A Photographer’s Take on the Hasselblad X1D
Update: Since the time of this writing, Hasselblad has released the X1D II.
I’m a long time Nikon user and Nikon D810 owner but this past weekend I finally experienced what digital medium format is all about. I want to share with everyone my initial impressions as well as some image examples.
As a practical way to present the comparisons in this review, I am using screen dumps from Lightroom off a Mac monitor. I know this may not be the best technical comparison. But this is a user report and the dumps are consistent because both camera shots are captured together and it is easy to see. It is a useful way to compare and contrast what I found for my friends. All processing was done in Lightroom/Photoshop. I can send the raw photos of these dumps to anyone who wants to confirm my conclusions.
Initial impression: The sensor is great but the camera is not quite fast enough for me. If you rent it, be sure to pay attention to the fact that this camera only shoots at 1.7-2.3 frames per second. However, I think the Hasselblad X1D medium format sensor is the best sensor I have personally ever seen. The quality is film-like and made my shooting experience feel rich and extraordinary. There is a quality with medium format that I’ve never really seen with full frame. It may be due to the 16 bit color and larger pixel structure and Hasselblad’s secret sauce. I don’t really know! But it felt different.
Hasselblad X1D Resolution
I made several comparative tests with my D810 with portraits and outside scenes. In taking the same shots with both the D810 and the X1D, I was surprised how well the 36 megapixel D810 held its own against the 50 megapixel X1D. I might even dare say that the D810 won slightly in sharpness and contrast over the X1D. It may be due to the perceived digital sharpness and contrast.
Grain Quality on the Hasselblad X1D
These larger pixels come with a big benefit: the pixels may be finer and their color grain more discrete. Not enough has been said in reviews about this sensor’s high ISO grain fineness and quality. It was visible to me at ISO 3200. The grain at those mid levels looks similar to film grain – the kind which I often add to a finished photo in Photoshop for texture! I think the D810 ISO grain quality at those levels is coarse. Full frame high grain is splotchy and has larger spots. That is why we all typically use a noise reducer at high ISOs. Below is a car shot from the X1D at ISO 6400 with brightness way up to see the fine grain structure. It’s that white milky view you see in the screen dump.
First Studio Test Shots with the Hasselblad X1D
I shot a quick self portrait in my office with the two cameras using the same settings.
Comparative results are inconclusive when they are viewed like this. The initial results above look surprisingly similar. I immediately thought about the cost differential (3x between the two cameras), which led to my determination to find out why the medium format quality is so favored.
Looking at the photos a bit closer I began to see differences in the processing between Nikon and Hasselblad. Above are the raw photos with no changes. The Nikon coloring is different and the Hasselblad has a pleasing skin tone. I call it a “film look”. This is what came out of the cameras – no adjustments were made. Going very much closer into the neck and T-shirt, the differences are dramatic. Color, skin tone, and handling of the blacks are quite interesting (apologies for my wrinkles)!
I went outside to confirm these differences by shooting my neighbor’s truck and the differences were dramatic to me.
In this closeup screenshot I can see less detail in the Nikon’s darker areas of the photo on the right than the X1D on the left. I would not say one is right and the other wrong, they are just different. I made no attempt to match these photographs or change anything on the files.
Test Shoots with the Hasselblad X1D
Where did all this lead me?
I have shot dozens of portraits in the studio, on the street, and in almost all venues with the possible exception of on the moon (although I did shoot Buzz Aldrin in a Zeppelin once)! I only had the X1D for a couple of days so I set up a quick studio in my office with one Paul Buff strobe and a black background. I wanted to find out if I could make a formal medium format portrait with all the feeling and look that I have seen in other people’s medium format photos. I got my neighbor Claire to pose for me with a traditional look and soft light.
The only processing I did on Claire was to remove some black wrinkles in the background and to reduce saturation by -15. I found the raw image a bit too saturated for my taste. I was quite pleased with the result of my portrait flash test. It has the medium format look I was looking for. With incredible detail at 50 megapixels I can also see a soft film wrap around. I have never been able to do this with my Nikon. Take a look at the light wrapping around the fingers. I just love it!
The second major test I wanted to make was to see if I could really see the difference in 16 bit color in daylight. Greens are always tricky to shoot and I thought I might add flash to the daylight to see how it mixed. I used my wife’s new “she shed” where she paints. There are several green tones and makes for an easy test. My friend Jan and a green plant were inside. I placed my Paul Buff x3200 outside the window of the shed to simulate sunlight coming in.
From the outside I can see a very pleasant rich color mixture of the shed, the tree, and the frog. The daylight and flash mixed very well also. It has an overall medium format look to me. Closer up, the colors held up. As I have shot thousands of Nikon shots, I know I would have gotten a much more blotchy look than what you see here with the Hasselblad.
A Few Negatives About the X1D
No camera is perfect, so here is the stuff I found:
• As soon as I got the camera home and turned it on, I heard what sounded like gears crunching — terrible. I actually rushed back to BorrowLenses to have them check on the noise. I thought I was possibly hearing a failure in the focus ring in the lens! The crunching noise lasted almost 1 second every time I pushed the shutter. No click/clack like my D810. I had an $11,000 Amex charge pending – yikes! The BorrowLenses engineer smiled and assured me all was well. Still, I called my other friend who owns 2 Hasselblads and who listened to the noise on Skype and agreed it sounded awful. But it doesn’t appear to be abnormal and it didn’t affect my shots.
• This mirrorless camera is not a quiet camera! But I guess it is a leaf lens (a Central Lens Shutter lens, to be exact), thus the noise, and I am glad it can shoot up to 1/2000th a second with flash. I’ll accept the noise. It reminds me of my first Cortina I had in 1970, which only had 3 gears, but I digress.
• Perhaps my biggest disappointment was in trying to take the camera out for street photography. I’ve gotten quite proficient at shooting the D810 out in the field as a street photography camera so as long as I shoot at 1/1000th of a second to compensate for my not-so-stable handholding. I cannot shoot more than 1 shot at a time with the X1D out in the field. The camera’s slow FPS just doesn’t work for me for street shooting. It can shoot more than 1 frame a second but you cannot see what the camera is doing. The EVF shuts down and you have to wait for the struggling processor to flush and open the EVF for reengaging. Just as an FYI, I used a 95 mb/s card. I spent a lot of time looking for a shortcut on this and there isn’t any that I could find. Furthermore, the focusing times are slower than Nikon, though acceptable. I tried to fool the camera with close and narrow real-world focusing directions and the X1D does not have the same tools as a DSLR to deal with these subtleties. This is part of the philosophy to keep the camera simple and clean. Fair enough. I do love the fact that the camera has a clean look with very few menus! Can I readjust my street shooting style to no longer shoot in successive decisive moments? Rather, should I plan a shot and be content with one quality photograph instead of several possibly mediocre ones? Every camera has its purpose. I am still not sure if I am there yet with the X1D.
• The LCD screen on the back seemed greenish — at least as compared to the D810. It wasn’t as pleasing to look at. The navigation for picture review is fine and there are some nice zoom features. I could not find a way to delete multiple pictures. It was either just one at a time or re-format the card.
• The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is not as good as some of the other mirrorless cameras I have used. But it’s not awful. The EVF fonts are light and small and not easy to see with glasses on. The EVF turning off after every shot made me impatient and I pressed the shutter again guessing at composition and focus to get a second shot. It takes the shot but, hey, $12k and I am guessing at my shots — hmmm. Again, shooting philosophy and style.
• Hasselblad has this ridiculous setting called Mq, which turns off the EVF and Live View to save memory and shoot faster. I’ve read to use this when on a tripod. I don’t think that is going to be a logical feature. It sounds more like an engineer’s answer to a problem they can’t solve.
• Card slots are on the top right and the slot door butted up to the camera strap when I opened the door. Simply a poor design but not the end the world. Battery life is much less than the D810’s due to Live View.
• Remote Apple Phocus app worked OK. No instructions to be found describing the app buttons. I needed to know because the crunching noise was different when I used the app shutter than pressing the shutter manually so I did not know what was going on.
• I have no idea how we are going to keep a medium format sensor that is so close to the opening clean when swapping lenses. The sensor is enormous and right there when you open the body cap. It is going to get dirty so easily. There is no mirror to protect it, of course, being a mirrorless camera. Just a maintenance concern I have.
• Finally, Hasselblad’s poor response on delivery has frankly discouraged me since I placed my order last July. I wrote them recently asking for an update on the zoom and they ignored my email.
A Few Positives About the X1D
OK, back to the good stuff:
• My first major surprise was that I was able to shoot consistently sharp photographs at 1/250th of a second with this 50 megapixel camera. I have personally not been able to do that for a long time. I shoot my D810 at 1/1000th of a second to be safe. Yes, I can shoot my D810 at 1/250th of a second but not on a quick draw! With the X1D I can! Well, for one shot – then some waiting to take the next.
• Hurray for mirrorless! I shoot through the viewfinder of my D810 while using all the dials and buttons without taking my eyes off the subject or looking at the dials. I can do that as well with the X1D. But I found my Nikon muscle memory morphing. I began to use settings on the X1D’s large touchscreen LCD dials and fonts instead of the physical dials because I found it faster to touch the screen and scroll than dial through and look for the small indicators in the EVF. Remember, I was waiting for the EVF to come back to life before I could do any prep work on the next shot so I looked at the LCD screen a lot. The back touchscreen is an easy learn, similar to a large smartphone. I can imagine myself not using the dials as much in the future.
• I didn’t find any focus peaking (no zebra pattern) but there is a zoom focus in both shooting and review modes. The shooting zoom focus is triggered by merely touching the manual focus. I loved it. It zoomed right in and then when I lifted my finger it went back to normal view. Very clean and professional. I could keep the camera on autofocus and use the zoom focus to verify sharpness – nice!
How Good is the Hasselblad XCD 45mm f/3.5 Lens?
Briefly addressing lens quality: I never go over f/8 with my Nikon lenses because of diffraction but can I on the new Hasselblad lenses? The corners of Hasselblad lenses are legendary and supposedly have little fall off in sharpness and density. I took a couple of shots at f/4 and then stopped all the way down to f/32. I also took a shot at ISO 6400 at f/32 and one at ISO 200. The sharpness is there. There was a slight shift in the density. I’ve never seen anything like this before. And the grain was OK, too!
Almost everything else has been written about this camera in the trades, so I won’t repeat it here. I had to give the camera up on day three so my fun stopped here. I am in love with this sensor. But I want to be able to shoot a few shots without the EVF shutting down. Luck is on my side: the Fuji GFX 50S Medium Format camera is coming out very soon! It has the SAME sensor, YES (both based on a Sony 50 megapixel CMOS sensor)! Yup, I cancelled my order placed with Hasselblad (gulp)…Fuji, can you match this? If Fuji can handle the EVF better and the quality is there…well, I’ll be trying one out next week and will let you know!