Camera Review: Hasselblad H5D-50C

August 11, 2014

By Dan Havlik

The Hasselblad H5D-50c is one of three recent medium-format camera systems equipped with a game-changing new CMOS sensor from Sony that’s designed to capture lower-noise images even when shooting at high ISOs. I reviewed the first of these models, the Phase One IQ250 medium-format camera back, when it launched in early 2014, and was impressed with its image quality, particularly the crisp photos we captured at up to ISO 6400. For photographers who like to shoot in available light, and I’m one of them, the IQ250 was something of a revelation.

Even though it’s slightly smaller than most medium-format sensors, Sony’s 50-megapixel, 44 x 33mm CMOS chip means we could use the IQ250 without a strobe in the same low light conditions as a 35mm fullframe digital SLR and achieve excellent results. That would have been impossible with older digital backs and their noise-prone CCD sensors.

Another benefit of the CMOS sensor is that it allows camera systems to shoot faster. In the case of the IQ250, it can shoot at two frames per second, while the H5D-50c has a 1.5 fps capture speed. The Pentax 645Z, which is the third new medium-format system to use the Sony CMOS chip, can shoot at 3fps and record full HD video, which is a first for a medium-format model.

While all three models use the same 50MP sensor, they’re designed differently and vary dramatically in price. The IQ250 is the top tier system, retailing for $34,990 for the digital back alone with the 645DF+ camera body adding an extra $5,990 to the bill. Ouch.

The H5D-50c sells for $27,500 for the system, which integrates the digital back with the camera body. And lastly, the Pentax 645Z is something of a “bargain basement” medium-format model—all irony intended—with a list price of $8,499 for the camera system. (Lenses for these three models cost extra.)

I got my hands on a Hasselblad H5D-50c for a few weeks this spring and put it through its paces with photographer Jordan Matter, who helped me test the Phase One IQ250 in January. Here’s what we thought of this intriguing new medium-format camera from one of the most venerable brands in the business.

The gray-and-black Hasselblad H5D-50c has a similar design to its similarly named stablemate, the H5D-50, which we reviewed in the February 2014 issue of PDN. While both cameras feature 50MP sensors, the older H5D-50 model uses a CCD chip that is slightly bigger: 49 x 37mm.

We gave a fairly positive review to the H5D- 50 but noted that, like many CCD-equipped medium-format cameras, it produced noisy images even at ISO 400. The H5D-50c, with its vaunted CMOS chip, promised to be a vast improvement (more about this in the Image Quality section).

Otherwise, the two cameras are virtually identical, with the same dimensions—6 x 5 x 8 inches—and the same weight—5.5 pounds— with the standard 80mm f/2.8 lens attached. This is a good thing because, while some previous Hasselblad digital medium-format models left a lot to be desired from a design standpoint, the Swedish company’s H5D series really gets it right.

In particular, the new H5D line has a denser, more robust build, where previous models felt hollow and slightly plastic-y. The H5D-50c is built with an aluminum inner core surrounded by a stainless steel housing that’s brushed down to a matte-like finish. With its familiar pistol grip, which doubles as the battery, the H5D-50c is hefty but ergonomic and comfortable even during long shoots.

“I like a heavy camera, but it’s not too heavy,” Matter said of the H5D-50c. “I could handhold it without an issue. I love the way it feels, I love the way it looks, I love that I’m holding a Hasselblad. It’s a serious camera.”

Hasselblad’s added some other nice touches to the H5D line to make them 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 would mistake the H5D-50c for a fully weatherized pro DSLR, but it’s fine for shooting outdoors in moderately inclement weather, if not a soaking downpour.

Other upgrades to the H5D-50c, which were the same on the H5D-50, include a 3-inch, TFT type, 24-bit color LCD screen (with 460,320 pixels of resolution) on the back which, while being an improvement over previous displays on Hasselblads, does not provide enough detail for judging the sharpness of images.

“The playback screen on the camera is mediocre,” Matter reported. “It’s so high-contrast that it’s hard to tell what you’re even looking at on the screen.” This was disappointing because the H5D-50c and its nifty low-noise chip is designed for shooting in the field rather than in your studio, where you could tether the camera to a computer to review images.

Despite that frustration, the H5D-50c is an impressive-looking camera that is not only fun to shoot with but will likely impress clients who are already familiar with the legendary Hasselblad name. For a camera system that sells in the neighborhood of $30K, this is no small point.

Overall, the Hasselblad H5D-50c felt a step slower than the Phase One IQ250, which isn’t exactly a speed demon itself. This was frustrating but that’s partly due to high expectations.

With improvements to the H5D-50c’s sensor that put its low-light shooting skills on par with some professional DSLRs and help ramp up the camera system’s burst speed (slightly) to 1.5fps, it’s natural to think these medium-format monsters can compete with DSLRs when it comes to performance. They still can’t.

The H5D-50c and its 50MP back take about 10 to 15 seconds to power on and be ready for the first shot. That’s slightly faster than the H5D-50 but certainly not quick. The H5D-50c’s focusing speed and consistency when tracking movement slightly trailed the IQ250.

Matter’s forte is photographing dancers, athletes and performers in action, and he did just that while testing both the IQ250 and H5D-50c. Results, overall, were hit or miss, but the IQ250 was more consistently sharp than the H5D-50c. To be fair, photographing this sort of action in natural light is not really what medium-format cameras have been known for. But, as I noted before, the new CMOS sensors in these cameras make you want to try to push the limits of what medium format can do.

“For tracking movement and locking in on a subject when I was photographing dancers and performers to get a sharp shot, the Phase One was a bit better,” Matter noted. “I found myself having to anticipate the height of a jump more with the Hasselblad before I shot or I would miss the focus, though once I got the timing down, I could nail the shot and results were spectacular.”

Naturally, if you really want to shoot fast action with the H5D-50c, or any medium-format camera for that matter, you can just sync the camera to studio strobes and shoot at the fastest shutter speed possible to freeze the motion. That’s not practical in many situations and defeats the purpose of the versatile H5D-50c.

Consequently, there’s a sort of “in-between-ness” to these new CMOS-powered medium-format cameras. Yes, a wedding photographer can use one to shoot in the mixed lighting of a reception but we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as your sole camera for when the bride and groom are walking down the aisle. They don’t rival DSLRs when it comes to performance but they’re getting better, even if the 1.5fps burst speed of the H5D-50c wouldn’t challenge the slowest consumer camera on the market.

We both liked 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. It’s an effective if not exactly groundbreaking technology, which on a DSLR with multiple AF points would be irrelevant.

Because the H5D line—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 toward the proper framing. True Focus keeps the original point locked while detecting the movement of the camera and compensating, so you get that beautiful blur in the background but still keep the eye tack-sharp.

When it works—and we found True Focus II had about 90 percent accuracy—you’ll really see 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 Phase One IQ250 set the bar high when it comes to image quality but the Hasselblad H5D-50c was able to match it. And why shouldn’t it? Both cameras use the same 50MP, Sony-made CMOS sensor.

Just as we ran the IQ250 through a series of low-light “stress tests” that would have tripped up previous Phase One backs, we used the H5D-50c for a batch of similar challenges that its predecessor struggled with.

One of those shots is an image of two shirtless, male acrobats lit only by a city street lamp that they’re clinging to in mid-air. Matter captured the image at ISO 3200 with both the H5D-50c and with a 36.3-megapixel Nikon D800 ($3,000) full frame DSLR. The D800’s image is riddled with ugly noise—i.e. white and purple grain—in the dark areas of the shot. The skintones of the performers also look off in the Nikon photo, with red splotches of noise appearing like a digital rash across their backs.

The H5D-50c shot, by contrast, looks quite sharp and life-like, despite that difficult lighting. Skintones appear natural with relatively low noise that looks smoother and less distracting than in the Nikon shot. Meanwhile, the face of someone sitting on a nearby bench is subtly illuminated by his laptop screen, creating a very realistic scene. In short, the Hasselblad kicks the Nikon’s butt when it comes to low-noise, low-light shooting.

Part of this is thanks to the H5D-50c’s larger pixels—5.3 microns a piece vs. 4 microns in the D800—which have more surface area for capturing light. On average, the Sony chip in the H5D-50c has 68 percent more capture than sensors in full-frame DSLRs. While that’s impressive, it’s Sony’s medium-format CMOS sensor that’s the real star in this camera, and in the competing Phase One and Pentax models.

At one time, CCD chips had a reputation for capturing higher-quality, lower-noise, images. In recent years, though, they’ve been surpassed by less expensive, lower-power-consuming CMOS chips, which can do analog-to-digital conversion and noise reduction right on the sensor. The result is that CMOS sensors have taken over the imaging world, appearing on everything from cell phones to, now (finally), medium format cameras.

You’ll be happy but probably not surprised to hear that the H5D-50c performs even better in good lighting conditions. Combine those giant, light-grabbing pixels with Hasselblad’s tack-sharp lenses—we shot with the 80mm f/2.8 HC lens—and this camera is ideal for everything from portrait to commercial photography.

“The images are unbelievably gorgeous,” Matter said of daytime shots he captured of dancers performing in the streets of Philadelphia. “There’s just so much detail in there; I want to work with this every time now.”

Given a choice between the Phase One IQ250 and the Hasselblad H5D-50c we looked at in this review, we’d have to go with the Phase One system, since it was just a step faster in tracking movement and freezing motion in ambient light. The IQ250 comes with a tremendous caveat, though: its $40,980 price tag (when you include the 645DF+ camera body) is nearly $13,500 more expensive than the Hasselblad H5D-50c system. So if you don’t see yourself shooting too many serious action or motion shots with the H5D-50c, and haven’t already invested in Phase One/Mamiya lenses, the Hasselblad model is the one to go with since it uses the same CMOS sensor and produced excellent results, particularly in low light.

We’re curious to see how the Pentax 645Z stacks up. We hope to review it in a coming issue.

PROS: Excellent image quality even in low light at high ISOs from Sony-made CMOS sensor; more rugged camera build with comfortable ergonomics; considerably less expensive than competing model from Phase One.

CONS: Not as good for tracking action and freezing motion in ambient light compared to the Phase One system; hard to judge sharpness on high-contrast, 3-inch LCD screen.

PRICE: $27,500 (doesn’t include lens)

Related: Pentax 645Z Medium Format Camera Preview: Test Images