From SLR to Medium Format: My First Encounter With the Hasselblad X1D-50C

From SLR to Medium Format: My First Encounter With the Hasselblad X1D-50C

Remember that feeling you had as a child, every time you pass a toy shop window and you could see your favorite toy? You pass that window, and your favorite toy sits there, waiting for you to play with it regardless of all the other forgotten toys you have waiting for you back home. All you can do is just imagine the fun you could have with it every day. The toy you'll never get tired of playing with. The toy that allows every day to become a new adventure. The toy that becomes your new best friend.
The toy I dreamed about every night appeared in the form of a big F-15 Eagle fighter jet. It was so detailed, it had rockets on its wings and the wings could fold back, making it more streamlined. The cockpit could open up, revealing the pilot and co-pilot who could be ejected at the push of a button. It was epic in every single way. But then reality hits in the form of a firm tug from one of your parents, urging you away from the expensive toy with a stern “No!”

Twenty-five years later I finally got to play with my toy.

No, I'm not talking about my F-15 fighter jet. That whole theory of “as you get bigger, so does your toys, but boys still remain boys” never really applied so well to me. As I grew up over the years, my toys actually became smaller. It's not like I can park an F-15 in my driveway. I'm sure there are laws against that. The possessions became more expensive and further out of reach as I grew older. Until one day. 

The day I was invited into the store to play with a toy I've only dreamed about since starting my career as a photographer. This time, it came in the form of the Hasselblad X1D-50C. A mirrorless medium format camera, fitted with a 50 megapixel CMOS sensor with 16-bit color, 14 stops of dynamic range, and a central lens shutter giving the user access to speeds as fast as 1/2,000 a second or as slow as 60 minutes. All of this, hand made in Sweden.

'Heavy is good, heavy is reliable. If it doesn't work, you could always hit him with it.' - Boris The Blade from the motion picture Snatch.

That line was the first thing I thought as I picked up the camera and my fingers curled around the grip. I don't recall ever feeling a grip on a DSLR camera as good as this. Solid, heavy, deep, and comfortable. My hands never grew tired during the four hour photo shoot. It was like driving a luxury hand made car on an overcast day through some beautiful winding road, located somewhere in the Swiss Alps.  

I've been using film and digital single-lens-reflex cameras all my life, but this time I was thrown in the deep end with the X1D-50C. So I thought anyway. The last medium format camera I used was an old Hasselblad 500c film camera about 10 years ago. The fact that it was mirrorless was even more unknown to me. I've only heard and seen many great things about these completely alien cameras and had yet to see what all the fuss was about. I was as excited as the 5-year-old me, enjoying the thrill of the brand new toy. I couldn't wait to take it outside and see what adventures we could share together. 

At the first click of the shutter, I knew this was love at first sight. The satisfying sound of “click-clack” reminded me of the Hasselblad 500C's, mixed with the more modern sound of a DSLR. The button layout was simple yet incredibly effective with the shutter and aperture dials laid out in a form reminiscent to that of the Nikon cameras, with one dial by your right thumb in the back and one in the front, conveniently located by your index finger. The menu reminded me of the Canon 5D Mark IV, with its touchscreen interface and simple menu layout. 

I felt comfortable with this camera within two minutes of picking it up. 

Then came the lenses. 

With the introduction of the X1D-50C, Hasselblad announced they would be releasing a completely new line of autofocus lenses made specifically for the X1D-50C. Luckily the owners of the existing H System can use these lenses by means of an adaptor. I was given a Hasselblad 90mm f/3.2 prime lens as well as a 45mm f/3.5. The 90mm was used almost all the time as I was shooting portraits in studio. Autofocus worked quickly and efficiently along with the built in leaf shutter only causing minimal blackout when taking the shot. Everything felt incredibly streamlined. I shot about five test shots with my model, Mike, before we paused to review the images. As I pressed the review button my heart rate increased. The detail captured in the image was just mind boggling. From the shadows to the highlights, it handled everything perfectly. There was detail everywhere, with no artifacts or noise as one would expect on a DSLR. The detail was so crisp on that 90mm I almost feared the post production stage and the amount of work I was creating for myself. 

My second challenge was to shoot something outside the studio environment. This time I decided to shoot a live gig. I wanted to test the camera against the extremes of a club environment to see how it performed as I do this regularly with my DSLR and know exactly what results I can expect to receive. 

I made my way through the crowd and up the back of the stage area and started snapping away. This is where I realized the shutter lag on this camera makes it perfectly suited for the studio and landscape photographer, but not for the event photographer. I missed almost every shot as the band members jumped around on stage. It was around this time when I unslung my DSLR and packed away the X1D-50C. That being said, the shots I managed to capture came out pristine at 1,600 ISO with a smooth noise pattern and no break up in the shadows or highlights. 

So just imagine being given a luxury sports car for three days and you were told to go drive around and enjoy every moment of it. 

This is how I felt. 

A kid in a candy shop can go eat his heart out. This is everything I've ever dreamed about. I had the privilege of spending three days with this beautiful example of modern day craftsmanship and absolutely enjoyed every moment of it. From the way the shutter sounded, to the layout of the menu, and then of course the way the camera felt in my hands. The aluminum body feeling solid and smooth, reminiscent to that of a Renaissance sculpture. As you hold it firmly in the beautifully curved grip, it fits perfectly under you fingers and you're met with an incredible sense of excitement as well as immediately trusting the camera.

The Hasselblad X1D-50C delivers no matter what. It will become your ally, your best friend. It will stick with you in the darkest and best of times. All without failure. When the day finally arrived, I felt saddened by the fact that I had to return it after the three day journey I embarked with her. It felt as if I was saying a final goodbye to my best friend. My partner. My lover.

And while I loved my time with this incredible camera, I couldn't help but wonder where it all fits in. A mirrorless medium format camera priced above its competitors with less flashy features. Some people would frown at the prospect of not getting more bang for their buck, while I felt strangely comfortable at the thought of having to spend more to own a camera of this nature, minus all the bells and whistles other cameras in its class would offer. 

In the end, I felt it was all about the experience of finally being able to hold one of my dream cameras in my hand and use it for more than a few minutes. I fell in love with the X1D as I did with the Hasselblad 500C ten years ago. It's the experience of discovering something new and falling in love all over again. 

And once again I felt like the kid, standing in front of the toy shop. Dreaming at a prospect that felt so far away, when suddenly the shop owner comes outside and invites me in to play. The Hasselblad X1D-50C became my adult version of the F-15 Fighter Jet that I never had. 

Special thanks to Sunshine Co. Cape Town for supplying the gear and studio space.

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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How will this X1D deliver photo differently (better) from my 5d4? I couldn't find my answer from this article. : P

You won't see much difference at WEB sizes...print is another matter completely. I have the Fuji GFX 50s...I can definitely see the difference in color accuracy and tonal transition. Of course there is the blessing/curse of the depth of field which takes some getting used to if you have shot on smaller platforms for a long time. There is very little comparison (IQ-wise) between MF and DSLR.

To me colour accuracy and tonal transition are (mostly) achieved through proper lighting. I printed my photos to 60x90 and was very pleased with the results. Sure having 50mp will have more detail though.

Yes of course that helps BUT you start out with a better image when shot with a good workflow from start to finish. Medium Format cameras are significantly better than DSLR's though the gap is closing.

Based on the many comparisons I've done MF cameras actually fall short in several key areas. The colours are better but in every case, the lenses have been worse than the best available for full frame. Heck, even the mid to high-end lenses from Full frame beat the best from MF.

Many comparison's?

Direct us to your writings on the subject so that we can see how you have reached that conclusion.

This is the article that convinced me that crop-medium format which is what this size sensor should be called is not worth it and not better than, say, a Nikon D810 with a high end lens. Before reading this article, I read a lot of hoohaa about MF but struggled to find examples of the claimed differences. The article clearly explains why it is so

You made your decision based on ONE article?

I read the same when the GFX 50s was understand that there are many other points of view on the subject. Also comparing against different models/manufacture of MF will vary.

It's not my intention to diminish your opinions or anyone else for that matter. However, simple comparisons between DSLR and MF don't tell the entire story. Use one for a period of time and you will see why some photographers use both...for different applications.

Well put. There are things that a full frame camera will excel at and things that medium format will. People who like to hold fast to one format or approach to a craft end up not making any sense. It's like comparing screwdrivers. Which is better? a Flathead or a Phillips?

Not a good analogy: phillips is objectively better. Read

Not if the head is stripped. Know how to fix that? Take a dremel and carve a horizontal line into the head, then.... use a flat head to remove the screw.

What kind of bear is best?


Well, it depends...There's two schools of thought....

No. I did not make my decision on ONE article. I made my decision on ONE well-argumented article and a (seeming) lack of evidence to support that MF is really different somehow. I think the key point that most people are missing is that it is the *system* that should be compared, not just theoretical sensor differences.

Fair enough...but if ONE article was sufficient to sway you one way or the other, wouldn't also be prudent to actually USE a MF camera in order to see the differences for yourself?

Even a bad argument can be put forth pretty well...

I'd be happy to, how would you like me to send you some examples?

Why don't you just direct us to your research papers/blogs etc and let us decide what comparative images we would like to see.

This touches on it but I do have many more comparisons available for you to view.

Damn Leigh, reading through your posts, you are brutal! Remind me to stay on your good side :0

Sorry, that's not how I want it to come across. Photographers just seem to get so entrenched sometimes that they can't see beyond brands, bias...and in some cases BS.

I love hearing opinions...we are all entitled to them, but we can't invent our version of facts.

Google drive, Flickr. Anything basically. What I haven't been able to find are good examples of what really constitutes the differences. Ideally, a number of scenes shot with FF and MF so the suggested differences clearly stand out.

I do have something I'm working on which may be in line with your request. Planning on uploading in the next week.

I don't use DSLR's anymore but I have a Fujifilm GFX 50S.

What kind of shots do you want?

I think what we are all after are good side-by-side examples of "that medium format look". How the same frame looks different on MF than on FF. I strongly suspect that MF is "better" than FF simply because those who are willing to pay for MF are more skilled photographers who plan, and shoot better and then do better post too. I mean, we you compare, say, an iPhone to a 5D mark V the Canon pictures are so obviously better, but in the whole FF vs MF debacle, I really can't find those "case closed" pictures

This is my latest comparison. I have one last one to come soon but I'm still working on it.

Significantly better? The difference is marginal at best. Also it depends on the type of photography you do. MF is good for portrait / advertising / architecture / landscape / stills but suck at pretty much all other areas compared to a pro DSLR. And in probably 95% of the above mentioned situations a Canon 5Dmk4 will produce more than satisfactory result. The sensor is really good although you can argue a crop MF(X1D, GFX, 50c) has slightly edge. However, I am sure that a slightly better concept, composition, lighting, costume will likely outweigh the importance of sensor IQ in the current era.

LOL dude...I think you need to read the comments a bit more before saying this. The fact is I AGREE!!

I own three sets of platforms...MF, APSc and M 4/3. Each of them excels in one application or another. The only reason to use MF is IQ which is demonstrably better than the highest resolution FF camera...though the gap is closing.

Delivering a photo is a wide discussion, if you mean the final result, you just have to look at final result produced by x1d in raw and just compare with other manufacturers result. As simple as that. If you see the difference or can see the difference then there is the difference for you. This article comes from a person who saw the difference. Please also refer to Ming Thien street photo samples captured by X1D on Flickr. Cheers,

I believe I have seen his street photography featured in one of Hasselblad's videos. It's a bit of an overkill really to use such camera on street photos.

At the moment the only advantage I see using a MF system is the LS lenses. So I can use strobe freely on location.

then there is Broncolor Siros 800L, .... 2k,

GReat story !!!!

It should be really good. The thing costs a fortune without lenses. In the Netherlands, 16.500€ without lens. It should be brilliant to compensate for the price.

How about showing us a photo of the camera so we can see what you're talking about?

"I missed almost every shot as the band members jumped around on stage."
"The Hasselblad X1D-50C delivers no matter what."
For the life of me, I cannot reconcile these two sentences.
Enthusiasm runneth over.

lol...too emotionally driven.

To this point: I don't see a lot of "jumping" around guitar slashing shots in his portfolio Which I assume he's shot with DSLRs. Just sayin'.

I do like his work though.

"The toy I dreamed about every night appeared in the form of a big F-15 Eagle fighter jet. It was so detailed, it had rockets on its wings and the wings could fold back, making it more streamlined."

I'll let my inner dork shine - The F-14 has wings that sweep back, not the F-15. :-)

I know exactly that feeling when you have that camera in your hand, this is not a action camera, it is a real winner when posing people and when you need that fast shutter speed for your strobe no more fucking HSS , The only thing you need is a strobe that will have a lots of power and also capable at very low power to allow shallow depth. The way this camera lock focus is incredible tolerance of the lens attached to body you cant get better then that. Yes it is really hard to remove the lens out because of that tight tolerance. The fit in your hand perfect, last the weight is unreal for a medium camera. I only use it for ten minutes and know that I'm really seriously thinking about it. Is this camera will replace my Canon not at all but if I had to invest on a mirroless and go with Sony
2 body 3 lenses I'm well above the price of this X1D and still I will not have 1/2000 sec flash sync and quality of the image. This is my humble opinion. Keep clicking :)

You could get a leaf shutter and similar sensor performance at low ISO from a Sigma Quattro DP series.

I will look into that thank you

So much to love in this camera, looking forward to the third generation when they work the bugs out. Probably still won't buy it though, for the same reason you parents pulled you away from the toy. They realized you'd love it for a few weeks and then it would end up in a box somewhere forgotten as you lusted after the next shiny thing. My shiny thing is the Phase One XF 100MP, but I will never own one. And that's ok. So far there is nothing I can't do with my current kit and an extra $50k in the bank...

even if your going to put your 24 x36" print on a wall next to a Hx1d 24 x36" image your going to see why your particular sensor does not look the same... but your not looking at apples to apples on a wall your going by a res up print you made and you think is fine. Just saying other might see a difference and if your image and that H image are commented on by an experienced viewer there will be a noticeable difference. this is about physics not feelings and this argument has been going on long before you were born. 4x5 vs. 8x10 vs. 16x20 printed by professionals the law of physics has been around since the begging of time. So no Mr Wu your 5D4 wont cut it printed at 60x90" not even close let alone my H6D100 files try some test files with your lighting set up on the other camera and you should see if not OH well!

I contemplated MF for a long time. I have even saved up the money and would buy one tomorrow, if only ... someone could show me some clear cut examples of what it is I am getting over my current FF camera. I really wanted to see those differences, and I have been hunting high and low. But unable to find some clear reasons to shell out 10,000 dollars on what is in reality a cropped medium format camera like the mentioned Hasselblad in this article, the Fuji GFX or the Pentax 645Z. They are all lovely cameras, but the question remains are they BETTER than my current camera, and if so, at what? The article here convinced me that "crop MF" is not the way to go and that I would find no difference at all, not only in practice but also in theory. And that bothers me a bit, because I would like to shoot MF

Thomas, I am in the same position as you are and deciding to what to go for. Go to the same DP sample images of x1d. They took them in Japan or Korea (not sure). Then go see the samples of GFX from almost the same scenes in DP again. Even though it looks like the same sensor (?), I bet you can see the difference, yes the hassy lens but it's something else about processing the data I believe. You should see the difference, then look at Ming Thien street photography samples. Pay attention: non of this samples were taken in studio or under artificial lights. Talks are talks. Just analyse the pictures then you will get what I am saying, Cheers,

You don't need it. Trust me. If you really need it, rent it for the job. Otherwise put a down payment on a house.

Many people don't get this, , now mostly is all about the features. Color rendition has no meaning these days. Give them anything and a Photoshop CC and they are more than happy. I realy wish someone could get read of all digitals and give them bunch of RZs to see how they do, then they would realy appreciate when they see the tones. Great work Fred,