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Hasselblad H5D-60 Review

The Camera and the Company

By Michael Reichmann

A Bit of History

There's no way that I can review the Hasselblad H5D-60 without discussing my personal history with Hasselbad the company and the medium format industry in general. If this isn't of interest to you, and all you care about is pixels and features, you can skip to here.

I suppose the place to start is with a Canadian company called Rutherford Photo. In the 70's and 80's this was the largest photo equipment importer and retailer in Canada. They ran a professional retail store in Toronto under the same name, and a very large consumer retail store called Toronto Camera. Neither exists any longer. But, at the time they were dominant.

For several years I was the Manager of Rutherford's Pro retail store, and then Canadian Product Manager for several of their product lines, including Sinar, JVC and Hasselblad. I personally owned a Hasselblad 500C and subsequently a Hasselblad EL. Both were part of what the company now calls the original V series. These were my legacy systems from the days prior to Rutherfords when I worked as a photojournalist and freelancer to the Canadian magazine and movie industry.

Then, years later, in 2002 Hasselblad announced a new medium format camera series, designed and manufactured in part in cooperation with Fujifilm – the H series. I was invited to the North American product launch in New York, and published my review of the Hasselblad H1 camera on these pages in November of that year. The Luminous Landscape was three years old at the time.

Hasselblad didn't make a digital back at the time due to their management's belief that film would remain dominant – and yes – I was told this directly by at least two senior Hasselblad management types at the H1 launch event. But the company hedged their bets, and it is known in the industry that they partnered with Phase One to assist them with the design of their digital back interface.

Initially there were two third-party digital backs available for the H1; the 16MP Kodak DCS Pro back and the 16 Megapixel Phase One. Of the two, the DCS Pro Back was the only one that could work unteathered. At the time I owned a Contax 645 system, and had bought a Kodak DCS Pro Back back for use with it.

But in 2004 Kodak decided to exit the digital camera business. Phase One had delivered their first untethered back, the P25, and I upgraded from the Kodak to the Phase for use with my Contax, and have been a Phase One back user ever since.

Then in 2005 Kyocera decided to kill the Contax line – another sad chapter in the history of Medium Format. This lead me in 2006 to purchase the then new Hasselblad H2. I swapped my Phase back from C mount to H mount, and over time I upgraded to a P45, a couple of years later a P65, and ultimately an IQ180

Corn Husks and Tree. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico November, 2013

Hasselblad H5D-60 with HC100 lens @ ISO 200

I had been happy with my Hasselblad H2 (though I must admit that the Contax 645 was my all-time favourite medium format camera system). But then at Photokina in September 2006 Hasselblad announced the H3D. Most importantly, their then CEO, Christian Poulson, announced that the H3D would no longer accept backs from other manufacturers. Only Hasselblad backs would work. These backs were in essence evolved from Imacon backs which Hasselblad acquired when the companies merged in 2004 under their then parent, the Shriro GroupNow the plot thickens.

I was at the 2006 Photokina and attended the press conference where Poulson announced the closing of the H system to other backs. There was some nonsense spouted at the time about how this was necessary to ensure maximal integration between the body and the back. But, the truth of the matter, at least as I saw it, and how it was perceived by many people in the industry, was that most H series cameras were being sold by dealers along with Phase One backs. The largest margins are, of course, in the backs, not the cameras and lenses. Hasselblad senior management at the time clearly thought that by closing the system they would force photographers to buy their cameras, lenses and their backs.

Phase One had at that point pretty much established themselves as the leading MF back maker, a position which they retain to this day. Hasselblad didn't have a medium format back when the H series cameras came out, and didn't until the merger with Imacon, which is where Christian Poulson had come from. He was an ex-Phase One employee who left to found Imacon, which made some of the world's best film scanners and then a line of medium format backs.

Here's the part that most people don't know. Because Hasselblad had no digital experience at the time that the H camera was being designed, they turned to Phase One, and Phase One helped design the digital back interface for the Hasselblad H camera. When Hasselblad closed the H3D to third party backs, to say that they annoyed a great many photographers would be an understatement. I personally was furious, and said so publically, which made me something of a persona non grata at Hasselblad – which is one of the reasons why for a number of years I haven't written about the company or their products. No one at Hasselblad wanted to talk to me, let alone lend me cameras and backs for testing.

Indeed I believe that this period was the beginning of a decline in Hasselblad's fortunes. Phase One subsequently became even more dominant in the back business, and acquired Mamiya (of necessity, because they needed a captive camera platform when Hasselblad froze them out). They subsequently brought out their own DF cameras based on Mamiya designs, and then, along with Schnieder, a line of excellent leaf shutter lenses. The moral of the business story here is – be careful what you wish for. Squeezing a company where they live can turn them from a friendly competitor into a stronger competitor.

Back to my personal story. Once I found that I could no longer upgrade my Phase backs and use them on Hasselblad H bodies I was faced with a quandry. I liked the H body, but preferred Phase backs. Also, Phase had me in an upgrade cycle, where a switch to a Hasselblad back would have cost me a great deal more than a Phase upgrade. So, with regret, I sold my H2 and bought a Phase One camera system. This is the MF system that I have been using ever since.

On the Hasselblad front, over the past few years Shirro sold the company, Christian Poulsen left Hasselblad, and his successor as CEO, Larry Hansen, recently departed as well. The company is now owned and run by a private venture equity group named Ventizz

Mountain Village. Sierra Gorda, Mexico. November, 2013

Hasselblad H5D-60 with HC50 lens @ ISO 200

Testing The H5D-60

In early November, 2013 I received a call from Hasselblad. Would I be interested in reviewing their new H5D-60? Of course I would! It has been far too long since I'd used a current model Hasselblad system, and I was very curious. I also was pleased to be able, after more than a few years, to write about one of the great camera systems in its latest incarnation.

Just a couple of days before my departure to Mexico, where I spend winters at my home in San Miguel de Allende, the camera and a couple of lenses arrived, and was mine to use until my return to Toronto in late March, which would be more than enough time to really put it through its paces.

Use with a Technical or View Camera

Though the H5D-60 appears to be an all in one camera, and mostly acts like one, the back is removable and can be used on a technical cameras. It can either be powered by Firewire from a computer or through the use of a Battery Adapter Item No. 3053310, which uses a Sony NP-F type battery. An H series plate is needed for the camera, of course, and also a syncronization cable to attach to the PC flash sync connector on the lens. This is a bit more cumbersome than using a Phase One or Leaf back, which have their batteries built in, but not a big deal one way or the other. 

The Hasselblad H4X

Though this review is about the H5D and the 60 Megapixel back, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the H4X. This camera model allows the attachment and interface of non-Hasselblad backs, such as ones from Phase One or Leaf. Be aware though that this camera can only be purchased if you trade-in an earlier model H series camera body. It can not be bought without a trade-in.

This body became available in 2012 subsequent to legal proceedings that took place related to the closing of the H system to third party backs. A coincidence? Maybe. That's all I'll write here, because I am not privy to the details of either the suit or the settlement. One can draw ones own conclusions though just from the camera's existence.

Which brings us to the camera itself. Unless the price is discussed up-front, there's little point in discussing the camera except in the abstract, so let's put the financial cards on the table.


The Price and The Decision

The H5D-60 sells in the US for about $40,000. This is no small change. For this amount of money you can buy a nicely equipped BMW 3 series sedan. But then a Phase One 645DF+ with IQ260 back is almost exactly the same price, so potential buyers need to accept that this is the price of admission to join a rarified club.

With full-frame 35mm cameras such as the 36 Megapixel Nikon D800/e and the new Sony A7r costing between USD $2,300 and $3,000, potential buyers need to ask themselves whether spending 10X to 14X as much for a medium format camera and back like the Hasselblad H5D-60 makes financial sense

Notice that I've italicised financial sense, because it's a completely different concern than whether the camera offers business or technical advantages. If you're the kind of person who is considering buying a new Porsche 911 (a mid-range model is about $100,000) no one will likely ask you if it makes financial sense. That's something that only you and your bank manager can answer. Chances are, if you can afford one, price is one of the lesser considerations on your new car check list. The same will be the case with a medium format digital camera and back, such as the H5D-60. The more germaine questions are, if you're a pro – does it make business sense, and otherwise will it offer a sufficient technical advantage over other less expensive alternative?

For the Pro, particularly in fashion, advertising, commercial and architecture, you almost certainly don't need my advice. You know what your client's needs are and what the competitive landscape looks like in your city and industry. My guess is that you already know the answer, and likely already have an MF system. Now it's just a matter of deciding if its time for an upgrade.

For the advanced amateur there are other decisions. Those in this broad grouping range from wealthy duffers, who believe that a great camera will help them take better photographs, to serious artists who exhibit and have their work regularly published. With the cost issue aside for the moment, my advice for the wealthy newcomer to photography is – save your money. The incremental advantages of a high-end medium format system such as this are far outweighed by their disadvantages, as well as your likely inability to take advantage of what is possible with one.

For the advanced amateur or artists for whom the financial hurdle is not insurmountable, then a top MF digital system will not only be a pleasure to use, but also become a tool that is capable of bringing your talents to their full expression. 


In Hand

There's no denying that the H5D is a handsome camera. Even now, some dozen years after it was first introduced it doesn't fail to impress with its stainless steel and aluminum body.

The design is clearly European rather than Japanese, if that makes any sense to you. By this I mean that the basic handling and controls are highly ergonomic, and yet there is a strong sense of aesthetic consideration in every line and curve of the camera's body. In other words, there is a stylishness to the the H camera that is not often seen in cameras from the Far East. Hasselblad has also bucked the black and chrome look of almost every other camera by adopting a beige and charcoal colour scheme that manages not to appear self conscious, yet at the same time expresses a unique design aesthetic. And since for some purchasers an H Hasselblad will be an ego purchase as well as a practical one there is no denying that Hasselblad understands this and caters to it. The red and stainless models that the company has produced from time to time attest to the camera's collector status as well as its role as a professional imaging making tool.

The H5D body, like that of its predecessors, is completely modular. This means that not just the back and lens are interchangeable, but also the reflex prism viewfinder. The viewing screen is also user changeable. This degree of modularity allows the camera to be conformed to a range of tasks, from eye-level hand-held use, to studio, to copy stand, to adapting the back for use on a technical camera. This is the type of versatility that the working Pro both appreciates and needs.

Girl on The Wall. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2013

Hasselblad H5D-60 with HC100 lens @ ISO 200

The Body

The new H5D body is a straightforward evolution of the original H1. There have been numerous enhancements along the way, but as someone who owned an H2 some years ago, it took me only a few minutes to familiarize myself with the camera. 

Because the basic design is now more than a decade old there's little point in my summarizing all of the buttons and knobs. These are likely not new to most pros and serious amateurs. Briefly though, when you pick up the H5D the grip fits most hands very well, with the shutter release and a front control wheel lies comfortably under ones forefinger. A reach around the front of the camera with ones second finger finds a mirror lock-up and DOF preview button. The grip itself incorporates a large interchangeable Lithium Ion battery.

There is a deep thumb rest, and to the right of it a second control wheel. To the left of the thumb rest indent are numerous controls easily depressed by ones thumb; for focus lock, exposure mode and exposure compensation. 

In other words, just about every necessary control is available to the fingers of ones right hand as it grips the camera. Excellent design, and though now some 12 years old, one of the most ergonomic designs ever.

On the top of the grip area is a large LCD and six buttons. These provide access to all of the camera's menu settings as well as displaying all of the current shooting data. After a shot is taken this LCD also instantly displays a histogram of the recorded image. This serves as an illustration of the level of integration between the camera body and the attached Hasselblad digital back. The power switch turns both the camera and back on and off at the same time, and the camera's battery powers both. To all intents and purposes the user can regard them as a single unit.

The camera sports a built-in flash located at the top of the prism housing, an accessory hot shoe, and a PC flash socket. The built-in flash may seem a bit of an anomoly on a pro-level camera such as this, but it can be handy as a fill flash and also as a wireless studio flash trigger.

The viewfinder, as with all medium format cameras, is a joy. The image is large and bright, and the rubber eyecup provides excellent shielding. There is, of course, a diopter adjustment. And due to its removable prism – the last on any medium format camera of which I am aware – a waist level finder can be substituted.

The right-hand side has a CF card slot and the left a Firewire port for tethered shooting.

The camera comes with Hasselblad's Phocus software, but also with the latest version of Lightroom. Adobe has created lens profiles for most, if not all Hasselblad lenses. And speaking of profiles, if you want to create custom camera profiles these are done using Phocus, so even if you use Lightroom, as I do, you'll still need to use Phocus for this task. This is also true of working tethered in the studio, where Phocus is the control software.

Be aware though that the H5D-60 with any lens, let alone the larger ones, is a handful. Though handling is pleasant, the weight – not so much so. Since this is true for all MF DSLR cameras, this isn't a knock against Hasselblad as much as it is a recognition that there is more than a simple mathematical relationship between sensor size, weight and bulk. It's more like geometric.

Lenses

I won't be discussing Hasselblad's lens line, which is comprised of nine leaf shutter lenses with focal lengths from 24mm to 300mm, all with leaf shutters. For the most part they are superb. But be aware that they, like almost all medium format lenses, are large and heavy compared to their 135mm format equivalents. They are also typically one to two stops slower. Needless to say, they are also quite expensive.


The Back

The H5D is available with several different Hasselblad backs. The one that I was loaned for testing is the top-of-line 60 Megapixel model, though mechanically they are all quite similar.

I like the fact that the camera body and the back are highly integrated. Quite a few image control functions may be executed either via the camera's controls, or the back's. But frankly, I'm not a fan of the back's controls. Unlike its primary competitor, Phase One's backs, there is no touch screen, and with just 460x320 pixels the resolution of the Hasselblad's screen is very low by contemporary standards. (It's low by the standards of five years ago, to be frank.)

Even after several weeks of use I found the screen control buttons confusing. Not terrible, just not all that logical to my taste, especially compared to the elegant simplicaity of Phase One's four button interface and touch screen. There is also no focus peaking and no Live View, something which I suppose we'll have to wait for in a future CMOS back from Hasselblad.

Image quality at low ISO is exemplary. There is that signature three dimensionality and micro detail that one sees from medium format CCD backs. Without extensive pixel-peeping I'd be hard pressed to tell apart images from the 60MP Hasselblad back and those from its competitors of similar resolution. As in the 135mm format world, the gap between brands when it comes to overall image quality is closing rapidly, and while there are strengths and weaknesses with all brands, I believe that few photographers would be unhappy with what they get from the Hasselblad 60MP back under just about any low ISO conditions.

ISO Tests

Let's be frank. CCD-based medium format backs are not known for their high ISO capability. Smaller sensor CMOS cameras are now capable of very clean ISO 3200 images and some are strong performers even higher ISOs in a few cases.

But, we can't ignore the fact that there are high ISO limitations with CCDs. Yet, when I ran a series of ISO comparisons I was surprised to find little visual difference in either noise or DR between the back's base ISO of 80 and it's highest available ISO of 800.

Below are 100% crops from a series done at each of the five available ISOs. I am only showing the highest and the lowest.

100% crop. ISO 80 shown. Mouse over for ISO 800

It's actually quite surprising how clean ISO 800 is. I would have imagined that ISO 1600 should have been possible, but Hasselblad must have had its reasons for omitting it. In any event, CCD backs are not where one looks for high ISO performance.

If 2014 turns out to be the year that we see medium format CMOS backs then I expect that higher ISO capability will be part of the offering. But, there is something unique about the image quality of a CCD!


By Way of Comparison

Of course the question that anyone considering an expenditure north of 40 big ones on a medium format camera will ask is – should I get a Hasselblad or a Phase One system? I stress the word system because really, these are the only two choices left in the marketplace. Yes, a Leaf back on a Mamiya body is an alternative, but the body is essentially the same and the difference between a Phase back and a Leaf back have been discussed elsewhere. The Leica S2 is an excellent camera, but in a different category, as is the Pentax 645D is in its own way.

Sadly, one also can't think about mixing and matching between Hasselblad and Phase or Leaf or Mamiya. With the exception of the previously mentioned Hasselblad 4X a third party back can not be used with an H body, and even if you went to the trouble of buying an H1 or H2 to use as a trade-in on an H4X, you'd likely find that the level of integration with other brand backs was minimal.

So – this means that you buy one of three systems; a Hasselblad, a Phase One, or a Mamiya / Leaf combo.

Which should you get? Don't ask me! Even if I had a strong preference it wouldn't be meaningful for me to state it, because when one spends this much money you really don't want to take a third party's advice.

There are many factors beyond ergonomics or the minutia of pixel-peeping image quality to be considered. Among these are ones local dealer. I would be loath to spend this much money buying anywhere except from a major VAR or top retailer, preferably one near where I lived and worked. If this isn't possible then at least travel to the dealer to make the purchase, since this is akin to buying a car. A relationship with the dealer is important. Also, trade-in and trade-up policies are critical. Where will you stand next year or the year after when there is a new shiny model, or one that has features that you simply must have?

Sitting. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2013

Hasselblad H5D-60 with HC100 lens @ ISO 400

Then there's warranty and support. If you're a working Pro, how quickly can you expect repairs? And what about loaners? Availability of rentals is also a factor, as is familiarity with the chosen system by digital techs that may be hired for a shoot. Even for the non-working Pro many of these issues are similarly important. 

In the end you should treat the purchase of a system like this the way you would the purchase of a high-end car. You need to consider brand reputation, dealership, warranty, financing and most importantly of all, take a test drive or two. How a system "feels" and handles matters immensely. Availability of accessories and lenses that meet ones specific needs should also be carefully examined.

As for the Hasselblad H5D-60 that I've been testing for the past couple of months, I have to say that I've really enjoyed it. It's been like becoming reacquainted with an old friend. I appreciate the camera's handling, and the is no doubt about the excellence of the image quality. I am not thrilled with the back's screen and user interface, but certainly I could live with it.

As a previous Hasselblad H camera owner as well as long-time user of Phase One backs and cameras, I'd have a hard time choosing between the various offerings available. Just as I suspect you will.

January, 2014
Michael Reichmann

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Concepts: Hasselblad, Camera, Digital camera back, Medium format, Single-lens reflex camera, Sinar, Large format, Digital camera

Entities: San Miguel de Allende, Toronto, New York, Sierra Gorda, Hasselblad, Phase One, Kodak, Kyocera, Sony, Fujifilm, Sinar, BMW, Porsche, Schnieder, Nikon, Adobe, Ventizz, Imacon, JVC, Phocus, Shriro Group., Mexico, Canada, US, Rutherford Photo, Luminous Landscape, Mountain Village, The Wall, digital camera, retail store, North American, user interface, Lithium Ion battery, touch screen, CEO, Canadian Product Manager, Michael Reichmann, Christian Poulson, Larry Hansen, D800/e

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