Last December, after doing some extensive testing of various medium format digital cameras, I decided to purchase the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi camera and three lenses. As you might suspect, this wasn’t a snap decision. It was over a year in the making. I started thinking about medium format cameras early in 2015 when I worked with Andrew Eccles, a top-end, world famous portrait photographer and a good friend. In my ever expanding effort to push the limits of photography, I am always looking for new tools to give me an edge. Whether it is new technology from Elinchrom, like their Hi-Sync technology, or more resolution and and a different look, as is the case with this Hasselblad, whatever can give me an edge on the competition is what I am after. Once I started testing out a few different medium format rigs, I was inspired by the images I was seeing and a whole new way of working.
Of course, the gear doesn’t make a photograph. These are just tools. I haven’t given up my Nikons. I am still shooting 80% of everything I create with my Nikon D4 and D810. The Nikon D810 is currently my favorite all around camera for almost any subject–even sports. When it comes to capturing action I need wicked-fast autofocus and for that scenario the Nikons are the best option in my tool bag. The autofocus on the Hasselblad, or any other medium format camera for that matter, is pathetic by comparison. Just as with anything else, you use the right tool for the job.
Initially, when I started looking at medium format digital cameras, I wasn’t considering the Hasselblad. I was looking at the Phase One offerings since they had just come out with the Phase One XF, which is a modern, updated version of the Mamiya 645 cameras the older Phase One’s were modeled after. With touch screens and a squared-off look the XF seemed like the best camera out there in this format. I had used the older Phase One DF+ years ago and was not impressed at all by that camera. The autofocus was pretty much unusable on the DF+. When I test out the Phase One XF, I was underwhelmed by the touch screens and the autofocus seemed even worse than it was on the DF+. By comparison, the Hasselblad H5D seemed more old school in terms of the push button layout but ultimately it was and is a much more usable camera. I’ll get into the details on that statement here later in the review.
Here in this review, I will first discuss why I decided to purchase a medium format digital camera. I realize that will be the biggest question most folks reading this review will have right off the batt. Then I will offer up my thoughts on the H5D 50c WiFi. Last, I will offer up the reasons I chose the H5D over everything else out there. As already noted, no one buys a camera in this price range without testing out the competition. For a comparison of the Hasselblad H5D 50C WiFi and the Phase One XF with the IQ350 back follow this link.
Why go with a medium format digital camera?
When I published the Winter 2016 issue of my Newsletter, I mentioned in the opening editorial that I had purchased a Hasselblad H5D. Within hours of sending out that Newsletter, I received a few calls asking why I purchased such an expensive camera and also what it does that my Nikons can’t? I can understand the reaction. I had the same reaction to medium format cameras years ago when I shot with that Phase One DF+ mentioned above. Over the last year, and while testing out medium format cameras there were several factors that made me seriously consider such a camera system.
First, whether you are shooting on medium format film or digital the larger sensor size gives a different look to the images. In part, this is because there is significantly less depth of field with this format than with 35mm DSLR sensors. The larger sensor of a medium format camera creates a more isolating look when shooting portraits or anytime you are using a large aperture. This is not to be understated. Medium format has a certain look that is quite different. I realize that only a small percentage of clients and everyone else will be able to see that difference, but for those that can or even if they can’t, it will make people look at the image just that much longer. I am already working with those clients who are discerning and are looking for the best image quality possible so this new aquisition just adds another tool I can use to keep those clients and find others like them.
Another factor is image quality. My Nikon D810, with it’s 36 MP sensor, already has phenomenal resolution and overall image quality. It uses a 14-bit sensor, which is amazing, but can’t match the 16-bit images produced by both the Hasselblad and Phase One cameras. To understand the difference between 16-bit versus 14-bit sensors requires a bit of math. A 14-bit sensor can record up to 16,384 colors per channel, which means a total of 4.39 x 10(12) possible colors. A 16-bit sensor can record up to 65,536 colors per channel, which comes out to 2.81 x 10(14) possible colors. All that math means a 16-bit sensor can capture 64 times as many colors as a 14-bit sensor. That is a huge difference. In terms of the final image, a 16-bit sensor shows many more subtle tones than an image captured with a 14-bit sensor. And this is especially noticeable with portraiture, which is why pretty much all of the top portrait photographers work with medium format digital cameras.
The new CMOS sensor in the H5D 50C WiFi (and also in the Phase One IQ350 and Pentax 645Z) offers unparalleled low noise at high ISOs. In my testing the Hasselblad H5D 50C has the best low noise of any medium format camera. In fact, ISO 6400 on the H5D 50C had similar amounts of noise as my Nikon D810 at ISO 800, which is just amazing. That makes the H5D 50C incredibly versatile when shooting handheld without a tripod in less than ideal light. I don’t hesitate to crank up the ISO on the Hasselblad. I found that the H5D 50C WiFi had significantly less noise than the Phase One IQ350. Strangely, they use the same sensor but with the IQ350 I wouldn’t shoot with it at anything above ISO 1600 whereas with the Hasselblad I find that ISO 6400 is phenomenal.
Aside from the look of the image file and the extra color information, working with a medium format camera also slows you down quite a bit. It forces you to be more intentional and thoughtful when shooting with such a large camera, and because of this it often results in higher quality images. Many medium format shooters work tethered to a computer all the time. As an adventure photographer this isn’t always possible for me but when I can shoot tethered with the Hasselblad I will. Even if I can’t shoot tethered the WiFi capabilities of the H5D 50c WiFi mean that I can use an iPad or my iPhone to check exposure and focus in the field.
On the technical side, the Hasselblad also allows me to sync strobes at shutter speeds up to 1/800th second, which allows me to darken the background considerably when shooting outdoors. It also means I can use less light output (less Watt/Seconds) to get the same effect as I would with my 35mm DSLRs. Note that with the Hasselblad when syncing the flash at 1/800th second I am not using High Speed Sync, Hypersync or Hi-Sync techniques. I am using the entire burst of flash, which makes this a more powerful option in many ways than using Hi-Sync or High Speed Sync.
Lastly, there are the lenses. When you see a digital medium format image shot with an extreme depth of field (as shown above), you’ll notice that the image is tack sharp from corner to corner. With the Hasselblad lenses, the corners are very nearly as sharp as the center of the image. This is a massive difference from 35mm lenses, which are amazingly good these days but still no match for a top-end Hasselblad or Schneider medium format lens. Even the best of the best 35mm lenses, like the Zeiss Otus lenses, are no match for medium format glass. As in the image above, the corners of this landscape image are crazy sharp. This image was shot with the Hasselblad HCD 28mm lens.
Summing up, combining the shallow depth of field, the incredible image quality, the low noise at high ISOs with the new CMOS sensor (at 50 MP), the amazing lens options, the flash sync options and how it forces you to work in a different manner all adds up to whole different ball game. These are the main reasons I purchased the Hasselblad because it allows me to take my work to the next level in terms of image quality and it also opens up doors to images I couldn’t produce with any other system.
Does your camera inspire you?
There is another reason I purchased the Hasselblad H5D setup, and that is the inspiration it provides. I know this may sound a bit strange, but every time I have shot with a medium format camera throughout my career, they have inspired me to work harder to create more interesting images. That doesn’t mean I am not inspired to create amazing images with my Nikons, but that inspiration is more a matter of hard work to further my career. There is something about pulling out this camera that makes me feel like a fine craftsman using top-end tools to create art rather than just images. Perhaps it is because I forked over a boat load of cash to acquire this setup. I do know that there is a little voice jumping up and down in the back of my head telling me I better get my ass out there and create something special with this camera or it will be a financial catastrophe.
This feeling of being inspired by a Hasselblad is no different than when I owned the Hasselblad 503CW, pictured above. I loved that camera. In fact, other than my old Nikon F3, it is the only camera I have sold that I wish I still owned. There is something about owning a finely tuned instrument with which to do your job or ply your craft. I am not the only one waxing poetically about Hasselblad and medium format cameras right now, if you are itching to read more on how medium format can impact your images check out Ming Thein’s recent blog post, The Switch. As I said above, I am not switching cameras systems by any means. It doesn’t make sense for my work. I have just added another tool to the camera bag that will work in certain genres like for portraiture, lifestyle, landscape and some action scenarios.
Thoughts on the H5D 50C WiFi
Without a doubt the H5D is a beautifully crafted camera. When you pick it up everything about it oozes high-quality craftsmanship. This thing is pretty much a sculpted chunk of metal. Even the lenses are encased in a metal barrel and have modern looking rubber focusing collars. It is a solid feeling camera, and a hefty one at that, but such is the case with medium format cameras in general. About the only thing that looks a bit old school is the LCD on the digital back.
I will also say that when you pull this thing out on an assignment, there is a certain reaction you get. Most people are fascinated by the size and bulk of the camera because it is so much different than anything they have ever seen. The camera makes an impression. While that may be hard to quantify, this effect is not to be understated. Of course, if you can’t make amazing images with the camera then all of that becomes moot. I will say that the images shown here in this blog post are nothing special. I have only had the camera a month and have not had a lot of opportunities to shoot with it just yet and the best images I have shot with it so far are under embargo by the client. Stay tuned for more images from the Hasselblad.
The rubberized camera grip, which also doubles as the battery, is perfectly sculpted and feels comfortable in the hand. I love that there is a ledge for the top of your forefinger to rest against on the upper front part of the grip. This ledge helps to form a secure grip on the camera. I have added a Peak Designs “Clutch” hand strap to the camera, which makes the grip even more secure. I found the H5D to be the most ergonomic and comfortable medium format camera that I tested.
I realize that the H5D is a bit long in the tooth since it was introduced about two years ago. This has allowed Hasselblad to figure out a lot of the issues with the camera so that it is now robust and reliable. The H series Hasselblad cameras have been around for a long time, and they have been greatly refined with every iteration. Having shot a with a few of the prior generations, including the H3D, the H5D feels more solidly built and better thought out than any previous model that I have used.
I realize that 50 MP is not the wildly high resolution that it used to be since the Nikon D810, Sony A7rII and the Canon 5DSr came along. Nevertheless, 50 MP is still a huge amount of resolution and is more than enough for any assignment. I would be very surprised if Hasselblad didn’t release an H6D using the new 100 MP CMOS Sony sensor within the next 6 months or so, but with that said, I don’t feel like I will be missing out. Sure, 100 MP sounds great but that sensor will not have the same low noise at high ISOs like this 50 MP CMOS sensor and along with 100 MP comes even more issues when trying to get sharp images because that sensor is twice as sensitive to camera shake. All that is to say that I will be plenty happy with the H5D 50C WiFi for quite some time to come.
The autofocus on the H5D is also far better and more accurate than any other system I have tried out. That doesn’t mean it is crazy fast but it is faster and more accurate than the competition. There is only one focus point in the center of the frame–as is the case with every medium format digital camera. Hence, if you want the subject off center you have to focus and recompose. The problem with the focus and recompose technique, especially when using large apertures with medium format cameras, is that the focus distance to your original point of focus actually changes slightly when you recompose, which results in missing the focus where you want it to be. As in the diagrams below if you focus on the eye then recompose, the subjects ears be in focus but the eyes won’t because the actual distance has changed. Anyone who has ever shot with an 85mm f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens wide open on a DSLR has had to deal with this same issue.
As shown above, the True Focus technology built into the H5D body works quite well and helps us overcome the focus issues associated with the focus and recompose technique. The True Focus system works by using a yaw rate sensor and an Absolute Position Lock (APL) processor in the camera, which is able to correct for the vertical and horizontal focus shift as a result of recomposing a camera. Basically, the True Focus system recalculates the focus as you move the camera up or down or side to side to accurately adjust the point of focus selected before recomposing. In practice, it works extremely well, even when shooting wide open with a lens like the HC 100mm f/2.2. As discussed above, because medium format has even less depth of field than a 35mm DSLR, having extremely accurate autofocus is a huge deal. This factor alone might be the biggest consideration when purchasing a medium format camera. When I tested out the Phase One XF, I got only 7 images out 200 in focus using that cameras Honeybee autofocus system. With the Hasselblad I have a much higher percentage of in-focus images, up at around 80%. Usually if the image is out of focus, it’s pilot error.
[Side note: I only had one afternoon with the Phase One XF and only shot around 200 images with it. Because I had a limited time with it I didn’t test out all of the autofocus options. There may be better ways to set up that camera that would allow it to focus more accurately. I am reporting here my experience with that camera. If you have found it to be quite accurate please add a note to this review. I am not trying to bash the Phase One XF. It is a gorgeous camera. I just found the H5D to be a better fit for the way I work.]
The H5D 50C WiFi has incredible image quality. At 50 MP and with a 16-bit sensor there are very few cameras that match up to the image quality delivered by the 50 MP CMOS sensor built into this camera. In fact, I found the Phase One IQ350 image quality to be a step down from the H5D 50C in my testing. The H5D had less noise at all ISO settings and seemed sharper straight out of the camera. Of course the brand new Phase One IQ100 back, which is the first 100 MP digital camera, has more resolution than any other camera on the market and is the only digital back that can outperform the Hasselblad 50C WiFi back. As I said above, I am sure Hasselblad will be closing that gap shortly.
Above is the full image and below is a cropped section (shown in red in the image above) of the image at 100% magnification. This image was shot handheld at ISO 3200! In the image below it is very difficult to see much, if any noise. I shot this image at 1/800th second at f/11 with a Hasselblad HCD 35-90mm f/3.5-4.5 lens. That lens is wicked sharp but it is also a huge lens that is a like a boat anchor hanging off the front of the camera, which is why I shot at 1/800th second.
A huge part of why I went with the H5D was that I preferred the buttons and dials over the touch interface of the Phase One XF. I found that having a button to push was much easier to use and allowed me to change settings on the top of the camera without having to take my eye away from the viewfinder. On the Phase One XF, I found that I was inadvertently changing settings on the touch interface without even knowing it, which became rather annoying quickly. I also found that I ended up changing settings on the XF that I didn’t intend to because my finger was bigger than the icon on the touch sensitive screen.
With medium format cameras, a fast frame rate is anything more than one frame per second. The H5D 50C WiFi is no speed demon in this department. It can only shoot at 1.5 fps. That is faster than quite a number of other medium format rigs but not fast enough for motor driving along while shooting sports. Hence, how sensitive and responsive the shutter release is becomes that much more important. I found that the shutter release on the H5D had very little lag time and I could trigger the camera at just the right instant. As an adventure sports photographer that is a key feature for those times when I get one shot as the athlete passes through the frame.
As shown above, the Hasselblad system includes a wide variety of lenses and accessories. Hasselblad has the widest array of lenses of any of the medium format camera systems – though if you include some of the older Mamiya lenses then Phase One has a few longer autofocus lenses than the Hasselblad system. With lenses ranging from 24mm to 300mm, Hasselblad has a lot of lenses to choose from and because the H series lenses have been around for ten years or more, there are a lot of these available in the used market. Often the used lenses are half price, which makes adding lenses to your kit quite affordable compared to other medium format options. When I bought the H5D 50c WiFi body, I also purchased the HCD 24mm f/4.8, the HC 100mm f/2.2 and the HC 150mm f/3.2 lenses. I thought I would start out with these three lenses and then build the system from there. I am going to test out the 300mm f/4.5 and the 50-110mm f/3.5-4.5 next and then decide on those lenses after having used them for a while. On that same note, it is very easy to rent Hasselblad lenses, which is not the case with a lot of other medium format systems like Phase One or Pentax. One can also use any of the V series Hasselblad lenses, which have been made for 40-plus years now, on the H5D with the addition of the CF Lens Adapter. This opens up a few extra focal lengths like the Zeiss 30mm f/3.5 Fisheye lens and the Zeiss 350mm f/5.6. There is also the Tilt Shift Adapter and the 1.7X Teleconverter that offer even more options. All of this adds up to a very versatile system.
While there is a lot to love about the H5D there are several antiquated features that could definitely see an upgrade. The LCD on the back of the camera, as shown below (left), is ancient compared to just about any LCD you’ve seen on any other camera. It is useable for most functions but only barely so. The menu access on the digital back is rudimentary but functional. By comparison, the Phase One backs have a much better user interface and LCD. I am certain the H6D will update this feature. The LCD on the top of the grip, as shown below (right), works just fine but the text and icons are a bit pixelated.
In use, the LCD on the 50C WiFi digital back is usable in Live View and you can tell when the image is in focus if you use Live View to manually focus the lens. The LCD displays the images with a lot of contrast so the LCD is not the place to judge the tones in the image. There is also a feature where you can push a button and it zooms into 100% on the point where you focused originally (if True Focus was used). This allows you to see if the image is in focus. Using this feature I can generally tell if the image is in focus or not but for situations where I really need to know I will use the WIFi connection and check the focus on my iPhone or iPad. Of course, if you can shoot tethered to a computer, then that is the best option for making sure the image is dialed in. The LCD can also display the Histogram. I have found the autoexposure to be erratic at best. But with this level of camera I am taking my time and dialing in the exposure using both the Histogram and a handheld light meter.
While the longest shutter speed is a respectable 34 minutes, the shortest shutter speed is only 1/800th second. I’d love to see a 1/4000th second shutter speed that works with a shutter curtain (as with the Phase One XF) but since the shutter is built into the lens this isn’t an option for now on the Hasselblad. So far, I have not found the 1/800th second shutter speed to be limiting. For fast moving sports, this is the absolute minimum shutter speed I would use to stop action. Also, because the shutter is built into the lens and closes like an aperture, it offers slightly more stopping power than a curtain shutter. The key word there is slightly.
Syncing strobes at shutter speeds up to 1/800th second is more complicated than you may have realized. Most wireless transmitters, like the PocketWizard, etc. can only go up to 1/250th sec without some serious tweaking. Luckily, Elinchrom, Profoto and Broncolor all have their own transmitters that can sync with the Hasselblad H5D at up to 1/800th second. The new Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS, when set to SPEED mode, can sync with Elinchrom strobes up to 1/800th second without any issues. For this to work well you need to use strobes that have a shorter flash duration than 1/800th second, like the Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS power pack and the Action heads or the ELB400 and the Action heads. Speaking of flashes, there is also a built-in, pop-up flash on top of the H5D’s viewfinder. That seems fairly odd to me for a camera of this caliber. I don’t see myself using that ever.
I want to mention the WiFi capabilities of the H5D 50C here as well. Setting up the WiFi connection is incredibly easy. To turn on this feature simply enable it on the digital back and then go into your iPhone’s wireless settings and choose the Hasselblad WiFi. Once it is set up the Hasselblad Focus App will show all of the images that are on the card in the camera and you can browse them simply by swiping as you would any other photos normally. You can zoom in to check sharpness and even rank the images in the App. In my limited testing so far, it works incredibly well and it is a feature I will use often, even when shooting alone.
I could go on and on discussing all of the various features of the H5D, but the in the end all that matters is what I can produce with it. At this point, as I mentioned earlier, a good chunk of the images I could show in this review are still under embargo. There will certainly be more to come on that front. I love working with this camera and every time I pull it out of the bag I am inspired to create something special. Stay tuned for more images.
Reasons for going with H5D 50c:
In summing up, I will cover the main reasons I decided on the H5D 50C WiFi over everything else out there at the moment. When I purchased the camera the Phase One XF IQ100 was not announced yet, though I don’t think that would have changed my mind. There were a combination of factors that helped me make a decision, which are covered below.
- It can actually focus accurately. This is perhaps the #1 biggest reason I love the Hasselblad. Purchasing a $30,000 digital camera that can’t autofocus is like buying a Ferrari that doesn’t have a steering wheel.
- Faster and more accurate focusing than Phase One XF.
- In my testing, it has slightly better image quality than the Phase One IQ350.
- It is more reliable and won’t need to be sent back to Hasselblad for repairs two to three times a year. I spoke with a number of Phase One owners who said that they have already had to ship their XF back to Phase One to be repaired. None of the Hasselblad owners said they had ever had to ship the camera back for repairs.
- The shutter release is responsive so you can catch the decisive moment. By comparison, when I tested the Phase One XF its shutter release felt mushy and there was a noticeable delay. I am not sure if that was an issue with how it was setup but it was a serious issue.
- Hasselblad has a slightly wider selection of lenses.
- There are tons of used Hasselblad H series lenses on the market and many are available for one-third or half the cost of the new lenses. This allows me to build up my kit without going broke, especially since Hasselblad HC lenses (aside from the 80mm) range from $4,500 up to $9,000 apiece.
- I prefer the Hasselblad lenses over the Schneider lenses – they are smaller and have a nicer finish.
- One Lens in particular, the Hasselblad HC 100mm f/2.2 medium telephoto lens (as shown above), caught my eye and had me drooling. On the H5D 50C WiFi this lens is the equivalent of an 80mm f/1.0 or so in 35mm DSLR terms. It is ridiculously sharp and a perfect portrait lens. It is also the fastest medium format lens available, which makes it unique. This lens, as well as the sweet 24mm f/4.8 landscape lens that I bought with the system were two that helped seal the deal.
- The Hasselblad 3FR raw images have full support in Lightroom, which means I can continue to use it as home base for my digital workflow. Also, since Lightroom is a key part of the look and feel of my images this is a huge deal and means my digital workflow won’t have to change.
- The image quality at high ISOs is mind-blowing. Better than anything else I have seen anywhere near 50 MP, including the Phase One IQ350.
- The H5D works flawlessly with my flashes and with the Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS.
- The WiFi feature built-in to the H5D 50C WiFi a is a great asset for jobs where the art director wants to see what is coming in. I can hand them an iPad on location and they can see everything I am shooting wirelessly. This feature is also great for when I want to check sharpness and see more detail in an image on my iPhone. I wish my Nikons had this feature.
- The camera has great ergonomics and the grip is much nicer than any other medium format camera I have worked with.
- The camera is more useable without taking your eye away from the viewfinder than any other medium format digital camera I have used. I don’t accidentally change settings while shooting with the camera.
- The mirror stays up when you put it up.
- There are several places that rent Hasselblad H series lenses so getting an exotic lens to shoot with for a specific assignment isn’t that difficult.
- The full H5D 50C WiFi camera, back and a kit including five lenses ended up costing around $30,000 USD. For a similar kit from Phase One, it would have cost around $70,840 USD.
In the end, it was an easy decision to figure out which camera worked best for me and which made the most sense to purchase. The bigger issue was whether or not I should purchase a medium format digital camera or just stick with my Nikons. Only time will tell on that question. But, with such a huge investment you can be sure that I am going to put this Hasselblad to work and get seriously creative with it to make sure it pays off. Speaking of paying it off, getting access to a variety of medium format cameras to test them out is a huge process on it’s own. I’ll finish up this review detailing that process.
The Purchasing Process
I have to say that Hasselblad impressed me quite a bit when I asked to test out the H5D 50C WiFi in December. I initially contacted Samy’s Camera and they connected me with a Hasselblad rep who agreed to send me the camera and two lenses to test out for five days free of charge. Hasselblad even covered shipping both ways. By comparison, to test out the Phase One XF, I had to drive six hours to Denver and only got to test it out for an afternoon. Kudos to Hasselblad for their generous testing policy. I really got to know the camera during those five days and had enough time to shoot with it to know if it would work for me or not. Below is a shot of the test camera with the incredible 35-90mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom lens on it.
Another big factor in my decision to go with the Hasselblad, aside from all of the points listed in the last section, was that in December Hasselblad was having a huge sale on the camera body and also on their lenses. The H5D 50C WiFi camera body normally goes for $28,500 USD. On the morning I went to test out the Phase One XF and the IQ350 back, I got an email from Hasselblad announcing that the H5D 50C WiFi was on sale for $14,500 through the end of December. Of course, $14.5K is still a lot of money, but since I was considering a $42,000 camera, which was the price of the Phase One rig at that time, $14.5K seemed like a bargain. In the end, the price of the Phase One didn’t matter because I found that the H5D was a much better camera for my needs.
My thanks to Jim Chaconas at Samy’s Camera for all of his help in this process and also to Angela Buckley, a fellow photographer, who spoke extremely openly and honestly about her experiences working with Hasselblad. Samy’s Camera is one of the only vendors I know of in the USA that sells both the Hasselblad and Phase One systems so they were my first call. Jim was also great to work with, extremely knowledgeable and understands photographers needs. He also understands that the jump to medium format digital is a gargantuan purchase for most photographers. He guided me through the process with ease and even held back a camera for me while I got my payment in order.
I also have to thank the Hasselblad reps Matthew Frary and Greg King, who were very helpful. They were never pushy or over the top trying to sell me on the Hasselblad system. By providing the 5-day loaner they gave me the time to figure out if the camera would work for me or not. They were also only a phone call away if I needed help getting it set up or dealing with any issues.
For more information on the Hasselblad H5D 50C WiFi and the Hasselblad lens line up visit their website at www.hasselblad.com.