Review: Hasselblad X1D and the rough luxury of medium format digital
In an interesting change of focus (yuk yuk), Hasselblad is opening its high-end imaging tools up to a wider range of people than ever before. And it begins with the X1D, the world's smallest and most portable mirrorless medium format camera. A medium format for the masses, almost.
Let me state out front: I've never shot medium format before. This is the first Hasselblad I've ever laid my grubby paws on, and the most expensive camera I've ever used by a decent margin over Sony's a9. But as a semi-pro shooter with a half decent eye and a taste for good gear, I might be exactly the market Hasselblad is targeting with the X1D.
This should be an intimidating camera, given its Swedish pedigree, the size of its sensor (some 70 percent larger than a full frame) and the fact that it arrives at New Atlas HQ in its own, branded, pressure-stabilized Pelican hardcase.
But it's not. Not once you've got it insured, at least. While Hasselblads, and medium format cameras in general, have typically been great big hefty beasts, the company seems to be striking out on a new chapter, with the goal of making these things as accessible and friendly as possible. Thus, the X1D is tiny. It's the smallest medium format camera on the market, somehow squeezing its monster 50-megapixel sensor into a body smaller than a Canon 5D. Maybe even a 7D, for that matter.
This makes it the first Hasselblad you'd really want to take outside the studio. Or at least, the first in a long time – this company has been making cameras since 1941, and did make it far enough outside the studio to go to the moon, after all. But the X1D, for all its machined metal beauty, is proper "stick it on a strap and wear it around" portable, and that's a big deal.
It's also extremely simple – to a surprising degree. Controls and buttons are kept to a bare minimum, and they're not assignable, so you get what you're given and say thank you Mr. Hasselblad. The rear touch screen likewise shows basic information and offers little adjustment beyond brightness and whether you want overexposed bits of image to flash during playback.
Even the configuration menus run hilariously, refreshingly shallow for such a high-end piece of kit. I can't remember the last time I used a camera with so few options to fiddle with. In going mirrorless, Hasselblad has taken things almost to smartphone levels of simplicity.
I have thoroughly searched my feelings on this and I'm still not sure where I land. The simple control layout works very well, for the most part, it helps this camera look dead sexy and it focuses your mind on lighting and composition instead of menu options. On the other hand, there's a lot of stuff you just can't do, like set the thing for back button focus, or use a thumbstick to pick your focus point, or … now that I think of it, what am I always fiddling with on other cameras anyway?
The payoff for the lack of buttons and exhaustive menus is more than just simplicity and a focus on shooting. The X1D's milled aluminum body is an actively beautiful piece of metalwork that feels expensive, bomb-proof and special in your hand. Touches like the pop-out mode selection wheel and the neat way the battery pops in and out without a
"door" to speak of are cherries on the sundae of a sweet design that's almost commensurate with the price tag.
Shooting with the Hasselblad X1D
Let's start with the negatives here. A strange choice in the digital age, but we'll press on. The X1D is probably the most finicky camera I've shot in the post film era, and one of the hardest to nail a shot on outside ideal conditions.
In many ways, it's pretty much point and shoot. There's not an awful lot of things to fiddle with. You use your thumb on the rear touchscreen to select an autofocus point – of which there really aren't that many – set your exposure settings for whichever mode you're in using the front and rear dials, then look through the excellent EVF viewfinder – this is a mirrorless, after all – and it's half down on the shutter button to focus, full down to shoot.
That half press takes a bit too much effort for my liking, but that stiffness is reflected in how hard the lenses seem to work to achieve focus. It feels like teams of Clydesdales are pulling the elements around in the barrel of these X-series lenses. Focusing is slow and deliberate, and it's also absolutely crucial given the X1D's hefty 50-megapixel output and the thin depth of field.
Since there's not that many AF points to work with, you generally have to get focus, then compose and shoot. If your subject moves during this process, which might take half a second, you miss the shot. Thus, the X1D is profoundly frustrating to point at children, animals or other fast-moving objects. Taking it to a sports event would be the photographic equivalent of self-flagellation.
The maximum frame rate, too, is as slow as a wet week, hovering around 2 frames per second. But assuming either the camera or the subject are free to move, you're going to want to consider each exposure very carefully anyway. I can't imagine many situations in which I'd be burst-shooting on this thing.
While we're complaining, I might as well mention that I've never used a camera that seemed to accumulate so much dust on its sensor. Be very careful when changing lenses outside the confines of a vacuum-sealed airlock, because you're going to notice any speck that makes it in.
And that's because the images out of this camera, when you nail focus, are so spectacular that imperfections feel like daggers stabbing your eyes.
The X1D's exposure metering system is absolutely superb, and very reliable. Likewise the auto white balance, particularly when you've got people in your shot. And Hasselblad's Natural Color Solution software produces some of the most stunning skin tones I've ever seen.
Take this shot, done outside in an alley in natural light:
Now, take a closer look – or even better, download the full size image. Zoom in on the face and eyes. Go past 100 percent if you can.
You could legitimately send that to your doctor for diagnosis. It's wondrous, you can trace the lines in her eyeball veins. You can almost feel the texture of the skin, this camera lets you know your subjects intimately. It feels like some kind of violation looking at another person so closely. But here's the problem: get a few shots like that, and your definition of what's sharp, and a good shot, narrows to a knifepoint. Take a look at another, from the same shoot:
And again, take a look at the full size image.
So the back eye is nearly sharp, and the front one's soft. Just a hair soft, but I can see it. I'm not shooting wide open, either, this is at f/5.6. And the vast majority of my images from this shoot are off like this – infinitesimally, but enough to frustrate when you know what the camera can do when you nail it. And you do get the sense that if the autofocus was quicker, or you could zero in more precisely on a point and hit the trigger faster, you'd nail more.
The corollary to this, of course, is that since you're using leaf shutter lenses, with their expensive clicking sounds, you can close down the aperture and use high-speed flash sync up to 1/2000th of a second if you've got a lighting kit with you. But that sort of gear goes against the portability of this thing.
Get yourself a subject that's not moving, and you can simply prepare to be astounded. Shoot a carved piece of wood, or a fine piece of metalwork, and you can critique the craftsmanship far better through the lens of the X1D than through the naked eye. The detail and sense of three-dimensional space simply blow my tiny mind, aided by some of the truest color I've ever experienced and a huge dynamic range of nearly 15 EV that preserves detail and color in dark shadows and bright skies. The sensor is an absolute revelation.
Indeed, I found myself being far more conservative than usual in my post editing, just because it felt like just about any deviation from the original images was somehow making things worse. Perhaps that's because I was working in Lightroom rather than Hasselblad's own Phocus software, which the local team here tells me is better tuned to the brand's cameras, particularly in terms of noise handling.
I have to say though, I didn't mind the X1D's sensor noise – not that I shot much over ISO 3200. Such noise as there is shows up as a film-like grain that isn't unpleasant to look at. You can see for yourself. Our standard gallery doesn't really do these images justice, so we've linked to full-sized JPG renders to the sample images in the gallery, so you can download them and look at them full-size by clicking on the links in the image captions.
This camera, paired with my mediocre skills as a photographer, has delivered me some of the nicest and most detailed images I've ever created. Its capabilities are jaw-dropping. But despite its simplicity of design, you need to apply hard work and constant attention to get the most out of it. It encourages a very careful, considered style of shooting, but also puts you under pressure, because it narrows your definition of perfection and demands you create work that lives up to its standards. To be honest, I kinda like that pressure. It makes me feel like I'm at the beginning of a learning curve, and that's always an excellent place to be.
It's worth noting that all the difficulties we've pointed out here are in comparison to cameras with much smaller sensors. I have little doubt that the X1D is one of the most friendly and usable medium format cameras ever built, and it's that larger sensor size in and of itself that's the cause of most of our difficulties.
But what an exciting step for Hasselblad! A medium format for the masses! Well, for a select few of the masses, but the X1D will be accessible to far more people than the company's more expensive offerings, which go well into the kind of money that buys you very decent cars. Some might see it as the dilution of a brand that should neither be affordable nor accessible, but I see it as a marvelous chance for the rest of us to taste the fruits of this Swedish company's excellence.
And as long as we're getting sacreligious, how's this for an idea? A lot of what makes Hasselblad's gear so special is in its image processing software – the Natural Color processing algorithm, for one. That's part of the reason why the new DJI Mavic 2 Pro takes such astounding images, despite the fact that it uses a puny inch-size camera sensor and a lens that simply shouldn't be remarkable. So ... wouldn't it be nice to see a full frame Hasselblad, with quicker AF, that could compete on price and performance with the Sonys, Canons and Nikons of this world? Maybe even an APS-C? Maybe even something with a common lens mount that could accept the huge range of glass certain competing manufacturers have got out there on the market and in the camera bags of pros and enthusiasts already?
Hey, we can dream. For now, the X1D sits in a confusing spot at the top of my most desirable cameras list right next to the Sony a9. The Sony delivers a higher percentage of perfectly crisp keepers than any other axe I've pushed buttons on, but the sheer, visceral punch and quality of the X1D's images (when they hit) cannot be denied. For landscapes, studio shots and large format printing, it's worth the price of admission.
The X1D retails for a body-only price of US$8,995 in the USA, although you can find it a couple of thousand cheaper. In Australia, it's around AU$10,000. The lenses we used were on the pricey side as well: the XCD 45mm f/3.5 at US$2,695 (AU$4,356) and the XCD 90mm f/3.2 at US$3,195 (AU$5,445). You're doing well if you can afford this system as a hobbyist, but at this price point it's going to start making sense to a lot more professionals.
Now that I've sent it back to the importer, if you don't mind, I'm going to go and cry into the EVF of my video-centric Panasonic GH5, while you jump into the gallery and open up some of those full-size images to see just how good this thing is.
Product page: Hasselblad X1D