#864. Hasselblad XCD 3.2/90 review. Better than the OTUS 85?

By pascaljappy | Review

May 29

A weird shift has happened during my evaluation of the 5 Hasselblad XCD lenses at my disposal. Having been mesmerized by Hans Strand’s first sample photos with the XCD 30, that lens was the one I requested for my initial review and the first one I wanted to go in my own bag. And the XCD 21 and XCD 120 also found their way there simply because they were part of an interesting deal, my firm intention being to sell them very quickly. But those became favourites as soon as their review was over. And now that I’m testing my final lens, the XCD90 (which has stayed asleep in the pelicase for 3 months), I wonder whether that isn’t the best of the bunch …


This is getting embarassing. At every new review, my conclusion seems to be “oh, this is the best of the set, so far”. Some reviewer, right ? πŸ˜‰ But let me explain.


All of these lenses are extraordinarily sharp and well corrected. They are also close in rendering. The whole range (that I know of) shows high consistency in ergonomics and looks. However, now that my familiarity with these 5 lenses has grown significantly, it’s possible to identify a few heads sticking out in various directions.


The XCD 120 Macro is slower and larger than the rest. Its autofocus is very very accurate and it’s rendering is very gentle and transparent.

The XCD 45 is probably not quite as sharp as the others (while still being very sharp) and has the softest, most gentle rendering. It could be my only lens and I wouldn’t feel sad for a moment.

The XCD 30 is super sharp but also a little wee bit harsher. Ergonomically, it’s not quite as nice as the XCD 45, with a louder, crunchier autofocus and larger size. Still an absolute peach and a serious contender for my desert island lens.

The CXD 21 is a razor blade and also a little stark. It got me to love wide angle lenses and that’s saying a lot. It’s large but a joy to use and very clever optically. If there’s a better lens for architecure, I’d love to meet it.

My impression is that (roughly speaking) the longer the focal length, the more gentle the aesthetics. And the shorter the focal length, the starker the look (with some variation, as I feel the XCD 30 is maybe even a tad more severe than the XCD 21).

And the XCD 90, well, that’s just Goldilocks.


While it doesn’t quite play the same Jedi mind tricks with 3D rendering as my former Distagon 1.4/35 ZM or an Otus, it still offers a very beautiful sense of depth with a very gentle transition from sharp to unsharp and great smoothness of bokeh.


In fact, this feels like a very natural lens, just lke the remarquable XCD 120 reviewed recently. In my early tenure of these XCD lenses, the relative lack of “pop” compared to Zeiss’ finest frustrated me and I wrote to Ming Thein to get his opinion about it. His surprised answer was “Even the 90?”. Now I understand why.


In use, this is as close to a perfect lens as I’ve ever seen. The AF is snappy (for this range and camera), shutter noise is very slightly more metallic that the super gentle XCD 45 but still very pleasant, the optical quality is – once again – insanely high. It is short-ish, not heavy, and perfectly balanced in the hand and on the camera. The 21 and (even more so) the 120 feel very cumbersome in comparison. This, is an absolute corker.


3D pop (vs Otus 85)


How does it compare to an Otus 85 ? The promised comparison in the title wasn’t just clickbait πŸ˜‰ For me, this question is important as I only can / want to keep one of the two.

The obligatory bicycle photograph (he remembered!!!) and an illustration of how linear and natural the sharp to unsharp transition is.

Comparing the two might be meaningless because the Otus goes almost 3 stops more open, is manual focus, requires an adapter and silent shutter. It vignettes quite heavily, not the XCD … apple to oranges. My only interest here is in rendering. Both are sublime lenses. But which is more to my tastes? Or yours?


Let’s get sharpness out of the way. But are much sharper than the sensor can resolve (on most of the surface, in the Otus’ case).


The Otus (here at f/4, 3 stops in) is very slightly better at the center and the XCD 90 (at its f/3.2 full aperture) beats it from 15mm and outwards.

Otus 85

More interesting are bokeh and pop. If you compare the Otus 85 photograph above to the cat photo further above or the tree below (you can click both to open larger files in separate tabs) the Otus feels like it has more depth, even in the out of focus zones. The XCD 90 seems both a tad more nervous and a bit flatter. Leaving aside the vignetting, which is easy to correct at mid and short distances, the sense of volume on the tree trunk is a tad better than the sense of volume on the cat’s head. Audrey (Distagon 1.4/35 ZM) and Otus lenses are extraordinary at that 3D game. To be fair to the Hassy, the oak tree below is “flatter”, relative to its distance, than the walnut above. But still, I think the Otus does a slightly better job of recreating the volume of the trunk and of depicting its integration in the scene. The oak looks slightly more cut-out, as in Japanese tunnel books. But the Hassy picture looks more … natural (a word that comes up regularly).


So, the Otus is a bit more charming and the XCD a lot more practical and a bit more neutral … thinking cap on for now. End of comparison (for now) but I’ll get into more thorough tests soon. In the mean time, any lens that can do that sort of 3D is good enough for me :

Click to see the world’s first F1 levitating pilot!

Flare and glare


This will be quick. To see any measure of those, you’ll need pretty extreme conditions.


In real life, none of my photographs have been affected by flare or glare with this lens.


The cloud test


This is as unscientific as it gets. But I find that clouds are never well rendered by poor lenses. They look flaky and artificial. And this is only made worse by aggressive post processing. So here are a few clouds with all manner of PP for a very subjective evaluation.


Bokeh. To swirl or not to swirl?


Until this photo popped up in my test files import, there had been no indication of swirly bokeh anywhere in any conditions. But here, at ful f/3.2 aperture and about 4m to the main subject, it does seem like the very edges are starting to dance about slightly (also, you can see chromatic aberration in the out of focus zones, at the junction between the hills and the sky). And here it is again, close up and at ful aperture. It seems that the closer and more open you are using the lens, the more it will swirl about the background. That’s new to me in this range and probably indicates some field curvature at close distances.


In most situations, however, bokeh is very simple and creamy, within the limits of what a lens limited to f/3.2 can achieve.


Operational considerations

Along with the 45, this has the most pleasant and fastest autofocus. It’s not able to transform the X1D into a Sony A7S3, but it’s fast enough to focus on stuff that moves. Also the AF noise is far better than on the XCD 30 or the XCD 120, both noisy blighters.


All XCD lenses have big, heavy glass elements and aren’t designed for fast autofocus. Optical quality is the name of the game, focusing speed comes a very distant second. But The XCD 45 and XCD 90 will let you deal with family / pet / some sports conditions if you’re willing to put some effort into it rather than rely exclusively on a machine to tell you where your kid’s eyes are located.

Truthfully, though, this system is much more about accuracy than speed and I very much hope it always remains that way. It’s great to know the Swedes have provided us with a way to escape the tyranny of speed and numbers. Keep it up guys, and thank you. Now if Sony would consider ISO 25 sensors, it would be bliss all over πŸ™‚


Chromatic aberration

None whatsoever in focus but you will find some in out of focus zones, as illustrated by the first photograph in the bokeh section, above.


In B&W

Judging a lens by the look of the monochrome photographs it produces is also rather subjective, given the amount of PP that goes into those, but revealing nonetheless. When we judge the look of a lens, we tend to evaluate potential colour casts and chromatic aberration as well as geometric rendering. Not only does a b&w conversion eliminate the colour component from the mix (freeing your mind to judge only the latter aspects) it also helps you see the sort of look the lens draws you towards. Or, if you have a personal style, whether the lens suits it well or not.

And, boy, is this a lovely system for monochrome imagery!


The XCD 90 feels very transparent with excellent in-focus 3D and good bokeh 3D that creates a look better served by global contrast manipulation than by small scale contrast wizardry (clarity). It doesn’t have that etched look that many beginners confuse with sharpness and results are better served by maintaining that natural quality than by trying to add artificial brittleness. I particularly enjoy the separation of objects deep in the shadows (such as the hand at bottom right, above) that makes it easy to plunge large parts of the frame into darkness while retaining a lot of life. And, given the camera’s natural abilities with highlights (see the horse behind the youg girl at center, three pics above), the combo is absolutely wonderful for fine art monochrome photography.


In closing


I’ll leave you with a few more photographs, many made in Arles on a “Guardian” (literally cowboys, in Camargue) day, where the colour of the stone and the festive garnments gave the Swede combo sweet emotions.


What strikes me most with this lens is the sense of freedom it gives me. Its snappy(-ish) autofocus makes it great for decisive moment photography (if HCB got a dime every time someone misused that term, right?) But that’s not all. Compared to others, in particular the XCD 120 Macro, it’s fairly obvious Hasselblad have let some correction go to the wind. It’s still an impeccably noble lens, but there are traces chromatic aberration in the out of focus zones, and there can be some swirl in the bokeh. I believe the positive flip side of this is that sense of breathing and freedom that is very rarely found in modern lenses. In many ways, this XCD 90 reminds me of a better behaved Audrey (Distagon 1.4/35 ZM).


This post marks the end my series of reviews of the Hasselblad X1D system (so far). So it’s fitting to conclude it with a DearSusan signature photograph of a bicycle, right? πŸ˜‰ Seriously, though, this photographs says a lot about the system. It is one that doesn’t attempt to do all things but does them remarkably well:

  • Yes, you have autofocus and will be able to track passing horses, but the system is happiest with slow moving subjects.
  • Colours are out of this world.
  • The great transparency and lovely rendering are well suited to a naturalist approach. Maybe you can slap on great presets and obtain gorgeous photographs. But this isn’t spicy curry, it’s the best sashimi in the world and it is best enjoyed au naturel.
  • The system is an absolute joy in black and white as well, although it did take me a lot of readjusting. Files don’t respond all that elegantly to harsh treatment and great mood swings of the clarity slider (which was one of the most pleasing tricks with the A7r2 and Audrey). They feel far more traditional in that they far prefer local burning and dodging, a la film days. This may have to do with Phocus more than with the camera, but I’m judging the system as a whole.
  • The least pleasurable aspects of the camera are the dust magnet sensor, a major pain that also takes me back to the film days – a sensor booty shake sure would be nice – and a certain proneness to crashing whenever I try to hurry it rather than wait for operations to complete naturally.
  • The most pleasurable aspects of the camera are its understated looks and build, absolutely intuitive ergonomics and fabulous image quality. Hasselblad – unlike anyone else in the field – don’t seem to care about specifications. I’m regularly shooting at ISO 1600 when others are at 200 thanks to IBIS. There is no noise reduction cheating. There is no fancy top speed, buffer rate … And none of this matters, ever. It is just such a relaxing camera.

It takes time to get to know and appreciate a system. What I now realise and admire is the design logic behind these Hasselblad XCD lenses. Initially, after years of using adapted old lenses on a Sony camera, the XCD range felt a little bit clinical and soulless. Nothing could be further from the truth.


What Hasselblad have designed is a set of lenses each optimised for a special application. The 21 has the rigourous geometry and slightly hard rendering that suits architecture. The 30, with its slightly hard edge, is astonishing in low light and the sort of configuration you’ll find in landscape photography. The 45 is small, fast, tolerant and ideal for street. The 90 is snappy, accurate, breathy and probably the most beautiful of the lot. It feels perfect for portraits and fashion. The 120 is slow, incredibly sharp, natural and accurate. It is the perfect naturalist lens. All have mind blowing MTF (and a price tag to match) but that’s only the basis on which each individuality has been built. It’s a fabulous system and I can’t wait to try out the newer lenses and the new cameras.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I bet you wish you’d had this gear while you were still able to photograph Biskit – that shot of the cat is stunning!
    (Not a word from me, about bicycles! πŸ™‚ )
    I love the shot of the oak tree in the forest, from Winnie the Pooh! – I’m sure he and his friends would be delighted that you remembered to include their earthly paradise.
    The curtain before the levitationist dumps on the smaller formats – getting that amount of detail of the threads in the cloth would, I suspect, defy all of the DSLRs and their associated menagerie. BTW, that shot of the leviationist reminds me – somewhere I have photos of some of my dogs, racing across the sand at the beach, with all four paws clearly all airborne at the same time. Maybe all speed freaks have a genetic pre-disposition to this phenomenon?
    And then the clouds – I often see cloud formations worthy of capturing – I have a folder full of such shots – but somehow, MF dumps on mine, because only in MF does the sheer magic of clouds shine through the photographic process. To use cloud shots otherwise, as in FF or smaller, there seems to be a real need for something more in the way of subject matter, to carry the clouds – and then it’s no longer a photo of cloud formations.
    Sorry to see the gas lamps in such a poor state of repair – I adore those lamps, I can’t pass through a town that still has any of them without photographing some of them.
    We were in Arles a couple of years ago – drooling all over the place, walking in the footsteps of one of the world’s greatest ever artists! – and it’s lovely to see more photos taken there – thanks for sharing them with us, Pascal.
    Now I have to get back to work – post processing – or rather, a rescue job – my wife’s camera has finally died, and I am trying to rescue what I can from the final memory card. The first quarter of the card seems to be intact – the second quarter was where trouble struck, and in addition to shots that transferred normally I’ve been able to rescue about a dozen others there, thankfully. I now have the remaining half of the card to deal with, and the deterioration of whatever went wrong continues to get worse, as I work forward from here. I suspect three shots in the first half will prove to be irrecoverable. Time will tell, with the rest of the card.
    Coming straight on the heels of my first experience with a major information dump off the XQD cards in my D850, I am underwhelmed. Nowhere did Nikon draw attention to the problems associated with using THEIR software to transfer images from THEIR cards to my computer. By the time I found out what I was up against, and realised it’s only workable to transfer them in batches, I had also found that unless you’re VERY careful you don’t get ALL the images transferred. I don’t remember the exact figure, but about 3 or 4 images in the first batch did not come through, and I had to go back, check ALL the images that had come through against ALL the images on that section of the card, identify the ones that had NOT come through, and transfer them individually, to make quite sure I got all of them.
    Which was a complete pain in the butt.
    And if you think that’s bad, it got worse. NOT being allowed the luxury of telling the system to delete files after transfer – because that could have cost me any that got caught in the cross fire, and I wasn’t prepared to take that risk – I then had to put the card back in the camera and delete the files that HAD transferred, one file at a time. And work on, to the other end of the card. Such fun, with well over 1,000 shots, in batches of 200 a time! Sorry Nik – get off your fat ass and do something useful – it might boost sales!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Jean Pierre. Arles is a lovely off the beaten path sort of place full of history and culture. It deserves better recognition, but I’m selfishly glad it doesn’t get it πŸ˜‰

      I hope you find a way to salvage all the files in your wife’s camera and to replace it with something worthy.

      Your card story is horrific. Has that been resolved yet?

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I thought Arles was lovely too, when we were there – apart from Vincent and the “faux” replica of the bridge in his legendary painting, I don’t know much about the history of it. But just being there was wonderful. And having just had a surfeit of tourists, I think Arles is all the more beautiful because they DON’T all go there! With you 100%, on that one. Still looking for a book on how to swear in chinese!

        Card problems? I have learned a lot, this week. I’ve spent $200 on software, and thankfully already had a Lexar program from before they went broke. None of them do everything. They are all nuts, the way they display whatever images they find. One goes from A to Z, one goes from Z to A, one doesn’t display names, one generates its own names that match nothing & nobody else. There were apparently over 600 images on the card, and I’ve rescued all but about 10-15. It’s taken all my spare time since last Sunday. Saved the last one, and put in in the correct folder to enable me to start on post processing, just after 5:00pm – just in time to walk Cris, before we head off to the supermarket.

        And I really didn’t appreciate Nikon jumping on the band wagon and creating a transfer system as frustrating and pathetic as that! Next time, I’ll know better when I start – but with anything over about 200 images (which is the common result of a big shoot!), I imagine it’ll be a never-ending problem.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Jean Pierre,
      you seem to have good recovery software, (I’ve no experience except occasionally with my Nokia N810,) but, just in case, i saw this today:

  • Pascal, reading your conclusion nearly made me race to buy an X1D and your lens set. Then I remembered that my time on this planet would be very limited so that idea went out the window. Seriously the X1D is a great performer and needs TLC to be at its peak by the sound of it. I can feel for you about selling lenses. I have 2 new Milvi waiting for me on my return. The plan was to sell the 21 to be replaced by an 18 and the 35 as its surplus (well maybe) since I got the 25. The 85 will its feels the gap between the 50 and 135.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, selling is more difficult than buying, undeniably πŸ˜‰ The problem is compounded by the fact that all have very different uses. Real uses for me. Whenever I’m off for a photo session, my hand reaches for one of the lenses, not two and that always fits the bill. Previously, my selection was based on rendering, not use, so I could get away with just one or two. Oh the humanities.

      With the Milvus lenses, it’s also heartbreaking to part with any of them. The 25, 50, 85 and 135 are so lovely … Yes, you could let the 21 and 35 go. Make a big noise about it so you can remind the whole world of your efforts on your next shopping spree πŸ˜€

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    Two shots I absolutely loved (in addition to the cat, of course): The first one is the color shot of the curtain; the second one is the b&w of the woman and man on a white horse. Both are masterful.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Cliff. The b&w lady and man on the horse is probably my favourite of the lot as well. The tones are so lovely and she has such a noble face. It’s really hard to take photographs of human beings in France. Fortunately, this was a public exhibition, so it was all allowed πŸ™‚ Cheers

  • Michael Fleischer says:

    To my eye, this lens and lens/camera/PP really brings out a “vivid soft delicacy” if such an expression exist that are so persuasive! Colours & b&w tonality are very subtle in many of your fine images that it makes me wonder what they must look like larger!! Also the clouds seems 3D yet with an evasive quality preserved.
    The only lens I know of (and have) that approaches in rendering style (except the swirling bokeh) for FF is the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art “Dicke Berta” but its also 1,8kg, all inclusive! Ouch ;-(
    Love that cat photo, the transition seems to melt away as well as the mosquito curtain!
    Cheers from Michael.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Michael. That’s my impression as well. Vivid and delicate at the same time. You can click on most of the photographs for a larger view. I’ve not printted them large. Yet πŸ˜‰
      Wow, a 105/1.4! That sounds mighty promising. Yes, the weight is a bit daunting, but in a studio or project setting, what alens that could be.


  • Brian Nicol says:

    Hi Pascal, a great article and images. I am embarrassed to say that you had me at the cat image. I also was particularly drawn to the Lady in red and the fabric on the bed post images.The b&w images have a natural beauty as well. I have to say my entry into the X1D system has been a revelation and my financing plans and system plans have been thrown overboard. I initially purchased an XCD 30, 45, 90 package. I assumed I would sell the 45 and 90 and other glass to fund a 21, 80, and 135. I did sell the 90 and have the 80 which is an incredible lens and like a long normal (63mm) which is my favourite focal length. However, through usage I have found the 45 valuable and a nice in between focal length to the 30 and 80. I find my Leica Q-P and Xcd 80/1.9 make a wonderful light around kit with complementary strengths. The xcd 45 is so compact and light and a lovely rendering so I can no longer sell. Eek! I sold Audrey and will be selling a lovely Leica 75/2 APO m lens. However, I need to make further hard decisions but the X1D files are so gorgeous and the glass is wonderful- I used to love my Leica and Zeiss glass but native glass is so much more convenient and provides the AF option when desired. However, I need to do something soon as the 135 plus 1.7x is apparently going to arrive shortly. The X1D system has opened up my photography to surpass my dreams and all the negative incompetent reviews delayed my purchase until 9 months ago – I am no longer looking for more. This system challenges me to be better, encourages me, and is an artistic pleasure. All the negative people do not know what they are really missing.
    Again, thanks for your competent review and great images.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Waiting for this site to warm up, and seeing the heading to this article, I was struck by a thought.

    You cannot realistically compare an FF lens with an MF lens. What is necessary, before the comparison is valid, is to have the lenses both made for the same format and tried on any camera you like, using that format.

    In this case, it’s commonly treated as a “given” that any old lens on a larger format camera is likely to outperform the best of lenses on a smaller format camera. The pages of the internet are smother with such comments/conclusions.

    From a purely personal point of view, I admit to having had a lifelong love affair with Zeiss glass (and while it remained possible, their cameras, too). My personal impression is that Zeiss glass simply transfers the image from reality to photo. With no personality shift. What you see is what it gives you. That is why I love it so much. I’ve seen comment elsewhere as to things that lenses do for the photographer who chooses to use them – hinting at shifts in rendering that are more appealing. Great for whoever likes that, too – not my cup of tea – anyway, I don’t drink the stuff – perfectly happy to drink wine or coffee instead

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