Weight: 725g (Camera Body and Li-ion battery)
- Dimensions: 150 x 98 x 71 mm
- Price: $8,999 MSRP
About Sensors And Sensor Size:
The Hasselblad X1D-50c has more resolution than the highest resolution full-frame camera on the market, with the Canon 5DS and 5DSR offering a nearly equal resolution. However resolution alone does not speak to image quality, sensor size plays a huge role in the equation with physically larger sized sensors offering reduced noise and potentially increased dynamic range. Given this, the expectation is that the Hasselblad X1D-50c should easily beat image quality when stacked up against the current 35mm full frame offerings.
Where as the terms “APS-C” and “Full-Frame” speak to specific sensor sizes, this is not the case in the medium format marketplace. As you can see above, even Hasselblad offers more than one choice of “medium-format” sensor, with sizes varying with the model of camera. As one selects a camera that includes these larger sensors, consider the value proposition that’s attached to each of the different sized sensor offerings. Given that moving up to the largest medium format sensor, carries the largest increase in price, the “smaller” medium format sensor, offered in the X1D-50c may offer just the right ratio of size increase to upgrade cost. One might want to think of the Hasselblad X1D-50c as the “crop-sensor” offering in the digital medium format marketplace.
Of course my primary interest was in the composition of the medium format sensor size, as the increased image space and the alternate aspect ratio were both very appealing to me. However as I read the specifications for the camera, the 14 stop dynamic range leapt out at me. As your photography advances you become more adept at managing range issues, either in selective exposure compensation (wherein you live with the existing light), supplemental lighting (where you compress range with additional light in a layer), or by shooting HDR sequences (essentially making sure that you have a cross section of lighting amounts in your collection of shots). A camera with an increased dynamic range allows for more shooting opportunities in a wider range of available light. I am not opposed to HDR, when it’s done correctly, but getting an image in a single frame is always preferable, at least to me. This camera promises to widen that range of possibilities.
The body has some weight to it, not so much that it feels heavy, but enough that you know that it is a solid build. The hand grip is well formed and feels very comfortable, even in my big hands.
The front of this camera is simplicity itself, with subtle and well-placed controls. There is, of course, the ubiquitous command wheel, lens release, and what Hasselblad refers to as the “Stop Down Button” to enable depth of field preview. Looking at the top of the camera, you find the expected hot shoe, a toggle button for Manual/Automatic focus, a combined ISO/White Balance button, and the shutter release. You’ll also find the Exposure Mode dial (which is capable of protruding above the body or being depressed again, level with the top of the body), and last but not least a power button. Each of these buttons is minimal in design, simple in operation, and ergonomically placed.
The back of the camera is another study in minimalism and functional design, with simple buttons for AE-L (Auto-Exposure Lock), AF-D (Autofocus Drive), and the rear command wheel. Additionally, the rear of the camera features a 3.0” TFT touchscreen display, which serves as both a live view monitor and comprehensive camera control system interface.
One of the things that I had heard early on, was complaints about the quality of the included instruction manual. Various social media channels had numerous threads where people were complaining about the clarity and content of the book. In my short time using this camera, I find those comments somewhat ironic considering the ease with which the camera can be mastered.
For anyone who is familiar with the general controls of a modern day digital slr, this camera is straightforward enough to pick up and use almost immediately. The controls are laid out in a logical, no-nonsense fashion. It takes very little time to understand the operation of the mode dial, the included front, and rear command wheels, and the notion of exposure compensation as the camera offers it. Within less than a couple of minutes, I was comfortable and ready to begin shooting.
As one would expect the front and rear command dials have behaviors that are dependent upon the selected exposure mode. The command dials readily switch between aperture control, shutter speed control, and exposure compensation, dependent upon the exposure mode chosen. As the command dials modify exposure settings, the display screens do an excellent job of offering simulated exposures to the user.
I was lucky enough to sample two lenses while testing this camera, a Hasselblad XCD 45mm f/3.5, and a Hasselblad XCD 90mm f/3.2. I found the design of both lenses to be simple and functional, with clean lines and nicely compact in size. Each lens offered a snugly fitting metal lens hood that was simple to mount in either the forward position for field use, or reversed for ease of storage.
When the X1D-50c first came out, the system was limited to two (2) lenses and a H series lense adapter. As of this writing Hasselblad now has four (4) lenses available:
- Hasselblad XCD 30mm f/3.5 Lens
- Hasselblad XCD 45mm f/3.5 Lens
- Hasselblad XCD 90mm f/3.2 Lens
- Hasselblad XCD 120mm f/3.5 Macro Lens
And commitments to manufacture and release these models within the 2018 calendar year:
- Hasselblad XCD 21mm f/4.0
- Hasselblad XCD 35-75mm f/3.5-4.5
- Hasselblad XCD 65mm f/2.8
- Hasselblad XCD 80mm f/2.8
- Hasselblad XCD 135mm f/2.8 Lens (w/ 1.7x tele-converter, 230mm f/4.8)
Autofocus with this camera is predictable, mostly because it uses contrast-detection autofocus only. It’s not setting any land speed records, but then you wouldn’t expect it to. This is not a sports or high speed camera, nor was it designed as one. It focuses as you would expect most medium format systems to focus, a little slower than it’s full-frame digital brethren. Where it does score some extra points, is it is faster than expected and this is in all likelihood due to the smaller size and design of the XCD lenses. Score another point for mirrorless technology.
There is the expected hunting when contrast falls off or when a smaller subject is placed in front of a larger scene. There is the predictable focus past and lock onto subjects as contrast detection is confirmed. But once lock-on has been achieved, focus is accurate and works consistently.
One thing worth noting, the focusing ring on any XCD lens, at least to date, communicates focus changes to the camera, the camera subsequently communicates those changes to the motor in the lens. This creates a discernible lag between ring movement and lens adjustment, and while this can be a bit disconcerting, it can also be used to your benefit along with the camera’s built in feature to allow you to override the autofocus system at any time with a lens ring adjustment.
So here we are, finally arriving at the crux of the matter, the high resolution, larger pixel results. This is probably the ideal time to consider what all this technology and added expense is buying us. It really comes down to this, these are images that are destined to become large format output. The inherent quality of the medium format image, in terms of greater color, increased dynamic range and superlative resolution, looks compelling in large format print.
The X1D-50c performs above and beyond in this regard, with the lack of mirror movement and reduced shutter vibration offering captures that are tack sharp, even at lower than expected shutter speeds. If you are drawing battle lines based on resolution comparisons alone, that’s a hard number to succinctly beat, especially in today’s ever increasing resolution war. However, if you look beyond resolution and measure recovery of details in the shadows and highlights, improved color tonality throughout the spectrum, and the readily apparent increase in dynamic range, than these images are delivering impressive results that no full-frame sensor can currently achieve.
When I am editing files, especially at 100% resolution, I am seeing details in the highlights that my other full frame cameras can’t match. I am not going to see these results in my online posts, but when ink hits paper I will have depth, tonality and color that is hard to beat.
One other area, worth noting, is the ISO performance of the sensor in this camera. Employing CMOS technology allows this camera to shoot at higher ISOs than one would have likely used in the past, without an increase in sensor noise. Additionally the CMOS sensor technology is allowing for longer native shutter speeds, in this case upto 60 minutes, when compared to previous CCD technology. Landscape and in particular long exposure photography addicts should rejoice.
Things I Liked:
- Very portable for a medium format camera
- Much lighter than expected for a medium format camera
- Amazing design and build quality
- Fantastic ergonomics
- Outstanding image quality
- Outstanding dynamic range handling
- Things I Would Like To See Improved:
- Would like to see a joystick for AF point selection, perhaps on the rear display
- Would love to see improvement in AF selection speed
- Improve camera startup time
- Improve battery life, though I have seen worse…
The Hasselblad X1D-50c offers impressive image quality in a compact, extremely well designed and crafted package. The growing lens selection offers extremely high quality lenses, coupled with flash synced shutter speeds, in yet again compact, well designed forms. Many will consider this the ideal medium format system for use in travel photography, I know I certainly think of if that way.
I observed minor quirks in operation and system interface, but then firmware upgrades were quickly offered that addressed these issues. I suspect that as the firmware stabilizes, operational issues will mostly fade away. Hasselblad has made an obvious commitment to maturing the hardware, software and lens offerings that make up this system.
As I look to create more and more display pieces, of my fine art landscape and abstract imagery, I can already see that I would like most of the image collateral for those displays to come from this camera.
Oh hey, one last thing, the medium format experience is now exactly where I hoped it would be…