#855. Hasselblad XCD 3.5/120 review – dealing in gentle absolutes!

#855. Hasselblad XCD 3.5/120 review – dealing in gentle absolutes!

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.

 
Click for 100% view
 

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.

 
@ f/18
@f/4
f/6.3
f/6.3
f/9
 

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.

 
The Harcourt Studio look in macro mode, hand held, in natural light …
 

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.

 
Held at arms lenght with one arm. Not super sharp.
Through glass
The lesser spectacled grandad, a.k.a. Homo Exhaustus.
AF slightly flummoxed on this one.
Through glass
Moving too fast for AF
Much betta
Smile, you’re on Hassy
Tiny wild orchids
Vial selfie.
 

So who is this expensive, slow, ponderous and optically magnificent lens for ? What’s my final verdict ?

 
Near full moon at over 200% magnification. This level of detail is ridiculous for an equivalent focal length of 90mm!
 

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.

 
Through dirty glass
 

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.

 
Where’s Waldo ?
 

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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15 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Steve Mallett May 08, 2019

    ‘kin ‘ell. Just beautiful. I love the window with bougainvillea and Homo Exhaustus strikes a deep resonance. But the whole combo is way above my pay grade both in terms of wallet and photographic skill! It’s wonderful that such things exist but thank God I don’t actually want one…

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy May 09, 2019

      Thanks. The trick for me will be to lock it up, forget it’s nice and just flog it 😉

  2. Avatar
    Philberphoto May 08, 2019

    Wow! Very, very Wow! In the most unexpected and counterintuitive way, this combo seems to eke the most out of the X1D. Hassy for macro, who’d have thunk it? The gentle and elegant IQ of the camera and the relentless demand for detail?
    But, boy, does it work well!
    Congrats to the photographer as well. I especially love the homo exhaustus selfie. And notice that there are two pairs of glasses on the table. One obviously feminine…. oh, well….

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy May 09, 2019

      A selfie with a 120mm lens, you flatter me, good sir!

  3. Avatar
    Sean May 08, 2019

    Hi pascal,
    Mother! Your’e really smitten by this camera and its various lenses, aren’t you? It appears it’s justified, though.
    Regards
    Sean

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy May 09, 2019

      Hi Sean, I am indeed. The surprising thing is that it’s not the lenses I expected to love most that have captured my heart. The 21 and 120 were sure to go immediately and may well be my favourites. Weird how these things go 😉

  4. Avatar
    Dallas Thomas May 08, 2019

    Pascal. another excellent set of images and article. I see this lens is a keeper also, does that mean you will keep them all???

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy May 09, 2019

      Thank you Dallas. Keep them all? I’m trying my hardest to find those to sell but it is proving a lot more difficult than anticipated … trouble, trouble, trouble 😉

  5. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron May 08, 2019

    The photos are wonderful – you appear to be on cloud nine – I can’t spot the question.☺

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy May 09, 2019

      Thanks Jean Pierre. Cloud 9 indeed.

      The question, poorly put, is whether a lens that I love but won’t use as it was designed for, doesn’t deserve to be sold to someone who will make better use of it. Right not, I don’t even want to think about that, though 😀

  6. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron May 09, 2019

    Pascal, you’ve probably noticed by now that I’m a bit slow, coming to a conclusion. I’ve been thinking about this post of yours for several days and to be frank, I don’t think you really need comments from the rest of the group.
    You have a new cam, which you clearly love. You are starting the process of kitting it out, as we all do with new cams. You are clearly having the time of your life, blazing away with it. You don’t need to be told the photos are sensational – you knew they would be, which is why you bought Hassy.
    So we’ll all sit back and admire your material, as each new chapter is released.☺

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy May 10, 2019

      Hi Pete, thank you 🙂 And comments are always welcome 😉 The system is a bit of a surprise. I bought it as you would buy a high quality tool. Previously all my gear investments had been more emotional than rational. So I wasn’t expecting to like it as much. It is freeing in many unexpected ways. With the 90mm review coming soon, I will end this cycle (for now) and get back to more traditional articles for me. But I’ve found it so difficult to find adequate information about this system when considering its purchase, that I feel an obligation to write down all my findings for other potential candidate.

      All the best,
      Pascal

  7. Avatar
    Brian Nicol May 10, 2019

    I love the collection of images in this post. Your images display the natural rendering (colour, tonal range, contrast, out of focus) that I love about my X1D system. You have done the XCD 120 credit with the breadth of your images and demonstrated its ability as well as delivered images that are artistically interesting instead of mind numbing test images that really show nothing.
    I find the X1D files are so flexible and one can crank up the contrast and saturation without the colour palette shifting – something that I have never found with any other camera.
    The smooth natural out of focus rendering of this lens is wonderful and correctly does not draw attention away from the subject but enhances it.
    The XCD is clearly an uber glass as demonstrated by your beautiful images.
    I also generally do manual focus to be in full control of my image capture but when I do use AF I find it to be the most consistently accurate system I have used. It does not work in low light but I never miss AF but I am not a sports photographer. This is the perfect system for shooting methodically as long as weight is not a consideration and then I have my amazing Panasonic G9 system which has amazing glass.

    I received the XCD 80/1.9 relatively recently and it is my favourite lens in the system and has a natural out of focus rendering that is as smooth as a properly poured Guiness.

    I have the rare as hens teeth XCD 135 plus 1.7x converter forecast to arrive in about 4 weeks which is causing a disaster. I was planning to sell my XCD 45 and other glass to fund purchases but I have discovered that the long normal 63mm full frame equivalence of the 80/1.9 needs the 35mm equivalence of the 45/3.5 and the 80/1.9 is killer on the wrist after 4 hours of taking photos. After a 5 hour shoot with the 80/1.9 I had to order a glass of wine as the pint of Guiness was just too heavy.

    Anyway I really enjoyed your article and you deserve these tools with your ability and they will certainly help you grow. I find the X1D really slows me down in a good way and to work the subject harder but take less but better images. My only regret if any is that I waited until 8 months ago to pull the trigger because of all the incompetent X1D reviews. Then I realized that if the superb photographer Ming Thein uses this camera then it must far exceed my abilities so pulllllll the trigger. My wanderlust for another camera is gone. I definitely do not need more.

    Thanks for sharing your invaluable insights and your gorgeous images!

  8. Avatar
    BrianNicol May 10, 2019

    I thought I came up with a creative funding plan but it is not going well. I checked my wife’s life insurance policy and then went over to a home supply store. I took two brands of duct tape to a sales person and asked which was better at suppressing screaming and where the shovel department was and now I am in a police interview room… where did I do wrong. The siren call of Hasselblad is ship wrecking me!

  9. Avatar
    Kristian Wannebo May 10, 2019

    Pascal,
    many of these photos look like you really enjoyed taking them!
    It’s great when one’s tool fits hands and mind so well.

    ( Craftsmen used to make their own tools to fit their hands, not so easy with photo gear..)

    Many strong photos here, methinks.

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