21st Century Ubercamera
or Dinosaur in Waiting?
At The Crossroads
Medium format is at a crossroads. The reason? Digital. Just as the digital juggernaut has swept away all but a mere handful of 35mm film cameras, so too in medium format. By May, 2006, as this is written, we had lost Bronica and Contax. Rollie, sadly, is a non-competitor outside of Europe. Pentax is a shadow of its former self, having withdrawn all of its medium format film products from Europe, and with an as-yet unreleased digital body not due before year's end. Mamiya has sold its photographic division to another company, while its digital ZD camera seems to have only found a home in Europe and Asia, with US availability in doubt.
That leaves Hasselblad. The H1, first released in late 2002, has now morphed into the H2. I was one of the first journalists to review the H1 four years ago, and was quite shocked at the price – about $6,000 for a camera with 80mm lens. Today, just three years later, Hasselblad has increased in price by nearly $2,000, and that's with a film back. Add a digital back and expect to pay another $20,000 – $30,000 on top of that. Film backs alone are now $2,000, a 100% price increase over last year.
Try the competition instead? There isn't any, with the exception of Mamiya's 645 AFD. (I used a previous generation Mamiya 645 for a while in the mid 1990's but have no experience with the current AFD model).
That's the game outline. Few people shoot film anymore. Medium format digital backs cost more than most people's cars, and Hasselblad H series film backs more than most people's entire 35mm cameras.
So, why are these products even in existence? The answer is because working pros and some well heeled amateurs need (or simply want) the image quality and features that these cameras can provide.
Hasselblad H2 with Phase One P45 back and 50-110mm HC lens
On a Personal Note
Before launching into a review of the H2, a few words of background for those that follow my equipment habits. I used a Contax 645 system for about 4 years during the early 2000's, first with film, and then a Kodak DCS Proback, followed by a Phase One P25 digital back. I was quite happy with the Contax and its Zeiss lenses. But then in mid-2005 Kyocera, the company that has made Contax equipment for the past 20 years, apparently abrogated its contract with Carl Zeiss, and the product line was dead. Of course this didn't render the Contax system unusable. But for someone like myself who is in part in the business of staying current with the latest gear so as to be able to write and teach about it, it did seem to have become something of a dead end, especially and eventually with regard to future digital backs.
Back in 2002 when I bought the Contax I looked long and hard at the then just introduced Hasselblad H1, and though I found it to be impressive overall I went with the Contax in large measure because of price. Contax simply was less expensive. Today the remaining less expensive alternative is Mamiya, but since I had some concerns about that company's long term prospects (which proved partially correct just a couple of months later) I decided to go with Hasselblad. I had purchased a Linhof 679cs system a while earlier along with a Phase One P45 back. Switching from a Phase One P25 to a P45, I was left with the freedom to choose whichever camera mount I wanted, because the Linhof would take any type through the use of an appropriate adaptor. I went with the P45 in Hasselblad H mount simply because I saw it as the only likely long-term survivor of the medium format breed. And since the Linhof only met some of my medium format needs, I bought an H2 as well.
Now, on with the review.
Hasselblad H2 with Phase One P45 and 50-110mm HC lens
With a complex modern camera a good manual as a total necessity. With the H2 there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that the manual is the best camera manual I have ever read. It is written in colloquial English, not some poor translation from another language. Even the best of translations seem somehow stilted, and often leave one wondering what is really meant. Not with the H2 manual. It is clear, detailed, well laid out, and comprehensive. There wasn't a single question that I had about the camera's features or operation that the manual doesn't clearly address within its more than 90 pages. That's the good news.
The bad news is that it comes on a disk in PDF format. There is no printed manual other than a small Quick-Start. I'm sorry, but when I pay $8,000+ for a camera I expect a printed manual. There's nothing wrong per-se with a PDF. It's convenient, and I like having a copy on my travel laptop. But it simply seems to me to be cheapness on the part of Hasselblad not to spent the $5 that it would cost to turn that PDF into a printed version. At least for a product in this price category.
And let's remember that not all photographers always travel with a laptop, or have a computer conveniently at hand when they have a question. Most photographers I know keep their camera manual in their equipment case's inside pocket. Unless you print out the 90 pages of the PDF manual on your desktop printer, producing a very fat wad of paper, carrying a printed manual with you isn't possible if you're an H1 or H2 owner. This is the kind of lapse of corporate judgment that makes one wonder what the executives at Hasselblad were thinking when they made this decision.
A History Lesson
As many readers will know, Hasselblad is (was) a Swedish company, founded in the late 1940's by Victor Hasselblad. For decades Hasselblad was the professional medium format camera, developing an almost legendary reputation, aided in no small measure by being used in the US space program and especially on the Apollo moon landings. Its lenses were from Carl Zeiss, which has a deserved reputation for sterling optics.
In 2002 Hasselblad introduced the H series of cameras. These were purportedly designed in large measure by Hasselblad's engineers, but are built in Japan by Fuji. The lenses for the H series are all designed and made by Fuji, but specified by Hasselblad. It's interesting to note as well that in Japan the H series cameras are sold as Fuji brand cameras, with no mention whatsoever of the name Hasselblad. (This applied as well to the excellent Hasselblad X-Pan, which was simply a rebranded Fuji product).
In mid-2004 Hasselblad and Imacon (the well regarded scanner and digital back maker) merged, and are now effectively one company. According to industry insiders, Imacon is in the drivers seat. Actual ownership of the conglomerate is by Shiro Group, a Hong Kong based company. So effectively what we have is a Japanese made camera, designed in part by Swedes, owned by Chinese, and run by Danes. Globalization anyone?
Hasselblad H2 with Phase One P45 and 50-110mm HC lens
H2 vs H1
The H1 and H2 are identical from the outside. This is a firmware version upgrade, not a physical one. But since firmware now defines cameras as much as levers and switches, it's worth noting the differences. (H1 cameras can be upgraded to H2 spec by authorized Hasselblad service centers).
The real advantages of the H2 over the H1 are its increased level of integration with Imacon Ixpress CFH backs. This means that these backs are now powered by a single battery (the camera's) if the Lithium Ion battery grip is used, and both can be turned on and off with the H2's On-Off switch. The camera is also capable of controlling various back oriented functions directly, but only if the back is an Imacon back. There is no increased functionality with third party backs such as those from Phase One or Leaf.
Herein lies a potential rub. With Imacon now in control of Hasselblad, how much cooperation will there be in future between them and other digital back makers such as Leaf and Phase One? (Phase One actually helped Hasselblad / Fuji design the back interface of the H1 – before Imacon came into the picture, so to speak).
To quote from the H2's manual..
"It is still a requirement for
third party product manufacturers to work under a Hasselblad license agreement
to get access to the Hasselblad patented hot-plug interface of the H System".
A curious statement to put in a user manual, don't you think? This says to me that there is the risk that Hasselblad / Imacon could move to a situation where they end up with either onerous licensing fees, or possibly a closed system that precludes others from making backs that can interface with the cameras in a manner competitive with that in which Imacon backs can. This is already seen in the ability of the latest Imacon backs to provide optical correction information to the back regarding the lens being used.
If Hasselblad becomes the last man standing; in other words if other medium format camera makers fall away, this could put the screws to back makers other than Imacon. Food for thought.
At the risk of making this report longer that it should be, bear with me for a brief anecdote.
A few years ago a friend of mine, an American scientist, trained a group from a major Japanese company on how to utilize a certain technology more appropriately. This would have allowed that company a significant commercial edge over its competition.
The following year my friend visited Japan and saw that the company that he had trained had indeed significantly improved its productivity as well as its profits. But, he was surprised to learn that they had also trained two of their major competitors in how to use this new methodology, and that they too were prospering as a consequence.
He asked the first company, the one that he had trained, why they had shared what they had learned with their competitors, effectively diluting their competitive edge. The answer was that it was actually a better business practice to engage their competitors with their new-found techniques, because in this way they knew what the other companies were doing, and how they were doing it, rather than forcing these competitors to develop some possibly even better approachs, and thus creating a sort of arms race in their industry. In other words, better to have a level playing field where all can prosper.
Build Quality : Fit and Finish
Over the past four years since introduction Hasselblad H cameras have developed a reputation for some finickyness. By this I mean that a large number of pros and dealers that I've spoken to say that they are in for repair somewhat more often than some other brands. This is simply anecdotal evidence. I didn't let it deter me, and you likely shouldn't either, but I've heard it enough to give it some credence. The problems seem to be not mechanical, but electronic. Firmware bugs, in other words.
The new H2 model is supposed to have addressed some of these issues, yet I encountered a lock-up that required a reboot (battery out, count to three, replace battery) within the first few days of use and then occasionally afterward as well. Also, as noted above, the level of integration with non-Hasselblad / Imacon backs leaves something to be desired. For example, a Phase One P series back, if turned off before the camera body, prevents the body from turning off for a time. And Phase One helped Hasselblad with its digital interface! ( Come on guys. Get together. You're just screwing customers and yourselves by not providing customers with fixes to these problems).
In terms of build quality the Contax was a much more beautifully built camera. The H series' exterior feels more plasticy. The Contax had a metallic solidity that made it seem from another era. This likely won't translate into anything other than an esthetic consideration, and plastic will always weigh less than metal, but at this price point I would have expected a high lever of materials to be used. I should point out that the H cameras have an aluminum body with a stainless steel chassis, so solidity isn't the issue, just a matter of feel and appearance.
From an ergonomic point of view the camera's designers (whether from Sweden or Japan) have done a mostly excellent job. This is a complicated camera (as will be seen) and presenting the range of features and controls available in a manner that makes usage straightforward is not an easy task. All contemporary camera makers face this challenge.
Screens and Buttons
The H1 / H2 has a large top mounted LCD screen, with optional backlight. Unlike most setting screens on DSLRs this is a bitmapped screen, and thus can display more than text and icons. This is seen the first time that you take a shot with a compatible digital back. The image's histogram is displayed on the grip's LCD, temporarily replacing the setting displays and menus.
These menus are set via a series of soft keys. There's no point in detailing them here as they are best understood with a simple hands-on session. But it should be said that through the use of softkeys (physical keys which execute different commands based on what's displayed on the LCD beneath them) the H2 allows for a lot of flexibility in a small space.
When shooting, as you might expect, all relevant information is displayed on the LCD as well as in the viewfinder.
Hasselblad H2 with Phase One P45 and 50-110mm HC lens
Customizability & Controls
Probably the most impressive aspect of the H1 / H2 design is its customizability. Almost every button on the camera can be assigned a user-determined function, and there are 36 Custom Functions available. There are also three User Profiles which can be programmed. This allows the user to configure a desired combination of exposure mode, metering mode, drive mode, and so on, and then save them under a chosen name. This combo can then be recalled at any time, with just the press of a single button. Very powerful and convenient.
Having User Profiles is not new. Some camera makers have had this for several years. Konica Minolta did it very well (RIP), while some, most notably Canon, haven't quite figured it out properly yet.
Setting it up is simple. Just configure the camera the way that you want it in terms of each of the control settings. Then, save this as one of the three available positions. These are accessed by giving the red Power button a short press. When you save a profile you are given the opportunity to name it, and an alphabetic selection screen appears. Text is entered in a manner similar to the way that street addresses are entered on a car's navigation system, one letter at a time. It's slow, but it works, and isn't something that one needs to do often. Having named profiles is very handy, and means that one doesn't have to remember that P3 means manual focus, Aperture priority exposure, mirror up, flash second curtain, etc, etc.
There are separate external controls for almost all major function, including depth of field preview, mirror lock up, AE lock, exposure mode, film wind-on (remember film?). There is also a button that falls almost right under ones thumb, marked User. This is a totally customizable button, and can take on a wide range of functions. For example, its most likely use is as a manual autofocus button. Set the camera to manual focus mode, then you can autofocus any shot by simply pressing this button. Or, you can have it do mirror lock up, or any one of a dozen different camera functions.
This is not the only customizable button on the camera though. Most of the other control buttons can be reprogrammed to perform functions other than their defaults. While this can potentially be confusing, it also means that photographers can customize the camera to operate just the way that they wish. For example, I rarely use DOF preview, preferring instead to use a program called DOFMaster on my Palm handheld. So what I've done is program the DOF preview button to recall the last file's histogram. This means that I can keep my Phase P45 back set to flashing highlights, review the histogram after the shot, and still come back to it at any time. Very convenient.
There is also a Standard program mode which can't have any alterations that are made to it saved. And, there is a simple way of restarting the camera, returning it to factory settings mode in the event that you really screw things up.
Lenses and Shutters
When the H1 was first introduced that was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the Hasselblad faithful. The move from Zeiss to Fuji lenses was the source of concern. The past few years has shown this not to have been an issue. Fuji makes some of the finest large format and scientific application lenses in the world, and Hasselblad claims to have specified the lenses for the H series cameras. I have almost never heard anyone complain about these lenses, especially pros who have been using them in demanding commercial applications.
It should be understood that the H cameras use leaf shutter lenses. That means that the shutters are in the lenses rather than in the camera. This is a good news, bad news situation. It tends to make the lenses more expensive than they would be if they were on a camera with a focal plane shutter. It also means that the lenses / camera are limited to a maximum shutter speed of 1/800 sec. This isn't an issue so much in terms of stopping action as it is running out of options when high speed film is used in bright light. (With a digital back this is less of an issue as one can always lower the ISO with a few button presses).
But the good news is that these shutters are almost vibrationless, unlike the large focal plane shutters that one finds in competitive (now mostly discontinued) cameras.
The really good news is that flash sync takes place at any speed, something that event and fashion photographers know is a real bonus.
Each of the H series lenses comes with an lens shade and pouch. An interesting design aspect of this is that the shades are spring loaded as well as reversible. This means that they attach with a pressure fit, making them more secure than with a simple bayonet. But the hoods when attached fit in the opposite way from their normal direction. Curious.
The Hasselblad's autofocus is typical of that found in medium format cameras. Single center point, very accurate, but slow by comparison with a DSLR. Focusing the lens manually always overrides the autofocus. I find the best approach to medium format autofocus is to put autofocus actuation on the User button.
Hasselblad H2 with Phase One P45 and 50-110mm HC lens
Viewfinder and Prism
The H2's viewfinder is big and bright. One of the best in the business. The field of view is 100%. The prism is removable, though after nearly four years on the market there's still nothing to replace it with. There are rumours though of a waist level finder becoming available at Photokina 2006. The viewfinder has a diopter adjustment of -4 to +2.5, which is a broad range, but if ones prescription falls outside this range there is no facility for diopter inserts. The viewfinder does have a very comfortable padded eyepiece, and is fully visible even with glasses on. All in all – first rate.
The prism also contains the system's metering capability. This can be set to Average, Centre Weighted and Spot, with the Spot area representing 2% of the image area.
Spot metering has more to offer than just reading a small center area of the frame. In a feature copied from the very sophisticated Hasselblad 205FCC, when Spot metering is set in one of the autoexposure modes, a press of the AE-L button will lock the exposure, and the LCD and viewfinder display will show Zone 5. As the camera is then pointed to other parts of the scene instead of showing exposure variation as it normally does, the display will show which Zone the read area will be at the exposure setting selected. This is very handy once one becomes familiar with the dynamic range of the film stock or digital back being used.
Uniquely, the H1 and H2 have a built-in pop-up flash. This is all the more remarkable because Japanese pros really look down on cameras with built-in flash as being very amateurish. Notwithstanding this attitude, the flash is very welcome, as it provides a nice fill flash capability, and is fully adjustable for fill ratio. It's low power, and really only usable with lenses longer than 80mm with shade removed, but nevertheless I'm pleased that it's there and find it useful.
This camera has a full-featured E-TTL flash capability. One needs a Metz / Hasselblad SCA 3902 adaptor and an appropriate Metz SCA 3202 model flash gun. The H2 also includes built in flash metering which can be used with studio or other manual flash unites. All in all a comprehensive pro-oriented flash capability.
Self Timer & Mirror Lock-Up
If anyone has doubts that the H1/H2 were designed by actual photographers, rather than engineers, (unlike a few cameras I could mention) a few minutes with the Self Time and Mirror Lock-Up controls will clinch the deal. These are to my eye, and way of working, the most sophisticated in the business.
For example, the Self Timer can be set for any number of seconds, from 2 to 60. In addition Mirror Lock up can be set to happen at the beginning of the cycle, or at the end. And, the system can be set so that the mirror stays locked up after each shot, or returns to normal. Furthermore a Custom Function can be set so that MLU / Self Timer acts once, or stays set that way until cancelled.
The observant will have noted the business about the mirror going up at the beginning of the self timer cycle, or at the end. Why would one want this, since the point is to get any mirror vibration out of the way before the shutter is released? The answer is that if one has a long self timer set along with autoexposure, and if the light were to change during the self timer sequence because the mirror was up, metering would be locked at that moment, rather than at the moment of exposure. Really clever and useful.
Finally, in addition to turning the Self Timer and MLU on and off via the Menu button and the LCD display, there is a dedicated MLU / Self Timer button on the front of the body. A single press raises the mirror while a second press release the shutter. Or, if this button is pressed twice within a half second the camera is set into Self Timer / MLU mode, bypassing the menu screens. Very handy, and thoughtfully designed.
The camera has a built in intervalometer. This allows one to set the camera for a series of exposures over a period of time. The settings possible are from 2 – 255 exposures, from once every second to once every 24 hours. The only feature not present is the ability to set an actual time of day at which to commence exposure. In the studio this would be very handy for turning on the espresso machine in the morning. (Just kidding).
As do most cameras these days, the H2 allows for exposure bracketing. The camera can be set for 2, 3 or 5 exposures, with a variation of 1/2, 1/3rd or full stop increments, and with the sequence of Standard, Over, Under, as well as every other combination.
Hasselblad takes several approaches to the question of exposure compensation. In Manual mode the front control wheel (under the index finger) controls Aperture while the real wheel (under the thumb) control shutter speed. In automatic exposure modes the front wheel shifts the combination of shutter speed and aperture, while the rear wheel introduces exposure compensation (which can be set to as fine at 1/3rd stop increments).Such exposure compensation though is only performed on a per-shot basis. In other words, the next shot will be back to auto-exposure with no compensation.
But, on the prism finder is an Exposure Compensation button which allows settings which are sticky. In other words compensation dialed in here remains set until cleared, even after a power-down. Thus we have the best of both worlds available – temporary or semi-permenant exposure compensation, and the latter can even be made part of a custom profile.
Of course the H1 / H2 aren't just able to work with digital backs, they can shoot roll film as well. There is a 120 / 220 auto-switchable back available. But, unbelievably, one of these backs now sells for $2,000 in the US, double what it sold for last year. It's enough to make one switch to digital. Or, for the same money, maybe buy a complete DSLR system with three lenses, which sells for a lot less. Strange times we're in.
But, even a dyed-in-the-wool digital photographer like me still has need for film from time to time, if only as a back-up in the field for protection against a failed digital back. Digital backs themselves are far too expensive for most people to be able to afford a backup.
I was loath to spend $2,000 for a film back, but e-Bay to the rescue. I found a mint H1 back for about $800. Still expensive, but a must as a back-up for my digital back, the Phase One P45.
The H2 can be powered with either 3 disposable CR123A batteries or by a Lithium Ion rechargeable. My experience is that battery life is very good with the rechargeable battery, producing about 1,000 exposures on a charge. The battery design is such that whether the replaceables or the rechargeables are used, the battery pack is part of the hand grip, and is locked in place with a simple lever. Thus batteries can be changed in seconds.
That's the good news. The bad news is that when the battery goes, a message appears on the grip's screen that the battery is low, and the camera then immediately dies. No warning, no second chance. So, keep a second battery grip (of either type) ready in your bag, because without it the camera becomes an instant paperweight.
Of Straps and Mounts
The H1/H2 features the usual tripod mounting screw sockets, but also the proprietary Hasselblad mounting system. This is a mixed blessing. Firstly it is not compatible with any other mounting system, making useless all of the great ballheads and quick release plates from Arca Swiss, Kirk, Really Right Stuff, Whimberly, Acratech and others. These can be used of course by simply attaching an appropriate plate to the camera's base.
But, here's the rub. There is a very nice accessory Hasselblad wrist strap available. It's almost a must if you're going to use this large and heavy camera hand-held. But while the top mounting point for the strap is on the grip, the bottom mounting point is on a plastic attachment that fits over the proprietary mounting shoe, and which covers the standard screw mount points.
So, if you attach the wrist strap to this you can't also use the Hasselblad mounting system, because this plastic cover needs to be removed. It also needs to be removed if you're going to attach any other type of quick mount plate. In the end, you can't use a tripod and the wrist strap at the same time. Imagine the fashion photographer who shoots in a tripod part of the time and then removes the camera for some hand-held work. Nope, can't do. At least not with the really desirable wrist strap attached. Bummer.
But, there is a solution, and it's from Really Right Stuff. If you attach the RRS L bracket made for the H1 / H2 it includes a mounting point for the wrist strap. With this you can have the best of both worlds – strap and an L bracket, which allows you to mount the camera either horizontally or vertically on any industry standard Arca-style head. This is therefore a must-have, at least as far as I'm concerned.
Hasselblad H2 with Phase One P45 and 50-110mm HC lens
Shopping for an H2
Depending on where in the world you are shopping, the Hasselblad H2 camera comes in different configurations. For example, the camera by itself only has a CR123 battery grip, no prism finder – no grip with Lithium Ion batteries and charger. No lens. In some markets the rechargeable grip and charger are included. In some markets the camera is also sold with prism finder and 80mm lens. If you're shopping online be very careful that you're comparing like with like. Also, before buying from an out-of-country vendor, be sure to enquire as to warranty coverage details.
Last Man Standing
Where does this all leave us, and is the H2 in fact a 21st Century Ubercamera or a Potential Dinosaur? A top-of-the-line camera it most certainly is, if only by price alone. But it is also one of the most sophisticated picture making machines yet available. I have now used almost every medium format camera made in the past 30 years, and I can state without hesitation that the H1 / H2 Hasselblads are the most advanced cameras yet, with features that are really meaningful for the pro or advanced amateur photographer. It's an unalloyed pleasure to use, and a highly productive tool.
But, the days of film are now mostly past. Both the present and the future belong to digital, and this means that the H cameras, as among the last of their breed, must support and interface with any and every medium format back on the market for both Hasselblad and other back makers to be successful. If Hasselblad / Imacon plays hardball with other back makers, freezing them out, or charging exorbitant licensing fees, and if Mamiya and Pentax fail with their 645 integrated digital cameras, Mamiya with the ZD, and Pentax with its yet to be released offering, Hasselblad may well end up being the last man standing.
No industry segment can long survive with just one entrant, even one as good as the H2 from Hasselblad. A healthy industry needs competition, and if that isn't allowed to thrive, even in a niche market like medium format digital, the game could well end up being lost for winning. Ubercamera or dinosaur. Time will tell.