Entry-Level Digital Medium Format and the $10k Hasselblad H3DII-31

The Mighty Hassleblad H3DII-31

Update, July 2011: Since the time of this writing, Hasselblad has replaced the H3DII-31 with the updated H4D-31.  The new camera uses the same digital back bundled to the H4D camera body, which adds Hasselblad’s True Focus system.  The new camera can be found at Samy’s Camera here.  Readers may also be interested in our review of the H4D-40 here.

[I want to offer a Huge thanks to Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto and Hasselblad genius Randy Hoffman for loaning my studio this camera and a couple lenses.  Be sure to stop by if you happen to be in the Palo Alto area, it’s an awesome camera store!]

Once, long ago, the folks at Nikon announced the much anticipated high-resolution version of the flagship Nikon D3, the 24 MP Nikon D3X.  The D3 is an awesome camera with perhaps only lower-than-average resolution preventing it from being the ultimate all-around professional camera.  The D3X might have been the answer for many photographers, but for the un-anticipated $8,000 price tag.

Meanwhile, buy-in pricing to the ethereal ranks of Medium Format Digital has been sneaking down to within near-competition of high-end 35 mm cameras like the D3X.  The newly-released (in Japan, at least) Pentax 645D deserves credit for shaking up the market with a roughly $10,000 price tag.  Shortly after the announcement, Mamiya and Hasselblad, the only two medium format manufacturers to  have miraculously weathered the digital revolution, both announced offerings in the neighborhood of $10,000: the Mamiya DM22 and this Hasselblad H3DII-31.

[more after the jump..]

A New Niche

The two cameras, three with the Pentax included, comprise the new arena of Entry Level Medium Format Digital, and it’s a very compelling set of hardware options for the professional photographer.  Hasselblad and Mamiya have both arrived at this historic price point by selling one-generation-old cameras alongside more cutting-edge offerings.  The Mamiya line extends all the way to $33,000, 56 MP, DM56; the Hassies shoot past $40,000 with the 60 MP H4D-60 but the new Entry Level options deserve serious consideration.  The latest generation of cameras offer improvements, to be certain, but, unlike the 35mm hustle we all know so well, these companies tend not to handicap humbler products, but instead offer the best possible product at a variety of price points and resolution needs.  The actual cameras, controls, and interface are often the same, with only resolution differing.

What Is MF?

Medium Format is the traditional middleground between 35mm film cameras and Large Format film cameras.  Currently the “biggest” digital cameras available, medium format designs retain their basic architecture from film days (just like 35mm cameras with batteries where film motors once were and sensors where the film plane once was).  Traditionally, MF cameras were square boxes with openings front, top, and back.  The front mounts a lens, the top a viewfinder, and a film “back.”  The backs were interchangeable, allowing switching between various film.  Today, the backs are still detachable, though most current cameras have limits to what backs can be attached.  Pentax, as an aside, never followed the detachable back plan in the film days and isn’t with the 645D either (they made film inserts that could be swapped) but have always adopted a more integrated, less expensive approach.

As a result of their haritage, these cameras are still quite box-like.  Boxes with a handle stuck on one side, a viewfinder poking far back, like a banana, to clear the new digital backs that fit snuggly where film used to live.  The sensors are considerably larger than 35mm sensors (just how much bigger depends greatly on which cameras are being compared).  The viewfinders are huge and bright.  The lenses are jumbo-size.  The ergonomics, generally speaking, are unfamiliar to the 35mm shooter, with MF cameras tending toward brute-like utilitarian imaging.

Are there disadvantages to the basic MF design?  Yes.  Across the board, autofocus is significanly slower and less complex.  The separation of sensors and cameras allows varying degrees of integration with one another, befuddling photographers with a variety of quirks from one system to the next.  Huge sensors and viewfinders make for huge mirrors that slap with a noticably increased pop and shimmy.  Also – when compared to nimbler 35mm cameras – there are varying limitations from one system to the next including battery life, ISO, minimum aperture, and general flexibility that may surprize someone trained on 35mm (a few oddities certainly surprised me.)

Advantages?  Killer viewfinders; giant, crystal clear files; amplified selective focus effect (bigger sensors make for smaller depth of focus); and typically excellent professional support (no offence, NPS).  Not to mention these are huge bad-ass cameras with huge lenses and huge photos… all of which can lend a certain panache to a shoot.

The Hasselblad Deal

When announced, the H3D was a scandal.  It was the first camera from Hasselblad to function with only Hasselblad backs and to not work with film backs or 3rd party digital backs.  To remain competitive financially, and to increase interaction between camera and digital back, Hasselblad essentially was partnered with the Imacon company to create unified cameras whose sensor units can be detached and used on view cameras.  Each camera is tuned to it’s own back.

In the transition, certain MF advantages were sacrificed while certain 35mm advantages adopted.  Sacrificed back interchageability elliminates using separate rental or backup components while greater communication allows the unit to operate on one battery and with numerous shared controls.  One shortcut, for example: a quick mouse-like double click on the shutter release’s half press brings up a settings menu on the rear screen, another half press and the screen is off, settings saved, pretty cool.  Another shortcut I’ve found useful is the ability to set the “user button” under one’s right thumb to automatically grab a manual white balance from a white or gray card with one press, fast and easy (by the way, no auto white balance on this serious shooter).  Those are just two examples of a unified back/camera design.  As for the lasting effect of the proprietary switch, digital back makers Leaf and Phase One have gone on to a succesful collaboration with Mamiya, and Hasselblad has created a system that is not so significantly unlike true unified closed 35mm systems to which we are all accustomed.  It all seems to have worked out nicely.

The newer H4D is an upgrade to the H3DII, but only incrementally.  The new cameras are equipped with new sensors and a new autofocus system, but are otherwise difficult to distinguish.  The workflow is the same and workflow is a strong selling point for Hasselblad.  Hasselblad and Phase One are unique among camera manufactureres for having designed not just cameras, but complete processes from capture to image delivery.  Phase One’s excellent Capture One software and Hasselblad’s very useable (and free) Phocus software are both a pleasure to use, make tethered shooting a joy, and work wonders with the Raw files around which they were designed.  Hasselblad’s software, for example, automatically applies Hasselblad lens corrections, including correction for distortion, that work very well.

It’s worth noting a quirk in the Hassel-flow.  No JPG, TIFF, or DNG from this camera, it’s 16-bit Raw or nothing.  The files are written to a compact flash card as .3FR files, a lossless-compressed Raw format.  These are workable in Lightroom 3.0 and Adobe ACR, which is nice.  They are not, however, workable in Hasselblad Phocus.  Phocus imports the files as .FFF files, a non-compressed form that allows lens corrections and other proprietary adjustments not yet possible in Lightroom.

I exported from Phocus as TIFF files and let Lightroom import those and have been very pleased with the results.  The resultant TIFFs are huge and beautiful and quite workable.  Digital workflow and asset management is something a potential Hasselblad adopter will want to plan especially carefully, as there are at least 3 distinct file types that are certain to be involved at one point or another, and a poorly planned flow might turn ugly (not to mention the stacks of hard drives that would be needed).

The Camera

The camera itself is a beast: long and weighty, solid and metal.  It’s deeply-contoured grip as much holds your right hand as you hold it.  In switching from a Nikon D3 and this, I have to remember to take more weight with my left hand; my first shoot – before I came to this realization – left my right hand throbbing.  It is nearly all metal, which is impressive, and yet feels a touch less solid than the king-of-robustness Nikon D3.  The majority of the right-hand grip is a detachable battery pack, which gives the overall feel a hint of flex, and there are noticeable seams and mold lines in the few parts that are plastic.  Perhaps, in the land of 5-figure pricing, there is room for improvement in the department of feeling luxurious.

With this boxy Swede, though, it’s not about feelings.  This thing is a working machine.  Every element is utility.  It’s controls have been uniquely laid-out and labeled which will create a learning curve, but the very straight-forward operation quickly becomes familiar.  Hasselblad seems to have thought carefully through many design elements, unaware of the outside world.  Many cameras from many manufactures have common features: exposure mode dials, S/C/M AF selector switches, on/off switches, aperture rings, all ubiquitous controls not to be found on the Hassy.  There are fewer buttons than on most 35mm cameras and fewer menus, options, and “features,” but everything necessary for professional image making is easily accessible.

Modern Hasselblads are designed to take full advantage of a unique top info screen.  The screen is pixelated, not just light-up symbols and digital numbers.  As a result, it can display simple English statements and clear icons.  Most of the small rubber buttons enter a menu, to switch between exposure modes, for example, press the “EXP” button on the side of the viewfinder to enter a little menu that allows the front control wheel to scroll through “Manual,” “Aperture Pr.” “Shutter Pr.” “Program,” and “Program Variable,” and the rear control dial to scroll through “Centre W,” “CentreSpot,” and “Spot” choose what you need and press the “Save” button to lock in the settings.  Most camera functions are similarly controlled, including ISO and White Balance (which can also be set on the rear screen).

Many buttons are customizable, as well as the direction of the wheels and AF activation, and most settings can be saved into profiles which can be named anything you’d like, in addition to Hasselblad’s default profiles: Default, Full auto, Studio, and Fill flash.  It’s a smart way to manage custom settings.  One set can be tailored to a studio workflow with another for location portraits, for example.

Having read the camera’s manual before receiving the unit, I was skeptical that it would be smooth to use in real life.  It works well, though, is quick to set up and easy to adjust.  It has very little to distract a photographer from composing images and working with subjects.  One complaint, if any, would be that, since the camera requires a photographer to interact with the top screen for so many functions, the screen should be angled back towards the shooter, not forward and away.  You have to tilt the camera back to see it, which can be cumbersome.  I never use the top screen on my D3, except to check battery and card life when the camera is snug in it’s case; everything is clear enough in the viewfinder.  With the H3DII, though, it’s a major player.  One cool feature to note on the top screen, however, is the display of a histogram of the last image recorded.  It’s useful, a full screen view on the back and histogram on the top.

Overall, it’s a smart, very functional camera.  Hefty and robust, but not uncomfortable.  Certainly an instrument of data collection that carries an imposing presence.  I look forward to sharing the real joy of such a machine, pictures, in upcoming posts, as well as a discussion of print quality and the experience of shooting in the field.

Part Two: On Location with the Hasselblad H3DII-31

Part Three: Image Quality and the Hasselblad H3DII-31

Useful Links

purchases made from our sponsors via these links help support our studio, Thanks!

Hasselblad H4D-31 at Samy’s Camera

Hasselblad H4D-40 at Samy’s Camera

Hasselblad H4D-50 at Samy’s Camera

Recent images from a hasty natural-light portrait shoot with the camera, Here

I believe it deserves serious consideration for a professional photographer contemplating an investment in 35mm gear.  Check back for image and print comparisons..

If you happen to live in Northern California, be sure to stop by Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto.  Randy Hoffman knows these cameras as well as anyone and was gracious to set up a loan to our studio.

4 Responses to “Entry-Level Digital Medium Format and the $10k Hasselblad H3DII-31”
  1. Tim Layton says:

    THANK YOU!! Thank you for writing this article. I purchased a Nikon D3s earlier this year and have been seriously considering a D3X for my higher resolution architecture and landscape work. Before digital was king I always shot medium format 6×45 and 6×7 and so something told me to google MF DSLR cameras. When I saw the offer on B&H I thought there must be a catch or something wrong with the H3DII-31. Your article is clear and straight forward and being a Nikon D3 shooter it felt like it was written just for me. I am seriously considering the H3DII-31 over the Nikon D3x and would like to chat with you before I take the jump. I would be grateful to you if you would take the time to have a quick chat. My contact info is on my blog site at http://blog.timlaytonphotography.com.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] H4D shares a significant portion of design with its H3DII predecessor (reviewed here).  The cameras share the same detachable viewfinder, detachable battery grip, body design, and […]

  2. […] Like the Leica S2, the Pentax 645D offers only USB for tethering and image upload, not the firewire 800/400 of the Mamiya/Phase One and Hasselblad.  When compared to the Hassy, the big Pentax has a couple other notable concessions to the non-pro market: 14-bit images, SD cards instead of CF cards, and a host of in-camera processing tricks.  Good luck to professionals performing image processing and multiple exposure layering on a 3-inch screen.  It promises to offer, however, a nicely designed and unified body, friendly control layout, good LCD feedback, and very similar resolution.  So, compromises to wide-spread marketability aside, I look forward to trying one.  In the meantime, for about the same price, I’d recommend a $10k Hasselblad H3DII-31 (reviewed here). […]

  3. […] Entry Level Medium Format and the $10k Hasselblad H3DII-31 […]

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