Just about second to what you can only find at NASA, the Hasselblad H6D-100c represents the pinnacle of digital photography today. Dive into this review to understand where and why this monster system might be worth it.
The H6D-100c is the coupling of Hasselblad’s latest H6D body and its full-frame, medium format, 100-megapixel CMOS sensor. This CMOS technology is relatively new in the medium format world and virtually brand new at the 100-megapixel level. No longer do you have to compromise on resolution in order to maintain flexibility in a natural-light setting at higher ISO values.
Why CMOS Is So Special
In the studio, CMOS sensors don’t matter as much, as most product or fashion photographers are exerting complete control over the lighting with their own setups. But the flexibility of taking that quality out into the field can be hard to beat. Without the need for a two or three-person crew or without alarming those around me in public locations, I could easily take my time shooting a quick set while getting the maximum performance that today’s technology allows.
In this shot, for example, a friend and I went out into Northern California’s Santa Cruz mountains and shot before sunrise to get that perfect one-sided glow without the need for an assistant.
While having an assistant wouldn’t have been a major issue here, keeping a lower profile without gear and having the freedom to move about unobstructed and uninterrupted by the first passes of the park rangers in the area has its advantages. This would carry through to any shoot on any location. In many cases, access to a particular shot depends on permission to be there — not even necessarily because it’s illegal to shoot in that place, but because putting together photography shoots in public always seems to draw someone that feels they're in a position of power and need to exert it. It's just something you have to plan for these days.
Needless to say, the image quality is superb. I’m not going to get into a debate about whether or not there’s a medium-format “look.” But as far as the image quality goes, this beats nearly anything else out there. It makes the Nikon D850 and Canon 5DS R look soft. The combination of resolution and pixel size helps the H6D-100c create stunningly sharp images in nearly any conditions.
At 4.6 square microns, the pixels in the 100c back are larger than those in the Nikon D850, yet still count up to more than twice the resolution. Full 16-bit color output helps edge out the lower-end competition that tries to compete for a spot as well. Below, you get a good idea for the cropping potential at full-frame, half-crop, and 12-percent crops, the latter of which is a 100-percent crop fit for an Instagram post.
Shadow areas recover just as well as you might be used to with a full-frame DSLR, if not better. But again, it’s the color that’s the incredible part. This shot, taken in the middle of the night in Griffith Park, was already taken with at a darker exposure to reproduce a relatively accurate version of the actual scene at the time. And yet, as we bring up the shadows, the shade of green in the grass in the image looks as though these blades are reflecting daylight.
The special part for 35mm full-frame shooters comes when you realize you can recover highlights from these files with similar ease. The 15-stop dynamic range claim for this sensor is no joke. It’s absolutely incredible. I won’t say you should lean on it as a crutch for any shoot with imperfect lighting, but I mean you completely could.
Hasselblad has an excellent lens lineup, but it has historically been held back by its 1/800 s maximum shutter speed across the entire range. Its newer "orange dot" lenses, however, offer shutters that step this up to 1/2000 s. Of course, thanks to the leaf shutters within these lenses, flash sync works at all speeds. But this is especially important for location shooters that don't want to add ND filters to shoot wide open, which reduce the available light too.
This also allows for greater flexibility overall. A project I'm currently working on requires shooting crashing waves for prints that eventually extend to nearly 70 inches. With a requirement for fast lenses, fast shutter speeds, and extreme resolution, I quickly found the 100c back to be about the only tool I can use to accomplish this. While 1/2000 s isn't quite enough to perfectly freeze the splashing water (freezing this with a short flash duration would be ideal, but I don't have the luxury of working outside the constraints of available light), combined with the extreme 100-megapixel resolution and 16-bit files, I can get enough detail out of the file across the entire highlight range to create stunning 60-to-70-inch prints. I also want to thank Digital Fusion in Los Angeles, who really came through on more than one occasion at the last minute to offer the newer orange-dot version of the HC 100mm f/2.2 lens for this project. They didn't even hesitate in loaning me some dongles to offload cards when I was working on a borrowed, newer MacBook Pro while mine was in the shop, which saved my life that week.
The body itself is largely unchanged since Hasselblad first released the popular H-series platform. There have been improvements such as True Focus, which helps calculate the difference in camera-to-subject distance when grabbing focus and recomposing, enabling accurate, critical focus from shot to shot. The system has worked well for Hasselblad as its form continues to serve photographers’ needs well, as with the bodies that came before it.
Still, coming from a DSLR, anyone would be disappointed with the slower functions of the system. Focus is not Nikon-fast, nor does it feature anything like Sony’s eye-tracking. While that would be nice, this is just the way it’s been for some time. Short of having these DSLR-like features, the simplicity of the single, central focus point is hard to beat. And for medium format, Hasselblad’s lenses still do focus remarkably quickly. It’s only with larger portrait lenses that you might start to really notice the difference in speed.
Without stopping down to improve the depth of field, I still found it difficult to shoot models walking toward or away from the camera. Tracking subjects with side-to-side motion, however, wasn’t as much of an issue. But having a model at hand that knows how to move his or her body to get the shot without having to walk for the photographer to do a “spray and pray” is more than a help, it’s almost essential. And all of a sudden, it becomes clear how, as with a good film, it takes an entire team to pull off the highest level of work. Just because you have the most impressive technology in your hands doesn’t mean it will do everything for you. On the contrary, knowing your gear (and its limitations) is even more crucial. But the results that come from a good collaboration between a photographer, their tool, and their team are well worth the effort.
The previous example of the friend I shot before sunrise in the hills makes this clear. While there was no team involved (one photographer, one model, one camera, and one source of ambient light), we were still able to pull off this shot. But it didn’t happen without merging two files together: one file had the proper head or “look” we were going for while the other had a great flare-up to the dress. But in the original of the latter image, the model was mid-blink. The flare in the image where the model’s look was also perfect was not bad, but it didn’t have that extra oomph that the other image had. Similar issues happened when focus would just miss. But you just shoot a bit more to make sure you have it, especially when you’re not tethering to verify critical focus on set.
Needing to combine two shots to get the overall look you’re going for should never be a deterrent to using a particular camera system if that system is making up for it in massive improvements in image quality. Combining just two images is just where it starts. Any work at the highest end is going to reflect the need for this in the project budget.
At $32,995, this system can't be reviewed without talking about price. Sure, you pay to get a 100-megapixel medium-format sensor. And it’s not cheap. Nor is an investment like this recommended unless your work can support it (and demands it). But if your work is at or ready for the next level, there is something to having the best gear that will ultimately help take it there. You need to be ready for it. But for the money, the H6D-100c is at least an investment that will last. This isn’t something that will be obsolete in four years. It’s going to easily last you a decade.
Still, that doesn’t mean the speed of the system (or lack thereof) is particularly easy to get over if it’s something you rely on today. Every job has a tool (or handful) that is right for getting that job done. It’s up to you to decide if this is what you need to take your project to the next level.
What I Liked
- Best in class image quality
- Extremely high resolution
- Excellent for fine art prints and other large reproductions
- Great lens system, now with up to 1/2000 s shutter speeds (with syncing at all speeds)
- Fast for a medium format system
- Excellent support
What I Didn’t Like
- Slower than non-medium format cameras
- Focus is my biggest gripe. I wish there was a solution to make it at least 30 percent faster, especially now in 2018.
- Still much heavier and larger than smaller/cheaper systems
- Battery life could improve, but much better than older generations
At the end of the day, getting something like the Hasselblad H6D-100c is something that will come down to how it will add value for your business, and you're the only one that can figure that out. But for those needing absolute quality, this is where it is. As much as you might want to wish it not to be true, the other 35mm bodies with near half the resolution and a quarter of the area simply don't compare. This camera is in a league of its own.