#850. 3 days in Paris with the Hasselblad XCD 4/21 (minimalist review).

By pascaljappy | Review

Apr 26

This is the widest lens in the Hasselblad X1D’s current native range. And it’s keeper. Unfortunately.


My finance plan for acquiring an “augmented” 5-lens X1D field kit was to sell 2 or 3 immediately, plus my Sony gear and lenses. This has not been going entirely according to plan and this very wide angle gem, the first on my to sell list, isn’t helping at all πŸ˜€


Regular readers might recall I tested the Zeiss Distagon 15 about 3 years ago. While a solid performer, that lens was one of the few Zeiss had sent to me for review that I hadn’t felt like keeping or bought immediately.


The reason is simple: I’m not good with very wide angle lenses. I just don’t know what to do to fill the frame intelligently. And the resulting images, even when composed properly, often seem artificially spectacular, not my cup of tea. Case in point :


I just don’t see the world like that and don’t want that sort of extreme perspective hanging on my walls. This is obviously very personal, entirely a matter of taste.


To make matters worse, from a reviewing perspective, there’s a lot to write about when you have a fast long-ish lens in your hand. Bokeh quality, vignetting, ease of focusing, handling, sharpness at various apertures. This, on the other hand, is sharp – very sharp – from the tip of your nose to Pōwehi. And from corner to corner. And there’s no blur to speak of. And distortion and vignetting are corrected ‘in camera’. And it’s a black featureless cylinder. And it has a leaf shutter, with all advantages and drawbacks, just like all other XCD lenses. I’m not really sure what to write about. It’s very expensive, very excellent and quite large. Review done.


So, what I did instead, is shoot the lens constantly for 3 days in Paris, on various types of subjects and in various conditions, trying out different post-processing renderings, to let you decide or not whether this lens is for you. Not that you have much of a choice, if you’re looking for that wide a lens for the mirrorless Hassy πŸ˜‰


My verdict on this lens is simple. I’ve chosen to sell other stuff, stuff I really loved, in order to keep it. That’s me, scared of anything wider than your 24-105 kit zoom … ’nuff said ? Onwards.


Onwards, but let me at least try to group the photographs into meaningful clumps, to make your evaluation more intuitive. In this first clump, you can see sunstars around highlights. To my eyes, they look very nice, particularly on the new lamps made of led arrays, but you may be more accustomed to and have a preference for the more modern variants that exhibit many more spikes than the 8 presented here around each specular highlight. Sunstar definition is not tack sharp, it is more gentle than on some other lenses, without being blurry.


In my reviews of other XCD lenses, I found flare from just-out-of-frame-sunlight to be a real problem that needs to be dealt with actively. Flare could be both strong and very ugly. Glare on the other hand was really minimal.


This has not been as much of an issue on this lens. Weirdly, for such a wide one. Granted, my experience with is is limited and granted, April in Paris ain’t Death Valley in July, sun-wise. But sill, it is significant that not one of my 300+ photographs exhibits any kind of issue related to very strong and localised highlights.

With or without sun, no difference.
Highlights? What highlights ?

Chromatic correction, on the other hand, doesn’t seem quite as exemplary as on XCD siblings. In-focus areas are still perfectly corrected, but out of focus and towards the corners, you can see the lens/internal correction beginning to struggle a little. Nothing too severe and easily corrected in PP, but noteworthy at this price point and relatively modest f/4 aperture.


This might well be the only niggle with this fabulous lens. To compensate for this, I think one of its strongest points is the clarity of its rendering. All XCD lenses display a neutrality and objectivity that lacks charm, but the positive flip side of this is an ability to convey meaning in ways that can get lost with more quirky designs.


I find that particularly true in the mannequin pictures above and below, as well as in many low-light or low-contrast situations that could come out all mirky and unclear with a different design.


This clarity of message is also helped by two other facets of the XCD 4/21’s rendering. First of all, the 3D layering is quite good. Better than the 30mm version, in my mind. Even in dark and difficult conditions such as below.


Secondly, the geometric rectitude helps create legible patterns in which the intent is always clear.



All this put together makes for a lens that’s a real joy to compose with. I had a lot of fun trying to assemble complex patterns into a legible whole, even putting some scenes slightly off kilter but perfectly balanced. With a lens creating so much convergence, I often found that shooting upwards or downwards while balancing the act with a play on visual weights was tremendous fun.


This is a very contrasty lens. Or maybe it covers so much visual area that it’s bound to always capture elements of very different luminosity. And while this is a lot of fun in semi-abstract photographs, it is much less pleasant to deal with in photographs that are meant to look natural. This is not a quality or fault of the lens but some may one a slightly more gentle tool to handle extreme lighting.

Contrast pushed in PP
Here as well.

Anyhoo, it’s a brilliant, brilliant lens that can paint huge swabs of the world in very stark graphical strokes or in a more gentle way and with an abundance of detail that lets you create the sort of atmosphere you want.


By default, files are quite strongly opinionated, but they respond really well to all manner of post processing and can produce images ranging from naturalistic to totally abstract with equal ease. What the lens lacks in natural charm, it more than makes up for in versatility. That’s may main reason for keeping it.


Let me leave you with some more samples displaying a range of atmospheres. Note that all (I think) were processed in Phocus and that many more styles could be produced using Lightroom, Photoshop or Nik.




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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Is that 21 as in 35mm equivalent? Or 21mm on your X1D? Somehow it seems more extreme than the w/angles I’m used to.
    Never mind – this isn’t about me anyway.
    If it was, I would explain that I use w/angles in a different way. I generally use them for architectural subjects – and I generally put the shots through DxO’s ViewPoint, to straighten up verticals, the horizon line, and – possibly – the perspective (although that’s rarer – because you generally find you can do one side or the other but not both, and doing one looks silly, so none is better). Yet every now and then, I find one where I prefer to keep the angular look that w/angles are so good at generating.
    You seem to have used that angular on most of the images. I can’t say a thing – we’re all different – there’s no right or wrong. Anyway, you had three days to check it out, and that’s best done the way you have. To test it properly you needed to push it to the limit. And the results are extraordinary, in many cases. The one that appeals most is the one immediately before the shot of the interior of the wine store – the twists of the metalwork epitomise the effect of a w/angle. πŸ™‚
    I don’t think we can accept the gentleman in the wheelchair as your bicycle shot, so I am going to presume it’s cyclist reading his instruction book, in the room lit with purple lighting.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh, dang … always forget about the bikes πŸ˜€ Good job you let off the hook by finding one yourself. It’s all Philippe’s fault, now we’ve created expectations πŸ˜‰

      Yes, it’s a 21 on 44×33 sensors. More like 17mm on FF, I would say. Definitely out of my comfort zone but very pleasant when you get used to it. A subtle mix of gentle rendering/colours and very firm and straight drawing. Probably an ideal lens for an architect. I feel a little like a baby in front of a formidable creation, not knowing what the architect’s vision was or how to illustrate it. I just approach it very naively, trying to find interesting compositions. That’s proably missing the point completely, architecturally, but it’s valid enough from a photographic point of view πŸ˜‰


    • pascaljappy says:

      I actually like the photograph of the gentleman in the wheelchair a lot. I just wished I could have created that one from scratch rather than grab it in a split second. It could have been arranged a little better. Also, it deserves more thought in post processing. Those shadows are great are should be more prominent. With appropriate lighting and placement, it could almost have been a Gregory Crewdson-type scene.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        “Ditto!” What else can I say?
        What I’ve found, over the years, is:
        1 – W/angles are more use than telephoto lenses
        2 – Depending what you’re doing, the “best primes” for standard use are 45, 50 (or 55) and 75 (or 80)
        3 – The main uses for tele are sport, birding & wildlife, astronomy (& imbecilic projects like my current one, shooting landscapes over the curvature of the planet!)
        4 – When shooting with a w/angle, you have two choices – level it up to get the verticals correct in camera – or USE the distortion the w/angle produces, to create a special effect.
        Bring on the angry horses – everyone else can attack that and shred me for saying it. But at the end of the day, that’s still going to be how I see it, anyway.
        S0 – example numero uno. When I saw your shot of the PanthΓ©on, my immediate reaction was “OMG – he’s done that simply to show us what you can do wrong, with a w/angle”. Then I started to remember similar shots plastered all over the internet, and got hiccups – it reminded me of an attack of cellphones, for which there are currently no suitable antacid tablets. And I ended up thinking of my Linhof4x5 studio camera, or modern day shift-tilts.
        But by the time I scrolled down to Forum Les Halles station, I was entranced. THAT’s what a w’angle does well πŸ™‚
        From there on, I found myself sifting, between the two – and feeling embarrassed to say anything, because at the end of the day, your cam is new to you, the lens even newer, you’re having fun with it, and you’re a far better ‘tog than I am anyway.
        But the cat’s escaped from the cage, so I’m throwing these thoughts at the page, to see how the tribe in DS feels about w/angles.
        I guess my only other comment is that I’ve always ignored all attempts by other people to tell me what to do. Everyone’s creativity is simply hampered by “rules” and “opinions”. It flourishes best in sunshine, at liberty, with complete freedom of expression. Which, I think, is part of the values of DearSusan.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    It’s been said often enough that extreme wide angles distort perspective, but that’s not true!

    What distorts perspective is viewing the photos from too far away; get close enough and the perspective jumps to natural! But then we can’t take in the whole photo at once and have to scan it, so we move backwards again. Or if the print or screen isn’t large enough coming close is awkward.

    ( With long teles it’s just the opposite, backing off makes the photo too small to enjoy.)

    Verticals are most sensitive, probably because we seldom look up or down.
    For me only partially correcting converging verticals often gives a more natural perspective at comfortable viewing distances, the amount partly depending on screen (or print) size.

    In architectural photos with completely corrected verticals buildings often seem wider at the top which can look rather weird, and with less correction more geometrical compositions tend to fall apart.
    – – –

    So what should a poor ‘tog dooo??

    > Follow Pascal’s example!!

    you said: “I’m not good with very wide angle lenses.”
    I must protest, your choice of motifs after that first “Case in point :” disprove that!

    I especially enjoy your photos after “…was tremendous fun.”
    It must have been!
    Also most of the architectural photos! And none of them give me problems with viewing distance!
    In the few cases where perspective matters I think it enhances the photo rather than distracting the eye.

    I like the mannequin under “…a different design.” and the two men on red and yellow.

    And that green tree.
    But it surprises me, I would have expected the stem to converge more with a ~16mm-eq lens? Perhaps it’s just because of the leaves partially hiding the stem?

    Thanks Pascal for a great photo essay!
    ( I leave it to others to thank you for the review, πŸ™‚ .)

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yesn it’s always wise to leave a little bit of convergence in keystoning removal. Ansel Adams mentions that in his bbook “The Camera”. I think we need the visual cue to understand we are looking up.

      Thanks for the kind words. Once I realised a wide angle wasn’t all about photographing buildings, things got a bbit freer and more intuitive. It’s still outside my zone of expertise, but it did give me a lot of pleasure.

      The green tree is a large chestnut tree in Jardin des Tuileries, near Le Louvre and the natural look of the photograph also surprised me. I think – but can’t formalise it – there’s a natural perception of some things that make some focal lengths particularly suited to them. In the case of that large tree, it feels like 17mm (efl) is the *normal* focal length. Yesterday, I was testing the 90mm and came to the exact same conclusion for an indoor scene. It looked perfectly natural and exactly the right focal length for a natural perspective. That’s a 4:1 ratio in focal lengths and yet the impression was the same. There’s an interesting psychological effect there I’d love to know more about.

      All the best, Pascal

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I think there may also be individual differences, or perhaps they depend on habit. E.g. Ming Thein has often said on his blog that 28 mm-eq. gives him a natural viewing angle. To me that seems a little strange as I most often see motifs that fit 70 – 90 mm-eq.

        I first bought a 10 – 20 mm lens (16 – 32 mm-eq.) to document a friend’s house renovation. Since then I’ve often found it useful.
        Your photos here are really inspiring to try to use it more creatively!

        Btw., Pascal, I don’t say kind words, I say what I believe is true, πŸ™‚ .

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        An interesting way of looking at that is to grab a shot taken with a w/angle, open it up on the screen, and zoom into it. The edges of the photo drop off, of course, but you can see the “standard” and then the “telephoto” effect, grow in the middle of your screen, as you zoom back and forth.
        Your tree was an interesting example. Two reasons.
        One, if you DID use a tele for that shot, the bottom or the top or 2/3rds of it (at one end or the other) would be blurry.
        The other – using the w/angle gives the image a bit of punch. We all (?? most of us?) know that the most widely used grapes for making champagne are pinot or chardonnay – nice wines, on their own – but the bubbles make one hell of a difference!
        (OK – so I’m addicted to it – my father was a winemaker, and I was weaned on brut champagne – he made a batch of it, the company refused to market it, so he and I drank the lot, when I was a teenager πŸ™‚ )

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        “Always”? – not quite. “Always” makes it a rule, instead of a guideline.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      “In architectural photos with completely corrected verticals buildings often seem wider at the top which can look rather weird, and with less correction more geometrical compositions tend to fall apart.”

      This is when I like doing the corrections in DxO ViewPoint. Sometimes, once I have the verticals “correct”, I decide I don’t like the look. And doing something different is so easy, in ViewPoint.

      I can remember one building where the “correct” result was to stop a short distance from straightening the verticals, precisely because of what you say, Kristian – corrected, the top of the building didn’t look right.

      I can remember others where I wrestled with it for a while, and decided to play with the perspective controls instead.

      And one – which seems surprisingly common – where it was actually better to accentuate the convergence of lines, rather than attempting to correct it. Something like the interior of a dome in a cathedral roof, perhaps – but there are other examples as well.

      Certainly it’s more of a “problem” with w/angles – but it’s also reasonably easy to resolve it, in post, these days. Most of you would never remember the horrors of trying to correct it, when printing from film in a traditional enlarger – by tilting the table that was holding the printing paper, and trying to get the correct angle of tilt – as well as disconnecting the auto focus on the enlarger and going manual – AND stopping down, to minimise the intrusion of DoF problems.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Aye, Jean Pierre,
        I do remember, on one occasion I (15 years old) was wishing for that unattainable enlarger with negative holder tilt.
        We had turned the enlarger around on it’s base plate and weighted the plate down to be able to project on the floor, and once I had to search for a large enough board to support tilting the photo paper for my Old-town-staircase-photo. The problem was the limited size of the developer tray, I used trouser-hangers to hold the 30 x 60 cm paper when pulling it through the chemicals. It was more fun than sitting now at a computer, but it sure was a hassle!

        • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

          Ah – in those days the camera shop classified me as a semi-professional and I used to have trays large enough to do an A2 print (roughly 42×59), so I could leave my trousers where they were hanging. But to be truthful, I’ve never had any use for prints large than A3, which is only about 33×48. Pros go larger of course. And when I finally nail the panorama I’m working on, 60cm sounds nice! I might have to buy a roll of paper for my printer to do it, though – it needs to be a LOT wider than 60cm! πŸ™‚

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Hope you’ll nail it, Jean Pierre!
            ( ..without hitting your thumb too often… , πŸ™‚ !)

            > ” – it needs to be a LOT wider than 60cm!”
            Like this :
            ? , πŸ™‚ .
            – – –

            My father used to buy large sized photo paper with passed date cheaply (to be halved and rehalved with a paper knife), so experimenting was no problem.

            On the need for size…
            My first non-matrix printer was a 13″ 720 dpi Epson, now gone; b/w – I never added the colour inks.
            So to print closer to the resolution of my scanned photos I joined 2 (or 4) HQ A3 prints, each taking 20 min. to rip (3 MHz ARM) plus 20 min. to print.

      • Adrian says:

        I agree with Pascal that wide angle lenses can be difficult to use well. There is the initial impact in the viewfinder of “getting it all in” (the frame), but then what often results is a distant horizon and tiny details as a result of the stretched perspective, with acres of ground leading to it worse, if you tilt the camera, everything converges dramatically with that extreme stretched perspective distortion.

        Used well, ultra wide angle photos often need some foreground interest, something very near to the camera to help fill the frame.

        As for perspective xorrectiin, things look “wrong” because you’ve stood at the base of something tall and then stretched the upper part of the image to make verticals straight. Obviously, since the original.viewpoint was at the bottom, this will never be natural – you would have to be half way up the object for a “true” corrected viewpoint.

        A better approach can be to compose vertically keeping the camera parallel to the ground. You will get the lower half of the frame filled with ground that can be cropped off leaving a perfectly corrected half frame shot with natural perspective and no corrections. Perspective correction works best when you are far away from the subject, but not well when up close at the base of something.

        For city scapes and architectural work I enjoy using an ultra wide zoom (essential in my opinion, and makes much more sense than being stuck with a single fixed focal length ultra wide). For almost everything else I don’t like lenses below 35mm FF very much, things get lost in the frame too easily, or perspectives don’t look natural when you get too close to something.

  • Brian Nicol says:

    Hi Pascal, thanks for the the first useful review of the 21 that I have seen.

    The tree picture shot from below is a real treat. Your black and white conversions in this set are much improved in my view and I love their transparency. Indeed, a very nice set of images.

    I find the clarity in the images wonderful and see no need for alternate glass. You can always soften an image in post processes ( negative clarity and so on) but you cannot create detail or microcontrast that was never captured.

    I do not like the large sunstar rendering but I can use the amazing XCD 30mm for that paint brush.

    I am also still rationalising my system and my XCD 45mm and Leica M 75/2 APO are going to be on ebay shortly as well as a few other odds and sods so that I can add the XCD 21 paintbrush. Your competent review has sealed the fate of things that I was not going to sell.

    Many Thanks!

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    Loved the tree shot. I’m thinking you might discover a lot of fun using the w/a lens for macro work. You might be surprised at what can happen with wildflowers shot closeup with a w/a.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hmm, interesting idea. I’ll try that. It would be great to find some sort of extension ring to have even closer fun πŸ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        An extension ring wouldn’t work like a converter, would it? – and turn your 21mm into a 42mm? I’m just an idiot, and I’m trying to wrestle with how the decreased field of view/capture, increased distance from subject to sensor, depth of field etc would all be affected by a converter ring on a w/angle – particularly a short one, like a 21mm.

        • pascaljappy says:

          No, I just meant an extension tube. That wouldn’t change the focal length but would allow me to focus closer. Not sure it would be entirely practical as, for such a short focal length, the tube would have to be very short … 4 or 5 mm, presumably.

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