On Location with the Hasselblad H4D-40

The Hasselblad H4D-40, Medium Format DSLR, Part 2

My first encounter with medium format digital photography was during an MFA class, “Advanced Digital Capture”.  The camera, a Hasselblad H1 with a Leaf digital back, was a complex machine, capable of creating big image files, but only with patience, practice, and a bit of professional training.  The back operated tethered to a computer and operation was most comfortably a two-person job.

Since those days, much has changed in the digital medium format world.  Hasselblad shook up the industry in September 2006 by closing out Leaf and everyone else with the All-Proprietary H3D.  Partnered with the scanner & digital back company Imacon, Hasselblad began creating cameras that operated as a unified machine: lens, back, and camera body.  The formula has been refined with the H3DII and now the H4D line of camera/back combinations and the current camera is a joy to use, in the studio or on location.

[more after the jump..]

It’s a big camera, hefty and robust; but with well-placed controls and a comfortable grip, it’s not awkward to shoot.  A single rubberized battery pack serves as the right-hand grip when attached and the flat-bottomed body rests comfortably on a photographer’s left hand.  Camera controls are all digital, that is to say, the camera has no switches or knobs, nothing that can’t be controlled by computer tether or button press.  Many options are called up, adjusted with one of the camera’s two control wheels and activated with a press of the computer-inspired “save” button.  It becomes intuitive and straight forward and has a set-it-and-forget-it feel.

When contrasted to most professional 35mm DSLR controls, the Hasselblad feels streamlined and pure, no JPG, auto white balance, HDMI, video mode, or world clock.  It has no more buttons or functions than it needs to gemerate large, optimized RAW files.  There are no familiar JPG processing options like contrast, saturation, or sharpness, nor any compression or size options.  The camera automatically compresses RAW files for Compact Flash storage and leaves them uncompressed for computer tether.

Compared to other 40 megapixel cameras on the market, the Hasselblad is a bit more techy feeling.  Phase One and Mamiya have stayed closer to tradition with the 645DF, lending the system a more analog feel (maybe it’s the exposure mode dial or the more familiar black color?)  Leica has gone ultra-minimal with the control layout of the 35mm/645-crossover Leica S2, erasing all but a small handful of buttons and controls [I’ve scheduled a full review for this winter.]  By contrast, the Hasselblad H4D feels computerized and high-tech.

The computer feel fades to pure photography once shooting starts.  All medium format cameras have bigger, brighter viewfinders than their 35mm cousins, the Hasselblad’s is certainly no exception.  With the crop factor of the camera sensor clearly marked as a large rectangle on the focus screen (see the illustration bellow), the view is a bit larger than 100% of the captured image.  A useful set of info is listed across the bottom in big, bright green, including an astonishingly flexible exposure scale that can help even the most wayward exposure, off by 9 stops.  The front and rear control dials allow easy control of shutter and aperture and the camera is responsive and confident.  Throughout the interface – on screen, through the finder, and later in Phocus, – Hasselblad has chosen to use actual written language whenever possible and not icons or symbols.

Image review can be set for full-screen or Big histogram and a cute mini histogram appears on the camera’s top LCD screen.  Simply holding the “down” button on the back’s 4-way rocker erases the last image.  The camera also offers audible feedback, playing various melodies for over or under exposure and limited reserves for card space and battery power…  Entertaining at first, and soon helpful.  Plus, if you’re pressed for conversation with a reluctant subject, the sad under-exposure tune is always a crowd-pleaser.

AF, TF, and 1, 3, 11, or 51?

Auto focus, a perennial bummer for all things medium format, has received attention with the H4D.  It adds a new “True Focus” system that I found to be a noticeable improvement from the previous H3DII.  The camera is no Nikon D3, but it is faster than before and it is deadly accurate.  At this resolution, and with the enhanced depth-of-focus effect of the 645 format (when compared to smaller formats) its not uncommon to have a nose in focus and eyes out, an issue I noticed a bit less with the H4D compared to the H3DII.

The camera, like the Leica S2, has only a single focus point, dead-center.  Objects, like eyes, have to be locked before recomposition.  True Focus operates by compensating for the motion of recomposition.  The flat plane of focus created when lock is achieved, does not necessarily still align with the subject once the camera has been slightly rotated (refer to Hasselblad’s Web page and downloadable manuals for diagrams).  True Focus locks like an AF-lock function: press until a lock is made, release, recompose, and fire.  As the shutter is released, the lens instantly adjusts to the newly-calculated focus distance, determined by a camera motion sensor.  A photographer can actually watch the lens’s distance scale jump as an exposure is made, but otherwise, the system operates without any negative effect on shooting.  Compared to previous generations, the H4D and True Focus are a definite improvement, and it’s pretty cool to use.

It is Hasselblad’s answer to excluding multiple focus points, claiming it to be more accurate and consistent.  Pentax, with the 645D (arriving in the U.S. in December) has decided on an 11-point array, while Mamiya/Phase One have chosen 3 points for the 645DF.  Proponents of single-point AF point out the lessened speed and accuracy of off-center points and, to be certain, the spread of points in the 645D and 645DF hardly cover a large portion of the frame, so re-composition is certain to be necessary anyway.  I’ve pulled images from a few user manuals and Web pages to illustrate the various strategies:

Current 645 Focus Point Schemes: 1, 3, or 11 Points

Hasselblad H4D-40 focusing screen, from H4D manual, The H4D, like the Leica S2, uses a single, center focus point

Mamiya 645DF viewfinder, from 645DF manual, the camera's 3 focus points include a center point and a point in each side bracket

Pentax 645D viewfinder, from the Pentax Japan Web page, the camera's 11 focus points are marked with red and green dots

Nikon D3X viewfinder, from the D3X manual, the camera's 51 focus points are shown as rectangles

When shooting 35mm (most often with a 51-AF-point Nikon D3, identical in AF point spread to the D3X depicted above) I routinely slide the point to the top or side to be close to a subject’s eye.  If the camera is on a tripod, it’s practically necessary to avoid grappling with my ball head between frames.  Nikon’s 4-way rocker switch operates like a joystick with the center button snapping the point back to middle.  I have had years to acclimate, but it works and works well.  I was paying close attention during a portrait shoot this morning and realized I had automatically slid the point up and to the right, landing about where the subject’s face should be and then shot away, being able to keep considerable attention on the subject, knowing about where the point was.  With MF, I would have been bobbing the camera up and down with every click.

But this is just preference, and, truth be told, I don’t give it much thought while shooting the H4D or H3DII.  Single-point focus is easy and accurate and True Focus is arguably the best medium format execution of single-point auto focus ever.  I will be curious to test the Pentax 645D to see if a camera of very similar sensor size and resolution is capable of similar focus accuracy using a multi-point array.  Indeed, even with a modest spread of AF points, Pentax is challenging the prevailing wisdom of Leica, Phase One, Mamiya, and Hasselblad.

H4D-40, Cropped to 35mm format

H4D-40 File, apprx. 100% crop, click to enlarge

Leaf Shutters & The Max Flash Sync Speed Advantage

The H4D-40 has one location shooting advantage over all 35mm cameras and much of its 645 competition: all lenses in the H line are leaf shutter lenses, allowing flash sync up to their maximum speed of 1/800 s.  Leica offers leaf shutter lenses, or Central Shutter lenses in Leica nomenclature, offering 1/500 s sync (compared to a 1/125 s maximum sync speed with standard  S system lenses).  Phase One/Mamiya offer a growing line of leaf shutter lenses via a partnership with Scheider Krueznach, offering up to a remarkable 1/1600 s flash sync speed.  Pentax has, in the past, made 2 manual focus leaf shutter lenses, and may offer similar AF-equipped products again in the future, but will be practically locked to 1/125 s for the foreseeable future.  Most 35mm cameras top out at 1/200 s (Canon) or 1/250 s (Nikon).  Hasselblad, then, offers the widest range of leaf shuttered glass, and it’s an impressive selection.

Does maximum sync speed matter?  It offers an advantage only in scenarios where strobe lights are being balanced with ambient or continuous lighting.  The example images in this post, for example, are a balance of strobe light and sunlight.  In selecting an exposure for these shots, I had the option to choose up to 1/800 s.  Strobe exposures are unaffected by the change from, for example, 1/250 to 1/500, allowing a background twice as dark while the strobe-lit subject maintains at the same exposure.  Higher maximum sync speed, then, offers more creative flexibility for strobe-lit location work.

To be fair, focal plain shutters – as found in Canons, Nikons, Pentaxes, Mamiyas, Phase Ones, etc. – offer advantages too, most notably: shorter possible exposures.  The Hasselblad tops out at 1/800 s while the Mamiya/Phase One 645DF offers shutter duration as brief as 1/4000 s.  The 645DF, as well as the Leica S2, offer, effectively, a hybrid solution, allowing the quick flash sync advantage for their select few leaf-shuttered lenses, and the option of using the camera bodies’ focal plain shutters for all lenses.

Alternatives & The Competition

While discussing potential competitor advantages, it’s worth noting some other differences in the Phase One and Leica designs.  On some newer digital backs, Phase One offers the unique ability to quarter output resolution while quadrupling ISO sensitivity with “Sensor Plus” technology, a feature that should help the company to gain traction in the upper reaches of the wedding photography market.  Leica, meanwhile, offers JPG processing in camera, a feature that will appeal to photographers wishing to use the camera both for professional quality work and casual snap-shooting.  The S2 also offers a distinctly more svelte body and dual card slots (SD and CF).  The uncompromising H4D is less likely to ever be a family snap shot camera.  On the other hand, I struggle to picture the $23,000 S2 on a blanket at the beach.

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).

One last competitor for the H4D-40 comes from within the H family, the newly-announced $14,000 H4D-31.  This is effectively an updated H3DII-31, adding True Focus to an already very tempting camera.  The H4D-31 makes permanent Hasselblad’s claim in the new entry-level 645 market and is serious competition for a wide range of cameras from the Nikon D3X to the Mamiya DM22 to the Pentax 645D.  The agressive H3DII-31 and H4D-31 pricing is great for professional photographers currently shooting 35mm, bringing within reach the advantages of medium format digital capture.

The Shoot

The first image in this entry was a quick editorial shoot.  The subject, David Williams, is the director of Oakland’s effective and unique homeless ministry, City Team.  We had a few minutes for the shoot and a busy sidewalk in front of the building as prescribed location.  I met briefly with David to introduce myself and jogged outside to set up.  The lighting is one Speedotron 202VF head (reviewed here) in an elinchrom soft box.  I used the Hasselblad 28mm f4, a wide lens with very well-controlled distortion (due in no small part to corrections applied automatically in Phocus).  The camera accepts a single CF card, which can be quickly formatted in camera.  My hot shoe mount radio triggers for the strobe work identically to Canon and Nikon.  With a couple test shots, I chose an exposure just as David walked out.

I’ve found Hasselblads to be good conversation starters on shoots.  Nikons and Canons are widely familiar, while most medium format companies reserve name recognition for photographers.  “What kind of camera is that?” is how the conversation starts… “A 40 megapixel Swedish camera” is one possible response.  True Focus worked very well for this shoot, which was framed relatively close to the subject with a wide lens (the worst case scenario for lock-and-recompose focus issues).  With exposure and white balance decided before shooting, the camera is easy and straight forward to operate.  The viewfinder is huge and bright.  A single, happy beep from the back confirms the shot is captured and recorded and that strobes fired – no sad underexposure tune.  A quick glance down at the top screen shows a histogram of the last capture, which is handy feedback without “chimping” on the rear LCD.  The body and 28mm combination is nicely balanced and comfortable to hold.

As our time came to an end, I was able to flip through a few frames on the rear screen to confirm a useable shot or two.  Images can be displayed in full screen and acurately previewed.  The screen is not as attractive as the Nikon D3 screen, but perhaps more honest.  Unlike the Nikon, I haven’t liked an image on the H4D-40 LCD that turned out to be a dud on the computer screen.  I showed David a shot I liked and he was back to work.  The camera makes for a very professional and impressive presentation, which, I’ll admit, often matters.  It has no sibling for sale at Best Buy.

In the next entry, I look forward to sharing my experience with Phocus and discuss what really matters with a $20,000 medium format camera: image quality.  Until then, I can conclude this discussion by saying that this big camera is a joy to use on location.  It is quick to operate and smartly designed for effecient shooting.  It inspires confidence in photographer and subject.  Certainly the ergonomics of medium format have come a long way in recent years.  Today, the highest resolving cameras on the market are among the most fun to shoot.

Helpful Links (purchases made through blog links help support my studio financially; thanks!)

Part One: Full Throttle 645, The Hasselblad H4D-40

Part Three: Hasselblad Phocus Software

Our H3DII-31 review

The Hasselblad H4D-31 at Samy’s Camera

The Hasselblad H4D-40 at Samy’s Camera

The Hasselblad H4D-50 at Samy’s Camera

Keeble & Schuchat Hasselblad Page

5 Responses to “On Location with the Hasselblad H4D-40”
  1. Tim Layton says:

    Matt, thank you for writing a clear and also detailed series of articles on the H3DII-31 and now H4D-40. The info is good and I also like the honest comparisons and mentions of other cameras and manufacturers. I will be very interested in your article using Phocus in your workflow. I have a request… be sure and be detailed particularly in the export portion of Phocus when going to Lightroom or other apps. I think this is important because unless you go with DNG you lose your RAW image at this point and something to consider when thinking through you digital workflow. Thanks again.


  2. zeofoto says:

    Ditto what Tim says. Your insights are a refreshing change from the lazy reprints of company press releases that frequently come up when searching for reviews. This is genuinely useful information, much appreciated.

  3. rem says:

    Thank you Matt for this review. Its a fun to read and I still learn something (I have the H4D a few month)… So Im looking forward to your Phocus review/workflow.

Check out what others are saying...

Leave A Comment