Today’s images are from a recent shoot – and shakedown test – of my recently acquired Hasselblad H5D-50C and some other bits of new lighting equipment. The brief: film noir. The model is a local actress. Those of you who frequent my site will know that portraiture – especially of the posed and lit kind – is not something I do often (but at the same time, I do more of it than you might think) mainly because it’s somewhat outside my usual focus of corporate documentary and architecture/ interiors. That said, when everything comes together it can be rather satisfying; I’ve always viewed portraiture as a conversation during which you might just happen to have the lights set up and a camera handy – very few people are aware of the way they look, body position etc. to a degree that they can control it to produce a desired result. It’s much easier to talk to your subject and try to elicit the desired responses without them quite being fully aware of it – that way, the results turn out natural, too.
Fortunately, the client for this shoot was a friend and accepted that there would be a bit of a learning curve involved. The experimentation of course occurred at the tail end once the shot list was complete. I had a few objectives here:
- Work out any remaining kinks in the change of workflow after switching to the H5.
- Wireless tethering via Phocus Mobile to the iPad – yay or nay?
- No more TTL – but more critically, no more flash power control from on-camera; would this be an issue in practice?
- Experiments with high(er) speed sync
- New soft boxes: Lastolite Ezybox II Octa and Switch-L, plus quad brackets
- Brush up on my portrait lighting, especially for creation of a mood
So how’d it go? We’re pleased with the results, so that’s a plus; postprocessing was faster than I expected (from the D810 and similar cameras) and I’m once again very, very happy with the tonality – especially highlight rolloff. But I found that I had to work very differently: no checking frames; just shoot and curate later. It’s not that playback and zoom are slow – it’s still faster than the A7RII – but it just interrupts the flow too much, and to be honest, the screen is a generation behind even the 2-year old D810, and it shows. It’s still just a device for confirming capture, clipping, and overall composition. Checking critical focus is tricky – the last degree isn’t always visible. Furthermore, care is needed with AF because depth of field is noticeably shallower than on FF, and the increased pixel density per degree angle of view of course exacerbates that, too, though True Focus* helps. In practice, this means having a lot more storage handy than usual because I usually curate as I shoot – obvious misses in composition, timing, focus, exposure etc. can be discarded. The whole process is just a little slower with the H5, which discourages that and encourages you to just shoot. I suppose that’s good and bad in a way – I focus more on the subject, but may not catch operator errors.
*There’s a gyro or accelerometer in the camera that measures how much you tilt the camera from the centre focus point when recomposing, and adjusts focus position accordingly to avoid parallax errors. Hitting the focus check shortcut button on playback also takes you to the point where the camera thinks you intended to focus. I’d say it works about 80% of the time in practice, but gets confused by backlit subjects – though that could be a limitation of the AF system itself.
I still don’t have a good handle on battery life – on one hand, it seems to be shorter than expected, but extended sessions in the past (e.g. Thaipusam) have proven that longevity is better than expected. The only conclusion I can come it is that it seems to be more closely determined by power-on time than number of captures; about three hours with wifi tethering on seems to be about the limit, or closer to five without. That’s not bad because it means you can make it through a full day of shooting on two batteries – I have four and two chargers, so I’m safe for now.
Wireless tethering was great when it worked, but often threw a communication error – I narrowed it downs to a) range and b) turning LCD standby off, which seemed to help. If the iPad was within about a meter or so, no problem. Further, and it seems the signal wasn’t strong enough from the camera’s access point directly. It worked fine over an existing network; Hasselblad are aware of the problem and are working on a fix. I’ve never been a big fan of wifi tethering options in the past – some are clunky to operate, requiring various bits of fiddling with settings to connect the camera, and others are limited to viewing preview jpegs only – the Hasselblad solution is (usually) easy to connect, and will preview raw files at 100% – this is massively useful for checking critical focus in the field, and for clients to checks entails like facial expressions etc.
Let’s talk about lighting: I’m used to the Nikon iTTL system where either I let the flashes do the work and the camera take care of metering (or at least try it once to see what comes out) with me doing the fill ratios and biasing from one group to another. It isn’t a problem to work manually, but I’m very used to changing flash settings on the camera itself – or from the commander on top of it. Given that I’m for now still retaining the SB900s (I have eight of them) for flexibility and weight, the only solution is a somewhat clunky one: PocketWizard Plus X on the camera, and then one Plus X for each group of flashes (i.e. on the same soft box bracket) plus sync cables to tie them together – or a sync cable to one, and then the rest in SU4 optical slave mode.
To be honest, whilst it’s workable, you really need an assistant to be running from soft box to soft box to change settings – four times. I did also find myself short on power once or twice, but fortunately ISO 200 is just as clean as ISO 100. (This is obviously not ideal for light control as you are effectively letting more ambient in, too. Boosting ISO even further may compromise image quality.) Let’s just say it’s not the most fluid solution in practice, and I’m seriously considering a Profoto B1 or B2 system. The advantage of the B2s being size and control from the base power pack which you can have near you, plus you can run off mains power – or not. The disadvantages are only having half the power (250w/s) than the B1s and the whole thing having to be cabled to the base battery, which can only support two heads. The B1s are doubly powerful, but quite heavy/large and far less flexible in mounting options, plus you can only adjust manual (i.e. non TTL) power from the heads themselves – but they are wireless. Decisions, decisions…
Higher speed sync: the leaf shutters in the H lenses will let you go to 1/800s with full flash power; this is extremely handy for cutting/controlling ambient. No complaints, though more would be nice for daytime use – especially in the tropics. It wasn’t dark outside for a lot of these, but you can’t tell, can you?
I’m quite happy with the soft boxes themselves, too: Lastolite stuff is well made and provides even, well-diffused – but more importantly, color neutral – light. I’ve owned quite a number of their products in the past, but admittedly been lazy to set them up because their construction required stretching the fabric over a built-frame with sticks you have to insert. Let’s just say it’s not fast. The Ezybox IIs are better, being the memory wire frame type and only having at most four of those little sticks to keep the outer frame in shape, but still not that fast. I’ve got one of the Wescott Apollo Orbs on order – that looks like a very interesting product given it’s an umbrella-type and softbox-type at the same time. Better yet is the fact that it sits over the centre of gravity of the light stand, negating the need for much heavier stands or sandbags – the Ezybox II Octa is massive, and very heavy with the quad bracket and a brace of speedlights. You have to be very, very careful about how you tilt it and position the legs on your stands to avoid accidents – let’s just say that bit made me quite nervous.
All in all, I think things went better than expected – almost no issues and pleasing results. The wifi communication error is a bit annoying because when it works it’s really superb; but by the end of the day, the error 57s were starting to annoy the team. Next time I’ll carry a spare Airport Express. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but as good as the H5 is as an available-light/tripod camera (think architecture etc.), I think the H5 is an even better portrait machine. Actually, I had the same experience with my V series cameras: they just make you want to shoot portraits, for some odd reason. The cameras get out of the way and let you do your thing. Perhaps time to explore this discipline further…MT
More info on the Hasselblad H5D-50c and lenses can be found here.
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