Colorado Adventures with the Hasselblad X1D II 50C Medium Format Mirrorless Camera

Hasselblad X1D II 50C

When I was asked to join the fun of B&H’s Adventure Week, I was tasked with deciding on which camera to bring. I needed to photograph everything from striking scenery to some fast-paced action, and I needed a portable system to bring on crawls up mountains and hikes over sand dunes. Maybe not the expected choice, but I opted for the brand-new Hasselblad X1D II 50C, a medium format mirrorless camera. Considering my penchant for landscapes, I couldn’t shake the fact that I wanted to bring a medium format camera along on our tour of colorful Colorado, but could I stretch its assumed versatility to accommodate some faster-paced subjects also? I thought, “What’s it going to be like hiking all day with a medium format camera?” I was stubborn and convinced, though, that the X1D II was going to be the right tool for the job.

View from the top of Mount Evans
View from the top of Mount Evans; XCD 120mm f/3.5 macro lens at f/9.5

When you think of adventure-worthy cameras, a medium format camera doesn’t immediately come to mind as the first choice. They’re known to be sluggish, cumbersome, and unwieldy. Even considering the recent trend toward mirrorless systems that shed much of the weight and size, they are still not known to be the most spry of cameras. But with Hasselblad’s newest model, faster operation was promised, and it already sported one of the most desirable ergonomic designs out there. So how did the X1D II fare in the great outdoors? In short—impressively well, but it did require effort, luck, and some planning to keep up with our constant on-the-move pace.

Looking north on Colorado SH 150 at Dusk
Looking north on Colorado SH 150 at Dusk; XCD 90mm f/3.2 lens at f/6.8

The X1D II 50C is the second-generation camera body of the X System, and improves upon its predecessor, the X1D-50c, in a handful of incremental but important ways. Before going over the key updates, it’s crucial to highlight one of the distinguishing elements that remains roughly the same, and is also my favorite feature of the camera: the body design. The overall profile is virtually identical to the original X1D, which is to say that Hasselblad has nearly perfected how a camera should look and feel. It’s a bold claim, but it’s one by which I’ll stand. Just holding the X1D is one of the best experiences of using the camera—it fits into your palm perfectly with no crushed knuckles or dangling pinky, yet it still maintains a svelte profile. In terms of aesthetics, the X1D is the epitome of reductive Scandinavian design with minimalist, clean lines, a deep gray aluminum-alloy body, and no frivolous dials, buttons, or other physical features that aren’t completely necessary. Of the three dials on the camera, one worth noting is the unique mode dial, which retracts into the body to avoid accidentally switching modes and to maintain the streamlined profile. This dial is deployed or retracted simply by pressing it.

Mountain goats on Mount Evans; XCD 90mm f/3.2 lens at f/9.5

 Among the new physical features is a much-improved OLED electronic viewfinder—now featuring 3.69m resolution rather than the 2.36m-dot of its predecessor, along with a higher 0.87x magnification. This means the viewfinder is clearer, sharper, and generally just more pleasant to use in a variety of lighting conditions. Also new to the version II is a 3.6" 2.36m-dot rear touchscreen LCD. Besides being one of the largest LCDs featured on any camera, it’s also one of the highest resolutions, and has touch operation you’d expect from a mobile device. Long presses can be used to rearrange the mostly graphic menu system into a sequence you prefer, and touch controls also help to offset the lack of physical dials on the camera (for instance, you can touch to move the focus point when your eye is pressed to the finder.

Royal Gorge at Sunset
Royal Gorge at sunset; XCD 45mm f/3.5 lens at f/5.6
Sandboarding; XCD 120mm f/3.5 macro lens at f/6.8

Among the most talked-about updates for this camera is the use of a brand-new electronic platform, which promises to speed up overall performance for more intuitive handling. For anyone familiar with the original X1D, some of the most common complaints dealt with slow start-up times, slow refresh rates, long intervals between frames, long blackout times, and so on; it was pretty widely accepted to be a slow camera. The X1D II, however, feels much quicker, in the same way you would expect a new generation phone or computer to be noticeably faster than the previous generation. Hasselblad claims the new electronic platform cuts start-up times in half, as well as lends a more fluid overall shooting experience. I haven’t worked with the first X1D extensively, so I can’t compare the two directly, but using this new model, I can say I had no qualms with operational speed. Hasselblad also tweaked the beloved GUI a bit to make it even more simple to navigate, and the menu system can also be accessed when using the EVF (something I generally don’t do, but cool, anyway).

Endless trees near Echo Lake
Endless trees near Echo Lake; XCD 90mm f/3.2 lens at f/8

Before digging any deeper into the nuanced, but important, changes Hasselblad made with this camera, it’s still important to mention and reinforce that this is a medium format camera and the image quality is the real reason most would be looking to this camera over full-frame or smaller mirrorless systems. While no longer the highest resolution of the genre, the X1D II sports a still-impressive 50MP 44 x 33mm sensor, which is about 1.7x larger than full-frame sensors. Sure it’s not “true” medium format of an actual 645 format or larger, from the film era, but this size difference does make a difference. The pixel pitch, at 5.3μm, is notably larger than similar high-res cameras with smaller sensors. This larger pixel size is where the contentious “medium format look” comes from; whether or not this makes a difference to your subject matter or type of shooting is another story, but the fact is that they are larger pixels and it is a larger sensor size... and this leads to smoother transitions between tones and impressive shadow and color detail. The sensor also affords an impressive 14-stop dynamic range and 16-bit color depth, which attributes I seriously got to test in the harsh, direct sunlight of the mountains where the difference between shadows and highlights routinely surpassed 15, 16, or even more stops.

Great Sand Dunes at dusk and at mid-morning, XCD 90mm f/3.2 Lens at f/11, XCD 120mm f/3.5 Macro Lens at f/8

Another image-quality feature worth pointing out is the implementation of the Hasselblad Natural Color Solution (HNCS), which makes use of the 16-bit color depth, as well as with the large sensor size and pixel pitch. This is one of those features that gets skimmed over quite quickly, perhaps because it’s been a staple in Hasselblad cameras for a while, but in use, it’s really something special. To break it down quickly, the purpose of HNCS is to achieve a universal shooting profile to suit all subjects, rather than have to make hard and compromising decisions about color palettes for specific subject types. Using an in-house-developed LUT and dedicated processing algorithm, Hasselblad strives to produce natural colors, akin to the way film works in its objective and standard manner. Rather than being skewed for portraits or landscapes, this color-processing system seeks natural and neutral color balance for all subjects, which leads to continuity between different subjects, as well as impressively accurate color temperature and exposure metering results.

Isolated mountain scenes, XCD 90mm f/3.2 Lens at f/6.8, at f/8, and at f/8

Going back to some of the updates, I should also point out some of the other ancillary additions to this version II model: full-resolution JPEGs can now be recorded, though I think you’d be missing out on the truly special .3FR files if you only shot JPEG; a quicker 2.7 fps continuous shooting speed; and tethering is supported via USB Type-C directly to iPad Pros running Phocus Mobile 2, which I unfortunately didn’t get to test due to the availability of the app, but I expect this to be a tremendous feature for location shoots. By supporting iPad Pro-based tethering, Hasselblad is certainly continuing its mission “of taking medium format outside of the studio” in a very exciting way—and somewhat surprising that it’s never been introduced before. I’m really looking forward to trying this out in the future.

Mount Evans above tree line
Mount Evans above tree line; XCD 90mm f/3.2 lens at f/9.5

Now, in addition to the landscapes that I am fond of and where this camera clearly excels, I was also charged with the task of photographing my Adventure Week partners on their whitewater rafting excursion. Typically, I would want something like a flagship full-frame DSLR and super telephoto for this job but, well, all I had was the X1D II and a 90mm f/3.2 lens. Up for the challenge, I scouted their route along Clear Creek and picked a few vantage points ahead of time I figured I could race to as they paddled by, only giving myself a few shots at each location. I was scared I’d blow it—that my manual focusing skills weren’t quick enough or that the autofocus couldn’t keep up, either. But, as in other speed-related arenas, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the X1D II kept up with focusing, buffering, and kept blackout times to a bare minimum. I’m not saying this is the first camera I’d reach for each time I shoot sports, or that this was the fastest of paced activities, but for this isolated purpose, the camera greatly exceeded my expectations. Without any fancy focusing modes or tracking capabilities, each of these shots was made using a single center AF point, where I would focus and then recompose the old-fashioned way. Antiquated but reliable, I could actually see the X1D II being a perfect choice for more lifestyle-oriented sports and hobbies where a bit of pre-planning can be had.

Whitewater Rafting down Clear Creek, XCD 90mm f/3.2 Lens at f/8

One additional aspect of the X System I’d like to bring up, even though not new, is the lenses. Hasselblad has just released the first zoom for the system, the XCD 35-75mm f/3.5-4.5, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on this exciting new lens. So, instead, I opted for a trio of primes: the XCD 45mm f/3.5, XCD 90mm f/3.2, and XCD 120mm f/3.5 Macro. For me, this set of lenses perfectly hits most of the focal lengths I enjoy using, and I have a special fondness for the 90mm f/3.2 since it’s approximately like using a 75mm lens on full-frame. The lenses are all optically strong—everything I shot during the week had a level of crispness that is seldom seen, without feeling clinical. There is a certain level of character in how the lenses handle focus falloff, and they are nicely color-matched. Another feather in the X System’s cap, these lenses also have the somewhat unique distinction of being leaf shutter lenses. I previously forgot to point out that one of the reasons the X1D has such a slim design is due to the fact that the camera does not have a mechanical shutter; each lens has its own shutter. On the plus side, this design enables flash sync throughout the entire shutter speed range, up to 1/2000-second, and the effects of shutter shock are a bit less pronounced with leaf shutters, so they benefit handheld shooting, too. On the other hand, leaf shutters do have some limitations, namely the top shutter speed of 1/2000-second. This typically isn’t too much of an issue, but if you’re photographing moving subjects or working in very bright conditions, you might find yourself coming close to this shutter-speed ceiling.

Royal Gorge at sunset
Royal Gorge at sunset; XCD 90mm f/3.2 lens at f/9.5

So, after a week with the X1D II 50C, I was at the point in my shooting with the camera where I felt very much connected to it. I still couldn’t get over how pleasing the physical design is, and how the improved EVF, rear LCD, and new electronic platform brought the operability of the camera into the same league as its looks. The image quality with this camera is a given; it’s a pleasure to have the files with such broad tonal and color ranges, and the character of the lenses cannot be overlooked either. Despite it still not being the fastest camera out there, it’s a camera that feels current and up to the task of shooting nearly anything. Coupled with its portable size, in one week I went from photographing sandboarding at the Great Sand Dunes to whitewater rafting in the Front Range, along with traversing the undulating and quickly changing landscapes of Colorado, and the X1D II 50C kept up at all stages.

Blanca Peak
Blanca Peak; XCD 90mm f/3.2 lens at f/8

Do you have any experience with mirrorless medium format cameras? Or Hasselblad in general? And which camera would you have picked in my situation? Let me know in the Comments section.

Click on the link to read more about our exploits during Summer Adventure Week here at B&H Explora!

Be sure to check back on B&H Explora for more of Adventure Week—and don't forget to follow B&H on Twitter @BHPhotoVideo for up-to-the-minute #adventureweek news.