#1337. United Colours of X1D

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Jan 12

Since my recent love letter to Hasselblad consisted mainly of b&w photographs, a few readers rightly contested my praise of the X1D’s colour science 😉 This post is here to explain what it is I like about those colours, and contains (almost) only colour photographs to back up my words. The concept …

 

Please excuse the lack of thematic unity of the photos on this page. The reality is that, to make my matters worse, I actually don’t shoot in colour all that much 😆

But here’s what appeals to me when I do.

It’s all very subjective, and if you’ll allow the analogy, let’s talk about wine a little.

 

Wine can be bold, dense, light, strong, subtle, acidic, sweet, tannic, soft … It can be several of those things at the same time, though some are polar opposites. On wine forums, very often you’ll see wine praised for its taste when all it has to offer is strong alcohol content. A wine can be excellent with strong alcohol content, if it is balanced by something else, but alcohol level alone never makes for a good wine.

Likewise, colours in a photograph can be bold, intense, subtle, subdued, cold, warm, bright or dull, and more. And what you or I like is completely down to personal preference. But, as in wine forums, photographers tend to clamour for intense colours that “pop”. And good colours can pop, but pop alone never makes for good colour science.

For wine and photo colours alike, my personal preference goes to subtlety, restraint, and the ability to transcribe very small nuances. That’s entirely personal, and that type of photo is neither inherently better nor preferable to one that pops like crazy. It just suits my style and preferences more. It’s also easily lost to bad screens, or viewing in bad conditions, so … mileages will vary.

 

If you work as a product photographer, absolute neutrality will be very very high on your list of priorities. If you focus predominantly on sunrises in the tropics, more zest might suit you better.

My photos largely fall into two categories: slightly abstract b&w images such as the ones in the previous post, and what’s being called terroir photography on this blog, i.e. documentary style images showcasing local cultures based mainly on the agricultural, culinary and architectural tropes of an area, typically shaped by the climate and the landscape. This, to me, is more interesting in colour. And since it is all about nuances of colours, textures, clothes, dishes, foliage, colour and transparency of the air, quality of the light … I love the subtlety the X1D has to offer in its files. Not all systems are friendly to the preservation of the quality of the light, in particular.

As you can see, none of the above 3 photographs is particularly vibrant. They are more lifelike than interpreted or boosted. I’m just not very good at creating intense colour and when my pics depart from realism, they typically do so in contrasty b&w. Also, France is not a very colourful country compared to Australia, the American South West, South Africa, … There are few red and blue birds around here, flowers are small and fragrant rather than huge and bold, winter paints everything grey brown (in my neck of the woods, at least) and I love to photographs those little nuances like others enjoy the intense red, yellow and blue of the Pilbara (mind you, I wouldn’t mind a few weeks down there myself 😉 )

 

So, what’s special about the X1D, in colour?

Technically, I couldn’ say. In fact, I think Jim Kasson found more bit depth in the GFX 100 than in the X2D, but don’t quote me on that. What Hasselblad does brilliantly is map the pixels from a sensor to files colours that feel super natural. Natural is the important aspect for me. And I believe that involves not just colour, but management of tones, particularly in the highlights. It’s also not exactly synonymous with neutral but that’s a fight for another day.

Every manufacturer has their signature colour science. Even Sony, who used to produce monstrosities with its early A7r, is now very good in terms of colour management. And what about Fuji, and its emulation of filmstocks we all loved, a bold colour palette, but a soft tone curve? It’s fantastic, and many users love it. But I have a thing for naturalness, and Hassy does that better than anyone else, even Leica. Leica has sublime colours, but they are a bit more an interpretation of reality than an absolute search for natural likeness, with every new camera imparting its own subtle style. Neither better nor worse, just a different choice of positioning.

 

So, does that mean Hasselblad cameras are just for neutrality bores? Yeah, y’all go buy something else so the prices can drop!!

But, no. You can shift and twist Hasselblad colours like any other. But, when you do, you begin to lose that uniquely natural starting point that is characteristic of Hasselblad. That’s why people with that sort of PP style simply cannot wrap their minds around why anyone would want the expensive paperweight that is an X-series Hassy.

That said, I believe you need to push really hard to lose the benefits entirely. This below, has been enhanced to meet the impression the trees made on me, rather than stick to the duller OOC look. But it remains natural and believable.

 

And I also feel that very natural and subtle starting point translates well into b&w. And, although I can easily go overboard with contrast, the pair below clearly shows how subtle b&w images can be with the X1D.

 
 

And the supremely transparent XCD lenses complement this. Let’s not forget the optics in the evaluation of any system, particularly now that most cameras have become very good.

While I’ve not used the X2D or more recent V series lenses, my feeling is that Hasselblad is injecting a tiny bit of subjectivity into its more recent products. The V lenses look a tad more organic to me, and the X2D looks a tad more pretty, closing in very slightly on the Leica ethos (meanwhile, the Karbe generation of lenses have strayed far from the Mandler vibe and ever closer to the Hasselblad rigor, so the convergence feels mutual).

In my mind, that newfound organicity(??) is very welcome, as the X1D / XCD pairing can sometimes feel a little dry and humourless. And the possibility of using files SOOC rather than having to process most of them must be fun. But it also makes me feel that the X1D is a one of a kind landmark product that will never be remade, and that’s why I am so fond of it and unwilling to let it go.

 

My frame of reference is often filmmaking. A movie must keep us captivated, in the zone, for hours. Just one blown highlight, one unnatural colour scheme, can snap us right out of it. Everything in film photography must be believable. And yet, the colours can be shifted to extremes, with some scenes very blue, others very yellow, some very dark, some almost white, some very dull, some extremely contrasty. And yet, always believable.

It sounds easy, but it’s really not. Just look at the highlights around the sun, or forest shots in 99.9% of photographs, and you’ll snap out of believability super fast 😉

Pricy (as in 5 or 6 figures) cine cameras have lowish resolution compared to (really) cheap cameras. But their colour science is top notch. The preservation of highlight detail is a major priority. Cine cameras focus on highlights, because not a single eye in human history has ever witnessed clipping. Photo cameras focus on low light because many togs need to be able to handhold exposures in dim conditions. Film used to lean towards the cine camp (and for good reason, it used the same medium) and I feel Hasselblad and Leica are the two brands that get us the closest to that (personal) ideal of total data preservation. Fuji is not inferior in any way, but focuses more on obtaining a polished look inside the camera, by default (the file quality then lets you do what you want, but few users will).

 
 

The first pic above is typical X1D. Very close to what my eyes saw. The second is an interpretation with colour shifts and 2.4:1 crop to imitate a movie frame. I like both but my preference goes to the first, because I can’t help feeling the second has lost a little bit of what makes the system exceptional.

This is why I would love love love love love (! 😉 ) Hasselblad to release profiles. While not atrocious, my colour grading skills aren’t the best. Certainly not as good as Hassy’s colour scientists, or a top talent in a Hollywood production.

With profiles, we would get some variety, different starting points than the neutral standard LUT, without losing its qualities. That would be so, so nice.

 

Back to wine. I love Burgundies, Sancerre, good Chianti and Nebbiolo … all of these can be intense, but good samples focus more on the nuances that highlight both the terroir and the work of the winemaker. Two neighbours will produce wines with slight variations that would be completely masked if the wines were over-oaked or unbalanced. That balance and nuances are what Hasselblad brings to … the table 😉

What the X1D does is ensure that – often with some PP – I can almost always faithfully recreate the scene that was in front of me, the atmosphere, the light, the colours. It always feels natural and true to the original, or how I perceived the original. And the PP involves contrast, luminance, local retouching, but no (or very little) work on the colours themselves. A scene that felt cold, flat and dull, will look the same on the photograph. A vibrant scene will feel the same in the final image. As you can see on the photographs on this page, there are many moods, all faithfully and naturally reproduced. I’m not saying other systems can’t do that, only that the X1D does it spectacularly well 🙂

Okay, enough from me. Here are a few more colour photographs. Let me know if you see what I see, or whether you think I’ve completely lost my marbles 😉

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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  • Pascal Ravach says:

    I think you didn’t loose your marbles, Pascal
    Your Hassy is the only camera that keeps tempting me since years, exactly because of this natural *feel* of your images, on top of your eye (great set of images, as often… nothing new under the (Provence) sun…).
    Then yes, I found it a (little) bit « sterile » at times, as I mentioned to you once, so if the new model is more organic, that might be the ultimate draw for me… if someone indulges in offering me a lottery ticket
    And another point I agree with is the fascinating qualities of the small Fuji… I don’t regret a second having invested in the Olympus M43 and now my new OM-1, they are fabulous just to *use* and so adapted to air travel; otherwise it would have been Fuji… while waiting to be able to buy the Hassy! Here, I confessed it ☺️

    • Pascal Ravach says:

      P.S. I agree with Jean-Pierre since long about the highlights and the shadows… this is where the medium format makes such a difference…
      And like you, I dream of an even larger sensor… ‘t will never stop 😀

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I came to colour late in life – between 1952 when I inherited a second hand Kodak Box Brownie and the late 1990s, almost all of my photography was black and white. Then came my first Pentax, and Fuji colour film, and cheap processing setups at most stationery stores, and I started to delve into colour. But I like to control process, as I always did with developing and printing my B&W photos, so that didn’t really “do it”, for me.

    Since immersing in digital, I’ve been able to take charge, at last – and practically all my photography has been colour ever since. That’s fair!

    So I’m wondering – did you start with colour, and now – like me – you’re doing the opposite?

    I’m with you with the wine analogy BTW – dad was a winemaker, he had his preferences, I had mine – and we argued endlessly. Personally I’ve always prefered the subtler flavours of cool climate varietals – but he like warmer climate, punchier blended reds. À chac’un son goût! Besides, what sort of teenager doesn’t argue with his father?

    So – like you – I don’t really go for colours that “pop”. Overall, my prints are more subdued – and sometimes (often in fact) when I look at the work of some of the pros, I just gasp – reacting – thinking they’re way overdone.

    And like you say – natural is “it” – both in colours, and in tonal range. I even err on the side of softer, rather than harsher. Despite what you can do, with a blazing Aussie sunlight. Of course with a Hassy, you kind of “cheat” at the edges – you have better highlights, better shadows than I can produce. And although I’ve never had a Hassy, I suspect that means that, at the end of the day, you can get a more lifelike image than I can. Put another way – I can approximate it – you can nail it!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete. Yes, I started with B&W and, like you, learned the smelly art of darkroom processing. It’s because of that experience that b&w always remained my favourite, as colour always feels more literal to me 🙂

  • Jon Maxim says:

    Hi Pascal. Thank you for following through with your promise to show what appeals to you about Hasselblad colours. What I particularly like about this article is your explanation about why you prefer the particular look. (Come to think of it, that’s what I like about all your articles). I find my enjoyment of an image is very much increased when I understand what the creator is trying to convey, and I find your pursuit to obtain images with natural colour to be admirable.

    Now, the term “natural colour” has become a real conundrum for me. I do know that my preference often tends towards the saturated side. I blame that on having grown up in the tropics and now living in a greyer clime – so I am trying to reclaim my youth. However, several photographers and artists that know me have commented on how keen my colour discrimination is. Even as a child, my father, who was a professional photographer, used to ask my opinion on colours in the proofs that he used to pull out of the lab. I must admit that I had become rather smug about it. So, I KNOW what natural looks like. However, now I KNOW that I am wrong. How?

    I recently had cataract surgery in my right eye. My surgeon warned me what would happen. But I was not prepared for what happened. The right eye suddenly sees everything brighter but, more important, everything is blue. It’s as if the left sees everything illuminated at 2,900K and the right at 6,000K. If you want to see what I mean open an image with both warmer and cooler hues in the Lightroom Develop module and slide the Temperature slider between 14,000 and 3,000. It’s that dramatic. It is both troubling and fascinating to open and close each eye and then see the scene with both.

    So now I really don’t know what natural colour is. It’s not just because of the colour temperature difference. I now realize that my right eye even sees some shades that my left does not! I think that is likely that no-one can actually determine whether an image is an accurate representation of the original scene’s colour (let alone all the problems with geometry).

    Perhaps the best way I can illustrate my feelings to DS readers is to compare your work to Ian Varkevisser’s. You definitely have a desire for natural colour and Ian likes to experiment. I really enjoy and admire both. I think we can all enjoy art more if we try to view the work as the artist intended rather than try to see what could be “improved”.

    P.S. I think your analogy to wine is perfect.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Jon, if it’s any comfort, in real life there are literally BILLIONS of different colours. And billions more, by the time you factor in tonal range.

      But in photography we use 8. Black and white, of course. Then cyan, magenta and yellow (in negatives) and red, green and blue (in positives). They in turn just “simulate” or “approximate” the colours we see in “real life”.

      And sometimes, when I get fed up with trying to “simulate” something realistic or acceptable, I just give up – and convert the image to B&W, or sepia, or something.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Jon.

      Sorry to hear the benefits of cataract intervention come with a change in light balance for the eye. Is that systematically the case, or is it just a temporary “contrast” impression due to the sudden removal of the “filter”?

      To a small extent, my eyes also see in slightly different temperature, but the extent of what you are experiencing is something else. I hope the brain compensates. And the loss of some shades altogether is even less pleasant. I guess that’s the way with all of us, we gradually lose some abilities (I sure don’t hop about like when I was younger …), at a pace that makes it unnoticeable, but when a change is sudden, it becomes more obvious.

      The body is a wonderful tool, and quite weird. When I photographed a formula 1 car at close range, a couple of years ago, the loud noise made me lose my hearing in the left ear. Not completely, but I have a 60dB drop at 4000Hz, essentially making me deaf at those frequencies on that side. I never realized, and the organizers are completely nuts to have let the public get so close (thousands of people probably have the same problem as me, now). It’s only when a doc tested me that it became obvious. Now, I can’t help noticing it all the time. Oh well … 😉

      • Jon Maxim says:

        Hi Pascal.

        I’ am not an accomplished writer like you are, and I realize I did not make my meaning clear. I have not lost any any shade. On the contrary, I now see better in every possible way – more shade, more colours, larger contrast range, clearer, etc. I would not hesitate to do it again (very minor surgery, almost no discomfort) for a huge benefit.

        What I was trying to explain was that what I thought was my perfect colour discrimination was anything but!

        You are correct that our brain does get used to the difference. Right after the operation, due to parallax differences, I would often see a double image “shadow” (kind of like looking through a rangefinder camera viewfinder before focussing) – but one image was very blue and the other one yellow. It has been a week since the operation, and now I barely notice it. What I do notice is much better vision. I can see it if I close one eye and then the other but otherwise, with both eyes open, I struggle to see the difference now. I’m looking forward to getting the other eye done and seeing even better.

        Sorry to hear about your hearing (pun not intended). Do you use a CROS hearing aid?

  • Frank Field says:

    Pascal — Thanks so much for these two posts. I “get” the Hassy appeal far better than I ever have before. Stick with what you love. Frank

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Thanks so much for another excellent post, Pascal. You may not be surprised to hear that of all your photos, I liked the yellow leaf at the beginning! (Though I still think your B&W images are even better.). I don’t know what “natural” or “organic” mean anymore. I confess to liking vivid colors, though not always, though that impulse is moderating these latter days. Getting an image to reflect how I remember the scene is tricky, as memory is malleable, fluid and unreliable–often it’s how I think I want to remember something!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Lad.

      You make an interesting point about creating photographs that look lifelike vs how we remember the scene. In that, in the field, I recognize that something is potentially interesting, at an intuitive level. And, later in PP, the photograph is “revealed”. And that works more frequently (for me) in b&w, because there is more latitude (again, for me with my process) for interpretation and impression. But, as I adopt a more documentary approach to the world around me, colour is beginning to play a more objective role. The results don’t please me as much as personal expression, but they are satisfying nonetheless as I feel I’ve left a trace of something worth remembering, just as you did in your Foot Bridge post (among many others).

      Cheers

      • Jon Maxim says:

        Hi Pascal AND Lad,
        I wish you two would stop extolling the virtues of natural colours. I already have one camera too many and don’t need my GAS to be fed any more.

  • Michael Keppler says:

    Whenever I see pictures taken with a digital Hasselblad, I am amazed by the colour reproduction. I photographed with Fuji cameras for several years and would never have dreamed of using the film simulations. When I take digital photographs, I want the camera to capture as accurately as possible what I see at that moment. Especially as there are no more beautiful colours than those created by nature. For good reason, natural pigments are used in the highest quality colours. If I ever wanted the colours in a digital shot to be different, I could adjust them in Photoshop or Lightroom. However, I find many digitally taken and post-processed images that are presented every day on Instagram or Flickr to be kitschy because of their unnatural or over-saturated colours. Even with colour film, I have always looked for the most natural colour reproduction possible. Colour reproduction is also the main reason why I’m considering adding a digital version to my analogue Hassys.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Michael, it’s the same with me. Anything in colour becomes more objective and rooted in reality, so the “overprocessed” images lose their appeal and feel kitchy.

      The switch from analogue to digital is a really difficult one, I feel. Film, while not always as measurably neutral, has benefitted from a lot of fine tuning to look natural, even when it isn’t perfectly. Besides, by its nature, film has a lovely decay in the highlights. And finally, I believe that the presence of small grain helps make the image look more natural too, and that high resolution digital has some sort of unnatural sheen to it.

      Until recently, I have found that *all* digital cameras failed at this and that the look of medium format film produced the most satisfying reproduction of natural subjects. But a few photographers have convinced me that digital can be made to look very very good. Kyle McDougal, mentioned in the article, adds a promist filter to cut that oversharpened look the Hasselblad lenses create. He uses an 1/8th, and I have ordered a 1/16th promist. That, and the new tone curve of the X2D make for something that’s really getting close to the best Mamiya and Hasselblad could produce in the analog days. Good times 🙂

      • Jon Maxim says:

        Hi Pascal AND Michael,
        I wish you two would stop extolling the virtues of . I already have one camera too many and don’t need my GAS to be fed any more.

  • Donald says:

    I am using Cobalt (cobalt-image.com) for several years: making the output of all kinds of cameras neutral and look like the same. Or is that cheating!?
    At least it is saving me lots of money for not buying the latest and greatest. Only the sensor format makes the real difference then…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Donald, that does not seem like cheating to me 😉
      If the camera captures the data in the first place, you are totally at liberty to process them to your own tastes.

      Cheers

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pascal, a really good read!

    And this time I find favourites.:

    The first photo with the Green leaves,
    that Row of trees
    after “… but few users will).”
    and that Wall abstract
    after “… lost my marbles.”

    ( I’m not going to discuss marbles, though…
    I’m not sensitive enough to colour nuances – and with an iPad mini 6 of unknown calibration it wouldn’t make sense anyway.
    Personally I consider shifting to a Nikon Z5 – not for colour (which is probably more than good enough for me) – but for IBIS, large pixels and that short register admitting even AF FE mount lenses with an adapter, especially the Samyang Tiny series! Plus all other adaptions…
    Btw., I cant afford a Hasselblad system anyway…)

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Hi,
    a short story to illustrate the discussion on natural colour.
    A cousin of my mother’s was a really good amateur photographer and when he visited us we always enjoyed his colour slideshows.
    Once he told us this.:

    He had taken a slide photo of an especially lovely sunset in the Alps and had gone to a professional lab in Stockholm to ask for a slide copy of it. When he later called for it the colours were all wrong!
    He asked how that could happen and they answered that it was the original colours that were all wrong, “Such colours don’t exist!”, so they had done their best to make the colours natural…
    And then he had a hard time convincing them that his colours were true, and grumbling they agreed to do a second – now true – copy.

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