Let me spoil you the end right away. This lens is ridiculously good, even by Hasselblad standards. While I will go into details further down this page, just know I couldn’t find fault with this extraordinary design.
It’s not all good news, however. Ergonomics unfortunately lag far behind optics. At least for most people. Let’s start with that before we can get to the good stuff.
So, what’s wrong with the XCD 3.5/120?
For one thing, it’s real big. The XCD30, XCD90 and XCD45 are large but balance very nicely on the body. However, the XCD 120 is much larger. Add the sunshade, and it feels like a model bazooka.
Secondly, autofocus is woefully slow. Extremely accurate, but slow. For low-contrast moving subject, I found that focusing manually close to the exact point and letting AF finish the job was the fastest procedure. If that scares you, you are not the target customer for what is without the shadow of a doubt the sharpest lens I have ever used. Sharp enough to trim Wolverine’s toe nails, sharp enough to split leptons for breakfast.
This is a specialized lens. Try to use it for action photography and it will drive you insane. Use it for macro and still subjects and you will discover the most extraordinary and satisfying tool.
Better still, what separates this from a soulless scientific razor blade is its gentle rendering. Far from the aggressive look of some other macro lenses, this XCD 3.5/120 shows tremendous finesse and delicacy.
In other words, anything you photograph just looks drop dead gorgeous. If you own an X1D and don’t want to spend big money, stop reading right here 😉
With an f/3.5 maximum aperture, it cannot create the same razor thin focus plane as an Otus. But it’s rendering is every bit as elegant and subtle. Surprisingly, the same can’t be said of some of its non-macro sublings (all share a common aesthetic and come close, but they aren’t quite there).
The way every subtle shade and colour nuance is depticted without having to touch saturation is fabtastic and makes for a vibrant but very natural atmosphere, even on dull subjects in flat lighting.
Another direct consequence of this subtle rendering is a natural depiction of 3D that mixes a very palpable layering with the slight compression offered by a short telephoto lens (120mm, roughly 90mm equivalent on full frame). Very complex scenes are dealt with with a nonchalent “wha’ever” dismissal and everything falls in its natural place.
For me, the standout feature are the colours. Strong but mainly … true. Even in brutal light. This is a trademark of the host camera, but it seems this lens gets the very best out of the X1D.
Bokeh is also good. Getting close up and personal at full aperture will produce oodles of capuccino, but even distant scenes at more moderate f/ratios will send the background into an elegant blur. Essentially perfect, here.
In fact, Hasselblad could sell this as a portrait lens. It excels at that exercise, even without IBIS (smug grin, check).
Black and white “performance” ? Well, given how gorgeous the colours are, I didn’t bother much with b&w in my short experimenting. But everything points to a very delicate look.
Chromatic aberration ? Nope. Couldn’t find any. Not wide open, not in focus, not closed down, not out of focus. Maybe it’s there (is that a trace around the boxes above the left shoulder? It may be but I don’t think it is), but it didn’t show up in any significant way during my day of experimenting. This is a stunning, stunning, lens.
Here are some more random shots taken during my walk with the lens, to let you judge the rendering style for yourself.
So who is this expensive, slow, ponderous and optically magnificent lens for ? What’s my final verdict ?
Well, my take is simple. Before moving to the X1D system, all my lenses had been manual focus. Why? Simply because AF lenses are optical compromises. The optical formula is chosen not just for visual goodness but also for lightness, so as to allow the AF motors to be snappy. Manual focus lenses don’t have to make that compromise and often turn out to be more subtle and more elegant.
This Hasselblad XCD 3.5/120 Macro appears to be an autofocus lens that makes no compromise to autofocus. It offers all the the visual beauty I’ve come to expect of an Otus, and then some, and happens to also focus automatically. This puts it at the other end of the AF spectrum from sports-oriented lenses that will primarily guarantee great subject tracking and also offer the best optical quality that first condition allows. If you think about it as a manual focus überlens that happens to have AF, it begins to make a lot of sense. In fact – and this is going to make many scream in rage – this lens reminds me of another gentle giant favourite of mine : the Milvus 85, one of the most underrated recent masterpieces in optical design. Bold, powerful, but infinitely lovely. Only the Hassy trades aperture for even more quality, subtlety, and AF.
And one of the words that have popped up most frequently in this (kind of) review is “natural”. This is the lens of a naturalist. I honestly cannot think of anything better for that sort of application. I wish it had been with me during the supermoon. And that some sort of astonomical guiding system was still accessible to me to photograph the Milky Way with this heavenly combo.
If John-James Audubon was around, this is what he’d be using. Of course, he’d be somewhere exotic, not at the local zoo, but that lens and camera would be there with him to document the animal world with that mix of absolute scientific exactitude and artistic flair for gentle beauty.
I sure wish I was a naturalist adventurer.
Anyone who’s seen me shoot knows that I walk a lot, and often run when with family or alone, trying to encounter as many subjects as possible rather than stick around. Even though, it’s been absolute love at first sight, and the lens is being used far more than I anticipated, because zoos aren’t my natural habital and I don’t usually have the time to go out and explore the outdoors, observe, plan, or be meticulous.
I don’t care, I’ll deny ever suggesting it, but the lens deserves better than me, in that respect, don’t you think? 😀
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