I’m going to keep this article short, sweet and to the point and I know what the question on everyone’s mind is – what do you get in a camera that costs as much as a 3-series BMW? And that’s without lenses, by the way.
The folks over at Sunshine Co (Hasselblad Agent for SA) were friendly enough to let me have a go with the new Hasselblad H6D in exchange for some nice landscape photos and a written opinion. We thought it would be entertaining to do a little prank and pretend that I bought it, but that is fortunately (for my bank account) and unfortunately (for my archive’s image quality) not the case.
It is impossible to make a full time living as a landscape photographer in South Africa (and most countries in the world) from selling/licensing images. That remains true whether my images have a resolution of 20mp or 200mp. I make a living from running workshops and photo tours and those won’t really sell better because I shoot with a Hasselblad.
So who can justify buying this camera? The answer is simple – highly successful commercial photographers who shoot big-budget advertorial campaigns.
When it comes to ad campaigns for major international or local companies, the photographer is usually not the primary expense of the production. If you add up the costs of models, location fees, stylists, creative directors, make-up artists, assistants and a long list of other ancillary expenses, you’ll quickly get to some scary figures for a single day of shooting. It is by no means out of the ordinary for a shoot to cost R100 000.00/day.
Estimate cost of decent Canon/Nikon Kit per day – R2000.00
Estimate cost of Hasselblad kit per day – R7000.00
If you consider then that the produced images can be captured at image quality of 8/10 (shot on Canon/Nikon) for R100 000.00 or 10/10 for R105 000.00, you should realize the practical use of such an expensive camera system. It can be justified for productions that cost as little 20k/day.
Lets take look at what makes the H6D better than the leaders in image quality on the 35mm market, the Nikon D810 and Canon 5Ds. I don’t want to go into excessive analytical detail, as I would be speaking about things I’m no longer too well informed about. It’s probably also more than most people are interested in. I’ll explain the differences, pros and cons in layman’s terms that everyone with basic knowledge of image quality can understand.
The most important determining factor of image quality is not just how many pixels a sensor packs, but also the size of those pixels. Larger pixels are better able to capture the light and thus produce much better image quality. Packing more and more pixels into a sensor becomes pointless at some stage as the size of the pixels has to be reduced and the camera’s brain becomes unable to efficiently process all the data produced. Those issues lead to bad image quality. This was a key mistake that Canon made with the 5Ds, which has poor dynamic range and very quickly succumbs to noise if the ISO is pushed up.
High resolution is meaningless if not held in relation to sensor size. The common denominator of the abovementioned factors is the pixel density. If the pixel density is too high, then a massive MP count doesn’t mean much.
Canon 5Ds – 50.6MP
Sensor Size – 36x24mm
Pixel Density – 5.86MP/cm²
Nikon D810 – 36.3MP
Sensor Size – 36x24mm
Pixel Density – 4.22 MP/cm²
Hasselblad H6D50C – 50MP
Sensor Size – 44x33mm
Pixel Density – 3.44MP/cm²
Above you can clearly see that although the H6D50C and Canon 5Ds offer nearly identical resolutions, the pixel density of the Canon is 70% greater than that of the Hasselblad. That translates to a serious disparity in image quality caused by smaller pixels.
The best of 35mm cameras are able to capture 14-bit RAW files, where as the H6D50C can capture 16-bit RAW files. This a subject you’ll have to further educate yourself on, but the short and simple answer is that the Hasselblad captures more dynamic range/exposure latitude. This gives the RAW files more flexibility and a greater margin for exposure error.
35mm systems consist of two components – the lens and the body. The body features the necessary processing power to do things like focus, operate the shutter, measure the light AND it features the sensor and the necessary computer power to record images captured on the sensor.
With Medium format, the body is a much simpler device that handles easy tasks like focusing, operating the shutter and measuring light. It is not a field with rapid technological advancements and thus has quite a long working life. The rapidly advancing and valuable technology – the sensor and computer to process the light captured, is mounted in what is referred to as the back. This concept is from the film days when photographers could load several backs/magazines with film and simply change the magazine when the loaded roll of film ran out. Coincidentally, it also works economically well for these highly priced systems that evolve so quickly. If there’s a newer and better sensor out, you can simply purchase a new back. Hasselblad has a 50MP back that can be mounted on bodies dating back to the 1950’s – pretty cool!
Medium format lenses produce much better image quality as they are made to a much higher standard using better materials than 35mm lenses. The price does however match the quality – the 24mm, which is equivalent to a 17mm on a full frame system will put you back $6000.
This is what it all comes down to – brilliant optics feeding light to a larger sensor packing a lot of very large pixels. The results are really impressive.
I had the HCD 24mm f/4.8 and the HC 50mm f/3.5 II lenses to try out.
The wide angle delivers stunningly crisp detail that is undeniably superior to what my Nikon 16-35mm delivers. Where it really shines is sharpness in the corners, which is one of the great failings of 35mm wide-angle lenses. At f/16, it really is nearly perfectly sharp right into the extreme corner. There is a minor loss of image quality, but it’s barely noticeable. You’ll also see in the corner crop that it handles distortion well, but not perfectly.
It handles diffraction much better than my Nikon 16-35mm does – at f/16, tiny detail like buildings in the distance remain pin-sharp. On my Nikon Setup I’m very wary of f/16 as diffraction seriously starts affecting sharpness beyond f/14.
The 24mm is impressive, but it is however the 50mm that totally blew my mind away with the detail it captures. This is where you realise that what your pixels can capture is far more important than how many pixels you have. Below are some 100% crops – I’ll leave it at that. With all that fine detail, it is obvious that these files will print incredibly sharp, even above native resolution of the file.
For those unaware of it, this is the reason that most landscape photographers jumped from the Canon 5D2 to Nikon when the D800 series came out. I can push a RAW file from my D810 2-4 stops brighter without any serious loss of image quality. This is where that 16-Bit RAW capture of the Hasselblad really shows off. The 1st screenshot below is of a file exposed for the highlights in the frame, then pushed a massive 5 stops brighter in RAW. Obviously it’s better to capture a +5 shot, but as you can see, that would be perfectly usable. It does offer a bit more highlight recovery than the D810, but not a lot.
I focused on noise performance in the arena that matters to me – mostly 100, as well as longish exposures at 200 and 400 for blue hour shooting. At ISO100, noise is usually only found in monotonous areas like the sky, especially dark gray clouds. Again, the results are impressive – it renders monotonous gray areas (even very dark ones) smoother than a baby’s bottom.
How about if those gray tones get abused in editing? They stay unbelievably smooth. Here’s the same screenshot with +1.50 exposure and +50 contrast. The grain is unbelievably fine and smooth.
An important criterion for me was blue hour performance – some of the most spectacular light I’ve ever captured was long before sunrise or late after sunset.
Blue hour settings are usually in the region of f/8, ISO400, 60 seconds. Under such conditions my D810 produces an abundance of dead pixels and while the tones can often be quite smooth, such skies are never contrast friendly.
Again, the Hasselblad just leaves my jaw hanging. The below image was captured at f/8, ISO400, 51s and as you can see in the full res file (click to download), the sky is incredibly smooth. I applied +50 contrast in RAW to see how the file reacted and it’s amazing.
Just check the detail on the bark of those pine trees!
I could go on and on, but this isn’t supposed to be an analytical examination of the camera. I’m just trying to shed some light on what all the medium format fuss is about.
Obviously it isn’t all positive. This camera is designed for very specific uses, so many things that nature photographers consider important are foregone for image quality and convenient use in its intended environment.
Compared to the D810, it is slow, has a frustrating interface and is ridiculously bulky, but that’s all part of the price you pay for astounding image quality. It is also the reason why the world is so excited about Hasselblad’s X1D camera, which features this same sensor in a compact mirrorless body and costs a 3rd of the price.
Would it be a good camera for landscape photography? Obviously it would, but only photographers in really lucrative markets can afford it.
This camera is a workhorse for the world’s best photographers.
…and perhaps a toy for the super wealthy.