Other than watches, the single piece of gear we’re most exposed to at HODINKEE is unquestionably cameras. In the course of producing our stories we shoot thousands of images of watches a year, as well as coverage of events, travelogue material for stories like our Road Through Britain series, and more. Gear used varies with who’s shooting, and what’s being shot – some editorial is shot with full frame DSLRs but there are also Micro 4/3 cameras in the mix, and others (Managing Editor Stephen Pulvirent favors an APSC-sensor mirrorless, for instance).
Both from professional curiosity, and as photography enthusiasts, we saw the launch of Hasselblad’s medium format sensor X1D-50c with considerable interest. Several weeks ago we obtained one on loan from Hasselblad, and had a chance to get an initial idea how it would fit our workflow – and how it handles in general. As well, we were very curious to see how appealing it would be to HODINKEE readers who are serious about photography as well as watches (and we know there are a lot of you).
A medium format digital camera is one with a sensor larger than that found in so-called full-frame cameras. Full frame digital cameras are those with sensors about the same size as a frame of 35mm film, which was the standard format for much – but not all – professional photography for decades, before the advent of digital photography. Medium format in the days of film photography, generally meant 6 x 6 centimeter square film, or 6 x 9 cm., with the term "large format" reserved for anything bigger. All things being equal, a bigger sensor will mean better image quality and more flexibility in shooting. Better image quality does not, of course, mean better pictures, but more on that in a bit.
Medium format digital cameras have generally been extremely expensive, and largely tools used by professional fashion/product, studio, and fine art photographers. The cost for just a camera body can run to $40,000 or more, and even for most enthusiasts, such cameras have generally been regarded as either overkill (which is largely true) or as simply too technically challenging (which is also true, about which, more later). However, other than the very high cost of both bodies and lenses, the sheer size of medium format cameras has been a major block to more widespread use.
The X1D is actually smaller and lighter than some full frame DSLRs, and although the lenses add unavoidable bulk, I was still able to easily fit an X1D with either of the supplied lenses mounted, into a small bag that I generally use for holding a Micro 4/3 camera (admittedly with a battery grip, but still) and zoom lens, when I’m shooting an event. Think about that – a medium format camera in a Micro 4/3 bag; that’s pretty unprecedented.
The X1D is one of the most rigorously modern cameras I’ve ever seen. There’s no attempt whatsoever to pander to the nostalgia for classic film cameras that drives a lot of mirrorless camera design – no SLR-like pseudo-pentaprism housing for the finder; no rangefinder-like styling. The body is a solid block of milled aluminum and though it feels – well, like you’d expect a block of precision-machined metal to feel, which is to say extremely substantial – it’s still much lighter than most other medium format cameras. For comparison, Hasselblad’s H6D-50C medium format camera is over two kilograms, with a lens mounted; the X1D (camera and battery only) is 725 grams. To put that in watch terms, it’s the weight of 5.1 Seiko SKX 007 dive watches (as measured in our weigh-off of watches in the office from last year). Again, the lens naturally adds a lot of mass, but this is a truly portable medium format rig and on that score, the most consumer-friendly camera in Hasselblad’s current portfolio by a considerable margin.
In a way, it’s also one of the most honest cameras I’ve ever used. It’s frankly and unapologetically – even exuberantly – non-analog: a huge sensor with a huge battery and a huge lens, and that’s pretty much it. There’s something very refreshing about the approach Hasselblad’s taken to designing something that’s clearly meant to appeal aesthetically as well as technically. Practically speaking, it means operation is in general as straightforward as the design. Many operations are accessed via the touchscreen, but there are ample manual control points as well, including a rather nifty mode dial that sits recessed into the body top, until you press it and it pops up. With your right hand on the grip, you can reach both the front and back context-dependent scroll wheels and of course, the big orange shutter button; there’s a dedicated white balance/ISO button up top, next to an AFL/AEL button, four menu buttons flanking the touchscreen, and that’s it. Creative modes and film simulation modes? Surely you jest.
Right now you have two lens options – a 45mm f/3.5, and a 90mm f/3.2, which on this sensor, are the equivalent of a 37mm and 75mm lens on a full frame camera. Obviously these focal lengths cover a lot of bases, but there’s a lens road map behind the XCD mount and more glass is in the pipeline. By 2018, Hasselblad says a total of 7 lenses will be available (including, most interestingly for our purposes, a 120mm macro which ought to be magic for watch photography) as well as adapters allowing use of other Hasselblad medium format lenses on the X1D body.
The X1D-50c may fit in a bag designed for a Micro 4/3 camera, but in more ways than one, a Micro 4/3 camera this manifestly is not, and for me – an habitual M4/3 user – the transition was definitely a transition, and not without speed bumps. The entire shooting experience is much more deliberate – the bigger sensor means longer startup time (around six seconds) and there are a whole host of other differences inherent to both the camera and the format. For one thing, I’ve gotten a little sloppy about shutter speed, thanks to the the in-camera image stabilization in the M4/3 cameras I’ve been using for the last four years; for another thing, the generally shallower depth of field you get from a medium format camera means you have to be that much more careful about hitting focus. And this is not an inconspicuous camera; the body is surprisingly compact for the sensor size, but it’s still hefty enough, and big enough with the lens mounted, that it’s not so easy to fade into the woodwork if you’re trying to do candid street shooting.
This is a camera that demands your undivided attention, and then some. However, when everything comes together you get almost unbelievable image quality.
The first time I opened a file out of the camera I was just floored – now, admittedly, any medium format file is going to wow a person who’s used to M4/3 or APSC, but it was still a shock. The sheer level of detail in each file as well as the inherent capacities of the sensor in terms of dynamic range was staggering. Looking at processed files full screen on a Retina display iMac was hypnotic – that is, when the image was a good one.
The one thing we did not get to do with the X1D-50c is see how it works for product photography – for that, we have to wait for the upcoming 120mm macro lens, which is coming up this summer. I suspect that lens on the X1D-50c is going to be both extremely unforgiving and very rewarding to work with, and probably unforgiving to watches as well – that level of resolution is going to give a very exact idea of the level of quality of a watch overall, and especially the level of finish of various components, which after all is what consumer oriented product photography done for review purposes ought to do. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that body and lens back to work with and when and if we do, we’ll update you.
I said earlier that there was a difference between good image quality and a good picture. That’s more true now than it has been, probably, in the entire history of photography. There’s a great interview with Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt in which he’s asked if he thinks digital is "corrupting" photography.
He says, "Yes, I do think digital is indeed corrupting the world of photography … when things are too easy, people get sloppy, and sloppiness is not good for photography."
The salutary thing about the X1D, from the standpoint of becoming a more disciplined photographer, is that you will not get away with sloppiness. I think the best way to think of it, especially the first couple of weeks you’re using one, is as an amplifier of whatever basic virtues you either do or do not have in a picture. If you’ve got everything right, you’re going to be rewarded with something noticeably more impactful than you could get out of a smaller format. You’ll get a certain meditative depth and richness that, at its best, can give a photograph a kind of inherent aesthetic dignity.
However this is also a camera that will equally happily, absolutely positively, bite you in the ass if you are not paying attention. A throwaway image in photography is the rule, rather than the exception (Magnum founder Henri Cartier-Bresson said, towards the end of his life, "Really, how many pictures can you look at more than once?") but still, looking through one’s missed shots with the X1D is noticeably more painful than with a smaller format camera. Each recorded moment of inattention, hesitation, cowardice, or just plain failure to get all your ducks in a row technically, looks like worse than just some more bad shots; they start to take on the dimensions of an actual moral failing.
So in that sense, it’s a shock to shoot with the X1D. However, it’s also, I think, good for you. You have to really think, and not just more, but differently as well. You have to think ahead, about what’s happening in the world around you. As it turns out, paying attention with the X1D doesn’t just mean paying more attention to the camera, it means being more mindful about the world in general, which is something that pays dividends even when the camera’s off and in your bag.
The requirement for that kind of careful attention was always the great thing about shooting film, and I think that necessity for mindfulness about the world is what a lot of people who are returning to film, or discovering it for the first time, are really looking for, even if they don’t exactly know it. And that’s maybe one of the most interesting thing about this camera – this uncompromisingly digital image-making device can, surprisingly, get you in a very analogue state of mind.
The Hasselblad X1D-50c is $8,995 in the US. Sensor, CMOS, 50MP, 43.8mm x 32.9mm. Capture, raw (Hasselblad 3Fr) + JPEG; ISO 200-25,600. Dual card slots. Touchscreen, 920k pixels, with pinch-and-zoom. Raw files supported in Lightroom and Photoshop. Lenses, Hasselblad XCD mount (H mount available with adapter) with in-lens shutter. Weather sealed all aluminum body (lenses weather sealed as well). Battery, Li-on, 3200 mAh. Nikon compatible hot shoe with flash sync to all shutter speeds (up to 1/2000). More info at hasselblad.com.
For more on the X1D-50c and on medium format photography in general – especially why you’d use it, and what it does and doesn’t mean creatively – I strongly recommend looking at photographer and essayist (and watch enthusiast) Ming Thein’s extensive coverage of both the camera in particular, and the format in general, at mingthein.com.