Reviewing kit isn’t the same as owning it. During a review, you look for signs of grandeur, evidence of flaws, factual information to communicate in order to inform potential purchases. Living with a piece of gear is more about day to day coexistence and finding it a place in your ideal workflow. It’s about how it fits in with (and what it does for) your personal aspirations.
You’ll find the former here and this post is about the latter.
This post also marks the debut of a series of reviews related to the Hasselblad X1D, associated post processing software, accessories and lenses. I had hoped to discuss the two lenses sent to me for the initial review, but they are essentially perfect (from a technical point of view) and I didn’t have them long enough to find anything really meaningful to write about.
This time is different. The camera, lenses and accessories are mine so we have time to go deep. And I’m hoping Hasselblad will send me new stuff to present on DS as well. Stay tuned. But let’s start with the system. Everything written about the camera in the first review, good and bad, still holds. In this post, I’ll just add more strong points and negatives, as they come along. Every time some new finding surfaces, I’ll add it to this same page and will point it out in the following Monday Post.
Note that most photographs on this page are clickabe and link to a 4000px wide version for closer inspection.
So, what’s new? Mainly subjective findings.
Those lenses are technically staggering. There is a very consistent rendering between the 5 I have tested so far and throughout all aperture settings. Let me put it this way : take a shot with the 23mm and crop it to mimic the 30mm, 45mm, 90mm and 120mm angles of view, and you’d end up with photographs very similar (with lower res) than if shot with the other individual lenses. MTFs are insane. Distortion and vignetting are low (and automatically corrected in PP).
Resistance to flare is good, though not great (see coming reviews). The amount of flare is not that big, but it doesn’t look very nice. Glare is essentially non-existent.
3D is natural and realistic. It doesn’t have the same unreal feeling of falling into the photograph as a Zeiss Otus or Audrey (Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM) can produce, but feels more linear. Less romantic and beautiful. Initially, I found the XCD lenses a bit dry and clinical. Not any more. They take a rigorous approach to rendering that’s as far from a syrupy Mandler as you can imagine, but they bring unflinching consistency to every shot, whatever the conditions. Aperture controls depth of field, and that’s it. Image quality simply doesn’t enter the equation.
Speaking of which, depth of field is more of an issue than I had initially realised. It’s often very diffult to get a whole scene into sharp focus at polite apertures. f/13 and smaller are sometimes necessary to do that. In a photograph such as the one above (carts), shallow DoF adds to the scruffy mood. But in the one below, the obelisk being unsharp makes it look a bit like it has been Photoshopped into the frame rather than being part of the original scene. Definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for” 😉
However good, good looking and well built they are, I still can find no valid explanation for removing the aperture ring from them. Yes, it’s possible, and easy, to use the two wheels in front of and behing the camera grip to operate +/- exposure and aperture (in A mode), but it just isn’t the same. That’s my main gripe.
So far, I’ve only used the Nikon-mount Otus 85. But I’ll soon try my Leica R lenses converted to Nikon mount via a Leitax surgery. Hopefully, an M-mount adapter will soon make its way to casa Mjölner (that’s my nickname for the X1D) to enable the test of Audrey (Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM, which doesn’t cover the whole frame but is said to produce delightful 30mmx30mm square frames), Cesar (Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM) and my Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8. I’m really hoping Cesar will be happy on the X1D.
Being able to use adapted lenses on the X1D was initially a strong selling point for me. Not so much, anymore. The XCD lenses are excellent and produce a rendering that suits my aspirations, even though it is less pretty than the Zeiss top end, as we’ve already covered. Also, adapted lenses require the use of the e-shutter, which is a brilliant contribution by Ming Thein to the camera, but one that comes with some caveats.
On the plus side, e-shutter is totally silent. Nothing new in the mirorless world, but eerie nonetheless when you use it for the first time. Also, it allows shutter speeds of up to 1/10 000s compared to the leaf shutter max of 1/2 000s. It’s super easy to switch on and off, thanks to the great UI (no silly menus, can you imagine?). And it lets you mount any lens you can find a mechanical adapter for. Brilliant.
On the flip-side, though, it’s also super easy to forget. And because the flushing of the whole sensor data takes up 0.3s, you cannot shoot moving subjects or *** more important *** you cannot move, yourself, during that period. Even using a native lens. Case in point 😀 …
Update 29 March 2019. Two other minor limitations of the silent shutter are worth mentioning. First of all, it is limited to the camera’s “native” ISO3200. So some of the benefit of using fast glass in the dark is somewhat negated by this lower ISO ceiling (6400 is fine with native lenses, and 12800 is possible when necessary). Secondly, the silent shutter doesn’t play well with flickering artificial lights. This is not a fault of the X1D but is true of all cameras that do not have a global electronic shutter. To avoid the banding issue, you need to shoot at 1/flicker rate (1/60s, 1/120s, 1/180s … if you live in a 60Hz country, for instance).
The godd news, nay, great news, though, is that many Leica-M mount lenses go along very nicely with the camera. This is a surprise and a very nice one. You can find a review of the Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM on the X1D here and another of the Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM on the X1D here.
This is a “low tech” camera (if that can be said of a 50Mp camera with e-shutter, HDMI, dual card slots, …, and near-perfect UI) that lacks most of the pampering features of more contemporary designs. Such as irrelevant for me 4K, 8K, whatever K is flavour of the month, video. And, far more relevant: IBIS. But before you tilt you head and whisper a compassionate “awww, poor Pascal”, let me show you this.
This was long after sunset and way too dark to read anything but Hasselblad on the camera. That short of shooting envelope is plenty for me!
I always get a kick from writing this, so please indulge me once more : digital has spent the last decade fixing problems it had created for itself. The X1D avoids several of the problems so it doesn’t have to sort them out in complex fashion. With a heavy body, a perfect grip, and a leaf shutter, IBIS often need only be a bird in the Egyptian fields. Now, many reviewers feel the oppositve way about this camera, which is weird. But I consistently get perfectly sharp photographs at 2/f speeds and often at 3/f. AF is a much more limiting factor of sharpness, in my experience …
My goto setting today is Auto ISO, with a top limit of 6400. This works very well and image quality at the most used settings is excellent. However, I feel the Auto ISO errs towards caution qui a bit and it’s not rare to find yourself at ISO 6400 1/180s with a 45mm lens, when ISO 1600 1/50 would have been just fine. And that’s a real shame as noise does creep in visibly at higher settings (see discussion below). Generally, there’s a weird bias – even from Hasselblad themselves – against longer exposures with this camera when it’s in fact one of the best suited to handle them …
Update 07 March 2019: My bad. It turns out a lot of the camera’s behaviours are configurable in a settings menu. The bottom speed had been set to a specific absolute value of 1/180, but other focal-lenght-related values can be used. I have now set this minimum shutter speed to 2/F, meaning the camera now uses 1/15s with a 30mm lens, instead of 1/180s, and keeps the ISO below 800 where it would have used 6400 previously. Neat!
At the other end of the luminance spectrum, I did run into the 1/2 000s limit a couple of times, when shooting at wide apertures. It’s not as bad as you’d think, since you often use slightly lower apertures, and there’s that e-shutter 1/10 000s extension bonus, should you need it. It’s actually weirdly cool to feel there is a mechanical limitation to the envelope 😀 But there is a limitation there and those who crave the greatest envelope possible will have to look elsewhere.
And some handheld shots did come out blurred in low light (the one of the boat, 3 pics above, certainly is, see the star “trails”). And there is a limit to how daft you can be without consequences (see immediately above, when pushing an almost black shadow in a ISO 12800 shot). In fact, I was surprised by the amount of noise visible in files at high ISO settings.
This is due to the fact that Hasselblad apply no noise reduction at all in camera. Which is not the case of other manufacturers who happily dodge the results for better measurements in lab-rat mode. Hassy’s approach preserves quality and puts you in charge of how you want to deal with the issue.
So, no, shooting envelope isn’t infinite or up to what the best FF cameras of today can offer. It’s plenty for me and I love that it forces me to be more diligent with my shooting, stance and breathing. But it’s not for everyone. If you favor results over process, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Let me end this with a fun oddity. In no way a limitation, but an interesting evocation of film. In this photograph, the brutally over exposed sun has turned black, much as in Ansel Adam’s Black Sun and subsequent contemporary art projects.
There’s only one way to put it. If AF is a large part of your process, don’t even consider the X1D. It simply sucks in too many scenarios to be a contender.
First, there’s no eye detect, so the AF is just has happy focusing on a bush in the background than on the sparkling gaze of your beloved companion. I guess with a newer sensor, and some software work (Hasselblad are *excellent* with firmware updates), the X1D will eventually catch up. Right now, though, you may have to tell it where to focus. And frankly, it’s more pleasant to simply focus yourself. The focusing ring on the lenses is superb.
Then, there’s speed. And noise. Neither of which is good with long focal lengths. In low light, with long and heavy glass, it all sounds like you are blending juice in the 1970’s. And it takes about as long to eventually find focus, if it ever does. Whereas most other manufacturers sacrifice optical quality to obtain light lens groupings and fast AF, Hasselblad appear to have taken AF speed as a secondary consideration. That’s as it should be. Who would want to invest in and haul a system this expensive/large, if it was full of optical compromise? (and please don’t get the impression AF is sloooow, it’s just not as snappy as what the top dogs achieve today with minute lenses and off-sensor AF readings).
Mercifully, the EVF/screen zoom function (used to fine tune focus or when reviewing photographs) works beautifully. I have reassigned a white balance button located right next to the shutter button to that 100% zoom feature, for when manual focus is the best option. (Why Hassy, who undoubtedly produce the best WB out of the box and the worst AF, wouldn’t do that in the first place is a valid question).
Worse, far worse, though, the EVF is virtually unusable at night. What. Were. They. Thinking???? Hasselblad haven’t amplified the image so the EVF is pretty much as dark as the scene itself. It’s dark outside, it’s dark inside. That is my personal biggest objection to this camera. And I’d much rather see a V2 come with a better EVF than with a 100Mp sensor.
Finally, the EVF is super large. Which is what most people want and so desperately clamour for on forums. But, again, is a serious case of “be careful what you wish for”. A large viewfinder is great for inebriated pub bragging, and for srupulous inspection of the frame and perfect composition. It also takes ages to scan around so you can forget about quick composition on the run. Street photographers will know what I mean. You’ll often find me holding the X1D at arms length, shooting through the back screen for street. Not very dignified, but it’s smaller and far more intuitive than scanning that ginormous flat-screen TV of an EVF (which is great for less reflex, more constructed photography). It’s great to have the two options, though.
The EVF is not the best for colour reproduction (the rear screen is far better) and isn’t the highest resolution out there. You forget about either after a few minutes of use, but it’s really noticeable initially, if you’re coming from one of the recent cameras with top end EVFs such as the Leica SL, Sony A7r3, Nikon Z7 … I think there are complaints about blackout during shooting (??) and can honestly neither confirm nor disclaim from memory, after 2000 frames (and yes, I’m too lazy to go and check). So, that is yet another of those forum warrior gripes that the target user base may not even notice. Still, the EVF is the definite Achilles heel on this camera.
A final negative : the ability to swipe the rear screen with your eye on the EVF to alter the AF zone very intuitively is a nice touch. Unfortunately, it’s also twitchy and can be moved about with that cheekbone that makes you so handsome. Not good. X1D V2 really needs to address all these points.
In both those photographs, 90% of the SOOC file was black. The recovery on the latter is particularly stunning. As an added bonus, the transition from highlight to totally blown highlight is relatively smooth. Not as smooth as large format film, but waayyy smoother than on the very brutal A7r2. This means you can largely stop worrying about burning some areas of the frame and actually use pure white as a compositional tool rather than fear it like the boogeyman.
After a few tests, subtle but visible differences in RAW processing between Lightroom and Phocus make me once again lament the fragmentation of the photo software world. Phocus produces pictures the feel that little bit more natural, with greater sparke and colour differentiation. If you’re spending the GDP of a small country on a camera for its superb tonal subtlety, it probably makes sense to extract the final percents of goodness by using the proper software, right? But Phocus lacks many useful features. Its adjustment layers only give you access to a very limited feature set (no contrast or clarity adjustement, for instance). Printing from Phocus isn’t that pleasant either. It’s very obviously designed for corrective rather than creative work.
Using a calibration file on Lightroom somewhat levels the IQ playing field. But LR still produces that artificial look that sets it apart (in a bad way) from CaptureOne and Phocus. Speaking of CaptureOne, it is possible to process X1D files but you have to convert them to TIFF and edit there EXIF first. Life. Too. Short.
For now, my process is as follows. All photos are imported into Hasselblad’s Phocus software. Phocus places the raw files in a single capture folder at whatever location you chose (for me, an external 2Tb SSD). I then import all the files into Lightroom, from that same folder. Lightroom doesn’t copy the files, but simply works from the originals.
This gives me the option to process most files in Phocus for a natural and subtle rendering, and go bonkers in LR (or stitch panoramas) when the compulsion arises. This feels like a very simple and best-of-both-worlds solution.
The reality, though, is that with the Sony A7r2 + CaptureOne + 35/1.4 ZM combo, I had arrived at a point where I really loved the rendering of the images. This is not yet completely the case with the X1D (hence some of the wild-ish experimentation you see on this page 😉 ), although great progress has been made since the hesitant first steps of a few weeks ago. At some point, I will probably go back to good ol’ Photoshop which provides far greater adjustment capabilities than either. Updates soon, if this works out.
Update 7 March 2019. A new release of Phocus has significantly moved the software in the right direction. Among the new features, layers now have access to a broader range of adjustment options. That is really cool, as is the local contrast management option named detail. Here’s hoping for more updates, particularly in relation to monochrome processing.
So far, my list of accessories is short : a strap, a flash and a GPS unit. Oh, and a new old bag. I’ll report new findings if an when they occur.
The strap is the standard one provided in the kit. It is unbranded with a thick padding around the neck. It took several broken nails and inventive swearing to attach to the camera but certainly feels like my neck would snap before the strap in the event of a grab and run. Nuff said.
The flash (a-ah) is a Nikon SB700. The X1D is compatible with several flashes in the SB range but not all can be controled TTL. The SB700 is one of those that can. I’m essentially a flash virgin but it seems like a shame to buy a leaf shutter system and not dabble in open air flashing (insert silly grin).
The GPS unit is an elegant device that plugs into the flash hotshoe and basically adds precise time and location to the EXIF of your shots. Some will say that should be an in-camera feature, but it at least gives you the choice not to drain your batteries when it’s not needed without delving into a menu. Mine was given to me with the field kit by its previous owner and is an early version that’s not 100% stable. So it did freeze the camera a few times during use (remove battery, power up, and you’re good to go, but it’s frustrating if you miss a shot). It’s nice to have, efficient, but non essential.
My contribution to the DS what’s in my bag series mentioned a love bordering on lust for a tiny 4 million dollar home crumpler bag that securely houses my A7r2 and 3 small lenses. And an unsued Lowepro with equally bomb-proof qualities but unnecessarily large proportions for the Sony. Well, roles have just been swapped. I dusted the Lowepro and discovered a truly great bag.
It’s a messenger type bag that follows the heavy padding approach, with 3 sections in the main compartment. The middle one holds the X1D with the largest lens in my kit, the 120mm Marco. On one side is the Otus 85 with adapter (but with hood off). On the other is any other XCD lens. In the front, a zipped compartment has room for an extra adapter, a card wallet, extra batteries, cables and small bits and bobs. At the back is an interior zipped compartment large enough for my wallet, phone and small notebook + pen. At the rear is an extra external zipped compartment. It zips at the top and bottom, so you can use it for a tablet or book or you can use it to slide on the handle of a suitcase. There are side external pockets for small water bottles, brollies … Fully loaded, it weighs a ton, but the thick padding on the strap is supremely comfortable.
With the exception of the EVF / AF issues described above, this is a marvelous camera. It slows me down, just the right amount, and makes me think harder about what it is I find interesting in front of me. I makes me want to set up images rather than grab them.
At one point during a recent visit to Egypt, I decided it was silly to use my smartphone so much with such a great camera in the bag and started using the X1D for moving shots, from a bus, from horse and camel back. Not only was this stressful, very few photos actually turned out to be interesting.
So I returned to phone grabbing mode and left the X1D in charge of more deliberate shots such as the one above. Compared to a top-end FF camera such as my Sony A7r2 (which is for sale, drop me a line if you want in on a cheap high end Sony), the X1D produces a lower yield but in a way that’s more pleasant to me (others would hate it) and that achieves even higher IQ.
The fact is – and my apologies if that sounds pompous – I feel more of an artist with that camera. Not because of its cost, size, pixel count or brand name. But because of the way it makes me think about what it is I want to capture, and how. An artist in the ethymologic sense, someone who assembles and builds stuff that looks and feels good (the stuff, not the artist). The X1D makes me feel like I’m the one doing the doing. That was my main reason for buying it. If the feeling continues, then mission accomplished 🙂
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