Camera Review: Hasselblad H5D-50
FEBRUARY 13, 2014
By Dan Havlik
There are only a handful of camera brands, which, by name alone, can inspire confidence. However you feel about the Swedish company’s recent forays into enthusiast-level photography gear via its collaborations with Sony that resulted in the Stellar and Lunar cameras, Hasselblad is still a name that suggests quality. Without diving into the controversy surrounding the Stellar and Lunar—there are pages and pages of online photo forums dedicated to discussing these divisive cameras if you’d like to explore them—I will say that it’s a shame that coverage of those models has eclipsed that of Hasselblad’s latest medium-format camera, the H5D.
Yes, in case the Stellar and Lunar compact cameras somehow made you think otherwise, Hasselblad is still firmly in the professional photography business, and its H5D is a top-notch medium-format system for pros. I briefly shot with the H5D at the photokina show in 2012 and, since then, had been hoping to get some significant hands-on time with the camera to do a full review. But unlike the highly competitive consumer market, the medium-format world moves at a much slower pace, as do the cameras themselves (ba-dum-tss!), and it wasn’t until late 2013 that I received a working, 50-megapixel Hasselblad H5D-50 to test. It was worth the wait. The H5D, which also comes in 40-megapixel and 60-megapixel versions, is a significant upgrade from the previous model, with a more robust build and several key upgrades.
I tried out the H5D-50 with my frequent testing partner, the photographer Jordan Matter, and when you haven’t shot with a medium-format system in a while (it’d been about a year for me), it’s easy to forget what these amazing cameras are capable of … and what they’re not. Perhaps it goes without saying, but despite all the consumer-friendly advances that make using compact, mirrorless and digital SLR cameras a fully automated, idiot-proof experience, shooting medium-format is a bigger investment, both in time and money. But the rewards, like the unique format itself, can be huge.
The Hasselblad H5D-50 has the same distinctive design as Hasselblad’s previous H System cameras, but the company appears to have lightened the gray and darkened the black of the camera body/digital back, giving this new model more of a two-tone look. The H5D has an aluminum inner core and a stainless steel housing that’s brushed down to a matte-like finish. With its familiar pistol grip (which doubles as the battery), extended viewfinder scope and serious weight (it tips the scales at approximately 5.5 pounds with the 80mm f/2.8 kit lens), the H5D is a beast to behold. However, even though it’s a hefty camera, I found it to be ergonomic and comfortable. Matter, who shoots mainly with Nikon pro DSLRs, says it felt a bit awkward at first, but eventually grew comfortable with it during the course of several weeks of shooting.
We both agreed that clients would be impressed if you pulled such a serious-looking camera out at a photo shoot and, during our testing, some of Matter’s clients certainly seemed to be. This is not frivolous. If you’re spending $30,000+ for a medium-format system, it doesn’t hurt if the people who hired you to take pictures think your camera rig is something special. In other words, it looks professional.
This is not a putdown of DSLRs, which can be impressive looking in their own right. It’s just that with the ubiquity of DSLRs these days, most folks have probably seen some variation of those cameras before. Medium-format models, on the other hand, are rarer birds and the H5D will turn heads in the studio or out in the field. (The H5D also shoots gorgeous photos, but I’ll get to that later.)
While the H5D-50 weighs about the same as the previous H4D camera, there are some added touches to make the new model more rugged. There’s new sealing between the back and the camera body, and lining the viewfinder and the CompactFlash (CF) door to prevent moisture from seeping in. No one’s going to mistake the H5D for a fully weatherized pro DSLR, but I would have no problem shooting with this camera outdoors in inclement conditions. (I would, however, advise against letting it get a significant soaking from rain or otherwise.)
The buttons on the H5D are also larger, better designed and more of them are customizable, so I spent less time futzing around to adjust camera settings than with previous models. While the 3-inch, TFT type, 24-bit color LCD screen (with 460,320 pixels of resolution) on the back won’t make you forget the tack-sharp image playbacks on a DSLR, it’s decent enough, and with the histogram turned on, we got a pretty good idea of image sharpness and exposure while reviewing shots. (Ideally though, you should be tethering the H5D to a computer if you want quick, on-site image analysis.)
Hasselblad’s medium-format user interface, overall, has improved, but that doesn’t mean it’s great. Yes, there are easier-to-read menus. But fiddling with settings on the small monochrome screen on top of the camera’s pistol grip and via the digital back on the rear is confusing. Truth be told though, since this camera system will mostly be used in the studio with settings locked in from the first shot, most photographers won’t be playing with them very much. Landscape photographers, on the other hand, might wish the H5D were easier to adjust in the field.
Those frustrations will melt away when you gaze into the H5D’s lovely viewfinder. If you’ve only shot with that tiny window on a DSLR or, worse yet, those grainy electronic viewfinders on mirrorless cameras, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. The H5D’s optical viewfinder is one of the biggest and brightest on the market with 90 percent coverage, letting you get a nice frame on your subject before you fire away and kachunk! Yes, another thing you forget about when you haven’t shot with a medium-format camera in a while is the deeply satisfying, large mirror slap offered by this type of camera.
The most important feature on the Hasselblad H5D-50 is not really a feature at all: It’s the heart of this system. Namely, it’s the H5D-50’s 50-megapixel (6,132 x 8,176), 36.7 x 49.1mm, CCD image sensor with pixel size at six microns apiece. (In contrast, pixels in the 36.3-megapixel D800, Nikon’s “studio photography” full-frame DSLR, are 4.88 microns apiece.) The 35mm-size sensors in full-frame DSLRs are nice, but can’t compare to the image quality, color accuracy, depth of field and dynamic range you get with a medium-format-size sensor. There are some trade-offs, of course, which I’ll get to in the image quality section, but the reason medium-format cameras are so expensive (and still so desired) is because of what these big chips can produce.
Among the notable new features on the H5D is Hasselblad’s upgraded True Focus II technology, which lets you lock in on a subject and then recompose your shot without losing the original point of focus. I’ve found this to be an effective if not exactly groundbreaking technology, which on a DSLR with multiple AF points would be irrelevant. But because the H5D—as with previous H System cameras—has only one center focusing point, True Focus II will let you focus, for example, on the eye of a person in a portrait and then shift the camera back towards the proper framing. True Focus keeps the original point locked while detecting the movement of the camera and compensating, so you get that wonderful blur in the background but still keep the eye tack-sharp.
When it works—and I found True Focus II had about 90 percent accuracy—you’ll really understand why medium-format cameras produce portraits that look more dramatic than those shot with a DSLR, with the background completely obliterated by bokeh, so the subject pops out of the photo. For wider subjects, such as landscapes, with a much wider depth of field, True Focus II is not necessary.
The H5D also features a new Immediate Focus Confirm feature, which harnesses the technology of True Focus II to instantly zoom to the area where the shot was focused so you can check sharpness. When you assign Immediate Focus Confirm to one of the custom buttons, cross hairs will appear on the image based on the True Focus position. You can then use the wheel controls to pan over or zoom in to 100 percent right at the crosshairs. Again, this is not revolutionary, but it does let you more speedily check your image focus afterwards.
In addition to being able to shoot high-resolution RAW images in Hasselblad’s 3FR format, the H5D adds a new JPEG-on-the-fly feature, letting you quickly fire off JPEGs at a quarter of the resolution. Shooting modes include JPEG + RAW along with RAW. As alluded to earlier, the H5D body adds five programmable buttons for personally configuring the camera; and there are extensive tether camera controls, including a new Camera Configurator feature in Hasselblad’s Phocus software, which lets you configure H System camera profiles and make them portable and interchangeable. The H5D’s battery grip also adds more juice, with approximately 50 percent more power. (Word to the wise though, always keep a spare battery on a shoot because this camera and digital back suck a lot of energy.)
If you’re in a rush, medium-format cameras are probably not for you. The quickest model in this class is the 37.5-megapixel Leica S, which can shoot at a maximum “burst” speed of 1.5 frames per second (fps). Hasselblad put a new processor in the H5D but it peaks at 1.1 fps. But, as I said, these cameras weren’t made to be speed demons.
We thought we’d put the H5D to the test, though, and used the camera as part of new project that Matter has been working on called “Athletes Among Us.” As part of our test shoot, we used the camera to photograph a former professional football player jumping to catch a Frisbee out of the mouth of a leaping dog. It was a challenging shoot, even with a high-speed DSLR, which we used as the second part of the test for comparison.
We photographed the football player and dog in a local park, late in the afternoon, using the Rotolight Anova LED EcoFlood Light as the sole, artificial light source. As with the H5D, the Anova LED wasn’t really the right tool for the shoot—it’s designed for up-close portraits—but we tried it anyway, with mixed results.
The H5D and its 50-megapixel back takes approximately 15 to 20 seconds to start up before you can fire your first shot, which might seem quite slow in the DLSR world, but is about average for a medium-format camera. After a few test shots of the football player—former New York Jets wide receiver Chansi Stuckey—leaping and falling artfully to the ground without hurting himself, we were ready to synchronize the player with the dog. The timing was tough, with Matter waiting to press the H5D’s shutter just when the player and dog reached the apex of their leaps. Because there isn’t really a fast burst mode, one shot per sequence was pretty much all we got with the Hasselblad. Of course, there were quite a few out-of-focus duds but Matter’s Nikon D3S, which can shoot 9 fps, wasn’t spot on 100 percent of the time either.
Matter later used the H5D to photograph a dancer leaping in natural light, and the camera did a decent job of keeping up but, as with the football player, his timing had to be spot on, because, to quote Eminem: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance.”
If you want to shoot fast action with the H5D, the best way is to sync the camera to studio strobes and shoot at the fastest shutter speed you can. Timing is less of an issue if, for instance, you’re shooting dancers, because the pulse of the strobe will freeze the action at the right split second. And naturally, when Matter used the H5D to shoot portraits of the dancers holding a pose, the camera was plenty fast enough. For shooting commercial portraits, the H5D is one of the best imaging tools out there.
We did experience one glitch with the H5D while shooting a sequence, with the camera freezing between shots—an icon of an hourglass was frozen on the screen—forcing us to take the battery out and start over. The problem was, possibly, memory card related. When I later used a fast SanDisk Extreme Pro CompactFlash card with a 90 MB/s (megabyte per second) write speed, I could not duplicate the issue. (Another word to the wise with this camera and its huge 65-megabyte RAW files: always use a fast card!)
When it comes to speed and operability, the Hasselblad H5D can’t compete with the fast performance of a DSLR, even an entry-level model. This big camera and its equally robust 80mm f/2.8 HC AF lens aren’t built for speed but they are built for imaging power.
While not all the images we shot of the football player or the dancer were in focus because the camera couldn’t quite keep up, the ones that were showed the sharp, rich, 16-bit color the H5D is known for. All that juicy resolution was a boon, too: When we zoomed in to 200 percent, we could see the pores and crisp detail of the natural-looking skin of our athlete and dancer. These shots could easily be blown up to billboard size for a marketing campaign.
As mentioned previously, the stunning depth of field you get from a camera with such a large sensor produced a beautiful effect, with the background completely blown out, creating portraits that almost looked three dimensional. Commercial product shooters, food photographers and architectural photographers will also love what this camera can do.
“The results are gorgeous,” Matter says about using the H5D. “There is so much detail, and the drop off at low apertures is stunning. If I was doing large-scale portraiture, this would be my camera.”
If there’s one gripe when it comes to image quality with medium-format cameras, it’s that they’re not the best low-light performers. One sequence we shot with the H5D of a dancer striking a pose under a streetlight at ISO 400 and 800 looked fine on the camera’s 3-inch screen but when we later reviewed the shots on a computer, they were riddled with splotchy noise. On the other hand, portraits we shot with the H5D at ISO 50 and 100 under controlled light looked so natural and showed so much color depth, it blew comparable shots from the Nikon D3S away. Landscape or architectural photographers shooting long exposures on tripods will probably be using the lower end of the H5D’s ISO spectrum, so its higher ISO weakness will not pose as much of a problem.
The Bottom Line
As I tried to make clear in this review, medium-format cameras are such a different beast from compact, mirrorless and digital SLR models, they’re almost a different species altogether. (Which makes it all the more strange that Hasselblad is expanding into the consumer and prosumer camera markets, but I digress.) And as far as medium-format digital cameras go, the H5D is the most fully realized imaging product Hasselblad has made yet and one of the best cameras in its class. With its robust and more weatherized build, the H5D feels as sturdy and luxurious as a camera with this price tag should feel. (Not all of the Hasselblad’s H System cameras have felt this way in the past, it’s worth noting.) Hasselblad’s also made a concerted effort to make the H5D more user friendly, with bigger buttons, a clearer interface and a more ergonomic design overall. If you’re a long time DSLR user, the H5D will definitely feel slow but if you give it time, your patience will be rewarded. Commercial, portrait, food, landscape and architectural photographers who haven’t yet made the jump to medium format should test out a Hasselblad H5D pronto. They may never go back to full frame.
Pros: Incredible image quality with impressive color depth, dynamic range and striking depth of field options; massive amounts of resolution from 50 megapixels will let you blow up your commercial prints to billboard size without loss of detail; more robust, weatherproof build than previous models; gorgeous viewfinder
Cons: Expensive; slow overall performance speed (but average for a medium-format camera); noisy images in low light at ISO 400 and above
Price: $29,500 with 80mm f/2.8 HC AF lens; www.hasselblad.com
Read all of our hands-on camera reviews at www.pdnonline.com/cameras.