Review of the Hasselblad H4D-50

I promised you a field report on my new Hasselblad H4D-50 system after I returned from a trip to Zion National Park where I used it exclusively and extensively. Here it is. One small caution, though; all the scenic images here I shot with my Hassy. However, they have been compressed to ridiculous small sizes in order to accommodate WordPress’ requirements (see file size descriptions, below). So don’t expect to see marked differences between the Hassy images and my Nikon images in this venue. Enlarged for wall displays, the differences are huge. You may need to click on each image to see the entire image as they may be cropped to fit the WordPress template. Anyway, here goes…

Hasselblad is what is known as a medium format system, meaning that it records an image much larger than does a 35mm camera. My Nikon D700, for example, produces an image with 12 megapixels (MP) of information packed into its file. A Nikon D3X produces 25-MP images. My Hasselblad cranks out full 16-bit images with 50 MP of information.

Most people will never need files that large if they post their images on the Web or make enlargements up to 16 x 24, for example. As a professional, I frequently have to blow up my images to insane sizes for my clients. We recently produced a 5-feet by nine-feet image for a restaurant! Stretching a 12-MP Nikon file to that high a magnification is not ideal. A Hasselblad file is better suited to the enlargements that I do, typically 24” x 36” up to 40” x 50”.

For my visit to Zion National Park in Utah I decided to take ONLY my Hassy system so that I would not fall back on my trusty Nikons if I felt frustrated by unfamiliar Hassy controls. It turns out that was a good decision, because I had many frustrations during the week-long adventure. Of course I’ve been shooting Nikon for 40 years, so I naturally had some readjusting to do.

I took along my Hassy body, along with the following Hassy lenses: 50-110mm, 120mm macro, 80mm, and 28mm. In medium format the lenses produce an image equivalent to 25% shorter in 35mm format, so that the 28mm, for example, equals a 22mm field of coverage. I packed all this gear into a LowePro Trekker 400AW backpack, which is one workhorse of a backpack (see my review on the LowePro in an upcoming blog).

Here’s what I learned from my experience. First, the Hassy equipment is heavy to trek, mostly due to two of my lenses. In the future I will most definitely leave my 120mm macro home unless I plan to spend the day emphasizing macro shots, in which case I’ll probably leave the 50-110 home. Both lenses weigh in at a whopping 4.5 pounds.

Jumping ahead, the bottom line is that I absolutely love the images the Hassy produced on this trip. The dynamic range is tremendous, far broader than what I’m used to on my Nikons, and the tonality (actually, the tonal gradation) is nothing short of sweet. The files have an almost film-like quality to them. And, they are huge. Given that I love the results, I’m willing to put up with what I see as its flaws for a landscape/travel photographer.

Pluses and Minuses

First, some additional pluses. The camera-lens combo, while heavy, has a solid, organic feel in my hand. The handle also serves as the battery and its rubbery grip is secure and comfortable. I do most of my work on a tripod, so this was a secondary benefit to me.

A more immediate plus is the bright, large viewfinder that gave me clear views even in low light situations. The shutter gives a resounding, positive response. Mirror lock-up is easy, once I programmed one of the buttons for that function.

On the other hand, the rechargeable batteries do not come close to Nikon’s batteries in terms of usage. I used to be able to go an entire day on a Nikon battery. With my Hassy, I went through 3 batteries on a couple of days and two batteries on others. I’ll have to buy another battery just to play safe, but at $200+ each that’s painful.

The H4D-50 only offers Live View (what they call Live Video) while tethered to a computer. That’s obviously of no use to a landscape photographer. Hassy needs to up its game and offer us untethered live view to allow for critical focusing, especially while using its tilt-shift mechanism with closeups or when placing foreground elements into a scenic.

Probably the biggest issue I had with my Hassy in the field is that it only has one auto-focus point, dead center in the frame. That’s no problem for fashion shooters, because most of them shoot hand-held. You aim, focus and recompose. Simple. Hassy does offer an innovative feature called True Focus. You focus on your subject and hold the True Focus button. Then, as you recompose, the camera uses its built-in gyroscopes to compensate for the change in angle, resulting in ultra-precise focusing capability. Very cool.

Most of my landscapes are shot on a tripod, where it’s inconvenient to focus, hold the button, fiddle with the tripod ball head controls, retighten, and shoot. Hassy needs to add focus points to its features list if they want to capture more of the outdoor market.

One quirk that I should mention is that the Hassy does not offer noise reduction in camera. That’s good in the sense that your image pops up in the viewfinder immediately after the mirror flips back. The bad news is that images shot in very low light or with long exposures show up with red, green and blue dots on the LCD screen after the shot is taken. Not to worry, though. When imported into Phocus (or Lightroom) the dots disappear due to the software’s inherent noise reduction.

So, all in all, I’m very satisfied with my Hasselblad and the stunning images it produces. After all, isn’t that what photography is about? I can put up with some inconvenience if the end result is an image I can take pride in.

As always, I welcome comments and critiques of my images.

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