H5D-50c with HC 3.5/50 II; 501CM with 4/50 CF T* FLE, HC1 prism and custom grip. The design lineage between the V and H cameras is very clear in this configuration…
Today’s report is a twofer, for the simple reason that both cameras share the same electronics and imaging pipeline: the backs are effectively the same apart from a power button and battery holder, plus some communication points with the camera body in the case of the H mount version. For all intents and purposes, image quality and performance are identical. I’ve owned the CFV-50c since early December 2015, and have had a H5D-50c firstly as a loaner in January and then from February onwards as part of the Hasselblad Ambassador program. I’m going on six months and norhtof 12,000 frames with Hasselblad medium format as my primary system, which makes now a good time to pause and see if I made the right choice. This will be a calmer analysis in the same vein as my long term reports on the D700, D800E, D810, 645Z and 5DSR. Since switching, I can count the number of occasions I shot with my other cameras on the fingers of one hand; I have to make sure my batteries are still charged before taking them out – which is something that has never previously happened. I suppose this is a good sign…read on if you wish to put your wallet at risk.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am a Hasselblad Ambassador, so my objectivity may be in question. But I do have a significant amount of skin in the game, too – all of the V system (including CFV) was acquired prior to my appointment, and good chunk of the H system was purchased by me at retail.
Yes, the H6D was announced not long ago – but as with every new bit of gear, a) the old one doesn’t make any worse images, and b) may actually be a better price-performance proposition for most people. To my mind, the CFV-50c after the last round of discounts still remains one of the best bang-for-buck medium format options: state of the art image quality for a surprisingly doable price, especially when you consider the whole system. If anything, I’d say the H6D is a proposition for the pros who are billing in that category (and already know they need it, therefore reviews are somewhat meaningless); the more accessible generation represented here is of interest to both pros and serious amateurs. With that, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.
The 1/800s shutter limit: Most of you will recall The Switch. I shoot the Hasselblads in fundamentally the same way as I did the Nikons: available light handheld most of the time, sometimes off a tripod, and with lights if needs must. Pixel density per degree and mirror/shutter damping are what determines handholdability; in this respect, the V system demands respect because of the sheer size of the moving mirror, and the H system seems to be no worse than the 5DSR. In practical terms, we’re talking 1/2x, and preferably 1/3x focal length. This means that nothing much longer than 150mm is practical handheld, given the 1/800s max shutter speed. For the most part, I rarely work this long anyway, and even when I did with 35mm, I always used a tripod – more for precision of framing and focusing than anything else. Would I like a higher maximum speed? Absolutely. And for that reason, I’m hoping Hasselblad sends me a H6 with its 1/2000s maximum.
Reliability: I’ve had odd electronic glitches with both, but in all fairness, they were dealt with very promptly and responsively – even before I was an ambassador. I can’t ask for better service than that, and in fact, I can’t think of any other camera company that has this level of support for its users. But the glitches shouldn’t have happened at all.
Battery life: You’ll recall I complained bitterly about the A7RII’s battery life: 150-200 shots at most. The problem isn’t so much the number of shots, but the runtime of the camera: about 1.5 hours, maximum – no matter how you slice it. Battery life on both H and CFV are about the same – 4-5 hours with the back left powered on using a single standard battery, which means usually 2-2.5 batteries per full shooting day. In that 4-5 hours, I’ve shot anything from five to a thousand frames, depending of course on the subject matter. These cameras make you use them in a very different way to what you’re normally used to: just leave the thing on, and resist the temptation to cycle power with every shot. It seems Nikon still reigns supreme in the power management game, though.
Weight: Whilst the overall system weight of the H is less than what I previously carried with Nikon, the unit weight – body and lens – is quite a bit more. You gain a bit from better ergonomics, but there’s no getting around the fact the lenses weigh a kilo or more each, and are physically bulky. Pack carefully and limit juggling to a minimum – you don’t want to drop one of these things. I’ve been working with a 28-50-100 combination for documentary and travel, which is soon going to be replaced with a single 35-90 since EXIF data reveals I’m stopped down most of the time and at 50mm anyway.
Dust: The odd thing is the H5D seems to be far more dust-prone than the CFV, despite my 501CM being the better part of 25 years old and having a flaking internal coating like every other camera of that generation. I almost never have to clean the CFV, but the H5D needs cleaning after every full day of shooting. The dust bunnies I see on the sensor are more like giant dust pandas; often visible to the naked eye after removing the back. Fortunately, a blower makes short work of it. Having spoken to a few other H shooters, it seems this is common…
There are a couple of other minor niggles, two of which have been (fixed) with the H6D: live view refresh tops out at 30fps and works with a 1/30s shutter speed and within the ISO range of the back, which means it’s not so useful during daylight without an ND filter (fixed); the screen could really use more resolution (fixed), and lastly, the backs don’t seem to remember the last playback mode set, and you always have an initial info bar covering the bottom edge of your image.
All in all, I think that’s actually not too bad. Remember, we’re expecting Bugatti performance with VW reliability. The list of good far, far dominates though:
Image quality: This is by far and away the best reason to go medium format, and remains so. I’ve shot with the the 50MP CMOS models by Pentax, Hasselblad and Phase One, and honestly, the Hasselblad implementation remains by far the best. It has the the most natural highlight rolloff without abrupt clipping (Pentax); it has the extended clean deep shadows of the D800E, and almost perfect color out of the box. Barring more comprehensive testing of the H6D models, I think this is about as good as it gets for image quality: it was state of the art at release, and remains very much the case. I’ve not yet encountered any situation in which the raw sensor performance has been exceeded by something else – in color, noise, dynamic range, acuity or any other parameter. The overall rendition is both incredibly transparent but also flexible in accommodating your own stylistic and postprocessing preferences. Those of you who’ve seen me work the files from this camera in the weekly workflow videos know just how little work I have to do on them – this has saved me significant amounts of time in post, and is alone worth the added productivity for a busy pro.
Actually, I’ll let you judge for yourself. There are three full size processed files here; these have already been licensed to Hasselblad for promo work, so for the first time, here we go – click on the thumbnails below to go the full size versions.
By downloading any the above files you agree to use them for the purposes of personal evaluation only. Electronic or physical redistribution is not permitted.
Transparency: This is a tricky one to describe, but the camera basically just gets out of your way. It is responsive, easily customisable and settings are easy to find and change (for the H; the CFV basically has nothing to customise since it’s dependent on the V series body it’s attached to for the camera part). There is enough customisation that you can make it respond the way you want it to – and not so much that you can cause strange feature-driven lockouts. Ergonomics are great and despite the camera weight, it is comfortable to hold. The H5D’s finder is huge and fully visible even with spectacles – unfortunately that is not the same case with most of the 90deg V prisms; only the HC1 seems to offer a good balance between magnification and eye relief. The others are either not useful (chimney, 45deg – for square formats) or have poor eye relief (HC3/70, HC4) or poor magnification (PM90, PME90).
The CFV/V setup itself is perhaps the closest thing you’re going to get to the feeling of a traditional camera with digital output: set sensitivity on the back, then feel free to ignore it. The rest off the camera operates entirely like a mechanical, manual V – you still have to wind it to recock the mechanical leaf shutter, and all controls remain on the lens (unless you have a 200-series body, then the FP shutter speed ring is around the mount). It’s actually quite a strange feeling to work with a V-H two body setup: they handle completely differently, but deliver identical files. Whilst I’m emotionally attached to the elegance and simplicity of the V, I do realise the H is a far more productive tool for me. Still, I’m happy to use either depending on the needs of the situation and have a backup – the H can also use the V’s lenses with an adaptor.
Neat little ergonomic touches (H5D): It’s the small things that show the camera has been properly thought out and used/tested by people who actually use the thing to take photographs. For instance, the MUP button will raise the mirror with a single press, but a quick double press will then activate the self timer. The spot meter can be tied to a specific exposure zone, and that exposure zone easily changed on the fly. Pressing any programmable button followed by the menu key will take you to the page to change the shortcut for that button. A single press of the focus confirm button will take you to the focus point, which can also be shifted quickly around the frame with the command wheels. And that focus point might not actually be in the middle, even though there’s only one AF box…
Focusing: …there may only be a single focus point in the centre of the frame, but Hasselblad has a rather clever gyro-based system that determines how much to shift the focus point by to compensate for parallax and focus shift (if any) when you recompose – providing you recompose after focus is locked. In good light, the system locks quickly and accurately determines the new focus point; you can verify this by hitting the focus confirm button and seeing which portion of the frame has been selected. In low light, it often has trouble locking on; there’s quite a bit of hunting. I suspect this may be a physical limitation of phase detect AF and higher resolution systems: very little is actually in focus even within the AF box (remember, the lenses focus wide open), and that AF box may well cover quite subjects sitting at quite a range of distances. With lenses like the 2.2/100, even at 10m a very small change in focusing position can visibly mean the difference between tip of the nose and back of the head. I saw this behaviour too with the D810, and with the 5DSR. It isn’t so much a problem of acquiring focus: it’s that the camera just can’t read your mind as to which bit inside the box you want to focus on, and so usually goes for whatever gives the larges phase difference (which might of course be different to what you intended).
Wifi: I thought I wouldn’t use this, because it’s been pretty much a fiddly gimmick in every other camera I’ve used – the biggest limitation being JPEG only viewing and transfers, and the connection protocols often requiring several steps. Not so with the H5D: it appears as another access point. Launch the app, select the camera, and away you go. The app views full size raw files, including zooming and panning. And it has full camera control. Useful? Yes. I hand the iPad to my client to view (rather than tethering or crowding around the back of a small camera LCD), or use my iPhone as a wireless remote with full control – the app UI is cleverly a duplicate of the H5D’s top panel layout. Signal strength could be better, though – sometimes the connection drops for no particularly good reason.
Lenses and overall system completeness: The V system reached maturity a very long time ago; we have basically seen all the bodies and lenses we are likely to ever see, even if we still don’t yet have a full 6×6 digital back. Practically, this means that we have effectively no wide angle solutions with the current 44x33mm sensors, and of the limited 40mm choices, the 4/40 FLE is not bad (but requires f11 and some post-capture CA correction) and only the rare and expensive 4/40 IF is really up to par. To my mind, the best setup with a CFV is either the 501CM or 503CW bodies, a HC1 prism (or HC4 if you don’t wear spectacles), the CFV-50C, a 4/50 FLE and 4/150 CF. The rest is actually not really necessary. I’ve been asked many times about use of the Arcbody and Flexbody technical camera options with the CFV; the short answer is there’s no point unless you only need movements in one axis: those cameras were designed for a square film back, which means rise/fall can be changed simply by rotating the whole camera and not affecting the aspect ratio. However, with the digital back and non-rotating mount, we are stuck with rise in landscape orientation, and shift in portrait – which is not very useful, and personally tends to be opposite to what I need.
I’ve not found anything major missing from the H system yet – the 24/28/50/100/TC combination, supplemented by the HTS, 35-90 and a couple of V lenses (4/150, 5.6/250 Superachromat) cover everything I need. Lens performance is excellent and more importantly, remarkably consistent, too – regardless of whether you’re using the TC or HTS, with the exception of the 100mm. The 24 and 28mm lenses are amongst the best wides I’ve ever used, and the 50mm is probably about as close as you’re going to get to an Otus for medium format (albeit quite a bit slower). This lens requires a little stopping down for optimum performance (and even then I suspect it’s due to the previously described focusing limitations). It’s best to treat it as an f2.8 or f4 lens with some emergency speed.
Actually, the biggest problem is one that DSLR users have faced since the beginning of the affordable large sensor camera: crop factor. I selected my current lenses based off FF angle of view equivalents: the 24+HTS 1.5 is a 28mm tilt-shift; the 28 is a ~21mm; the 50 is ~39, the 100 is ~78. The 35-90 is a ~28-70. If you move to the larger 54×40 ‘full 645′ sensor, you land up somewhat in no-mans’ land: 23mm TS (okay); 18mm, 32mm, 65mm and 22-58. Hmm indeed. Oddly though, I’ve found that if an actual focal length works for you, it seems to work regardless of format. I’ve always found 21 a bit wide and 35-40ish unusable – but both are very comfortable with the 44×33 sensor. I put it down to some property of the real focal lengths being 28 and 50mm, both of which I’m very comfortable with on 35mm/FF. Fortunately, that remains an academic problem for the time being – but is still important to consider for system longevity when making significant lens investments.
All in all, this has been a rather different kind of review. I think the basis of modern medium format is twofold: image quality, and productivity for the working pro. So far, the Hasselblads have delivered in spades, and I admit there’s something quite pleasurable about having this kind of image quality in the V body – I suppose having the H5D and the CFV-50c is probably something like having a Ferrari F12 and a 1960s-vintage GT with the same drivetrain. I’ve not found anything major that makes me regret my choice; if anything, processing the files from the other cameras leaves me with the feeling they’re somewhat ‘brittle’ – for want of a better description. There’s far less latitude and you’ve got to do some significant monkeying to make highlights and shadows look ‘right’, especially for highly saturated colors. I’m just glad the rest of the H5D has continued to live up to the expectations set by my first experience with it – it is and remains a camera that just gets out of your way and lets you shoot. The irony of course is this equipment makes me care much less (perhaps nothing) about equipment: preparation H seems to be the ultimate cure for GAS, too.
Actually, scratch that: it makes you want to shoot, because the process is so enjoyable and the results are so compelling; if anything, it makes you a bit more critical of your own work, too. I find myself asking more often: is the image good enough? How can I make it even better? Assuming current pricing levels for the H5D are maintained – and I see no reason why not – surely that’s worth the price of admission…MT
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