The World's First Hands-On Review of
Hasselblad's Newest 645 Autofocus Camera
50 Years in the Making
Hasselblad is one of the most venerable names in photography. For more than 50 years it has designed and manufactured a series of 6X6cm (2 ¼ inches square) cameras that have essentially defined the format. From fashion photographers to astronauts, a Hasselblad camera has been a professional tool of the first caliber.
Why have Hasselblads developed such a firm foothold in the minds and camera bags of so many professionals? Certainly they are not without problems. Hasselblads break about as often as other cameras, given the use and abuse of many pros.
One reason has been marketing. Hasselblad, especially in the US market, has done an excellent job of positioning its products. How many other cameras have gone to the moon? Another reason has been the lenses. Zeiss optics have a reputation second to none, and those for the Hasselblad series of cameras are exemplary.
But as Dylan reminds us, the times they are a changing. With the exception of the Hasselblad XPan, which is designed and built by Fuji and marketed by Hasselblad everywhere in the world except Japan (more on this in a while), two things have defined Hasselblad and its products: the cameras are designed primarily for 2 ¼ square format and feature manual focus. While every other maker of 35mm and medium format cameras has embraced autofocus (even Contax), Hasselblad alone has resisted the siren call.
Hasselblad’s First 645
Even with the hefty HC 50-110mm f/3.5-f/4.5 zoom the H1 handles well.
This has now changed forever. At Photokina in September 2002 Hasselblad announced the H1, the first in a new series of medium format cameras. The H1 is unique in several important regards. The main ones are that it is Hasselblad’s first 645 format camera, and it features autofocus lenses. In addition it is in large part manufactured by Fuji and it features Fuji made lenses. All of these will be controversial to many of the faithful.
I was very intrigued when the H1 was announced. The 645 format autofocus market already has some strong contenders; Contax, Pentax and Mamiya being the other players. How would the H1 stack up?
At the PhotoPlus Expo show in New York, just a month after Photokina, Hasselblad held a press event to introduce the new camera system to photographic journalists. This would be the first opportunity that anyone has had to work with this new camera. I was asked to report on this by photo.net, and since I was already going to be in New York for the show I enthusiastically accepted the invitation.
The Press Event
The venue for the event was the New York Botanical Gardens. About a dozen photographic industry journalists were invited and participated in one of two sessions that day. Attending as well were a large number of Hasselblad’s senior executives from both Sweden and the U.S., and several engineers and designers from the factory.
Other than the formal and social aspects of the event — about which I’ll only say that Hasselblad is a class-act — there was a brief introduction and overview, followed by a one-on-one half hour session with a factory representative, during which I was given an introduction to the camera’s controls, film loading etc. Since there were no manuals available, and time was short, this was an excellent opportunity to become familiar with operational issues and to ask a few questions.
We were then turned loose inside and outside the gardens (the inside part was welcome because it was a blustery N.Y. Fall day). Several attractive models were provided. A Fuji rep was also on hand and everyone was given as much film of whatever type was desired.
The following are my impressions of the Hasselblad H1, based on about 2 hours of concentrated shooting and examination. There was an assortment of lenses available. I worked mainly with the HC 50-110mm f/3.5 – f.4.5 zoom, though for a while I also used the standard HC 80mm f/2.8. I shot with Fuji Provia 100F, Provia 400F and Astia.
When you first pick up the H1, your first impression is that the handling is going to be great, and two hours of almost constant use showed this to be true. The ergonomics are first-rate. The design is in the current idiom, with a right-handed grip on which is the majority of the controls as well as a large monochrome LCD display.
When I first brought the camera up to my eye I was immediately taken with how bright and clear the viewfinder is. Up until now my gold standard for camera viewfinders has been the current Pentax 645 NII. I didn’t have one available for a side-by-side comparison, but my impression is that the H1’s viewfinder is at least as large and bright as the Pentax, and certainly among the best that I’ve ever used.
I’ll have more to say about various aspects of handling in a while, but let’s look at some of the camera’s more interesting features and capabilities.
Since the camera is a hand tool, along with its ergonomics (how its various function fall to hand and are used) the actual “feel” of a camera is critical. For a working professional a camera will be in his or her hands for many hours a day, day in and day out.
While the H1’s body has an aluminum core with stainless steel housing, the external surface has some sort of plastic coating. This will be a bit of a shift for anyone used to the traditional metal and textured leatherette finish of traditional Hasselblads. But, it makes the camera very comfortable to hold. It won’t become as hot in the summer or as cold in the winter. Let’s face it: as much as traditionalists enjoy the beautiful machined finish of camera designs from the 1960’s, plastic camera body finishes are what we get today, saving both weight and manufacturing costs.
With the H1 as Hasselblad’s first autofocus camera, users are bound to wonder what compromises, if any, have had to be made over the “feel” of traditional manual focus lenses. I’m pleased to say — very few. Incidentally, with the exception of Leica (which will probably get around to it in 2023), Hasselblad is the last major camera manufacturer to make the move to autofocus.
The autofocus works well, and quickly. I was told that it can track from closest focusing distance to infinity in 400 milliseconds. The single large focus point is at center screen, but as with most autofocus cameras a light press on the shutter release will hold focus while the frame is recomposed. Focusing in low light appears to be good, with little hunting, and while the number of sensors and absolute focus speed are not on a par with the top 35mm cameras, it’s as good if not better than any other medium format camera that I’ve used. The lenses have a very large rubber-textured focusing ring, and manual focusing always overrides autofocus. Manual focus feel is excellent, with none of the “looseness” that is found in some other similar lens systems.
Speaking of lenses, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The H1’s new HC series lenses, while specified by Hasselblad, are designed and built by Fuji. While this is no bad thing (Fuji’s medium and large format lenses carry truly excellent reputations), there are some who will bemoan the departure of Zeiss glass -- a hallmark of Hasselblad cameras since the 1950’s. My response to anyone that expresses such concerns is “Get over it!” Based on both reputation and the results from my initial tests, H1 users will find this lens family to be absolutely first rate.
At launch, in late November, 2002, there are four lenses in the line up:
HC 35mm f/3.5
HC 80mm f/2.8
HC 50-110mm f/3.5-f/4.5 zoom
And a 1.7X extender
In mid-2003 there will be three more lenses added:
HC 50mm f/3.5
HC 120mm f/4
HC 210mm f/4
This is a quite comprehensive line-up. Even the initial four lenses will likely satisfy most users, especially those in the wedding / portrait / commercial photography world that Hasselblad expects to make up the majority of purchasers. The next three lenses nicely round out the line. The only hole that I see is at the long end. I would have expected a 300mm, or a 400mm. I for one would find the absence of such a lens to be a serious impediment, since I use long lenses extensively for environmental wildlife and some landscape work.
There is a partial solution on the way, and this will also make owners of current Hasselblad lens systems happy. There will be an adapter made available that allows earlier Hasselblad “V” system lenses to be mounted on H1 bodies. Exactly which features will and won’t work is currently uncertain. The company is still designing this device, and one factory engineer confided that it was not going to be an easy task. Imagine what must be involved in taking purely mechanical (and some hybrid) lenses and allowing them to work on a totally electronic lens mount body. Apparently Hasselblad hopes to have this adapter available by mid-2003. I was told that we can expect the camera to provide focus confirmation with all earlier lenses.
This frame was taken with the 80mm f/2.8 lens. The scan represents about 50% of the full frame. Film used was Provia 400F.
Backs are of course removable. Instead of a removable dark slide (I have either lost or sat on dozens of Hasselblad dark slides over the years), the H1’s backs feature a fold-out lever that opens and closes an internal dark slide for back removal. It takes 3 full turns of this lever and I found this to be somewhat slow in operation. I much prefer the rapid-acting laminar dark slide of the Rollei 6008.
Film inserts may be inserted and removed while the back is on the camera. Unlike with previous generation film inserts, there is no need to match inserts and backs. Any insert will work with any back. Also, and this is quite elegantly designed, the backs and inserts can accept both 120 and 220 film without any need for the user to set or indicate which is being loaded. The back senses the type of film being used and automatically changes the pressure plate position. Very neat. To my knowledge not only is this is a world first, but also a real boon to busy photographers who work with both film types.
Each back has a small LCD screen that allows you to set the film’s ISO. There is also automatic ISO sensing if you use Fuji encoded film, not surprising given the involvement of Fuji in this project. There is more than a passing resemblance in this regard to the windows found on the Fuji GX680iii film backs.
When film is loaded there is no need to line up arrows on the paper backing with a mark on the insert. Simply attach the paper leader to the take up spool and place the insert in the back. Film advance to frame one is automatic, as is film wind at the end of the roll. There is a recessed quick wind-off button on the camera body for emptying a back before the roll is finished.
This brings me to two of the only quibbles that I have with the H1’s design. The first is that the backs don’t have a manual film wind knob. This means that if a back has a partially completed roll and you want to remove it, you need to attach it to an H1 body and either fire off the remaining frames or press the “rewind” button. Not a show-stopper, but I can see times when this will be annoying or problematic -- such as when driving to the lab with a rush job.
The second concern that I have is that there is no interlock to prevent removing a film insert while film is loaded. Of course you can tell if it’s loaded by checking either the camera’s main LCD screen or the back’s smaller one, but I can imagine situations where this could happen. Earlier Hasselblads had a small crescent-shaped window that indicated by showing red whether film was loaded or not, but other manufacturers (Rollei for example) have designs that prevent such accidents, and I’m surprised that Hasselblad hasn’t addressed this in their new design.
In addition to 120 and 220 film the H1 can take both instant film (Polaroid & Fuji) and digital backs. I didn’t bother testing the Polaroid back since I normally don’t use one, but other journalists did, and from what I saw operation was straightforward.
What did interest me though was the use of the H1 with digital backs. In a conversation with one of the Hasselblad engineers (and as is clear from the camera’s product literature), Hasselblad saw as vital the need for the H1 to have comprehensive integration with digital backs.. As the industry makes its inexorable transition to digital this makes the H1 the first medium format camera of the 21st century.
Yes, digital backs can be placed on some earlier Hasselblads. But it’s a klugey solution at best. The H1, on the other hand, was designed from the start to have a comprehensive digital back interface. There will be two digital backs available as the H1 starts to ship; the 16MP Kodak DCS pro back and an 11MP Phase One back.
Unfortunately neither back was available at the press briefing, but to give you an idea of the level of integration that is possible, as soon as a shot is taken, a histogram is displayed on the camera grip’s monochrome LCD. Not the back’s LCD — the camera’s. Clearly, the communication bus between the back and the camera can convey a broad range of information, and consequently we can expect that the H1 will offer a level of handling integration when using digital backs that approaches that of all-in-one 35mm digital SLRs.
One thing that disappointed me was that as I walked around the PhotoPlus Expo trade show floor the day after the press preview I went to various digital back manufacturers and asked them about their plans for the H1. The story I heard was the same — that Hasselblad is choosing to only work with certain back manufacturers and that the H1’s databus specification is not being made generally available. In my opinion this is a mistake on Hasselblad’s part, and will hinder the growth of this otherwise exemplary camera. Closed systems benefit no one. Open systems engender broad acceptance. Enough said.
Menus — We’ve got Menus
After the first few moments of holding an H1, feeling its handling and heft and looking through the viewfinder, the top panel of the camera’s right-hand grip catches your attention. It contains a large illuminated LCD panel, six button and two control wheels; one wheel next to the shutter release, where it can be controlled with your index finger, and the second on the back of the grip where it falls under your thumb. This combination of controls provides the photographer with comprehensive and easy to access control of virtually all of the camera’s features.
I won’t bore you with a recitation of what all the buttons and wheels do. What I will say is that I found the user interface of the menu design to be quick and intuitive. There are three buttons on the top panel control for Flash, Auto Focus and Drive modes which allow you to change these settings quickly But I particularly like the fact that when you enter “Menu” mode (by pressing the menu button of course), these three buttons become “soft keys”, changing their function depending on the functions being changed. It sounds complicated, but in reality it speeds up adjustments and minimizes the number of buttons needed.
Though I didn’t have time to explore them fully, the H1 allows the setting of a number of “profiles” which let the photographer customize the camera in various ways to their style of shooting.
Photographed with the HC 50-110mm f/3.5-f/4.5 zoom at approximately 55mm. Film used was Provia 400F.
Like other recent 645 cameras, the H1 permits data imprinting on the film margins. This shows the usual information such as shutter speed, F stop, time / date and even the photographer’s name!
The battery compartment takes a small insert, which holds 3 CR-123 lithium batteries. There is an optional holder available that will take 8 AAA rechargeable NiMh batteries. At this point it’s too early to tell what battery life will be like, though Hasselblad claims 2,000 shutter releases on a set of batteries. Where autofocus and film advance fit into this equation remains to be seen.
The H1 uses a totally new electronic shutter of Hasselblad’s own design. These are leaf shutters in each lens and offer timing from an impressive 1/800 seconds down to 18 hours! Flash sync is available at all speeds.
Surprisingly the camera has a built-in pop-up flash located in the meter prism. It has a Guide Number of 12. Just the thing for creating a catch light in the subject’s eye or filling in the shadows on close-ups! The meter prism also has a hot shoe and can take Metz SCA 3002 system flashes using the new SCA 3902 adapter. Of course there’s a PC socket as well for attaching studio flash units.
Of course there’s motorized film advance, at 2 FPS. Not quite in 35mm SLR territory, but just fine for fashion and wedding work.
The camera has a built-in intervalometer, which lets you set the number of frames shot from 2 to 32, and at intervals from 1 second to 24 hours. There is also auto bracketing available with 2, 3 or 5 exposures in ½, 1/3rd , or full stop increments
The H1 body is of moderate weight at 800 grams. Add a film back, meter prism, film, batteries and the 80mm lens and you end up with a total weight in hand of just over 2 kilograms.
So Who Makes The H1?
A lot has been made by some people about the fact that H1 is the result of a joint venture between Hasselblad and Fuji. I asked one of the Hasselblad reps about the details of this partnership. Hasselblad conceived the H1 camera system and lenses and was responsible for their design, including the specification of the lenses. The unique new shutters that are in the lenses, and the camera body itself are also built by Hasselblad in Sweden, while the lenses, meter prism and film backs are built by Fuji.
The project began in 1997, and was committed by 1999, with a projected late 2002 launch date. The entire project has cost Hasselblad approximately $35 million, which must represent a major component of the company’s anticipated sales and revenues.
In this era of the globalization, an arrangement where a company designs a product and then finds the best engineering and manufacturing resources, regardless of where in the world they may be located, makes perfect sense. Many companies market products that have components made in one country, designed in a second, and assembled in a third. So why not Hasselblad? As long as the design (the gestalt) of the camera remains true to form, I see no harm, and in fact there are many potential benefits from bringing more fertile minds to bear than can be found in one company. My brief time with the H1 shows it to have the full Hasselblad DNA and to be a worthy member of the Hasselblad family.
The price of the H1 has been announced at about U.S. $6,000 with 80mm lens, one film back and metering prism. Add a digital Kodak DCS Pro back and the tab comes to about $18,000. Second mortgage anyone?
I have no doubt, though, that Hasselblad will sell as many as it can make, and that professional photographers around the world will embrace the H1. Just as they did with the 500C almost a half-century ago, many professional photographers will regard the H1 as a standard tool for the industry.
This review was originally written for photo.net and first appeared there in early November, 2002