After working with Hasselblad V cameras and Digital Backs (specifically Leaf Aptus 12R+ Phase One IQ180) for nearly two years, I am sharing some of my insights regarding this equipment combination and my experience using it, as there is hardly any content to be found on-line on that matter. This does not suggest to be an in-depth professional review, but merely a way of paying back the online community for the great wealth and knowledge instantly available almost always, from everywhere.
As a full time commercial photographer and gallery owner I find the Hasselblad V to be a very good solution for the following reasons:
1. Although a decent digital back is very expensive, the cameras, lenses and accessories available used are inexpensive when compared to new medium format gear.
2. Hasselblad offers a comprehensive system with many lenses and accessories, especially if using the Hasselblad Flexbody, which is a great compact technical camera that feels as if it was designed for working with digital backs and can generate results comparable to an 8X10 film resolution.
3. You can carry the same gear for both digital and film captures, SLR or technical camera or even use film as a back-up option.
Despite all the above, I must say that Nikon D810 is the best camera I have ever owned, and for 80% of my commercial work I use Nikon equipment with prime AF-S / Ai-s lenses. How come?
Clients (at least most of my clientele) are usually price oriented and the Nikon is much faster to work with and the use of faster lenses enables carrying flashes instead of strobes (which also saves the need for an assistant).
For most jobs clients do not need the 80Mp resolution and do not appreciate the difference. The high resolution is very useful however when working on a reproduction/product set as you can capture a wider frame and crop in post – saving focusing and recomposing time.
On My Experience with Focal Plane Shutter Hasselblad V’s
I have used Hasselblad 203 FE for some time and found the camera unreliable. Hasselblad was originally designed as a mechanical tool and IMO this is where they excel. I have shed tears over some lost shoots due to battery-camera malfunction. As a result, I gave up the fast no shutter lenses (e.g. the fantastic planar 110 f2) and got a “V”. In any case, working with digital backs and technical cameras demands leaf shutter lenses.
Digital Back on Hasselblad 500c/m
Works superbly, with a few comments:
- The back does not have a safety catch when mounted vertically (scary when working with such an expensive device).
- In order to use live view, one has to place the lens and camera on “b” – to leave the shutter and mirror open. Please also see ‘focusing’ section below.
- The sync cable can be annoying when the camera is used handheld
- If the body’s mirror is not perfectly aligned at 45 degrees (which from my experience is a common issue with Hassy’s), it may result in a very significant focusing shift, especially with wider (40-80mm) lenses and high res digital backs. Therefore it is highly recommended to use one of the later models (501cm/503cw) which incorporate a gliding mirror (better mechanics) and have your mirror alignment checked.
Hasselblad Flexbody is no less than a magic tool for commercial/technical photographers. It is a small durable technical camera that is well integrated with a large mature system and expands its scope with very effective shift/tilt/macro capabilities. The same lenses, viewers, triggers, hoods, filters, cables will work on both a manual focusing SLR and a view camera (and will easily fits in the same bag).
The Flexbody is lightweight and can also serve as a backup camera (if your style of work permits that). When using a Flexbody with a film back, one has to wind both the camera shutter and the film separately. Using the DB, only cocking the shutter is necessary – the cocking mechanism does take a long hard curve which takes getting used to (see video).
Most of today’s large sensor digital backs still use CCD technology, which makes live-viewing slow and unpleasant, therefore, I normally focus using a screen + magnifier and only then place the back for capture (as with an analogue film back). For critical/open aperture work use live-view to check the focus. When working tethered, I found Capture One viewing tools to be very well designed.
From my experience, CF lenses’ coverage is greater than what is posted in various technical websites – when used with a DB, as the 40X55mm frame has some room for shift within the original 56X56mm square and Photoshop can easily correct mildly darker corners. However, only rarely do I use more than moderate tilt/shift functionality.
It should be noted that when working with a Flexbody/technical camera and a DB, the back’s latency should be set to zero, meaning that without a wakeup trigger the back is constantly ready for capture – which means that the back will warm up and the battery drain faster than on normal latency mode (as it is normally used with 500 series bodies).
The lenses I have used during the years with this combination were all from the Zeiss CF version, including: 40mm, 50mm, 80mm, 120mm Macro, 150mm, 180mm, 250mm as well as the Vivitar X2 teleconverter. All lenses (except the 40mm) use the same ProShade hood and B60 filters (or 67mm filters with 67-B60 adapter). I find all these lenses to have similar characters:
- All are solid made and reasonably priced when compared to new MF lenses.
- All have a touch of warm tonality.
All have 5 leaf apertures which do not yield the finest bokeh, but only becomes apparent when the background is very contrasty or specular, IMO.
- Lenses are very sharp right from wide open, but reach the best definition one or two stops down.
- 250mm is very sharp wide open but starts diffracting as low as f16! (aperture closes down to f45).
- Minimal chromatic aberration is visible in all lenses i have tested but can be easily fixed with C1/photoshop.
- 120 mm is the sharpest lens in the series and is IMO the ultimate FL for reproductions and product photography. I find the 50mm and 180mm to be also very sharp, but this can be the result of my (used) copies of the lenses.
- As with Nikon lenses, I find new digital optics to be superior to the older analogue ones. The T* coating is inferior to the newer nano-coating, but the sharp sterile feel of the digital lenses may be lacking the groove, warmth reliability and character of the older optics.
- When maximal sharpness is desired, I find the default C1 sharpening of 1px at 160% to hit the spot for these lenses.
Lack of Ultra Wide V Lenses
The Hasselblad V system lacks an ultrawide lens. 38-40mm (24-25mm in 35mm terms) is as wide as it gets. If you want to go wider without stitching you will need to either choose a different system or use your DB also on a Alpa/Cambo/Silvestri/Fotoman/home made camera with a digital LF lens.
I did not like the 40mm FLE due to corner distortion and found the FLE ring a hassle to my workflow. Using a Flexbody and 50mm for stitching shifted images (a stitching method that maintains straight lines) will deliver about 22mm of horizontal angle (in 35mm terms) with nice results.
Unlike Hasselblad-Zeiss F lenses, the CF lenses include a shutter inside the lens barrel – which limits the maximum aperture (in most lenses to f4) and the number of aperture blades to 5 (!).
F4 lenses are far inferior to f2 when it comes to precision focusing. This is especially relevant with the ultra flat surface of a CCD (in comparison to the unevenness of the film) and the CCD’s resolution surpassing the lenses’ resolving power. When combining different moving pieces that originate in different technological eras you have a lot of room to question your focusing.
I am not new to manual focusing, yet for critical work, I always check the DB screen (or laptop when tethered) using liveview or 100% magnification (another less favorable option is the back’s focus check feature), and would often find that my initial focusing through the cameras optical viewer was a bit off (even with a newly manufacturer calibrated back, a decent screen and a chimney style finder).
I do not want to delve deep here, but only to say that it works great except that sometimes I get an image with some version of this (see photo):
Phase One says it is a lens shutter sync issue, but I do not think so, as it appeared with all lenses and always resolved when the back was restarted. This issue is more common when using slower shutter speeds.
Interface and connectivity are no less than fantastic (especially when compared to previous generation Leaf Aptus II). Moreover, the later models even include wireless connectivity.
Color balance is almost only done with a gray card – this is simply how you work with these devices.
Color rendering is very accurate, but I wish C1 would automatically integrate with x-rite color checker or another alternative, as Lightroom does. ISO is only usable up to 200(!). ISO200 already presents drop down in grain.
Sensor+ is a nice option, but not for my type of work. I have also experienced intense moire when tried using it for cityscapes.
I would say that for the focusing precision reason only (and lack of autofocusing), if your main objective is fast and intensive commercial work, you would better go with a newer MF camera or high end full frame set. If you photograph architecture/interiors – the lack of an ultra wide lens rules this system out. If you work at a slower pace (product/fine-art/landscape) or use both film and digital, then Hasselblad V + DB is a pleasure and a great system to produce gorgeous images for exceptional scale.
Disclaimer: This post is meant to share my experience as a camera user. The author is not responsible for any damage which may occur by following the advice or recommendations posted here.