On Location with the Hasselblad H3DII-31

Update, July 2011: Since our review of the Hasselblad H3DII-31, Hasselblad has updated the camera by bundling its digital back with the new Hasselblad H4D camera body.  The combination, the H4D-31 sells for around $13k.  Check it out here, a link to one of our sponsors, Samy’s Camera.  The digital back is unchanged, though the H4D camera body adds Hasselblad’s excellent True Focus system.

It would be fair to consider this beast of a digital camera most at home in a photography studio, and perhaps not a natural choice for an editorial-style location portrait shoot.  As primarily a location shooter, though, I wanted to run a test in the vain of my usual work.  What is it like in the field?  Are the resulting files of sufficiently higher quality to justify the expense over a 35mm system?  Is it more complicated or difficult to use than my usual Nikon D3?  I’m hoping this entry might be of use to people with similar questions.  It was certainly an interesting experience for me!

First, the Hasselblad is a bigger, heavier camera than the D3 (which is saying something).  It’s not taller or wider, but certainly feels bigger.  Its lenses are huge, smooth metal tubes with clean, minimalist controls and markings.  It’s a hefty, robust camera, not something that feels frail or out of place in the field.  Ergonomically, it’s a joy to use, especially once you get used to a few traits unique to Hasselblad, like its purely electronic interface and its simplified, computer-like menu system.

[more after the jump..]

[A note on the visual content of this entry: these files have made the following journey: 50 MB RAW capture from the H3DII-31, corrected and exported as 90 MB TIFFs from Hasselblad’s Phocus software, further edited and exported as roughly 1.4 MB sRGB sharpened JPGs from Adobe Lightroom.  They should be considered only Web-prepped representatives of the original files.  My next entry on the H3DII, a discussion of image quality, will include links to download more respectable files for your own observations.  In the meantime, I’ve provided close crops for a few files that, while still “dumbed down” for Web use, will give a better idea of the quality of the Hasselblad files.]

Crop at 100%, click to enlarge

For my test shoot, I arranged a sunrise portrait shoot of a distance runner in the Redwood-forested hills above Oakland, CA.  I set up for a simple one-light shoot with a single grid spot mounted high above the trail and radio triggered (for a complete equipment list, see the end of this entry).  The Hasselblad’s hot shoe accepts a standard trigger, exactly as my Nikons.

Setting the camera up is straight forward and easy.  It feels like a camera designed to be dialed-in and set free to shoot, while the Nikon is perhaps more tuned for shooting in settings that are constantly changing.  Per suggestion from Keeble and Shuchat’s Randy Hoffman, I set up the Hasselblad’s “user” button to take a quick white balance manual setting.  My subject held up a white shirt, and I set the white balance by aiming at the shirt and pressing the button.  A small square in the center of the frame measures the white balance, it’s very quick and easy.  Two things to note: first the white balance set in-camera is only for the sake of previewing and a quick measure, as the camera only shoots RAW files and, secondly, there is no auto white balance setting, only presets.  It is useful that the camera’s top screen displays the measured white balance in degrees Kelvin, adding unique color meter functionality to the camera.

Crop at 100%, click to enlarge

ISO is easy to set, a double tap on the shutter release half-press brings up the digital back’s menu, which allows for setting ISO, naming a batch folder for the shoot, and a few other capture-related settings (ISO can also be set by a dedicated button on the camera).  Compact flash cards are easily formated in the back via a button on the camera.  The camera and back operate off a single battery, located in the grip (actually, the grip Is the battery pack).  These are all features somewhat unique in the medium format pantheon to Hasselblad’s integrated system.

Also, there are blessedly few obscure options unrelated to actually taking photos.  There are no sharpness, contrast, saturation controls, slideshow settings, black and white or sepia settings, no smily face icons nor any world clock.  Many of the camera’s buttons can be set the way you like them, like AF or AE lock, direction of the 2 controls wheels, and the White Balance funtion mentioned previously.  These settings, along with ISO, White Balance, and Exposure Mode, can be assigned to simple “Profiles” like “Studio” or “Full Auto” or anything else you’d like to name them.  When compared to the Mamiya/Phase One method of adding C1, C2, and C3 custom banks to the exposure mode dial, Hasselblad’s “Profiles” are very similar and perhaps better thought-out.  The traditionalist in me, however, is a little whimsical for an actual Exposure Mode Dial, no knobs on the all-digital Hassy (no exposure mode dial on the D3 either, by the way).

All that is to say that the H3DII is a purposeful camera without the least feeling of gimmick.  Everything has a direct purpose.  The D3, similarly, is all business, but a lot of its functionality, at least in its comparably over-burdened menus, is dedicated to JPG shooting and processing, something I definitely do not do in-camera for anything besides the occasional lazy snap shot.  It’s also true that the D3 has a dedicated button or switch for practically everything related to shooting, something I miss with the Hasselblad.  The Hasselblad, however, is designed to be completely operated by computer using the free and very useful Phocus software.  By comparison, Nikon’s Capture Control Pro software is more cumbersome and certainly not free (nor does it process, organize, and preview RAW files like Phocus) and it can’t change settings that are controlled by a mechanical switch on the camera body.

Purposeful or not, the Hassy is not the low-light champ of the world like the D3 series from Nikon.  The H3DII-31 has a respectable – for the medium format world – top ISO of 1600.  The lights were set, my runner warming up, the Nikon was able to grab some useable shots.  We’d have to wait for more light for the big camera to come into play (it was 6:15 a.m, and we were planning an action shot with natural light in dense woods, which is a tall order for any camera).  a bit later, with long shutter speeds still needed to render details in the surrounding woods, the Hasselblad was planted on a tripod.  It was a challenge for me to handhold, demanding a couple extra clicks of shutter speed to render sharp images.  The camera shake tendency is partly due to a much larger mirror that jitters the camera noticeably.  There’s a dedicated button under your right ring finger for mirror lock-up, a useful function here I never use in 35mm.  It was an extreme situation, low light and a moving subject, strobes only providing a bit of fill.  It’s an example, though, of a time when 35mm is a better choice, providing greater flexibility in dodgy conditions.

Crop at 100%, click to enlarge

Soon, as daylight began filtering through the heavy Bay Area fog and tall trees, the Hasselblad took over as the imaging weapon of choice.  It has a firm feel, responsive, and robust.  Its viewfinder is a spectacular increase in brightness and size, providing good feedback on exposure and focus.  The camera has a truly unique system of audio feedback.  One tone indicates a successful capture, another an underexposed shot, and another an over exposure..  beep beep BEEP, BEEP beep… etc..  It’s actually pretty useful, other tones warn when card space is running out or gone, and other such warnings.  Also, the rear screen provides a useful image preview, while the top screen displays a histogram, a nice, and novel division of labor.

The camera is designed to incorporate easily with Hasselblad’s very usable Phocus for a smooth digital workflow.  A button with red, yellow, and green dots allows images to quickly be set to one of the three colors.  It’s similar to the 5-star rating system of Adobe Lightroom, but can be set before files ever hit the hard drive.  I find it useful to have the camera default to yellow and promote to green images I suspect will be my eventual picks.  Alternatively, the camera can asign picks based on exposure warnings (related to the little melodies mentioned before).  It can also be set to begin deleting red-marked files once a card fills up.  If a file is an obvious waste of card space, it can be quickly removed by holding down the back’s down rocker button for a couple seconds, a useful shortcut – deleting unwanted files is an especially useful function when 50 MB raw files and eventual 90 MB TIFF files can be expected downstream.

Definitively, the H3DII screen is not as pretty to look at the D3’s.  I wouldn’t advise inviting clients to peek at images, which I frequently allow with the Nikons.  On the positive side, if files look acceptable on the H3DII-31’s screen, they will look awesome on a full-size monitor and in print, something that is not necessarily true of the super-snazzy Nikon screen that displays amped-up and occasionally deceptive JPG previews.  It also has a useful zoom function that displays a navigation thumbnail in a corner and is useful for checking focus, though images seem never to look quite sharp on screen.

Focusing is perhaps the most obvious distinction between 35mm and 645 photography in general.  The D3 has the world’s best Auto Focus, so the comparison between the Nikon and Hasselblad is especially apparent.  The H3DII-31 has one central focus point and can select between continuous, single, or manual mode.  Auto focus is driven by an audible motor and can be instantly overridden with a turn of the beefy and precise manual ring found on all H-series lenses.  In contrast to similar lenses from Nikon, the overriding is a joy to use and the rings are nicely damped with good feel and travel.  Also, the viewfinder is so big and beautiful, manual focus is easier than any 35mm camera.  Hasselblad literature is quick to defend a single focus point as more accurate and less complicated.  It’s true that it’s easy to use, but I miss the ability to scoot the point one direction or another if I know my subject is not going to be dead-center in the frame.  With a movable point, for example, the camera can be tripod mounted for a portrait shot, with the point moved up to the subject’s eye.  Not so with the Hasselblad.

In practice, the H3DII-31 AF renders extremely sharp images.  It is essential to carefully focus beacause even at moderate apertures, a clear focal plane is visible.  In one shot from this series, I noticed, even under strobe lighting that the subject’s eye is sharp, while his ear and nose are blurred.  It’s a beautiful effect, but one that demands care while focusing.  Hasselblad’s new H4D series cameras have improved Autofocus, including the new “True Focus” technology that slightly re-focuses to account for re-composing after an initial lock.  I’ve only briefly tried an H4D, but it does seem to improve things.  Both cameras, however, demand precise handling and extra care when focusing.

If, for example, you happen to be shooting in misty low light with a runner sprinting towards you, plan to mark a point on the ground and use manual focus, clicking the shutter as he crosses the mark.  The D3, by comparison, will faithfully track such a moving subject with decent accuracy.  My own findings were that the H3DII is simply not the best choice for action shooting of this type, though it is in a league above once things settle down and the portrait shooting starts

When properly used – and the H3DII is a demanding camera to use – the results are stunning.  My next entry will be dedicated entirely to analysis of image quality, but – as a teaser – I can say that images are sharper and less noisy than I’ve ever seen from any 35mm camera.  In the field, it is a sturdy and straight forward camera that requires no additional babying compared to my D3.  It seems to be largely free of the traditional limitations of medium format digital photography, like computer tethering, deplorable battery life, and poor feedback.  You will certainly want to cary a couple extra batteries, plan your lighting carefully, and will not want to forget the tripod.  It is an impressive camera, though, rewarding greater effort with better digital files.  Check back next week for my image comparison…

More on the H3DII-31
“Entry-Level Digital Medium Format and the $10k Hasselblad H3DII-31”

“Image Quality and the Hasselblad H3DII-31”

Rudy de Vos, a portrait shoot with the H3DII-31 under natural light

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Hasselblad H4D-31 at Samy’s Camera

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One Response to “On Location with the Hasselblad H3DII-31”
  1. Tim Layton says:

    Excellent article… I just read part 1 and commented and couldn’t help but comment here as well. As stated in the first article I am currently shooting a D3s. I routinely shoot in brackets with the D3s and use the autobracket feature a lot. I usually shoot 5 images in the backet (2 over, 2 under, 1 normal). How would that work on the H3DII-31? Also, I use Lightroom 3 for my catalog and digital workflow centerpiece. I think I know the answer, but I want to make sure. Can I import the RAW files from the CF Card off the H3DII-31 directly into Lightroom 3 without having to use the Hasselblad software? If yes, is there any disadvantage to going straight to Lightroom with the RAW files vs converting them to TIFF’s first?


    Tim Layton

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