Hands-On Review: Hasselblad H5D-50C

While digital SLR technology has eroded the market for medium format cameras, there is a segment of the photographic community for whom only a medium-format system will work.

When Hasselblad announced the H5D-50C camera system they caught the attention not only of traditional medium format shooters but also some photographers using 35mm-based DSLRs because the H5D-50C is one of the first medium format systems to use a CMOS sensor, rather than a CCD to capture images. CMOS sensors are known to have greater ISO ranges and faster read times, making systems based on CMOS much faster and more agile than those on CCD.

A medium format camera and a 35mm camera have always been designed to do different things and the digital era has increased the gap between the two. While our test Nikon D4s can capture 11 frames per second at an ISO range above 400,000, the Hasselblad H5D can capture 35 frames per minute (about 1.5 a second) and has an ISO range up to about 6400. The Nikon D4s can track an erratically moving object as it darts across the frame while the Hasselblad H5D sometimes has trouble with a subject that’s ambling down the street.

Because a medium-format sensor is much larger than that in a 35mm-based DSLR and that the resulting image has not only more detail but more light gathering capacity. That’s why medium format cameras are the choice of studio photographers working in fashion, design, product, beauty and other commercial jobs. The assumption most make is that it’s the resolution of the sensor that’s the deciding factor but in reality it’s also the range of the sensor that is important.

A camera’s dynamic range is the range of light from dark to light that the camera is able to capture. The greater the dynamic range, the more shades of light or dark it can record before the image goes to black in the shadows or clips in the highlights.

While the Nikon D4s that we reviewed has an impressive 9-10 useable stops of dynamic range the Hasselblad H5D-50C has fourteen stops, giving the camera the ability to capture both shadow and highlight detail way out of the range of most other cameras.

When we got to use the H5D-50C availability was extremely limited, and we were among the first to take a look at the new camera. What follows is our preliminary impressions after a weekend of shooting.

Our primary test shoot was on location, unfortunately with a lot of the shoot taking place under contrasty noon sun. However, we felt a non-studio, high contrast shoot with a live subject would be a good platform for the wide dynamic range advertised by Hasselbad and the fast workflow that the system affords.

A quick note, we tested the Hasselblad H5D alongside an Nikon D800 for comparison in terms of not only image quality but in the real-world use of the camera. Another note, we had but one Hasselblad lens to use with our test. Because of the time pressure of this review, we only had a 80mm at our disposal—probably not the first lens we’d have grabbed if we had a choice.

Body, Double

As with most medium-format digital system, the H5D-50 is comprised of a body and removable digital back. The two work in tandem, and it’s largely the 50C back we’re reviewing here. That’s because the front-end of the H5D is the same whether you’re using the H5D-50c, H5D-50, H5D-40, etc.

The combined front and back do look good together, the H5D feels good in the hand. Controls are well placed (although the exposure compensation on the viewfinder seems a bit far away) and most controls are right within reach.

The back has an understated button arrangement, four stand-alone buttons, a four-way button and an up-down switch. All work well together, though at first it’s not always clear which button controls which feature.

The rear LCD screen is large and relatively bright, but we found it incredibly difficult to review images on the screen in bright daylight. We could tell that we captured an in-focus image but couldn’t tell if we had detail in the shadows with any consistency. This won’t be a big issue for those shooting only in the controlled confines of a studio, but out in the field it would be a good idea to bring a hood or to tote along a color-calibrated display.

The back takes CF cards and can fit about 120 shots on an 8GB card. We used high-speed Lexar and SanDisc cards and had no problems reading or writing to either. The back also has FireWire 800 connectivity, though none of our test machines any longer have native FW800 ports.

As mentioned, autofocus on the system isn’t fast, though it’s faster than previous Hassy bodies and is able to keep up with most subjects we put in front of it. There’s an always-available manual override to the autofocus system and we took advantage of that on some shots. Mostly we tried to keep the camera’s autofocus in charge, to test the real world applications and mostly it did an excellent job.

That doesn’t mean that you’re going to take the Hasselblad H5D-50C to cover the Triple Crown, but it does mean that you can accurately focus on a subject as they move around, as long as they don’t jerk around unexpectedly.

The Hasselblad H5D-50C isn’t light, but it’s not a particularly heavy system either—the old days of shooting a 500-series Hasselblad felt much more cumbersome.

There is a small popup flash on the top of the H5D body and I generally think that all cameras should have some sort of flash. While it’s almost never a good idea to use a flash this small and this harsh, I’d rather have a flash and not need it then need it and not have it.

Operating the H5D-50C is a much faster experience than previous generations of the system. The back displays images almost instantly, whereas previous systems took several seconds to display an image—too long when trying to wrangle a model or capture a fleeting moment.

Image Is Everything

It’s odd evaluating a camera like the Hasselblad H5D-50C because it both blows you away and leaves you feeling a bit short at the same time.

In many instances the in-camera metering fell short. Naturally this often happened with backlighting—something that’s tricky for any metering system—but usually a quick adjustment to the exposure compensation fixes this. We couldn’t quite dial in the right exposure compensation to make up for the camera’s exposure issue in at least one instance.

Metering is much more accurate in a scene with lower contrast, and once we became comfortable with the camera’s metering we moved to manual exposure modes and used a handheld light meter.

The mind-blowing aspect of the camera comes when you evaluate the images on a big display. There’s a level of detail available on the large sized sensor in the H5D-50C that’s not there on the D800 or other 35mm-sized SLR. It’s easily possible to count the pores on a subject’s face in a portrait. You can tell if your subject’s eyes are irritated by allergies as you observe the capillaries in the eyes.

But on the other hand there are moments when you just expect more from the image. Harsh lighting conditions resulted in halos and chromatic issues in a way that most DSLRs no longer do.

When evaluating "high-ISO" images it’s clear that the CMOS sensor in the 50c back is the right choice for photographers working outside the studio. ISO 6400 images look better than ISO 800 images on CCD-based backs. There is a l
evel of grain that’s workable at ISO 6400 and it allows the camera to be used in environments where typically only a 35mm-sized DSLR could be used.

In fact, in some tests the 50C created images about the same noise at ISO 6400 than the D800 did at the same ISO, but the 50C did it with vastly more detail. The result was an image from the 50C back that contains more detail than anything possible from a DSLR camera, even at higher ISO values.

We would constantly evaluate one image and be blown away by the detail, low noise and color fidelity and then look at another image and notice the chromatic aberrations and color shifts. Such is life with a digital medium format camera in the outdoors.

User Base

If you need a medium format camera, you know that you need it. While medium format cameras underwent a massive consolidation in past years, the market seems stabilizing and new camera systems like the H5D-50C are coming to market.

Hasselblad doesn’t make the only CMOS-based medium format system though, PhaseOne beat Hasselblad to market by a few months with their 50 megapixel IQ2 back with most of the same features found in the 50C.

That’s good though, as competition pushes companies to design more features and release them to the market more quickly.

For the first time, we’ve got medium format solutions aimed at the location photographer as well as the studio photographer, solutions that will enable faster shooting, better image quality and more flexibility than those traditionally offered in a medium format digital body.

The future of medium format is a lot brighter.

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