In 1896, architect Louis Sullivan wrote an article entitled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” coining a phrase that would guide architects, engineers and designers for more than a hundred years, “Form follows function.” More accurately, Sullivan wrote, “Form ever follows function,” but the more linguistically compact version has endured. The roots of this turn of phrase began millennia before, as Sullivan attributed the concept to Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who said that all architecture must be designed to be “firmitas, utilitas, venustats” or, translated, “solid, useful, beautiful.”
In photography, this idea of form follows function was the guiding principle in camera design, and the most famous cameras are those that pay attention to the minute details of a photographer’s interaction with them. Film advance levers, ISO dials, shutter release buttons, lens markings, storage card slots—these all function the way they do because they need to be used in a certain way, at a certain time in the photographic process.
That’s the main reason why the current crop of digital cameras seems a bit out of place to me—these new-era cameras are still using the designs of their film ancestors. The canisters of film are gone, but the shapes they created persist. Most digital cameras have streamlined these shapers, while some have taken a retro design approach and feature designs emulating the cameras of the 1970s, but they’re largely still based around the same shape that started to coalesce when the 35mm-format roll of film was introduced.
One of the most iconic shapes in photography belongs to the original Hasselblad medium-format camera, with its cube-like design, protruding film-advance handle and top-down viewfinder. The legends of photography were immortalized through images of them hunched over their camera, composing a shot.
That makes the Hasselblad X1D-50c a most interesting camera, in my mind, because it’s the first camera that truly departs from the company’s legendary style and tries to create a camera for a new era. Hasselblad had previously tried to reimagine the medium-format camera with their H-series, which was designed in conjunction with Fujifilm. The H1 camera took medium format from box-shaped to 35mm-camera-meets-Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The X1D-50c also departs from tradition, as it became the first mirrorless medium-format camera when it was announced in June 2016. While Fujifilm would follow suit with the mirrorless GFX 50S (which I reviewed: digitalphotopro.com/reviews/hands-on-with-the-fujifilm-gfx-50s), Hasselblad won the first-to-announce competition, and also wins the award for best new design. The Fujifilm has many advantages over the Hasselblad X1D-50c, most notably, a much faster operation and greater range of controls, but the Fujifilm camera favors a more traditional 35mm-style design.
I first looked at the X1D when it shipped, but some performance issues kept me from wanting to do a full review—it felt like there were some kinks to work out. The newest firmware update resolves some of those, and the camera has been out long enough that it’s clear that what we have now is how the X1D will perform based on the design choices.
The X1D isn’t a perfect camera, by a long shot. There are many issues that the company will need to address in this and future generations of the camera to make it suitable to a wide range of photographers. But it’s an interesting look at the form of cameras based on the workflow photographers will be following.
Design: A Slice Of Camera
The X1D looks as if the engineers started with a traditional camera and a scalpel and cut out everything that wasn’t needed in a mirrorless system. When I first saw it, I joked that it looked like a big slice of bread with a lens. That wasn’t an insult; this is a shape I’ve been expecting since the switch to digital, thanks to the relatively flat nature of electronic circuitry and the continual march to miniaturize components. Film cameras started off as being slabs, just wide enough to contain the film canister and the mechanical components, and then later started to sprout grips, pentaprisms, motordrives and more.
The X1D goes back to that original question of what’s needed to get the job done. For Hasselblad, what’s needed is enough space for a lens mount, grip, viewfinder and large LCD screen, plus space for controls and access ports.
This is a similar approach to the Leica SL, which seems to be trying to eliminate superfluous edges and protrusions. What Hasselblad managed to do, though, was to get a medium-format sensor inside this thick slice of camera.
A note on that sensor: The 50-megapixel sensor in the X1D-50c isn’t the same size as the 50-megapixel sensor inside the H6D. Instead, it’s a bit smaller and is the same size (and, essentially, the same sensor) as the one inside the Fujifilm GFX 50S. To summarize the great debate about a medium-format sensor that’s not really medium-format, the size of the sensor in the X1D-50c either gives you much better image quality than a 35mm camera, or it’s no better than the top-end mirrorless and DSLR systems.
The bigger sensor theoretically allows for more light-gathering ability than a 35mm sensor of the same resolution, though technologies like backside illumination on the Sony a7R III and the Nikon D850 (and, on the Sony cameras, we expect to replace the a7R III by the time you read this) make that point a bit moot. There are some other advantages to this size of a sensor, but they aren’t as clear-cut as the advantages in a “real” medium-format sensor.
Perhaps this should be called something like 35mm+, but alas, I’m not in charge of naming conventions. It’s larger than 35mm, so medium format it is.
With today’s crop of high-resolution 35mm-format cameras and high-end lenses, the advantage of the sensor in the Hasselblad X1D-50c may be negated. That’s not to say that future sensors in this size won’t leapfrog past the current quality, but going into either of the medium-format mirrorless systems, it’s good to know you’re not getting exactly what you would with a more “traditional” medium-format camera.
Design As It Affects Operation
While the H6D feels like it should be used only in a studio or out on location where a photographer has a full complement of assistants, the X1D feels like it can go anywhere. It’s a portable, transportable solution that’s quite liberating after tethered studio-based shooting. The weather-sealed body is designed to go places an H6D can’t.
The X1D is an easy camera to use (speed limitations that I’ll discuss later aside). The controls are sparse, but well placed. Powering up the camera requires a long press of the on/off button, which prevents accidental powering on while it’s in a camera bag. (The camera could use a blinking LCD to indicate when it’s in sleep mode, as I found myself turning the camera off a few times, not on.
The control dials are in the right places and they’re easy to operate. The hand grip is well-sized and makes it easy to carry the camera around, so easy that I left the strap at home and tucked the camera into a small messenger bag, handholding it whenever I used it. (This was partially due to the value of the camera; I spent a lot of my testing in San Francisco, where I walked through a lot of tourist areas and a lot of the higher-crime areas downtown. Having a camera with Hasselblad emblazed on it hanging from my neck didn’t feel like a good idea.)
I particularly liked the bright, clear, touch-sensitive menu system. I often rail against small, complicated menus on high-end DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, and the X1D has a clean, simple design. The sparse design, though, is partially because of the relative lack of features in the camera. You’re not going to find a menu for lens micro-adjustment nor focus stacking nor time-lapse here.
The rear LCD screen is bright and was excellent in use, though it doesn’t tilt. I’d love a future camera to have a tilting, pivoting LCD screen, as the lightness of the camera allows it to be used in many situations where it’s currently impossible, or to use it in a view-down manner like traditional film Hasselblad cameras.
While the LCD screen is great, the electronic viewfinder is a disappointment. The display has 2.36 million pixels, but it doesn’t feel as fast to refresh nor as vibrant as most other high-end mirrorless camera systems. In most conditions, the subjects I was pointing the camera at seemed washed out and under-saturated. With so much resolution in the camera, it would be great to have a viewfinder that matched it, allowing you to really see where you were focusing.
It would also be great to play back images on the EVF, and as of this writing you can’t. I’m not sure why this isn’t available, but reviewing images on the EVF is one of the chief benefits of a mirrorless system to me. I’m hoping this is addressed in a future version.
For users unfamiliar with the sounds of a big medium-format system, this camera is loud. The shutter triggers with a metallic “whir-clunk” twang that I happen to appreciate, but which draws quite a bit of attention. Fortunately, the recent firmware update allows for use of an electronic shutter, which makes it finally useable for street photography.
The update also added focus point selection and slightly speedier boot times, though the X1D is a remarkably slow-booting camera. I ended up leaving the camera on and carrying a spare battery so I wouldn’t miss shots when powering on the X1D. If you’re used to the milliseconds it takes to get a DSLR ready to shoot, this will be a big departure.
There are a handful of other design issues, some good, some bad. The camera has USB-C for high-speed transfer and tethering (that’s good). The SD slots don’t support UHS-II (that’s bad), which is a problem because the X1D is a slow performer, in general, and having a high-speed SD card might have helped here.
With so many high-res camera options, how do the images from the X1D stack up, especially considering the sensor isn’t technically a medium-format one? Generally, the X1D-50c has a tremendous amount of resolution. Files have great detail, tonality, sharpness and color saturation. There’s a lot of vibrance in the colors straight out of camera, though the same look can be achieved with other cameras and a bit of tweaking in post. Still, it’s a very lovely look for landscapes and travel shots.
You do have to pick your subjects carefully, however. The X1D isn’t fast enough either in focus or performance to keep up with fast-moving subjects. That’s in sharp contrast to the Fujifilm GFX 50S, which we used to capture mountain bikers on a downhill run. I tried to use the H1D to capture a person doing tricks with a soccer ball and I had to resort to manual focus and waiting until they were in my focal plane to trigger the shutter.
The X1D-50c images are, in summary, excellent. I just hesitate to qualify them as being any more excellent than something from a Sony a7R III and a G Master lens or the Nikon D850 and one of the sharpest NIKKOR lenses.
Lack of image stabilization in the body (as the Sony has) or lenses (as the Nikon D850 and Canon EOS 5Ds have) means that the high-res 35mm solutions will sometimes have the edge in sharpness, especially when handholding in low light.
The X1D-50c is a product that breaks a lot of ground, but in doing so, mixes things up as well. It’s probably good to frame this camera against the backdrop of the Hasselblad H1, which took the company in a new direction and was an example of the future of the platform, but had some operational drawbacks.
The Hasselblad X1D-50c is a fun camera to shoot, even with its limitations. It’s a great example of how technology can be reworked to fit a modern workflow, instead of clinging to a past one. It will not, though, appeal to photographers grounded heavily in that traditional workflow. In other words, a studio shooter with an H6D is unlikely to find a reason to purchase an X1D-50c, but a travel and landscape photographer might be more inclined to do so.
The Fujifilm GFX 50S, which in itself has some design and operational limitations, feels like it’s designed for the 35mm shooter looking to increase sensor size, while the X1D feels like a camera for a studio shooter looking to decrease system size.
If an X2D arrives and addresses the speed issues, this will be an incredibly attractive platform for a variety of photographers. Currently, it’s a great choice for the shooter who wants to jump into the brave new mirrorless medium-format world and doesn’t mind a few limitations in the workflow.
Visit the Hasselblad website at hasselblad.com