Full Throttle 645, The Hasselblad H4D-40

The Hasselblad H4D-40, Medium Format DSLR

Hasselblad’s “H” series is very arguably the finest family of cameras in the world, offering a robust line of camera bodies, lenses, digital and film backs, viewfinders, and accessories.  The Swedish company has hurdled into the digital age with a full line of lenses, cameras, and software that work in harmony to produce stunningly large and clear image files.  Through 5 generations of camera bodies, the H series has evolved in subtle reworkings, refining a modern camera built on solid 645 heritage.  Introduced in February 2010, this 40 MP iteration falls in line with Hasselblad’s 3 current camera offerings.  Together with the H4D-50 and H4D-60, photographers can select the Hassy that produces the most appropriate file size, sensors being the noticeable difference between the three.

[more after the jump..]

The H4D shares a significant portion of design with its H3DII predecessor (reviewed here, and recently updated as the H4D-31).  The cameras share the same detachable viewfinder, detachable battery grip, body design, and lens selection.  The most significant changes introduced with the H4D include a new “True Focus” auto focus system and a new selection of sensors.  The H3DII is, for now, still for sale and should certainly be considered as a more economically friendly choice.  At the time of this writing, the H3DII-31 is selling for around $10k.

Update: Hasselblad has updated the H3DII-31 by bundling its digital back to the new H4D camera body.  The combination, which sells for about $13k, is the new H4D-31.

645 in 2010?

Hasselblad claimed, with the H4D-40’s introduction, “to be bringing the advantages of Medium Format DSLRs to high-end 35mm photographers.”  Compared to 35mm-makers, manufacturers of medium format cameras had a rougher time of the digital revolution.  A number of companies dropped from the race and others, like Hasselblad, needed a few generations of products to arrive at an uncompromised system.  With the H series, Hasselblad offers a smart, easy-to-use line of cameras, lenses, and software, well thought out from lens hood to eye cup to hard drive.  It should certainly be considered as a higher-resolution alternative to high-end 35mm cameras.

The H4D-40 is an easy to operate camera, utterly straight forward.  Compared to 35mm DSLRs, its body is shaped differently and a number of controls are operated differently, but it operates just as well, which is impressive given the huge increase in sensor size.  I found the transition from my trusty Nikons to be only a little awkward, with a lot of rewarding “Wow” moments once the files hit the studio monitor.  In claiming 35mm-like handling, Hasselblad is not overstating the case.  Like the H3DII before it, the H4D quickly become familiar and easy to use.  It’s been a joy to learn, especially considering the stunning image quality.  Hopefully, some of my observations will prove helpful to readers.  [also, as a quick plug, purchases made through links on the blog help financially support my studio, Thanks!]


The Form

This is a long camera, with a protruding, detachable digital back.  Its viewfinder, which is also detachable, extends up and over, arriving at a familiar place.  The view is astonishingly big, bright, and clear and the fat rubber surround is comfortable and does a nice job blocking out surrounding light.  It puts to shame measly 35mm viewfinders.  The provided info is clear and useful.  It speaks very confidently of the camera’s dynamic range that the exposure scale will read as far as 9 stops off.  Odly – though it’s a controversial practice to shoot with sunglasses on – I noticed the viewfinder information is not visible through polarized glasses.  The standard viewfinder also adds a pop-up flash and the camera’s metering system.  It can be swapped out for a very simple, very cool waist level finder, though only in manual exposure mode and with no metering feedback besides taking a photo (see the last photo in this entry).

The camera itself is more or less a cube, with grip, lens, and back all clicking very firmly in place on various sides.  The single battery grip powers the camera body and digital back, a notable difference when compared to Phase One/Mamiya cameras.  It clicks into place and offers, from my experience, a few more than 200 frames, not too bad given the imaging horsepower at play and my steady reliance on the screen while learning my way around the camera.  It is, however, an area where other manufacturers have made great strides forward.  The batteries in my Nikon D3 will outlast these many times over.

The assembled camera is robust, heavy, and purposeful.  It balances well on a photographer’s left hand (or, better yet, a tripod) and allow most controls to be operated with the right.  I found this to be an adjustment from “small format” 35mm photography, where a photographer’s right hand can comfortably take most of the camera weight.  The tripod plate is very purposeful and flexible, with a variety of interfaces from which to chose, including the familiar 1/4″ of 35mm cameras.  Unlike some 645 cameras (including the currently foreign-market-only Pentax 645D) this body does not offer a tripod mount on the side (nor does its chief competitor, the Mamiya/Phase One 645DF).  It is heavy, especially with lenses like the 35-90mm zoom pictured in the opening image.  While shooting, the H4D is well-balanced and its not unsubstantial heft helps steady the camera.

The digital back is detachable and can be used in other applications including mounting on view cameras.  The back integrates more closely with the camera than any other modular medium format system I’ve experienced.  In addition to a shared battery, the closed/unified (depending on your take) Hasselblad system offers, as a few examples, ISO and white balance control from the camera body, a histogram that appears on the camera’s top screen after a capture, and a double-tap on the half shutter release to bring up the back’s menu.  The degree of integration is crucial to Hasselblad’s success in achieving 35mm-like ease of use.  On the negative side, Hasselblad backs are not interchangeable between cameras without a professional calibration process and film backs can not be used (film backs can’t be used on the Mamiya/Phase One 645DF either).  The importance of the detachable back is being challenged by a couple new, truly unified camera bodies: the Leica S2 and the Pentax 645D.  Hasselblad may, perhaps, be moving in the same direction, having recently introduced a tilt/shift unit that mounts between the body and most H-series lenses and distracts some degree of appeal for a separate view camera.  I would not be surprized to hear news of a non-modular Hasselblad in the future.

As a brief aside, sensor cleaning is a quick no-brainer with a detachable back.  Pop it off and two quick puffs with a gentle blower.  It makes 35mm sensor cleaning feel like brain surgery.

The H-series lenses are a strong selling point.  Like recent 35mm glass, these have no aperture rings.  Like the camera body, they are starkly utilitarian.  Typically, only one control, a beefy, rubberized, firmly-damped focus ring.  All are solid metal tubes with beefy metal hoods that lock in place.  A photographer can hold the lens while the camera focuses automatically and override manually by simply turning the ring.  It’s a strong lineup of lenses that integrate beautifully with both the camera and awesome automatic lens correction features of Hasselblad’s Phocus software.  I only have real-world shooting experience with 3: the standard 80mm f2.8, the wow-that’s-wide 28mm f4, and remarkable 35-90mm f4.0-5.6 middle zoom.  From my experience, all are world-class, much more closely related to Zeiss than to Nikkor or Mamiya, favoring straight-forward metal and glass.  Uniquely, they seem to be designed to take advantage of Phocus and proprietary lens correction.  The end results are optical purity of the highest degree, though the means may strike some old-schoolers as too digital.  It’s one advantage of a single company controlling an entire workflow, which leads us to the next section..

The Workflow

The H4D-40 has no JPG or TIFF setting for capture, nor options for file size, resolution, or bit depth.  It’s 100% all the time.  The camera does, however, produce two distinct file types, “.3FR” files when shooting to compact flash and “.FFF” when shooting tethered via the camera’s Firewire port.  The H4D is designed to integrate very closely with Hasselblad’s proprietary software Phocus, available as a free download from the Hasselblad Web page.  When shooting tethered, Phocus can control every element of the camera, a big advantage of the all-digital control scheme.  When importing files from a compact flash card, Phocus converts the camera’s compressed 3FR files to the larger FFF files.  Phocus looks and operates similarly to Adobe Lightroom, offering familiar controls and a clean layout.  Its nicely customizable and quick to learn.

The camera’s 3FR files are compatible with Adobe Lightroom, which is convenient, but skipping Phocus sacrifices Hasselblad’s awesome lens corrections.  The software does a very nice job eliminating distortion and vinetting, as well as offering a relatively new tool to battle moire (an occational issue with all medium format digital).  A workflow that has worked well for me is to shoot 3FR files to CF card, use Phocus to import the files to a scratch disk as FFF files, apply basic corrections, including color balance, lens correction, and exposure correction.  From Phocus, I select a top edit of images and export them as 16-bit ProPhotoRGB TIFF files to a new folder which I import to Lightroom and integrate into my regular workflow (TIFFs can be interchanged with PSDs).  Every night, both my scratch disk and 1st archive RAID are backed up to a RAID server, creating a 3-deep archive of 3FR files and TIFFs of top picks.

Uniquely, Hasselblad has designed a bit of workflow management into the camera.  The camera reads exposure data from each capture and can provide audio warnings for over or under exposure.  The little musical riffs are pretty entertaining and allow a good deal of freedom of expression, only sounding for really blown or blocked-up images (when strobes fail to fire, for example).  Also, the small red, yellow, green stop-light button on the camera’s back allows files to be tagged as one of the three colors, corresponding to the selection system in Phocus (in place of Adobe’s 5 star and flag systems).  The camera can be set to default files to either green or yellow or to pick based on exposure.  I found it useful to have the camera mark all images as yellow and promote favorites to green.  After importing to Phocus, green files are listed first or can be viewed separately.  It’s a cool shortcut that can speed up editing.  Whether or not individual photographers use the rating system, it’s cool to see a camera manufacturer giving thought to digital workflow.  For professionals, in-camera shortcuts for eventual real post processing are much more useful than in-camera RAW processing or HDR and stich merging.  I’d love to see other companies follow the example.

The Brains

The above image helps to illustrate Hasselblad’s novel approach to camera control.  The red button is the on/off control as well as allowing “profiles” to be recalled.  Profiles are Hasselblad’s interpretation of custom modes, like C1, C2, C3 or User A, User B, etc.  Selecting something like “studio” or “full auto” allows the camera’s custom options, exposure and focus modes, as well as white balance and ISO settings to be quickly set.  It’s not as instant to choose as is, for example, the C1, C2, and C3 settings on the Mamiya/Phase One 645DF’s exposure mode dial, but it seems a bit better thought out, allowing an actual name as well as several factory defaults.

The “EXP” button on the viewfinder’s side is used to select exposure mode.  Like most controls, a photographer presses the button once to bring up a text-based menu on the top screen, rolling through options with both the front and rear control dials and pressing a computer-like “exit” or “save” to return to the shooting info screen.   AF, ISO, Exposure Compensation, Flash options, and Custom Options are all controlled in the same way.  The rear screen and buttons (of the digital back) can be used to set ISO, White Balance, file storage, etc.  The H4D also has a dedicated mirror-up button, a “True Focus” button,  a AE-lock button, a “stop down” aperture preview button, and a small, recessed button for CF card formatting.  Many of the buttons, as well as the control wheels, can be reasigned via custom settings.  As one example, I chose to set the “stop down” button to take a white balance reading.  I don’t use aperture preview and benefited from an instant white card read with no menu surfing (the H4D-40 has all the usual WB presets, but – in line with Hasselblad’s dedication to image purity and consistency – there’s no auto white balance setting).

The Conclusion

This is a big bold camera, very much in line with 645 Hasselblads before it, and very much part of an able, high-tech digital system.  It will prove to be an adjustement for 35mm shooters, but one that is likely to pay big returns in image quality for shooters in many situations.  I’ve found, after adjusting to it, that it’s an easy, straight-forward camera and a fluidly-integrated workflow.

More on the H4D-40:

Part 2: On location with the H4D-40 (and a look at the new “True Focus” system)

Part 3: Image quality and the H4D-40 (and a close look at Phocus)

I owe a huge debt of thanks to Randy Hoffman at Keeble and Shuchat, a great camera store in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He provided a number of the lenses and accessories discussed here and in future entries.  In the Bay Area and beyond, he is the man to talk to about all things Hasselblad.


Useful Links
(purchases made through the blog help support my studio financially, Thanks!)

Hasselblad H4D-40 at Samy’s Camera

Hasselblad H4D-31 at Samy’s Camera

Hasselblad H4D-50 at Samy’s Camera


6 Responses to “Full Throttle 645, The Hasselblad H4D-40”
  1. Tim Layton says:

    Matt, thank you for writing this article. For those of us considering Hasselbald systems it is very hard to even pursue because no one carries the equipment in their stores. It is hard to buy something you can’t see or touch. I am very anxious to see the second and third parts of this article to review the image quality of the H4D as compared to the H3DII-31.

  2. Joe Colson says:

    Thanks for the review. It’s well written and I look forward to Parts 2 and 3. I was just in San Francisco last week and wished I had read about Keeble and Shuchat earlier.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] the rest of the review here. Tweet This […]

  2. […] Part One: Full Throttle 645, The Hasselblad H4D-40 […]

  3. […] Hasselblad H4D-40 ~ $18,000 (body only) Reviewed Here […]

Leave A Comment