My fascination with medium-format digital photography began in 2010 when I began my journey by buying a used Hasselblad H4D-50 from an online estate sale. I had read about the advantages (and disadvantages) of medium format over 35mm, researched the available cameras, and watched from a safe distance until a good buying opportunity presented itself. The market was thin and the camera options were expensive and somewhat eclectic. Nonetheless, my obsessive technical curiosity and preference for hands-on learning pushed me over the edge. The H4D was an excellent first step and led me down a sometimes circuitous and always expensive path:
- Hasselblad H4D-50 – Start of the journey
- Hasselblad H4D-40
- Phase One IQ180 digital back with DF
- Phase One IQ180 digital back with Alpa and Cambo technical cameras
- Leica S2
- Leica S Type 006
- Pentax 645Z – End of the journey?
The common denominators were cost, size and, with the exception of the two tech cams, a reflex mirror. A reflex mirror brings with it varying degrees of vibration introduced by mirror “slap” when the shutter is triggered. They were large, chunky and heavy, requiring a tripod for consistently sharp results. And each was expensive, ranging from $7,000 to $43,000 brand new, not including a lens kit.
I gave up on medium format in early 2016 and centered my photography on the Sony a7RII. The Sony is lightweight, full-frame 35mm, 42 megapixels and mirrorless. It’s easy to hand hold and produces excellent image quality even in low light. For me, perhaps the most important advantage that the mirrorless Sony had over the medium format category of cameras (and traditional 35mm DSLRs) was its EVF (electronic viewfinder) and Live View, giving me the ability to focus accurately manually or to check focus precisely when using AF. Anyone with presbyopia appreciates the advantages of mirrorless – using an EVF, Live View, and focus aids like focus peaking.
My relationship with the Sony is…hmmm…complicated. I love the mirrorless advantages that I’ve mentioned as well as the camera body’s light weight. I dislike the complex Byzantine menu tree. I dislike the myriad of buttons, dials and wheels and their minuscule and varied sizes. I dislike the lack of a consistent lens design standard that would make using different lenses less of a re-learning experience. I love the camera’s performance in low light (using high ISO with little to no noise) and IBIS. And with a 42MP file, there’s plenty of room to crop and still have enough remaining pixels to print relatively large. Like I said…complicated.
But the dream of medium format remained.
The Plot Thickens
Then magic happened. On June 22, 2016, Hasselblad announced the introduction of the X1D-50c, the world’s first mirrorless medium format camera. Using the terms “groundbreaking” and “game changer”, Hasselblad proudly described the camera as compact and lightweight. Using the same Sony-manufactured 50-megapixel sensor as the Pentax 645Z and weighing in at only 725gm (only 100gm more than the much beloved Nikon D810 35mm DSLR that I had previously used), the X1D promised to be my dream medium format camera.
Taking a closer look, key features (full data sheet here) in the announcement that caught my eye:
- Large 50MP CMOS medium format sensor delivering up to 14 stops of dynamic range
- New line of XCD lenses with integral central shutter; 45mm and 90mm available at launch
- High quality XGA electronic viewfinder or high resolution rear display with touch functionality
- Wide range of shutter speeds: 60 minutes to 1/2000th sec. with full flash synchronisation throughout the range
- An ISO range from 100 to 25,600
- Dual SD card slots, GPS and Wi-Fi
- Weather and dust sealed
- Adobe Photoshop® and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom® compatible
I’ve highlighted the EVF feature for a reason. Having used a mirrorless 35mm camera for almost two years, I was sold on the advantages of an EVF over an OVF (optical viewfinder) for composition, focusing, and image review. The 2.36MP EVF of the X1D has the same resolution as that of the a7RII and that worked well for me.
The physical size alone (compared to the 645Z) was compelling.
At half the weight and just over half the depth (excluding lens), the X1D appeared to be a medium format camera that I could use like a DSLR but with the advantages of an EVF, Live View and no mirror vibration. Theoretically that meant that I could walk around with the camera and, in good light, not need a tripod. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!
Soon after the initial announcement, on September 19, 2016, Hasselblad announced the X1D 4116 Edition along with a third lens, the XCD 30mm f/3.5 (equivalent to 24mm in 35mm film terms).
I placed my order and the long wait began.
Fast forward to February 2017. This is without a doubt the most beautiful camera I’ve ever used. The industrial design is elegant, yet highly functional. Every curve, button, wheel and dial (only one – the Mode or “PSAM” dial on top) is optimally sized, shaped and positioned. The PSAM dial pops up when pressed and normally recedes into the top surface and locks to prevent accidental changes to its setting. The front and rear scroll wheels are well placed for thumb and forefinger when gripping the camera and don’t protrude excessively. The rear buttons, both those near the top and the five on the right side of the rear LCD, are right-sized and well positioned. When I first picked up the camera, I was immediately aware of how solid it felt. Heavier than I expected from looking at its thin profile, but not excessively so. It feels balanced in the hand with any of the XCD lenses mounted. The grip is deep and…well…”grippy”, made of a material that makes hand holding the X1D a joy. Borrowing another user’s observation, the camera “falls to the hand” better than any medium format or DSLR or mirrorless camera I’ve owned.
I have an increased appreciation for simplicity in cameras, preferring fewer buttons, wheels, dials and other UI gizmos. Many of my previous cameras (and my current 35mm camera, the Sony a7RII) were the antitheses of simplicity. The Nikon D810 and my earlier Nikon DSLRs required (for me) comprehensive after-market manuals just to figure out how to use the darn things. With the X1D, Hasselblad has come really close to hitting the nail on the head.
The Main Menu is simple and represented by icons on the rear Touch Display. There’s [usually] no need for a manual. For anyone familiar with a smartphone, the operation is intuitive. Finger gestures – touch, double tap, swipe, pinch – control the settings and operation.
The menu tree is one layer deep. Touching the Storage icon brings up all of the options for using the two SD card slots including formatting either card. One touch of the AF icon allows you to set options for MF Assist (Focus Peaking, Auto Zoom or None), Peaking Color, Reset Focus Point, and AF Assist Light. Each setting can be changed by touching the setting and selecting its value from a dropdown list. Icons for frequently used settings can be added to the Main Menu and less frequently used icons can be removed. I’ve added the Self Timer icon to the Main Menu display because I use that feature for triggering exposures when operating from a tripod.
Viewing or changing shooting settings using the rear LCD touchscreen is a marvel of simplicity, with each camera setting being shown in what I refer to as a geriatric-sized font on the Control Screen. The Control Screen itself is accessed by swiping down from the top and hidden by swiping up. Shooting settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure bias, white balance, exposure mode, metering method, drive mode, etc.) can be changed just by touching the setting and selecting the new value from a dropdown menu.
For example, when in Aperture Priority mode, to change the aperture using the rear LCD, I can touch the aperture setting and select the new setting from the list that’s displayed. Touching the new value selects it. The working aperture can also be changed using the scroll wheel or with the “soft buttons” on the right side of the rear LCD. The soft buttons serve different purposes depending upon whether you’re shooting or browsing images.
Browsing images works just as it does on a smartphone. A quick swipe of the finger moves to the next or previous image. Double tapping zooms to 100% allowing sharpness to be judged. Pinching with two fingers to zoom in or zoom out is perfect for examining a specific portion of the image being reviewed. I do a lot of “chimping” after shooting – evaluating sharpness and depth of field, studying histograms, and judging compositions – and the touch screen worked perfectly for that purpose. The only thing I missed was not being able to do image review using the EVF. In bright sun, being restricted to using just the rear LCD is difficult without the use a loupe.
Moving the AF point is done using the front and rear scroll wheels. It took me a few minutes and some practice to learn this process. It’s tedious but not difficult and I’d certainly prefer a joystick. After some use and muscle memory, the scroll wheel routine worked for my landscape work. I typically focus and recompose anyway, unless I’m working from a tripod.
Each of the XCD lenses has been designed to match the the camera body size and design. The size and weight of each lens balances well with the body, making the combo easy to hold while shooting without a tripod. Having enjoyed Hasselblad HC and HCD lenses with the H4D cameras, I expected the XCD lenses to be sharp and well corrected. Indeed they are. As of the date of this article, Adobe has not updated Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw with lens profiles for the three XCD lenses. However, I’ve found that they’re barely necessary. I haven’t encountered signs of purple fringing, and the very minor vignetting and distortion is easily corrected in processing.
In the Field
Cameras are tools, not museum pieces. Or so I’m told. This particular camera could easily be displayed in a glass case in a museum and get rave reviews just for its design. But using the X1D in the field is what I waited months to do (although admittedly I’m tempted to simply stare at it). Most of my early use would necessarily be close to home since I wanted to become familiar with the camera (and have a spare battery or two) before taking a significant photo road trip. Since I was curious about the camera’s versatility compared to the previous medium format cameras that I had used, I chose not to carry a tripod in my close-to-home excursions.
I had anticipated that the image quality, dynamic range, color rendering, micro contrast, and resolution of the X1D would match or exceed that of the Pentax 645Z which shares the same 50MP Sony sensor. Hasselblad didn’t disappoint. The color is spot on. So much so that, in processing, I’ve rarely had to adjust the white balance or create a unique color profile. The colors are not over-the-top vivid as has been the case with some cameras that use Sony sensors. At base ISO 100, the shadow detail is outstanding and, if I’m reasonably careful with exposure (no live histogram), it’s very difficult to blow the highlights. Those highlights that appear to be blown when reviewing them on the rear LCD have had lots of retrievable detail when processed, and in some cases have been underexposed. In other words, the dynamic range of the X1D is as advertised. Note to self – expose to the right.
I’m a stickler for sharp detail in landscape images. Some would say obsessed. I typically shoot at f/8 to as high as f/16 to maximize depth of field and have everything from foreground to background in focus. Yes, I know that diffraction degrades sharpness to some extent beyond the f/5.6 “sweet spot”, and take that into account when shooting and processing.
This is a good example of a photo I probably could not have captured with my earlier medium format cameras. I had driven to nearby Yates Mill, my go-to spot for camera and lens testing. The conditions were perfect after a storm had passed, leaving dramatic clouds, muted sunlight and relative calm. This was one of my first outings with the X1D and I was excited. When I spotted the red canoe on the opposite side of the pond from where I stood, and sensing a “Hasselblad moment”, I walked quickly around to get closer and find an opening between the trees. There was no room for a tripod and I didn’t have one anyway. There was barely a safe spot to stand without sinking into the wet marshy bank or slipping on a slick log. No worries. I leaned in and captured a few images before the canoe drifted away. In that instance, I proved to myself that I could shoot the X1D like a 35mm DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Autofocus speed is acceptable. Not blazingly fast, but consistent with what I’ve come to expect from medium format cameras. This is not a camera that I’d use for sports and action photography. It’s more than adequate for travel and street photography. It’s ideal for landscape photography and portraiture. For the latter, I miss Eye Detect AF after using that feature with the Sony a7RII. That’s on my “wish list” for Hasselblad. Some users have reported autofocus errors, particularly with the XCD 90mm lens. However, I haven’t seen that behavior in my use so far. I’ve become so accustomed to confirming autofocus with focus peaking and a “measure twice, cut once” style of shooting that I may be masking the bug (which Hasselblad has reportedly confirmed).
Examining my early images at 100% magnification, straight out of the camera, without any sharpening, satisfied my obsession with sharpness. Edge-to-edge, corner-to-corner sharpness with the initial three XCD lenses is outstanding. Razor sharp.
I did miss being able to set the minimum shutter speed when using Auto ISO. And my outing was necessarily brief because I had only one battery and spare batteries were not yet available from US retailers.
Reality vs. Dream
The X1D isn’t a perfect camera. In fact, it’s a quirky camera. It starts up slowly, occasionally doesn’t recognize my touching the touchscreen, has an annoying blackout period when the shutter button is pressed (producing a clickety-clack-click sound), doesn’t have the battery life of the Nikon D810 or Leica S, and still has a few bugs including the dreaded lock-up.
It’s also missing some features that I either depend on or use routinely with other cameras:
- Live histogram; determining correct exposure is difficult without a live histogram in the EVF and Live View
- Distance and DOF scale; neither the lenses nor the camera have distance and/or depth of field indicators, making the determination of hyperfocal distance difficult
- More and smaller AF points; 35 is barely OK; there have been reports of AF errors with the XCD 90mm lens and wide apertures, as stated earlier
- Auto ISO in M mode allowing the user to set the aperture and shutter speed and have ISO “float”
- Review captured image (referred to as “Preview” by Hasselblad) in the EVF; reviewing on the rear LCD is difficult in bright sunlight
- Select minimum shutter speed when using Auto ISO
- EXIF information for Exposure Bias and Lens tags; the EXIF is “sparse” and doesn’t contain some essential tags
Occasionally the camera shows “No card” while I’ve been shooting for no apparent reason. In each instance, my SD card (SanDisk Extreme Pro 95MB/s 64GB) had been formatted in the camera and had been used successfully prior to (and after clearing) the “No card” indication. In order to clear the error and resume shooting, the “battery dance” – remove the battery and reinsert it – was required. I’ve had to perform the battery dance with other medium format cameras and it’s not something you want to have occur at a critical moment.
Update: Hasselblad released a firmware update v1.15.1 on May 29, 2017 to fix the “No card” error bug. According to Hasselblad, “Solves an issue with “No Card” was sometimes shown on the display even if the card was inserted.”
One feature that had been originally intended to be in-camera (per the announced specification and interviews at Photokina) – GPS – is now accomplished with a GPS accessory that is not yet available.
Update: As of June 2017, the GPS accessory is available to X1D owners who register their camera with Hasselblad.
In my opinion, most of these features and improvements can be added with firmware updates. Many are already on Hasselblad’s “to do” list, according to Ove Bengtson, Hasselblad Product Manager. I have complete confidence that the Hasselblad team in Gothenburg will continue to improve this game-changing camera.
What’s the Verdict?
Despite its quirks, the Hasselblad X1D-50c is a strong contender for my favorite camera ever, even though I’ve only used it for a few months. It’s by far the most fun camera I’ve used recently and one of the easiest to use both hand-held and on a tripod. The image quality straight out of the camera is superb, with very little processing required. Assuming Hasselblad comes through with firmware updates that fix known bugs and add missing features, my medium format journey has reached a happy place.
I’m not a Hasselblad fanboy and have been brand agnostic since my Kodak Brownie days. The combination of my engineering background and early adopter behavior has often led to expensive dead ends in my exploration of camera systems. I’m increasingly impatient and my patience was painfully tested in my wait for the X1D. At this point, I feel that my patience has been rewarded with a truly game-changing medium format camera that behaves more like a 35mm DSLR than its [pricier] medium format cousins. Hats off to Hasselblad. Continuing the metaphor, I’m looking forward to the road ahead.
Here are a few images (processed in Adobe Lightroom CC 2015.9 and Photoshop CC 2017.0.1), using each of the three lenses, to illustrate the image quality, color rendering and the camera’s versatility. All of my observations are based on camera firmware v1.15.0-6541. I don’t use Phocus, even though Phocus has lens profiles for the XCD lenses and the Adobe apps don’t (yet), and Phocus is reported to be a better RAW converter for the Hasselblad files. All of these photos were taken hand-held. Lens information was added using the LensTagger Lightroom plugin because the EXIF doesn’t contain some essential tags. Likewise, Exposure Bias is shown as “Exposure bias: N/A” for the same reason.
Since I started writing this article, Hasselblad has made two announcements that are very encouraging for the X1D, XCD lenses and Hasselblad in general. First, Hasselblad has announced four new XCD lenses – XCD 120mm Macro, XCD 35-75mm Zoom, XCD 65mm, and XCD 22mm – to complement the initial three. And Ming Thein, a highly respected photographer, creative artist and experienced venture capitalist, has been appointed Hasselblad’s Chief Strategy Officer.
Next I’ll report on my use of the X1D in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stay tuned.
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