Image Quality and the Hasselblad H3DII-31
The Hasselblad H3DII-31
When compared to more nimble 35mm cameras there are certain compromises to shooting a big 645 DSLR. It often operates more slowly, with less flexibility of exposure and focus, and – in most cases – it’s more cumbersome. Is the added complexity and added cost worth it? Do the trade-offs pay off once the files hit the hard drives and big TIFFs go to print?
Why race a Station Wagon and a Super Car?
I’ve been thinking through questions like these for a few weeks now and have a number of images from parallel shooting with a Nikon D3 and Hasselblad H3DII-31. It’s a very interesting comparison, I think. In some respects, it’s an unfair comparison. The Nikon is half the cost and a fraction of the resolution. The D3, though, is my primary working camera, and it’s been interesting to analyze the benefits of upgrading to medium format.
It would be interesting, also, to conduct similar comparisons with a Nikon D3X or a Sony A900 or a Canon 5DII or 1DS-III. All of those have more MP than my D3, which is certainly a factor in image quality. They all, however, have significantly less resolution than the H3DII-31, which is the humblest camera in the Hasselblad lineup. Some of them, also, are not substantially less expensive than the now discounted H3DII-31. So, whether with a D3X or D700, the comparison will be unfair. If this were Car & Driver, I’d be comparing a Ferrari super car to a BMW sporty station wagon. Similarly, there are times when a wagon is nice and when a super car is impractical; the question is: when is the compromise worth it?
The Nikon D3 and Hasselblad H3DII-31 offer two distinct workflows. The cameras and lenses are different, the files are different, and the software is different. Beyond file size and resolution, the resulting photos Look different. From my own experience with Canon 5DII files (a 21.1 MP sensor) resolution is only a small part of the Look of an image. My D3 (a 12.1 MP sensor) renders files that look equally – if not more – clean, clear, and sharp that the higher-resolution Canon. The two cameras are, whatever your preference, roughly on the same plane (as are the D3S, D700, 1DS-III, etc, etc.. all sporty, practical wagons) I look forward to trying a D3X to see if the same holds true; that will be a future post.
I will say, up front, that the Hasselblad is certainly different. The differences between a D3 and 5DII are subtle compared to the differences between a D3 and H3DII-31. There are certainly photographic activities for which the Hasselblad is a much better choice than any 35mm DSLR. There are also times when a 35mm DSLR is the obvious choice, but I’d like to make the MF DSLR case, because a lot of popular opinions of the Big Guns are out of date. The files from this thing are awesome, and – for many professional and high end 35mm photographers – it’s time to consider the 645 option.
As discussed in previous posts, the Hasselblad is capable of generating 2 types of RAW files (no JPG, TIFF, or DNG options). When shooting to a compact flash card, the camera compresses files to a “3FR” format, when tethered to a computer, uncompressed “FFF” files are saved to a hard drive. I shot to CF cards, plugged in the camera using it’s firewire 800 port and imported the files using Hasselblad’s Phocus software. Phocus requires FFF files, and creates them while importing. After applying Hasselblad’s awesome and easy lens correction, along with basic white balance, exposure, and saturation adjustments, I exported TIFF files for Lightroom to organize and further process.
To be certain, compared to Nikon’s NEF file workflow, there is an extra workflow step created unless a photographer is willing to either commit completely to Phocus or sacrifice Hasselblad’s very useful lens correction technology and import 3FRs directly to Lightroom. Phocus, for what it’s worth, is a very respectable piece of software. It is strikingly similar to Lightroom, offering similar control, and much improved control while tethering. I’m willing to include it with Lightroom, Apple Aperture, and Phase One’s Capture One, as top notch workflow software (and it’s a free download!)
What I’m left with, on the hard drives, are FFF files created during import and TIFF files incorporated into my Lightroom-centered workflow. I’ve always archived RAW files, and have already benefitted as Adobe has updated it’s converter. I’ve decided, with the Hasselblad, to archive the FFF files and only run “top edit” images through Lightroom as TIFFs. Some files, therefore, are duplicated as FFF and TIFF, but that’s nothing new. I’ve always exported final images in PSD form (Photoshop Files) to add localized and variable opacity edits. The TIFF format will also allow layers to be saved and, as an alternative, Phocus can export PSDs.
File Size & Resolution
So how big are the H3DII-31’s TIFFs? When exported at “full size” TIFF from Focus: 90.6 MB and 6,496 x 4,872 pixels, 16 bit and 300 dpi AdobeRGB, not bad. The D3’s NEF files can vary with optional compression, but are roughly 13.5 MB and 4,272 x 2,828 pixels, 14 bit and 240 dpi AdobeRGB. I’ve found the 12.1 MP files to be of adequate size for 90% of what I do, including good-size prints. For me, 12.1 MP certainly requires some hefty interpolating from time to time. I’ve also found I get improved prints on our studio Canon iPF6100 by printing 450 ppi files, vs 300 ppi or 240 ppi files. The Hasselblad, even at 450 ppi renders 14″ wide prints natively, which is nice.
Does the (much) added file size make a difference in image quality? Yes, the Hassy files – even once everything is compressed, shrunk, and sharpened for Web use – are noticeably clearer and less grainy. If the photographer is able to precisely focus, expose, and capture a camera-shake-free image (which is challenging at this unforgiving resolution) the camera is a striking improvement. Slight camera shake, miss-focus, or poor exposure can all wreck the benefit, but nail a shot with this 645 and it will take imaging to the next level. There are so many factors that contribute to image sharpness and clarity: lens, technique, sensor, etc. Certainly the Hasselblad all-proprietary strategy is working.
Color, Contrast, & Clarity
RAW files from the D3 have more initial saturation and contrast. Lightroom’s default black clipping contributes, but even with that removed, the H3DII-31 files have an initial low-contrast look. The camera seems to be tuned to capture a wider range of tones with more neutrality while, by comparison, the Nikon creates more dynamic imagery in-camera (and it’s worth noting that the D3’s RAW files are unaffected by in-camera Picture Control, ie “Vivid” “Neutral” etc. which apply only when shooting JPG). With these cameras, two slightly different philosophies are at play. Throughout every element of design, from lens to sensor to in-camera processing to proprietary RAW conversion, the Hasselblad is engineered to be precise and neutral, leaving adjustments for things like saturation, contrast, and distortion to be intentionally made later. The Nikon has more inherent “pop” to its shots, which, depending on your tastes, is either a head start in processing or a slight compromise in creative freedom.
The benefits of higher resolution are quite apparent once you start zooming in on a big monitor and counting eye lashes. It’s difficult to convey with Web-prepped files, hopefully, some of the resolution-related qualities will still be apparent in the 100% crops I’ve included. One element of the Hassy files that is less likely to translate on-line is the depth and subtleties of captured tones. Zooming in on trees, blurred in the background of my outdoor shoot, more distinct colors, details, and tones are distinguishable in the files. I don’t know how much of the difference is related to 16 bit files verses the Nikon’s 14 bit files, related to the lenses used, or related to the size or design of the digital sensors, but it’s certainly evident on screen and the Hasselblad files are better for it.
To conclude this section, it’s worth conceding that the Hasselblad is twice as expensive and should show clear benefits. That the differences are subtle is a testament to Nikon’s innovation and design, especially given the much more agile handling and robust build of the smaller camera. Also, Nikon has intentionally taken a low-resolution route with it’s choice of sensors, only recently adding a camera with significantly higher resolution than the D3. I believe, to some extent, they’re right. The differences in image quality are not enormous between these two cameras, despite the drastic difference in megapixel count. I’ll know for certain at a later date, but would suspect many of my findings to hold true for the higher-resolution D3X, as many of the differences I see are not resolution-related.
Both cameras produce files that can bear heavy manipulation in Photoshop and Lightroom, with tons of exposure and saturation latitude. The H3DII-31 files have an advantage. In Lightroom, the D3 NEFs will hold up to 2.25 or 2.5 stops of exposure correction without falling apart visually, the H3DII-31 files seem capable of taking a full 4 stops. This is subjective of course, as there is no objective measure of when a photo “falls apart,” but when comparing images at +4.0 exposure in Lightroom, the Hasselblad files are still clear and color accurate while the NEFs have gone to fruity noise and hyper contrast. Why does it matter? There is a wider range of detail available for post production, for example “dodging and burning” or HDR combinations. Also, there is room for adjustments without drastic image quality compromise (hopefully, I won’t ever need a 4-stop exposure parachute, yikes!)
Exposure is a bit subjective, I’ll admit, but this is worse: the latitude for color adjustment. And, again, the Hasselblad has an advantage, though it is subtle. To my eye, the H3DII-31 files can handle a full 100% on Lightroom’s saturation slider for many images, a bit less for skin tones. Some images that would turn to bubble-gum blotchy weirdness at 100% on a D3 file look only exuberantly over-amped with the H3DII-31 files, though the colors remain true and distinguishable. It likely owes some degree to the relatively un-amped starting place of the Hasselblad files. Indeed, the D3 files are saturated to begin with.
Both cameras generate flexible files that can take a lot of pixel abuse in post production, though the Hasselblad’s increased resolution and usable exposure latitude provide an advantage in creative post production. Color latitude is much more subjective, the Nikon is a great camera for intense color work, offering saturation beyond the limits of believability. The Hasselblad, by contrast, is more reserved and interested in accuracy.
These are very different photographic machines. The Nikon D3 is fast and flexible, capable of capturing images in an unbelievable range of light. The Hasselblad, more at home on a tripod and demanding photographic precision, is a challenging camera. It demands more intentional operation but offers a rewarding increase in a number of image quality areas, exposure latitude, rendering of subtle differences in tones, detail, and resolution. 35mm digital cameras, and the D3 is an awesome representative from that camp, are more flexible and capable than ever. For many professional photographers, though, digital 645 photography deserves serious consideration. Sporty wagons have a valuable place on the road, but some shooters out there are probably ready for the race track.
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