DSLR vrs a Medium Format Digital Back: Why I bought a Hasselblad

Hasselblad H3dII-31 w/ Hasselblad 150mm F/4 Lens and a Lee Wide Angle Bellow | © Allen Chu Hasselblad H3dII-31 w/ Hasselblad 150mm F/4 Lens and a Lee Wide Angle Bellow | © Allen Chu

I recently made the jump; the jump to digital medium format, and more precisely Hasselblad. I sold my Canon 5D Mark II and series of L lenses and am now the proud owner of a second hand Hasselblad H3DII-31 with roughly 7k actuations. Having spent personal time with the Hasselblad system now, I thought I’d do a small write up on why I made the full switch and ditched my DSLR.

Before I start I just want to preface the following by mentioning that I am mainly a portrait photographer who mainly shoots fashion and beauty. I rarely shoot in situations where I do not have access to strobes, whether on location or in studio. 99% of the time I shoot I am in a situation where I need not go over ISO 200. Also all the images are raw and were converted to sRGB and 72dpi so the colors and general quality will not be as true to the original form. Keep this in mind when reading the rest of this write up.

While technology becomes more and more advanced, older generations of products decrease in value. That’s just typically how the world works. Newer is better. It’s true, but it’s also relative. I’ve always struggled in truly believing I would need to make the switch to a digital back, but through years of shooting I’ve come to realize that the switch was inevitable. So rather than bore you with numbers and charts to show the difference of the DSLR vrs Medium Format Digital back on paper, i’m going to explain a few pro’s and con’s I’ve run into while making the switch and why the system works for me.

Pros

Details

1 The Nikon D800E is probably the best DSLR on the market right now when it comes to quality. It has a 36MP full frame and a great 14-bit Nikon sensor. The 16-bit 31MP digital back on my Hasselblad is still bigger. Why does this matter? More real estate means more room to capture light and color information. When it comes to taking portraits of people, I love all the texture and details it is able to pull. While the D800E and it’s lack of an AA filter make it the sharpest sensor on the DSLR block right now, it’s still a night and day difference between a digital back.

Why does this matter? For me, texture. I can’t even begin to explain how many times I’ve been frustrated trying to figure out how my favorite photographers were able to create such amazing skin textures. That one reason made me push myself as a retoucher to the point where I finally understood. It wasn’t me. It was the camera. I wanted more to work with and my 5D Mark II just wasn’t capable. Shooting with the Hasselblad now, I can shoot a looser frame and not be scared of not being able to get the details I want.

Color

2 Rather than just having blotches of red, skin tone is comprised of lots of different colors and tones. The digital back makes for a much more true and life like capture that is more flattering and easier to work on in post. The majority of my work these days is actually post processing and it still makes me cringe every time a client sends me an images shot on even a Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D800E. The colors are just so flat. With a bigger 16-bit sensor, the Hasselblad is able to pick up a much wider range of colors and tones and produces a more flattering quality.

Just look at the following examples. These are both lit with a beauty dish.

Motive Life H3d Allen Chu 04Shot with 5D Mark II + 100mm f/2.8 | © Allen Chu

Motive Life H3d Allen Chu 09Shot with Hasselblad H3DII-31 + 150MM | © Allen Chu

Flash Sync

3 This is one of the bigger reasons I decided to make the transition. While DSLR’s are limited to a flash sync of 1/200, the Hasselblad has lenses built with leaf shutters allowing it to sync up to 1/800. The Schneider lenses from Mamiya can run up to 1/1600. What does this mean? No need to over power the sun with a 3000W pack and kill your battery in 100 frames.

This allows for a much easier time to get that infamous balanced exposure look photographers such as Annie Leibovitz and Dave Lachappelle have become famous for. Balancing ambient light with strobes is insanely easy. It gives me a whole new facet to my photography.

Motive Life H3d Allen Chu 06Shot with a Hasselblad H2 w/ Phase One P45+ & Hasselblad 50-100MM | © Allen Chu

Build Quality

4 Hasselblad is built by the Swedes, and it’s built well. Everything feels solid and like how a real camera should. I remember the first time I held a 1D body and thought to myself, this is the way every camera should feel. Now I hold the rubberized grip on my Hasselblad and realize that boy was I naïve. There are qualms I have with the button layouts, but that’s just me being picky having been used to Canon’s layout for years.

Beyond the feel of the body is the infamous medium format view finder. If anybody has ever looked through a Hasselblad 500 series or Mamiya AFD series, you’ll know exactly what I mean. The viewfinder on my Hasselblad puts my 5D Mark II to shame, and I loved how bright that viewfinder was. It’s an amazing feeling being able to see everything crystal clearly. While I know my Hasselblad can handle some abuse, I also baby it because, well, it’s expensive. I’m really glad I have all my gear insured, and if you’re a professional photographer without insurance, do yourself a favor and sign up for some right away.

Presentation

5 There’s a certain stigma that is attached to the word Hasselblad. There’s an assumption that because you’re wielding such a precision instrument that you are a seasoned and talented professional. While I’m sure that’s not true, the digital back shooters I know all share a certain prideful quality about them. I’ve noticed my mentality towards my photography having changed since I bought my Hasselblad. I’ve become a lot more detail oriented towards all aspects of my photography. I’ve started to push my photography harder to achieve that aesthetic I’ve been chasing.

To me my Hasselblad was a bit of an achievement. It was a way of telling myself that I had reached a certain level that justified me becoming a Hasselblad shooter. It still hasn’t truly hit me that the camera sitting in my Pelican case is mine, and I still feel like a fan boy. Having rented Hasselblad for shoots, I never had time to truly appreciate the magnificence of how mind blowingly good the camera really is.

Beyond my own appreciation for the camera comes the impact it has on clientele. Since I shoot fashion and beauty, it’s almost a given that high-end photographers all shoot with Hasselblad; it’s just expected. With clients with smaller budgets, walking into a shoot with a Hasselblad makes them feel important. It justifies my day rate. With clients with bigger budgets, Hasselblad is expected and budgeted. And while they book me based on my reputation and portfolio, the word Hasselblad seems to do as much good as years of grinding and networking.

Motive Life H3d Allen Chu 07Beauty test shoot in studio with a Hasselblad H3DII-31 & Hasselblad 150mm tethered to Phocus on a 2010 Macbook Pro | © Allen Chu

Initial Cost

6 Yes you read that right. Digital backs are now more affordable than ever.. as long as you buy used. Prior to buying the Hasselblad, I was chatting with a friend of mine about how relatively affordable they are now. The Hasselblad H3D-39 on ebay runs on average of $7,000. This includes a body, the digital back, the 80mm f/2.8 lens, and a battery grip. For the price of a Canon 1DX body you can buy a Hasselblad system and be able to shoot medium format. Compared to the retail price of an H4D-40 that runs about $20,000, this is relatively inexpensive and you’re only missing a few features such as True Focus, better resolution screen, digital level, and etc. This also leads me to the first con.

 

Cons

Costs After Purchase

1 While the initial purchase of an H3D-39 may be less expensive, prices on everything else hasn’t dropped. If purchasing the body and back alone, you’ll have to buy the 80mm for $1,400+. I got lucky and bought one for $1,000. The Hasselblad 50-110mm will run you roughly $2,800 used. The Hasselblad 35mm will run you about $2,000 used. The issue is you’re never sure of the condition of the shutter, and since leaf shutters are built into the lens, if the shutter is bad you’re screwed. The battery grip for a Hasselblad , which I currently have 3 of, runs $250 each. I spent an extra $500 on top just for two extra batteries.

Hardware is also an issue. I’m also being forced to retire a 2010 Macbook Pro because it just can’t handle even tethering 31MP images that take up about 51MB per image. For now I have a 2011 iMac i5 to tether to which is stored in a $600 Tenba case I purchased to travel with. Everything just gets more expensive and buying used is really a luck of the draw. I’ve been lucky with second hand purchases so far but if I ran into any issues and had to send parts to Hasselblad for repairs, I doubt I could even handle the costs right now. I’ve heard that repairs have run into the thousands where it’s not even cost effective to fix.

Speed

2 This ain’t no DSLR. Focus is noticeably slower and if you’re trying to shoot anything action related, forget about it. This isn’t a huge issue for me as the most I have to deal with is a modeling jumping up and down or leaping forward. If I had to follow focus a car or athlete it’d be near impossible for me to do so. The 1 fps shooting rate also isn’t a huge plus for anything dynamic.

ISO

3 After ISO 200 noise starts becoming apparent, once again not an issue for me as I rarely go over ISO 200. On occasions when I do, I have a Fujifilm X-E1 that is superb up to about ISO 6400 where low light performance is acceptable. The X-E1 is also good enough for me to shoot in commercial and editorial situations where I don’t feel the need to have every single detail in the frame. The out of camera image aesthetic is as good as a 5D Mark II and was the reason why I felt okay moving away from DSLR.

Weight

4 A Hasselblad H setup is heavy. I regularly shoot with the 150MM and 50-110MM and the entire setup kills my arms. For beauty work I’m typically on a tripod or studio stand, but on location I like to move around and it gets exhausting. I know a lot of people will say that weight isn’t a huge issue, but my particular shoots tend to involve a lot of micro managing the rest of the team and physical fatigue on top of mental fatigue from dealing with a production can really wear you down, especially as a photographer dealing with models all day.

Most of my team will tell you that I’m physically exhausted after a full day of shooting, and that’s to be expected. I use to cover full day concerts and Formula D events. I’d have two bodies, one with a 70-200mm f/2.8L and a 16-35mm f/2.8L. Those days were exhausting and I could honestly say that my energy level is as drained on the set of a fashion shoot as I was running around trying to cover an event. At the very least the two Canon body with lens felt much lighter than a single Hassy setup.

Motive Life H3d Allen Chu 08Model viewing proofs over wifi via Phocus app on an iPad. | © Allen Chu

Phocus

5 Phocus is the proprietary software that’s downloadable for all Hasselblad owners. It’s basically Lightroom, but complete crap. It’s not intuitive to use at all, and does basically everything Lightroom does. The only benefit of using Phocus is the iOS app that allows you to wirelessly preview images on an iPad or iPhone live. That is literally the only redeeming factor I see while using Phocus. If it weren’t for the live previews via iOS, I’d be tethering via Lightroom. Phocus crashes, it’s slow, it’s a mess to deal with, and for such a good camera system it’s truly a shame that the software is so weak. If you have a choice, go Phase One or Leaf and use Capture One. It’s just better.

Motive Life H3d Allen Chu 03Phocus Software - It may look nice but it is far from useable | © Allen Chu

Compatibility

6 That leads me to another main point that I didn’t realize until I bought the Hasselblad. H3D and up do not accept backs from other manufacturers. You are limited to an H1 or H2 body if you decide to use a Leaf or Phase One back. While the Hasselblad H bodies are improving in features with the H4 and H5, it’s not really enough for me to truly want to stay with a Hasselblad back. If I had the funds to go with a Phase One DF body and Phase One IQ series back, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

Motive Life H3d Allen Chu 02Left: H2 with Phase One P45+ Digital Back vs Right: H3DII with 31MP Hasselblad Digital Back | © Allen Chu

Other Notes

Phase One recently release the IQ2 back that includes a number of mind blowing updates including on board WiFi for wireless preview, a hi-res 1.15MP touch screen display, USB3 tethering, and low noise long exposure options. My back has none of that, and while I would just rent Phase One on jobs with a large enough budget, the quality of digital backs just increases with each coming year.

Conclusion

I think any good photographer with aspirations of greatness, pushes him or herself to the limits. With digital cameras being so accessible these days, it’s easy to shoot. The hard part is shooting well. The reality is that most photographers will never be able to use the full potential of his or her camera.

Technology has just evolved to the point where even the most basic point and shoot is capable of shooting amazing images. As for myself, i’ve shot in almost every situation thinkable while searching for that niche of photography I wanted to settle in: club photography, drifting, sports, weddings, street, product, and fashion. The change from DSLR to Digital Back wasn’t a huge transition for me as I’ve shot with it regularly through the past few years while renting for productions. I’ve shot enough to know my particular needs for each job and since the main focus of my photography has mainly been static photography, the Hasselblad system suits those needs well.

I’m sure that this list has left a lot of things out, but the main thing to take away from this is that this was completely based on my own needs. As photographers and artists, we all use our tools the way we see fit, and we choose the tools that best fit our needs. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss how quick and easier to use DSLR’s are to use, but I don’t miss the lack of refinement in images.

For 99% of photographers out there, a DSLR will work beyond their needs. While I still don’t consider myself to be in the top 1% of photographers, I’m pushing to get there and the purchase of a Hasselblad has given me that much of an advantage to continue pursuing those goals. Hopefully some of this article was enlightening to you. Feel free to comment and leave any other questions you may have.

Allen Chu

Fashion photographer based in Los Angeles, CA

Website: www.theallenchu.com

9 comments

  • Ted
    Ted Tuesday, 05 March 2013 12:46 Comment Link

    I agree. However I went with a Phase One P25 on a Mamiya body.
    I'd love to have a leaf shutter lens though.

  • John
    John Tuesday, 05 March 2013 12:48 Comment Link

    Great writeup. I really appreciate your feedback. I agree that the image quality is incredible even at 100%. However, these things can just be such a pain in the butt to use.

  • Allen Chu
    Allen Chu Tuesday, 05 March 2013 12:56 Comment Link

    @Ted leaf shutter lens was a huge seller for me going MF. Honestly I think MF is pointless without it. The Schneider series Mamiya has is wonderful and although expensive, it's very much worth the price. The optics in older Mamiya lens aren't able to reproduce enough detail for digital back sensors so in a sense it'd be like putting a EF-S lens on a 5D Mark III.

  • Dan
    Dan Tuesday, 05 March 2013 13:19 Comment Link

    great words! i have always wondered what someone thinks about making the switch and im glad to have read your perspective

  • Bill
    Bill Wednesday, 20 March 2013 19:35 Comment Link

    I wasn't with my repair when I sent my Hasselblad 503CW to Hasselblad to be fixed.

  • John
    John Friday, 22 March 2013 23:41 Comment Link

    Great Post! Thanks for giving us all these information's! I'm a dslr user 5d ii with a profoto studio lights and almost ready to move into MF system.

  • Roger A. Zapata
    Roger A. Zapata Friday, 29 March 2013 06:30 Comment Link

    This is a well written and excellent article. I have been inspired by your honest appreciation of your own work and needs. Thanks,

  • Andrew
    Andrew Friday, 05 April 2013 05:58 Comment Link

    "There’s a certain stigma that is attached to the word Hasselblad"...is it a stigma or a certain mystique?

  • Marq Amaro
    Marq Amaro Thursday, 15 August 2013 11:31 Comment Link

    I'm late to this thread but, I am in agreement with your review Allen.

    I would say though that while leaf shutter lenses are a strong plus to these systems (for flash sync). I would still buy an MF system even with non-leaf lenses (I did in fact). The differences you mention in details, texture and color rendition are all still there, you just lose that sync speed. In terms of detail reproduction look at the JoeyL's portrait work (physically printed more impressive) and he shoot with a P65+ and 80mm (non-leaf) lens.

    I also think the added benefit is you also have a removable back that can be moved to more serious equipment like tech cams or large format when / if needed. Just my 2 cents to the discussion.

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