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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hasselblad H4D-40 Hands On Review

Note: I wrote this piece about a year ago and it was published here in SHUTTERBUG Magazine co-written by Jason Schneider. Below are my original comments but be sure to read through to the end because my opinion changes!

Costs More Than Any Car I've Ever Owned!

The Hasselblad H4D-40 with 80mm F2.8 lens is priced five bucks shy of $21,000 dollars. In my short life on this planet the only time I ever considered parting with that much money at one time I was placing a down payment on a house. Nor have I ever spent such a sum on a car, or a motorcycle for that matter. So the question is; how do you justify twenty-large for a camera? Answer; you get what you pay for.

Heavy as a Harley-Davidson.

My first impression on picking up the H4D-40 was its heft. This is one seriously solid piece of machine that weighs close to seven-pounds with the standard 80mm F2.8 lens, which is both a good, and a bad thing.

After shooting hand-held for about an hour my wrists reminded me that for the last few decades I should have been lifting weights instead of forks and cocktail glasses. Note to self; If you're going to keep this camera start working out.

On the positive side, the camera's weight provided enough mass to shoot slower speeds hand-held. I was able to take an outdoor portrait with the 210mm lens at 1/100 second without noticeable image deterioration. Albeit concentrating like a marksman; deep breath, slow exhale, steady; shoot!

Confusing ergonomics.

A little more on hand-held shooting, the H4D has an ergonomic hand-grip, which is also the battery and has buttons and wheels to control the camera functions (not part of the actually battery).

In regard to learning the camera's operation, moving up to Hasselblad from Canon and Nikon dSLR cameras did not help. While the wheels controlling f-stop and shutter speed are similar (Nikon wins in this department as you can reverse the functions of the wheels in the control panel) the Hassy has extra buttons both on the grip AND on the body that need your attention otherwise you're going to accidentally lock up your mirror and look like a fool in front of your client while you figure it out. I found it difficult to intuitively change settings while looking through the viewfinder but then I'll chalk that up to having only fired off 200 frames on the Hassy vs. tens of thousands of frames on Canon and Nikon bodies.

When shooting on the run I like to work on Automatic in Aperture Priority mode. This way I can visually determine the tonal values of a scene and quickly dial in an exposure adjustment then let the camera do the work. With most dSLRs this involves just rotating a wheel with your thumb while shooting but with the Hassy I had to reach over the hand-grip and push a button the +/- exposure control button which is on the right side of the viewfinder prism then rotate the top wheel with my index finger. However I'm sure this operation will become second nature after a few thousand exposures. The +/- exposure control button also allows the user to change exposure mode.

Ah! Fix for finicky focusers.

The True Focus button, below that the Formatting and AE-Lock buttons.
To their left the Exposure Type and Exposure Compensations buttons.

The next learning curve I had to surmount was the use of True Focus™. Since the advent of through the lens metering and auto-focus we photographers have learned to center the subject in the viewfinder and lock the focus and exposure by pressing the shutter button halfway then re-frame and shoot.

The problem with this system is that dependent on the lens you're using and the distance to the subject the focus plane may fall behind your subject when you re-frame. This is a serious problem at larger apertures with shorter lenses.

True Focus™ works with a tilt-yaw sensor and a computer program that would put your trigonometry professor out of work. For a single-shot you press the True Focus button with your thumb, lock in the focus then re-frame and shoot. You can also set the True Focus to work with every shot in the auto-focus settings panel. Another feature that took some time to learn mostly due how sensitive the exposure button is.

Regarding focus Hassy wins with their auto-focus override. All you do is refocus the lens like a manual camera and shoot and if you prefer to shoot manual focus you're free to turn auto-focus off completely. And while I'm talking focus, the H4D prism (with diopter adjustments) is the brightest Hasselblad viewfinder I've ever had the pleasure to use!

The proof is in the pixels.

Sensor technology is proscribed by the size of the photosites. Photosites are the individual pixels in the sensor. The smaller the photosite the more of them that can be crammed onto a sensor but the larger the photosite the higher the color fidelity.

The 40-megapixel back has 40 million of these little buggers on a 33.1mm by 44.2mm CCD sensor that provides exceptional color fidelity, similar to moving up to 6x6 medium format from 35mm format cameras.

But again I must complain; yeah the files are great, but over the years I and many other Hasselblad devotees have been in love with the 6x6 square format. And I understand that most commercial images are used in rectangular format but why not build a square sensor and let us decide to crop or present square images? That's just my two-cents worth.

Shot with the H4D-40. ISO 200. 1/400 Sec. @ F7.1

What's with this f*%&ing .3FR and .fff file?

As with every camera manufacturer these days their ego is too large to dare share a common high quality raw file format. I won't go into the politics of file formats here but lets just say something needs to be done.

The Hasselblad comes with Phocus software which (on Mac) needs and Intel-based chip, at least 2-gigabytes of RAM and a substantial video card to run properly. And you must use the Phocus software to open the files and/or shoot tethered (more about tethered shooting later).

Since I've upgraded to Photoshop 5.1 I've had no trouble moving files from Phocus to Photoshop. I also understand that the .3FR files will also open in the latest version of Apple's Aperture or Adobe Lightroom and I'm sure you'll be able to shoot tethered with the latest version of Capture One.

When starting up Phocus the software creates a folder on your hard drive in the Pictures directory called Phocus Captures, which is where you'll find you images. You connect your CF card to the computer and import your .3FR files. Then, after the first edit (or not) you double-click and they're converted to .fff files. From that point you can adjust each image individually or in batches after which you can export as a jpeg, 8-bit or 16-bit Tiff files.

As with all raw files from any camera I needed to adjust the curve, white and black points but after that the files were crisp to the point of amazement! I have never been happier with a digital image file than with these files exported from Phocus!

Don't tread on my tether!
Tethered shooting/portrait of Rose. Shot with H4D-40 and @210mm lens.
Lighting from one SunPak Digitflash Light Panel synched with a  MicroSynch radio slave.
The latest trend in commercial photography is tethered shooting. For you neophytes and knaves, that is where the camera is connected directly to the computer during the shoot. The photographer can work  and the images are downloaded as he shoots plus the technician at the computer can control the camera remotely. This is great for still-life work  but for fashion and portraits I get annoyed at people looking at the computer and making comments as I work.

Phocus also provides for live view at the computer so the art director and your staff can offer their comments while you shoot. But remember that they will also see every misapplied True Focus attempt and blink captured in error. Which is why I despise tethered shooting. It's much worse than having someone look over your shoulder while shooting with the added annoyance of them stepping on your cord while walking through the studio! (As Jason Schneider did to me numerous times while working on this article!)

All kidding aside the H4D works excellently while tethered. When tethered to the computer the DCU (Digital Capture Unit) AKA Camera Back derives power directly from the Firewire port thus increasing battery life. At the same time the software updates/synchronizes the time stamp so you'd better make sure that is set correctly on your PC! However it does not save a copy of the file to the CF card so your only captures are the .fff files in Phocus.

I did come across a great gadget for tethered shooting that works on any digital camera. Called TetherLock it prevents damage to your tether and/or port by clamping the cord to the camera's base-plate and is available for $99 from ProGear at 1740 W. Carroll Avenue in Chicago or online at ProGear.com. A TetherLock will definitely prevent you from being "Schneidered!"

In closing, since I've already made the camera/vehicle comparison in the beginning here's another; the Hasselblad H4D-40 has a one-year or 100,000 exposure warranty.

A Thousand Frames Later...

OK, I've fallen in love with my Hassie, much like when I handled my first Hasselblad back in '73 the relationship took a little time and patience. When I first fiddled with the controls on the H4D my hands fumbled like a teenage boy's engaging his first make-out session. Today my fingers find their way comfortably around the battery grip and manipulate exposure and focus controls like... (just too many metaphors come to mind just insert one here based upon your own sensibilites).

One of My Favorite Things...
"Look Ma; No Dust Marks!"

I hate sensor artifacts. You know those little blotches from condensation and/or dust that only appear in clear blue sky, white or grey backgrounds and take hours of work to retouch.  Sensor marks were the bane of my existence when shooting with the Canon 5D as I like to shoot on white. And cleaning the 5D sensor required the both the hands of a surgeon and the sterile environs of an operating room. I have even heard horror stories from shooters who shipped their camera off to have the sensor cleaned only to have it returned with more dust on it. The H4D-40's sensor is sealed behind a glass infrared filter, the key word being sealed. Which is why the best feature of the H4D series is the sensor on the Digital Capture Unit. And if you need to blow the dust off the filter or wipe with a micro-fiber cloth just go right ahead and do it.

And let's say that you get back to your studio and find some dust spots,  Hasselblad's latest  Phocus 2.6.2 software allows you to memorize them and add the same spotting to each image from the shoot.

View of NYS Route 6 going through Harriman State Park near Bear Mountain. Shot with the H4D-40 and 80mm lens. ISO 100, 1/200 Sec. @ F8.

Hey, It's Only Money!

Not every photographer can or should justify the twenty thousand for a forty-megapixel wonder (or $29,000 for the 50-megapixel H4D-50) especially when you can buy an under-$1000 dSLR that provides substantial sized files. Files plenty large enough to produce a wedding album and/or full pages in most magazines.

There are photographers who will argue the benefits of larger files sizes. I don't buy any of those arguments. As far as I'm concerned there are indisputable benefits to larger files. Large prints and double-page spreads in particular.

In Closing.

It takes more work to shoot with a medium-format dSLR than a 35mm-style dSLR. The focus is slower, the camera weighs more and the costs, oh the costs! Lenses especially.

Then again, thirty-five years ago I was trekking through Death Valley with a Linhof Super-Teknika four-by-five with all the requisite lenses, film holders and tripod (a thirty-pound Gitzo Tele-Studex, the same unit I'm trekking around with the H4D!). I didn't complain about it then and won't complain about the Hasselblad now.

When you start using a different format, be it digital or analog, you have to change your shooting philosophy. Thirty-five millimeter style shooting allows for hand-held multi frame bursts that require either fast thinking or no thinking while medium format requires planning and forethought. Having said that I have to admit I've been carrying around the H4D for my on-the-spot shooting.

Update: Hasselblad has released a new version of Phocus that removes some bugs and works faster but best of all is the companion program Phocus Quick which automatically converts the .3fr files to either DNG (Adobe Digital Negatives) or jpegs and it initializes upon insertion of the CF card.

Two Special Editions of the H4D-40:
The Ferrari Edition
and the H4D-40 Stainless Steel Edition.

For more information visit HassyUSA.

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Thorsted said...
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