I recently got the chance to use the new Hasselblad X1D II for a week. It was my first experience with medium format and required a bit of adapting on a learning curve. Here are my first impressions about the body, design, lenses, and general usability of the camera.
You know the feeling you get when you’re walking down the street and there’s a shiny new Lamborghini parked outside? You pull out your phone and snap a picture to send to your friends. You even look around to see if anyone is around and think to yourself: “how close can I get to it? Should I touch it? I wonder if it’s unlocked? Man, this leather is soft. Why are they putting me in handcuffs? I was just smelling it!?” Just me? Well, I get the same feeling when I see a Hasselblad. To be totally honest, I thought my chances of using a Hasselblad were about the same as getting to joy ride that Lamborghini. When Hasselblad agreed to send me an X1D II and a couple lenses to test out, I was kind of in shock, but obviously jumped at the chance. I’ve always said a camera is a camera is a camera. If you call yourself a photographer, I should be able to give you any camera and you should take a good picture. But there is something to be said about nice gear that inspires creativity. It puts you in a new mindset and excites you. This camera definitely did that for me.
So, I thought I’d share with all of you my first experience with medium format. In full disclosure, I’m not a technical photographer. I’m not the guy who’s is going to run side-by-side tests to compare pixel counts or zoom into 800% to show you which image is a hair sharper on the edges. I’m sure as hell not going to waste time trying to beat this camera with my iPhone. So, if you want to nerd out about megapixels and dynamic range and ISO, you can skip past this article, because there are plenty of those out there. Instead, I just used the camera like I would my normal DSLR. I took it to my in-laws for Thanksgiving, and I brought it on vacation in NYC with my wife. I also shot some corporate/commercial agency headshots at my day job with it.
I was a little intimidated at first and just wanted to see how it would fit in my real-life workflow. I wanted to see if this was a camera I could get comfortable with and get used to operating the way I shoot everyday. Sure, it would be fun to take the Lamborghini to the race track for speed tests, but does it really work for my daily commute to work, getting the kids to school, or running to the grocery store?
This thing is well built. Every part of it. It’s just pretty too. That silver finish and orange button is sexy. As soon as I pulled it out of the bag, all my fears of breaking this thing went out the window. It’s built like a tank. Admittedly, I’m not the most careful person with my gear, but I’d have to do some pretty stupid stuff to really do any damage to this camera. I didn’t put it to the test, but I’m pretty confident this camera could take a beating if it needed to. Everything was metal and solid. No plastic or loose jiggly buttons. Everything, including the lens hoods were built to last . Once I snapped a lens on, the camera and lens became one piece. The mount is strong and solid. Zero wiggle. It felt like the lens was part of the camera body.
Even though the build is so strong with lots of metal, it didn’t feel dramatically different than my D850 in weight. The body grip was smooth and felt natural in my hands. I’m not good with change, but this felt natural right away.
The only thing that threw me off was the simplicity of the design. My D850 has way more buttons and knobs on it that each have their own function. This camera had minimal buttons that do multiple features. So, in their attempt to simplify, I had to take more time to find certain functions. But I guess that's a trade you have to make for such a solid build and clean design.
The LCD screen is huge. I’m actually not a fan of LCD touchscreens in general, especially for getting around menu functions. I use a RED camera at work all the time for video and find the touchscreen lacking and at times even frustrating because of all the lag. But the Hasselblad just plain works. It felt like the same responsiveness as my iPhone. If I touched it, it reacted right away. I didn’t have to poke at the screen 10 times to get it to do what I wanted.
So far, you’re probably thinking this is a review sponsored by Hasselblad, but I promise you it’s not, and I also promise it’s not all roses. There were some things I didn’t love about the camera. Although as I’m writing this, I realize negatives with the camera may just point out flaws in my own shooting style, which may be why they are getting tagged in the negative section. First and foremost, this camera makes you slow down in almost every aspect of your photography. That's a real struggle for me. I hate to be tied down. I don’t tether and rarely use a tripod. My camera is typically set to burst mode, even when it doesn’t really need to be. I shoot fast, and I shoot a lot! This camera isn’t built for that.
The main reason, in my opinion, for that is the focus system. It’s slow, though apparently faster than the first version, but I can’t speak to that. But compared to my D850, the focus is slow, and it doesn’t track, especially in low light and backlit situations. When shooting at night or into the sun, I found myself using the manual focus more than the autofocus. Luckily, the EVF has a pretty good focus assist mode, which I found extremely helpful. Moving subjects were also a challenge. We have an adorable new puppy and two kids, and trying to get candid shots of them jumping around is a challenge with any camera, but nearly impossible with this one.
This may seem like a nit-picky negative, but the only design element I didn’t like was the placement of the memory card slots. I wish the cards and the USB slot were switched. The latch to get to the cards was so close to the strap connector that every time I tried to open it, I had to mess with the strap and move it out of the way. This situation would also be resolved by using a bottom screw-in sling strap like the one I have on my personal camera. I use the Black Rapid.
The camera didn’t feel as great in low light as other cameras I’ve used. Again, that could be a dig on my shooting style rather than the camera. But as I mentioned before, I don’t like to use tripods, and when hand-holding, I could only slow my shutter to about 1/30th of a second before I stopped getting usable images. I had to go to a pretty high ISO to get there, which started to knock down the image quality very quickly. If you shoot on a tripod and love slow shutter images, this is probably not a problem, but for me walking around NYC at night, I struggled, even in places like Times Square, where I felt like with my D850 there would have performed just fine.
Quality, quality, quality! Hands down, the best quality images I’ve ever shot. I know I said I wouldn’t pixel-count or zoom into 800%, but if you take your time, have good light, and get a good image, you can almost zoom in endlessly. Medium format also has a look and feel to it that I can’t really put into words, but I kept saying to my wife: “Everything just looks smoother!” The medium format sensor just has a “look” to it that is all its own. The transitions from light to dark are so smooth, and you can push them to the limit in post. I’m not sure my D850 could handle the same.
I remember the first time I shot with a higher-end DSLR and thinking to myself: “Wow, this image looks like a professional photograph.” And now, I’ll also remember looking at my first images with a medium format and thinking: “Wow, this looks like an elite quality image!” (That's not because of the content, because that's the same, but the pure image quality that looks like it belongs in a magazine or an advertisement.)
I’m a photographer who loves to edit and play around in Photoshop. I rarely take a picture and am happy with it right out of the camera. With the Hasselblad, I struggled to find things to edit. Everything just looked good — way better than real life. In fact, they were almost surreal — a too good to be true feeling. When I did want to push an edit, it allowed for that as well. I could save shadows and highlights with no problem whenever needed.
They sent along two prime lenses with the camera, the 30mm and 90mm. I knew I’d be walking around the city, and I love to capture the environment when shooting. But I also love a good portrait lens. I love shooting with prime lenses. I feel like it makes you think more about your shots and get more creative. I love the old saying: “zoom with your feet, not your lens.”
I loved both of these lenses. This was my first experience using leaf shutter lenses as well. I didn’t get to do as much strobe work as I would have liked to, but I did bring a small Godox speedlight with us on our trip and was able to use that with a trigger due to the Hasselblad/Nikon compatibility, which was convenient.
The 30mm was a perfect field of view to get full body portraits that also showed off the scene. It felt about the same as when I have my 24mm on my D850, but what I loved about it was that there was way less distortion. Lines felt straight with minimal bowing comparatively, especially at the edges. Furthermore, anywhere that was supposed to be sharp was sharp throughout the image.
The 90mm would probably be my go-to lens if I could only have one and was using this camera to make money. It makes people look good. I got a whole day of corporate headshots with this thing, and it was perfect. If you’re not shooting professional models and you want your subject to look their best, this lens is the way to go. Zero distortion and perfect compression. Sharp throughout and just plain clean! Beautiful!
I’ve had people ask me since using the Hasselblad how it was or if I’d switch camera systems. Get rid of all my stuff and trade straight up for it? The honest answer is “I don’t know.” I shoot sports a lot, and that would be a struggle. I shoot moving subjects in low light a lot, and that would be a struggle. But if you asked me “would you trade your Jetta for a Lamborghini,” I wouldn’t think twice. Driving the kids to school might be a challenge, and getting my gear to shoots might be a challenge, but I’d find a way.
To have the best quality I could and set myself apart in an industry saturated with photographers, I’d find a way to make it work for what I do. So, the short answer is yes, I’m currently thinking about selling all of my gear so I can buy that camera and a lens.
What are your thoughts? Do you think the benefits outweigh the negatives? Is versatility or quality more important to you?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.