Hasselblad X1D Review

art basel May 27, 2018

Hands On with the Hasselblad X1D

In 2016, Hasselblad rocked the world of photography with the introduction of the Hasselblad X1D-50C, the world’s first Medium Format Mirrorless camera. Unlike its older siblings in the H-series and other medium format digital cameras, the X1D is downright petite. Even now, at the beginning of 2018, it is still the smallest medium format digital camera in the market.

X1D in the hand

X1D Size 1

X1D Size 2

X1D Size 3

Having such a small camera body with a medium format sensor opens up this type of camera to areas that were previously not its forte. Street Photography and Photojournalism, which generally require smaller cameras that are capable of maintaining certain levels of discretion, are not outside the realm of possibility with the Hasselblad X1D.

Disclosure: Hasselblad provided me access to an X1D and two lenses free of charge. I am under no obligation to Hasselblad to report favorably on their product. However, I will endeavor to report fairly and evenly based on my experiences in the short two weeks I had the camera in my possession.

Build and Ergonomics

Much has been written about the design, build and ergonomics of this camera. It is all true. The camera is solid in the hand like holding finely milled metal. What initially looks like an overly large grip (needed to accomodate the battery) is actually surprisingly comfortable.

While solidly built, it is not heavy in the hand. Sporting a larger than 35mm sized sensor, its lenses are by necessity large as well. All metal constuction on the lenses adds to the solidity. However, through the use of Scandinavian ~~magic~~ engineering, the lenses are very well balanced when mounted on the camera.

On the back there is a 3 inch LCD touchscreen and the built-in EVF. They are both clear and easy to read.

Sensor

The X1D sports the same 50 megapixel Sony sensor used by the Hasselblad H6D-50C, the Fujifilm GFX-50S, the Phase One IQ3-50MP, and the Pentax 645Z. The similarities end there as each camera maker tweaks the firmware and software to best yeild their signature “look”. By way of analogy, this is similar to the racing sport of Formula-E. In Formula-1, engineering specs are released before the start of the season and car designers go to town. In Formula-E, everyone gets the same car. Everyone. At this point all Formula-E races are tests of driver skill and fine tuning the control software of the car.

So does this sensor make a difference?

Not having tried the other cameras I mentioned (yet), I cannot directly compare the images they produced. However, I can say that the images produced by the X1D compared to the cameras I have owned showed a high degree of post-process flexibility.

My workflow is as follows:

  1. Import images to computer using Rapid Photo Downloader. This application takes care of creating folders and renaming files based on metadata. It also writes a backup copy to my locally attached RAID-5 array.
  2. Cull and select images using darktable. This takes care of 98% of my images. In the case of the X1D files, I had to use Rawtherapee to convert the raw images into jpegs. (If you are using a KDE based environment, digikam is an excellent choice as well.)

X1D Image 1

The image above was taken in direct sunlight backlighting the girl. No flash fill in was used. The dynamic range of the camera is such that shadow details are completely preserved even while the highlights are perfectly exposed. I only had to crop the image sightly.

X1D Image 2

This image shows the 16-bit color space used by the X1D to great effect. Skin tones are very well balanced even in the shadows and the subtle colors of the tattoo on his left shoulder are clearly visible. Colors on the wall are vibrant. Again highlights are well controlled.

Pocket Nebula

I managed some studio shots for an upcoming abstract art exhibition. Here, the lighting was controlled and the leaf shutter lenses were really able to strut their stuff. Leaf shutters (also known as central shutters) are located in the lens instead of the camera body. The decision to use leaf shutters by Hasselblad is one of the reasons the X1D’s body is so tiny.

Leaf Shutters

Leaf shutters have certain advantages over focal plane shutters:

  1. Leaf shutters do not have a flash sync speed. When the leaf shutter opens even the tiniest bit, it illuminates the entire sensor. A flash can be fired at any shutter speed the camera can manage and never experience banding.
  2. Flashes can be used at any power setting. Since there is no flash sync speed, the flash’s powere level can be freely adjusted to meet the lighting conditions. Hasselblad elected to use Nikon-style flash contacts and thus the X1D can use any Nikon compatible flash. The aforementioned studio shot was accomplished with a pair of inexpensive Godox speedlights and a Nikon compatible radio trigger. Flash tricks like High Speed Sync or Hypersync were not needed.
  3. No shutter mechanism in the camera body. As I previously stated, the X1D has no internal shutter, relying exclusively on the leaf shutters in the lenses.

However, all is not beer and skittles with leaf shutters. Here are some disadvantages:

  1. Using adapted lenses can get tricky. Hasselblad’s decision to go with leaf shutters was based on their intimate knowledge of leaf shutter cameras. The entire H and V lines of cameras (with a few exceptions) were leaf shutter based. As such, adapting lenses originally required that the lenses be leaf shutter lenses. However, Hasselblad realized that one of the huge benefits of mirrorless cameras is their ability to use any legacy lens via an adapter. In order to facilitate this, Hasselblad implemented an electronic shutter via a user-installable firmware update. And, in a very Fuji-like “kaizen” kind of way, keep on adding new features to the camera via the firmware updates. Using an electronic shutter has it’s limitations as well. Panning while using longer shutter speeds (as in tracking a moving subject and wanting to blur the background) can cause the Jell-o Effect (normally seen in videos where vertical objects bend and warp while panning rapidly). YMMV.
  2. Price. Leaf shutter lenses are not cheap. Hasselblad XC lenses can set you back several thousand dollars each. Plus, there are only five lenses at the moment. Via an adapter HC lenses can be used and with a third-party adapter and electronic shutter mode, non-Hasselblad lenses can be used as well.

In Practice

Lab tests and arm-chair analysis is all well and good, but how does the camera perform in the real world? Given the small size of the X1D, I wanted to try it out in the area where medium format digital is not known to shine: street/reportage photography. To that end, I used the camera to cover Art Basel Miami 2017. I know that is not a recent event, but I was perfecting my post-processing techniques under Linux.

Helmets

The various lighting conditions I encountered were all easily handled by the wide dynamic range of the sensor. The sensor has surprisingly good low light capabilities.

Bored

Generally, this combination (large dark object surrounded by lighter objects) would cause over-exposure of the light objects. The image held together with only minimal adjustments.

Questioning Face

This image shows how well the details are preserved in the shadows. The file can be subjected to further post-processing, but I elected to keep the adjustments minor.

Clean Skin Tones

This image shows how well skin tones are preserved even under rather harsh indoor lighting. The wider color space allows for better tone management when converting to JPEG.

Conclusion

To a 35mm photographer, medium format digital can be a real eye-opener. Larger color gamut, wider dynamic range, higher resolution, unlimited flash possibilities (at least in Hasselblad’s case), and shallower depth of field just to name a few.

With the X1D, Hasselblad has managed to jam all of this in a camera body roughly the same size of a Sony A7 (albeit with much larger lenses). The camera itself is a Bauhaus work of art and quite the triumph of engineering. Well balanced with a generous hand grip, the X1D was very easy to carry around all day. The smallness of the body allowed me to photograph unbotrusively. I was asked about the camera numerous times when someone spied the logo, but beyond that, street photography was not difficult.

Where I ran into trouble initially was caused by my failing to read the fine manual prior to working with the camera. The camera’s on-screen controls behaved a bit differently than what I was used to and this lead to some slowdowns and missed opportunities. Once I slowed down and took my time, the shots came easily and the camera shined.

Would I buy this camera?

The jury is still out on that one. I cannot complain about the colors and sharpness, the camera’s solid build nor the amazing lenses. The software could be more responsive but beyond that it is amazing. The price is still a bit high for me (around 11K USD for the Black Edition). Plus I need to test the other offerings out there before I can make such a large investment.

Click here to see the entire album of photos take with the Hasselblad X1D.

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