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The Hasselblad H2D-39
How the other half lives

By Allan Weitz

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If the Hasselblad H2D-39 were an automobile, it would have to be a Bentley Continental GT, a sumptuously stunning 12-cylinder, twin-turbocharged touring coupe capable of catapulting four leather and walnut encapsulated adults - and their luggage - three miles down the pike in just under a minute. If horsepower can be described as an art form, the Continental GT is a car Leonardo DaVinci would have enjoyed tooling around in.
Hasselblad’s H2D-39 is the latest incarnation of a camera that has in a few short years become the gold-standard of medium-format photography. A total break from Hasselblad’s original 500-series cameras, the H2D-39 is capable of producing 8x10” film-quality images without having to haul a pack-mule’s worth of camera gear. It’s also a blast to shoot with.

At first glance the H2D-39 is barely decipherable from its film-based twin, the Hasselblad H2. The give-away is the 2.2” OLED viewing screen and CompactFlash card slots on the side of the rear-mounted capture back.

The source of the Hasselblad H2D-39’s resolving power is a new 39-megapixel (36.7 x 49mm) CCD sensor, which at over twice the size of a 35mm frame virtually fills the 6x4.5cm area we used to call a film gate. With a chip this large be prepared to max-out your CPU’s memory slots as image files from this baby - even at 8-bits - are about 112Mb, or about 224Mb @ 16-bits. When I said 8x10” film quality I wasn’t joking.

The resolution of image files produced by the H2D-39 is simply breathtaking. If you tend to shoot jewelry, finely textured fabrics, fashion and beauty, or any other subject matter that contains fine, intricate patterns, you will blown away by the total lack of moiré patterns that have plagued earlier generation digital capture backs when shooting this sort of subject matter.

From an operational point-of-view, an ergonomic battery grip offers fingertip control of a laundry list of exposure, flash, and focusing modes. The Lithium-Ion battery delivers 400-plus exposures per charge (you might want to pack a few spares if you plan on spending a day on the road). If you are a creature of habit, up to 28 custom functions can be dialed in to create user profiles designed to make your working life easier and less prone to surprises. Data is clearly displayed on a LCD located on the top panel of the battery grip as well as in the viewfinder.

If you are a veteran digital shooter you will appreciate two stress-reducing ‘hot buttons’ located on the battery grip. The first one enables you to set the White Balance by simply centering your viewfinder on a white or neutral gray surface and pressing the button. All of the following exposures will be balanced accordingly until you set the camera to record your white balance otherwise.

The second ‘hot button’ allows you to check the focus of whatever image you are currently reviewing at 50% magnification with a simple touch of the button. You can also review and scroll around captured images at magnifications of up to 100% in a conventional manner, but this handy button allows you to quickly eyeball the current image and move on. If you are working fast and furious, these are very nifty tools.

The H2’s 90-degree viewfinder is also a break from the past. Rather than utilizing a heavy glass prism to facilitate reflex viewing, the folks at Hasselblad devised a lighter-weight system of polished mirror surfaces within the prism housing that allow for a bright, 100% field of view. A built-in diopter allows an adjustment range of -4 to +2.5. More than just for giggles, a small pop-up flash puts out enough light to open up those nasty “raccoon-eyes’ you get when shooting casual portraits under a mid-day sun. For serious studio flash users, the H2D-39 contains a built-in flash metering system that alerts you when your flash exposures are over or under.

The subject of weight doesn’t stop here. While the Hasselblad H2D-39 is a medium-format camera, weight-wise it is comparable to Canon’s 35mm-based EOS 1Ds Mark II. According to the spec sheets a Hasselblad H2D-39 kit, complete with an 80/2.8 lens and a battery weighs 4.79 lbs. while Canon’s EOS 1Ds Mark II with a 24-105/4 EF IS and a battery weighs in at 4.89 lbs. We can argue about which camera is better balanced or feels better in the hand from now ‘til next Tuesday, but weight-wise, it’s a wash. Either way, the days of clunky medium-format cameras are well behind us.

The new camera captures (Hasselblad 3FR) RAW files that weigh-in at about 78Mb. A loss-less compression process takes these files down by about 1/3rd to 50Mb. For storing images as you go about your business, Hasselblad offers three options. As mentioned earlier, the H2D-39 accepts most all current CompactFlash cards. If you choose this route be prepared to halt the proceedings fairly often because with capture files oh-so-big, even an 8-gig CF card is akin to driving around in a Hummer with a 5-gallon gas tank. Still and all, a handful of large-capacity CF cards and an Epson P-4000-type storage device can be perfectly fine for day-tripping or slower-action shooting.

For continuous shooting you have two options, the first of which being Hasselblad’s New Image Bank (approx. $2000), a compact 100-gig hard drive that can be worn on your belt or tucked into the side pouch of your camera bag. Tethered to the camera via the included FireWire cable, you can bang out up to 2000 16-bit exposures at a continuous rate of 35 frames-per-minute. A Sony InfoLithium NP-F battery clips onto the side of the Image Bank and runs the whole show.

For studio use you can tether directly to a PC or Mac via firewire cable and shoot until you choke your hard-drive. Tethered shooting also allows for large-scale image viewing moments after capturing the image. Images can be viewed full-screen or in contact-sheet formats. Hasselblad’s proven (and very user-friendly) Flexcolor software (the same software that runs Imacon’s renowned film scanners) allows for tripping the shutter from your workstation with full camera control, which makes remote shooting in complex settings a whole lot easier. Exposure and tonal controls can be adjusted on the fly making the hairiest of shooting situations go that much smoother. Full metadata information is embedded in each file for future referencing.

Other studio-oriented features include Live Video (coming late summer ’06) for finely-tuned focusing from your computer screen and Overlay Masking for fitting your image to a layout.

Image files from the Hasselblad H2D-39 are rendered as compressed (loss-less) Hasselblad 3FR RAW files, which can be opened, edited, and tweaked using Hasselblad’s DNG converter and Flexcolor software, both of which are included. If the thought of having to learn yet another software application, even an easy-to-use software application, makes you break out in a cold sweat, you can always pop your files open and tweak them in Photoshop CS2.

In the optics department, Hasselblad currently offers a line-up of 9 lenses and a 1.7x converter. The choices include a 35/3.5 HC ultra-wide, 120/4 HC Macro, 100/2.2 HC portrait lens, and a really sweet 50-110/3.5-4.5 HC zoom. To further enhance the image quality of your photographs, Hasselblad employs Digital APO Correction (DAC), which maps the optical characteristics of each lens that automatically eliminates any chromatic aberration that might be lurking within your image files. DAC takes each lens’s focal length, working aperture, distance to subject, and individual optical characteristics into consideration when optimizing the image files. If you are using extension tubes or the HC 1.7x teleconverter, the data from these devices is also taken into account when optimizing the resulting image files.

Perhaps the coolest feature of Hasselblad’s HC-series lenses is a top flash sync-speed of 1/800th of a second. If fill-flash is your forte, you’ve just died and gone to heaven. Even on the beach at noon or atop a snowcapped mountain peak, you can darken the skies to your hearts content while holding the light on the model’s face. If you find yourself in low light level situations the H2D-39 can handle exposures of up to 30-seconds. The base ISO rating of the H2D-39 is 50 and can be dialed up to 100, 200, and 400. Even at ISO 200 and 400, the H2D-39 delivers clean, extremely noise-free image files.

Are image files in excess of a hundred megabytes overkill for a majority of the human race? Probably. But if your livelihood depends on delivering immaculate image files to the fussiest of clients, or if you want to document the Eight Wonders of the World without having to hire a sherpa and a pair of donkeys, or maybe you just want the coolest digital point-and-shoot camera to go along with your Bentley, the new Hasselblad H2D-39 is as good as it gets.

The Hasselblad H2D-39 kit, which includes an 80/2.8 HC lens and related software retails for $29,994.95. The Bentley Continental GT retails for $164,995. Life is short. Enjoy.

We are now accepting orders for the Hasselblad H2D-39 on the B&H website. The Bentley Continental GT is available for purchase through your local Bentley dealership.

Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to emailfeedback@bhphotovideo.com.