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.

Nikon D3, Click to Enlarge

Nikon D3, 100% Crop, Click to Enlarge

Imaging Workflow

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.

Hasselblad H3DII-31, Click to Enlarge

Hasselblad H3DII-31 100% Crop, Click to Enlarge

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.

Nikon D3, Click to Enlarge

Nikon D3 100% Crop, Click to Enlarge

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.

Hasselblad H3DII-31, Click to Enlarge

Hasselblad H3DII-31, 100% Crop, Click to Enlarge

Processing Latitude

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.

Hasselblad H3DII-31, Click to Enlarge

Hasselblad H3DII-31 100% Crop, Click to Enlarge

Observations

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.

Part 1: Entry-Level Digital Medium Format and the $10k Hasselblad H3DII-31

Part 2: On Location with the Hasselblad H3DII-31

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Hasselblad H4D-31 at Samy’s Camera

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Comments
6 Responses to “Image Quality and the Hasselblad H3DII-31”
  1. Tim Layton says:

    Matt, you must be reading my mind. The information you provided in this article is exactly what I was looking for. I am curious if there is a way to get the lens correction for the H3DII-31 inside of LR3, even if it is a manual configuration? I don’t have a problem adding the extra step in my workflow and only bringing in the top H3DII-31 images into LR3. I use plugins like onOne Software etc in LR3 and Photoshop CS5 and I have to assume that all of these would work as they do on the Nikon RAW images.

    My biggest concern is the lack of any type of local representation by Hasselblad. I live in St. Louis, which has well over 1.4 million people in the metro area and not a sign of Hasselblad anywhere. What happens if I need service or have a question? Is there telephone tech support as good as Nikon? I’ve always received excellent tech support from Nikon as well as Canon and now rely on it from time to time. I have to assume the service is top-notch and they are available here in the USA, just wanted to confirm with you? What about the warranty on the H3DII-31 and lenses?

    I suspect the reason for the huge price reduction on the kit (H3DII-31 + 80mm lens) is because they will be releasing something new very soon as well as staying in the running with the rest of the players in such a tough market. Should I be concerned about that over the long term? I would need this camera to perform for the next 5 years in order to make this type of investment and wanted to check what you thought about that.

    Thanks again for your hard work, clear writing and taking the time to do this. If I end up buying one of these I will definitely use your links below so that you get the credit from B&H.

    Thanks,

    Tim Layton

  2. Dan Wells says:

    The D3x has extraordinary dynamic range (I have 25,000 images on mine) – significantly better than the D3-D700 twins. This is primarily true in its 14-bit NEF mode, where it is not significantly faster than the Hasselblad (the D3x is 1.4 frames per second in 14-bit). I would love to see a head to head comparison of the Hasselblad and the D3x, which I think IS a closer comparison than the Hassy and the D3. The D3x has been called a medium-format sensor in a D3 body, and is right in between in price, handling (feels like a D3, but medium format FPS at maximum quality) and I suspect image quality (some say it’s closer to low-end MF). I don’t know what Nikon did in terms of special sensor sauce, but most photographers who know the D3x well say it is significantly better even than other 20+ MP DSLRs, which holds with my experience. I haven’t shot any other 20+ MP camera (or any MF DSLR) extensively, but the prints I’ve seen from many of the options put the D3x (at its highest quality settings – 14 bit, ISO 100) well above any other “35mm” DSLR, and giving low-end MF a run for its money…

    -Dan

    • Tim Layton says:

      Dan, thank you for your insights and information. The H3DII-31 appears to be an awesome technical tool, but like with any piece or equipment we have to know the limitations and strengths of each. I also think a lot of it depends on your needs and requirements. I currently shoot a D3s and can’t imagine walking into an event-based job that throws many different scenarios at me without this tool. It is the most versatile camera I have ever used and probably the best all-around investment I have made in photography over the last 20 years. Is it the absolute best tool for high-res architecture and landscapes where the goal is to make large prints, no, but I know that and either do the best I can or look for another tool in the toolbox such as a D3X or H3DII-31. The bar has been raised very high by all of the latest advancements and we are getting to a place where people argue over technical details and don’t seem to focus on the output/requirements. I am in pursuit of a high-res digital SLR for architecture, landscape and some wildlife work and this is a wonderful problem to have. The D3x seems to be an obvious fit because I can leverage all of my lenses, but I also need to fully explore the H3DII-31 before pulling that trigger. I suppose I need to take my own advice and make a pros and cons list focused on my current and future requirements and make a decision. I am worried about purchasing either of these cameras right now because I suspect the D3x may get replaced very soon and I can only guess that Hasselblad dropped the price on the H3DII-31 because something is going to replace it. I suspect I could produce quality work with either camera and this makes the process even more difficult.

      Dan, if you have any tips, advice or comments about your experience with the D3x please let me know.

      Thanks,

      Tim

  3. Hey Dan,
    Thanks for the great review. I’m looking at the HD4-31, and have a D3 now, so this is great information. Just one observation – I have the newest version of Phocus and have noticed that Phocus does tend to initially generate files at a lower contrast than most other raw conversion programs. I’ve noticed this especially on my D3 files. The color rendering also seems to be a bit more reserved and less saturated compared to other programs, so your comment about the H3 files being less contrasty and more neutral as compared with the D3 may have more to do with the software than the actual files from the Hasselblad. Just curious if you tried converting any of the D3 files in Phocus?

    • Matt Beardsley says:

      Mark,

      Thank you for the comment. I appreciate your feedback and agree that Phocus has a more conservative approach to contrast and saturation than other RAW converters. I’ll have to take your recommendation and run a few NEF files through and compare results. From testing other medium format digital systems, I still find Hasselblad’s capture and conversion strategy to err towards neutrality, including a relatively flat tone curve. I’ll repost here with observations after further testing in Phocus.

      Thank you again. No offense to Dan, by the way, but my name is Matt… ;o)

      Matt

  4. HVN says:

    The article is missing the point of medium format digital systems. They give enormous detail and are able to capture a greater range of colour and EV latitude. You can also use the backs on technical cameras.
    They open up and entire spectrum of photography 35mm can’t reach.

    The images are different from Nikon and skin tones on Nikons are too red and are realistic compared to medium format.
    By the way. The Nikon D3 is no match for the 4MP D2H in producing reds. The D3 sacrifices red for Blue sky colour accuracy. These sensors are compromises. The H 3D has no such compromise.

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