Real-World Review: The Hasselblad H4D-40

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What would you shoot if you were loaned a Hasselblad H4D-40? Recently, I had the opportunity to shoot with one. Having been a medium format film shooter back in college, using this camera seemed almost like I was coming back home. To see just what it could do, I put it to the test in a natural-light studio, against a medium format film camera.






The Sleek, Ergonomic and Stylish Design

For a long time, medium format film cameras have been the standard for high-end professional photographers. When it came to the printed image, DSLR's came close—but couldn't match—the tonal range, detail and bit depth that a Hi-Res 6x4.5 or 6x7 negative scan provided. DSLR technology was—and is—an evolving technology that was beleaguered by "different dog, same fleas" issues. A promising and expensive new camera would come to market, only to be plagued by problems that ranged from annoying to outright unacceptable. Yet, 120 film was comparably an inexpensive, tried-and-true medium, penultimate only to large format in terms of large exhibition-quality enlargements.

In the last few years, this has changed. The DSLR sensor has grown to not only surpass 35mm film in resolution and tonality, but also in highest useable ISO. Digital medium format has also become more prominent among professional photographers. Either their established client base could justify the costly investment, or competition demanded it. Photography schools have also joined the digital age, scrapping their color and black-and-white darkrooms in exchange for high-tech capture studios and inkjet printing workstations.

Over the last 15 years or so, I have either shot or assisted on shoots with Hasselblad, Mamiya, Fuji, Pentax or Contax medium format film cameras. And on a few occasions I have had experience working with digital-capture devices such as Megavision, Leaf and Phase One. Often, whatever time the digital devices saved by removing film from the equation was  lost because of bugs, crashes, hard drive failures, loss of power, or failure to read the instruction manual.

So how does the Digital Medium Format image compare to its scanned-film counterpart?

I recently had the opportunity to use the H4D-40, Hasselblad's recent contender in the megapixel race. The camera has a very cool, sleek and compact design. Those familiar with Hasselblad's 503CW, various 645s, or Pro-DSLR cameras in general, will feel right at home with the H4D's configuration. The hand grip (which is also the battery), is encased in grip-stop rubber, providing stability and security, while allowing for a quick release to swap out batteries.

Whether your hands are small or big, you should be able to comfortably support the camera in your right hand, while using your left hand for additional support and quick manual override focus. When smaller lenses like the HC 80mm f/2.8  are attached, hand-held operation is comfortable and fluid.

The back (which contains the sensor), the lenses, battery/grip and viewfinder prism attach securely to the body.  Nothing shakes or wiggles. Lens housing is all metal, with generously-sized rubber grip rings for focusing and zooming. The black metal housing is very sleek, but is susceptible to scratches. The lettering and numbering on the barrel are painted on, rather than being etched—leaving them unprotected, over time, from sweat and rubbing during handling.

The pounds quickly pack on when longer lenses like the HC Macro f4/120mm or the HC 35-90mm f4.0-5.6 zoom are attached. Yet, even though substantial weight and length is added to the camera, the whole unit still feels balanced.

When shooting, users can photograph tethered to a computer, via Hasselblad's Phocus Capture software, or untethered—using a CF card.

Ease of Use

The Menu/Button layout is almost completely concentrated topside on the right, and can be easily reached and changed by the thumb and index finger. Exposure control is close by, on the right side of the prism. Self Timer, Bracketing, Interval, Settings and Drive are set by scrolling through the menu via the LCD screen. Flash, Autofocus, ISO/White Balance, display light and on/off buttons are found bordering the LCD screen. Someone with large enough hands and some practice could access the functions as well as fire the camera, all with the right hand.

When the camera is untethered, users have access to the LCD menu and viewing functions. Here, available options for ISO, White Balance, Image Browsing, Storage and Settings can be accessed.

Images can be previewed, batch-organized and deleted here when shooting using the CF card. Menu, Navigation, Zoom and View buttons are placed along the bottom and left of the display, for quick access.

The Spherical Acute-Matte D viewfinder screen delivers 100% view with an accurate crop frame. The information bar displaying exposure compensation, f/stop and aperture is minimal and non-distracting. The area of view is quite large and bright. White balance presets are very accurate when capturing daylight. Images right out of the camera are vivid and sharp.

Obviously, this is a very brief description of the H4D-40's topography. Users new to Digital Medium Format might initially be a little overwhelmed by the breadth of the camera's customizability and new technology. Hasselblad provides a very comprehensive manual, with root maps for all of its functions, on its website.

Workflow

While this camera works well using a CF card, its true abilities shine when tethered and used with the Phocus software. Phocus is free to download, and has a very short learning curve.

Shooting parameters can be set on the initial capture to determine subsequent capture workflow. For example, if one wishes to photograph in black-and-white, Phocus can be set up to automatically preview incoming captures as Grayscale.

One thing I found puzzling was the camera's lack of output-size flexibility; it fires off 114MB 5478 X 7304 pixel files(.fff) all the time. When a CF card is used, it creates 52MB compressed .3fr files. Afterwards Phocus can 'Export' files to various sizes and 8 to 16-BIT formats including DNG, JPEG, Layers PSD, and TIFF files ranging from 229 MB to 382MB.

There is also a small pop-up flash built into the prism. It feels a little out of place to have a point-and-shoot-style flash on such a pro-level, hi-res camera. Since the camera's hot shoe doesn't readily accept flashes like a Canon Speedlite (according to the manufacturer's instructions) it's nice to know the internal flash is there just in case. Hasselblad recommends the Metz series of portable flashes using the SCA 3902 adapter.

The LCD on the back of the camera, used when untethered, does a weak job rendering image previews, color temperature and color balance accurately, in my opinion. For those who 'chimp' while photographing, Phocus does aid in correcting these things post-shoot. Understandably, using a 3" LCD screen to critique 114 MB images may not be the best workflow practice, but there are time when carrying a laptop isn't feasible. 

I tried using a speedlite with a ringflash attached on the camera's hot shoe. (Again, the instructions suggest against this.) While this may not damage the H4D-40's hot shoe, the pins on the bottom of the speedlite risk getting shaved off if an adapter isn't used. The camera's white balance was set to the Flash pre-set, and some exposures were made. The resulting images were initially very cool when opened in Phocus, and to render correctly, balance had to be set to 'Shade' rather than Daylight, Cloudy, or Flash.

Using Autofocus in daylight was very easy. At times it was quicker and easier to manually override auto focus, which was done by simply turning the lens barrel. Focusing was somewhat difficult in low light, specifically when only a flash was used, or in twilight. In low light, the True Focus system sometimes jogged back and forth a bit to find a focal point, particularly when signage was in the same focal plane.

Studio and Wedding/Event photographers, who have already been using medium format for some time, should not have any issues with the auto focus. Street and sports shooters who primarily use 35mm may initially be slowed down by the one-frame-per-second speed limit, overall weight and focusing noise. Their reward will be the near-perfect color 30" enlargements that they can offer their prospective clients.

Long-time Hasselblad users will notice the continued absence of any analog controls on the lenses. Manual focus, compared to T* Zeiss lenses, is very quick, and requires little effort to rotate the barrel. True Focus is quick, albeit noisy, aided by a light mounted in the grip, so it is unobstructed at all times. Using True Focus in conjunction with the Absolute Position Lock (the mechanism which computes subject distance during initial focus/composition and subsequent immediate recomposition) requires some practice. Once mastered, it allows the photographer to lock focus—on a subject's face for example—and then recompose the image.

I was not able to test it, but Hasselblad offers a CF Lens Adapter that allows lenses from the V system to be used on the H-series. Hasselblad has also included DAC (Digital Auto Corrections) for the majority of Zeiss lenses within Phocus.

 

I shot the images in my yard—which I had turned into a daylight studio—so more time was spent chasing light and adjusting scrims and reflectors than figuring out a smooth, tethered workflow. Tethering via a Firewire 800 to 400 cable, setting the correct white balance and exposure was very quick. Since I had was using my older MacBook (2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB RAM, 64MB VRAM), using the camera was a bit of a slower experience. Phocus often gave the Mac 'spinning beach ball' getting a lot of screen time—though it never crashed. After further research, I found I had the minimum amount of RAM installed, but not nearly enough VRAM (Hasselblad suggests at least 512MB). To be fair, the Hasselblad system performs superbly on a modern laptop fully configured with 8GB of RAM and a graphics card with 512MB VRAM.

I found valuable the instant feedback that this camera provided. Not only could I quickly refer to the laptop for technical issues, but I could also show my subjects what was happening. A four-year-old child who was initially resistant to being photographed, became very willing and interested after seeing his images come up on the screen. Obviously, trying this with self-conscious subjects could backfire, but my experience, overall, is that I gained more trust by being able to share a little bit of the process.

When I took to the street with the H4D, I quickly attracted attention. I personally felt a little uncomfortable walking around with $30,000 of gear on my shoulder and around my neck, especially with the nosey passersby who would inquire about the camera. The 4GB CF card also filled up quickly, topping out at about 50 exposures. The battery faired quite well, supplying enough power for well over 200 actuations, including extended LCD previews. It definitely required a solid overnight charge, so spares are mandatory.

Film vs Digital

The impetus behind this 'test' was to see first hand how Digital Medium Format compared with Film Medium Format. I compared my own workflow (Mamiya 7II 6x7 camera, 80mm lens, using Kodak ISO 160 VC film slightly overexposed, developed Normal, hi-res scanned via an Imacon 949 @ 150 MB) with images straight out of the Hasselblad, using the HC 2.8 80mm. 

Both images were taken minutes apart and were exposed according the readings from a handheld incident meter (Minolta IV F). The Mamiya 7II meter read the same reading as the incident meter, while the Hasselblad metered the scene slower, thus the image is a little 'hotter'.

(Above) Kodak 160 VC shot with a Mamiya 7II / 80mm Lens 1/60th f4.5 (exposed at ISO 100). Full-frame 6X7 negative scanned as a 16 BIT .fff file using an Imacon 949. Image was inverted to a positive, and quick levels/curves adjustments applied. No sharpening or any other retouching applied.

(Above) Hasselblad H4D-40, using a 33 X 44mm CCD sensor, and HC f2.8 80mm lens, shot ISO 100, Daylight White Balance, 1/60th sec. at f/4.5. A 52 MB compressed .3fr file shot untethered on a CF card. Image was opened in Phocus and automatically opened to 114MB, then converted to an 8 BIT .dng file. Slight histogram adjustment in Phocus applied. No sharpening or any other adjustment applied.

First of all, yes, I recognize the magnification differences using an 80mm lens on a 6X7 camera vs. a 645 camera. I also realize that the file sizes are not the same (scan = 16.5 X 20" at 280ppi; H4D-40 file = 19.5 X 26" at 280 dpi) and that someone decided to stroll across the film plane of the first image. But again, this was supposed to be a rough test between a tried-and-true method and piping-hot technology. I already imagined that a scanned 6x7 negative would show more detail, but how close could the 40MP back match? Well, see for yourself...

Imacon .fff Scan converted to 150 MB TIFF (Left)  vs. H4D-40 .3fr converted to DNG (Right) viewed at 100%. View full size here.

Imacon .fff Scan converted to 150 MB TIFF (Left)  vs. H4D-40 .3fr converted to DNG (Right) viewed at 200%. View full size here.

The scanned negative holds a lot of detail in the reflective paint, especially in the letters, while the letters in the DMF image appear to 'zebra' a bit. Yet, in the solid green of the two signs, the film scan starts to show grain while the Hasselblad's digital image stayed smooth and vibrant. In fact, the H4D-40 output vibrant, but somewhat punchy colors with a push of a button. When just considering how the pixels behave when viewed at 100% and 200%, the 6X7 scan has an advantage...but not that much for a file that is 36 MB bigger, in my opinion.

What is also visible is camera shake. The Mamiya is great in low light because although its widest aperture is f/4.0, with the right body positioning I have been able to hand-hold it easily at 1/2 sec. Usually the slowest possible shutter speed without blur due to camera shake is equal to the length of the lens, which in this case means 80mm = 1/80 sec. At 1/60th, the slap of the large mirror caused a bit of blur, which could have been avoided had I locked up the mirror, which one can do on this camera.

Conclusion

Obviously, there will need to be some cost/benefit analysis done before deciding to own a camera like this. Of course, there are much less cost-prohibitive imaging solutions, such as using a Canon Rebel and the Canon Capture Utility, which I have also used. If you are looking for stealth, or if you need to photograph action at 7 frames per second, there is a plethora of DSLR cameras with large sensors that fill that niche.

My opinion is that the H4D-40 is a solid photographic tool. With its modular line of accessories, sharp lenses, and robust features the camera offers all the features needed for control freaks in the studio. Location photographers can rely on quickly accessed presets, precise metering, and out of the box accurate 16 BIT color rendition. Professional photographers who have art directors glued to the computer monitor will appreciate the real-time editing, image rating, and presentation abilities Phocus has to offer. For Fine Art photographers, the H4D may be a filmless solution to the way they capture images and make large exhibition quality prints.

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Good review.  Nice to see film is still holding up to medium format digital.