Hasselblad X1D II 50C review

V and A Dundee

Let’s get the obvious out the way, I didn’t and don’t need a Hasselblad. I wanted a Hasselblad. There are a handful of great cameras out there at a cheaper price with good enough image quality and a grab bag of strengths. From my past professional history with top end Nikons I knew that I could buy a Nikon and it would take whatever the weather, mountains, storms or seas would throw at it.

I wanted a Hasselblad. For a long time. Since I first saw the XPan nearly twenty years ago at the Birmingham NEC at a photography show. I loved the design, the photographers who used them and the images they created. The spartan design of the camera. The beautiful images that came out of the minds of the artists using them. They are the tool of the artist, capable of delivering whatever is in your minds eye without interruption or distraction to that vision.

Pre dawn light perfectly toned with the X1D

Like Steve Huff, this was a difficult buying decision, that necessitated selling a very nice Panasonic camera system with Leica lenses, dipping in to savings, maxing out my credit card and some long conversations and negotiations with my wife. It’s an exceptionally privileged position to be in, and from the moment the box arrived I have been happy with that decision. This is an amazing camera that highlights every mistake and failure in my image making practise that has become rusty with years of neglect! There are no excuses with this camera, it’s as close to a simple light tight box as you can get without, you know, getting a film camera and a few rolls of film. 

This leads me in to the thing that first attracted me to the Hasselblad X1D and the thing that I like most about the camera. The simple design. This design underpins everything you need to know about how the camera will work, and that matches the way I like to photograph. I like simplicity. I like a clear path between my vision and whatever is around me. I always liked Nikons as they always felt like they were designed by photographers to make and take photographs. The Hasselbad feels like it was designed by people who just like looking at the world directly and who just want a way to capture it, or convey a vision or interpretation of it. The physical and UI design never get in the way. Once you get the lens caps off anyway.

Travelling light. Brompton and Hasselblad are a great fit.

The next thing that appeals is the size and weight. I spend a lot of time travelling light, in the mountains, in the city. Compact is boss. And here is a medium format camera that I can fit in a camelbak rucksack for a bikepacking trip or messenger bag for a city adventure, along with a couple of lenses and barely know it is there. I also bought a Gitzo Traveller tripod to go with it, and that also gives amazing performance in a package that will go in my Trakke Wee Lug messenger or Revelate Designs Sweetroll bike bag. Just blows me a way, medium format in a bike bag without being crippled and instead enabled to travel more with my eyes open for longer.

Warm and cool

I like the Hasselblad image. The colours match how I see the world and rarely need tweaked. The Hasselblad Natural Colour Solution image system really seems to work, I wouldn’t say they are colour accurate to the natural world, but they are balanced and consistent. And deeply pleasing. The files are huge, I can zoom in and in and the image always looks and feels natural, it never feels digital. This brings me to the tricky point. I get the technical discussion on why full frame at ISO 64 with an f/1.X lens will give something technically equivalent to a “medium format” sensor. But there is a difference. I’ve always been able to tell the difference between the digital files from a dSLR and a medium format back. Even on a low res web jpeg. The Nikon D800E when it first came out came so close to fooling me. The files from the first generation Fuji X100, pre xtrans sensor, were very pretty and natural with the portraits I made of my wife some of my favourite images ever. The Panasonic S1R and D850 produce lovely files with beautiful tonal graduations and natural detail. But in 2019 the medium format and X1D images still have it, the colours, the tones, the naturalness (or not looking like a digital file) are superior to my senses.

Something I am finding hard about the files is that they need very little work to make a print. I work with RAW. In the past I knew my way round Photoshop and could make a fine print that I was happy to hang on a gallery wall. And it always took a bit of work to get there, not too much, I like the natural image, but there was work, a complex workflow that took 2 years of development to get the workflow to make an image and a print I liked. If I do too much with the X1D files they start to lose something. It may be I am rusty, or it might be because I am working on an iPad Pro with Affinity Photo which I don’t know so well yet, but my best prints are the ones where I do very little beyond correct exposure. And the prints are lovely. Just lovely. Again this simplicity of editing adds to the picture making experience, and highlights all my flaws!

Light study shows the beautiful tones

The physical design has also been well thought through, mostly. All the controls are where I expect to find them. They all work well with bare hands or gloves, except that mode dial which is gently tapered, so not so good with thick gloves. The viewfinder is clear, the settings are well displayed in viewfinder and rear screen. The menu system is class leading, a masterclass in UI and UX design regardless of technology. Modern Apple could do with a bit more Hasselblad in their design. Settings are where you expect to find them and there aren’t too many anyway. Setting a focus point on the screen by sliding a (bare) finger around is easy and natural even when the camera is raised to the eye. I also recently discovered there is a crop mode which includes an XPan setting, although it’s a cheat as unlike the real XPan it crops the frame reducing image quality rather than doubling it. It’s a shame Hasselblad couldn’t have squeezed in a double width sensor for a true XPan mode 😉

Overall, I just like it. Would a D850 and some new design glass have done the job? Probably. Technically probably good enough. UI probably good enough although a little distracting with so many features. But I’m glad I bought the Hasselblad. It’s a simple elegant tool, one where I never need to think should I have bought something better or worry about the camera colouring my vision. One that I enjoy using to make images and that gets out the way as I learn how to see, think and make images again. I’ll maybe never be the photographer I was before, and nor should I be, but I’m enjoying learning again, making images and it’s with a camera I wanted for a long time and that is a wonderful pleasure to use.

Gentle tones benefit from a RAW file that captures subtlety but can be pushed hard

What is my system so far?

I say so far, I think this is all I need. It’s all I want to carry, and I suspect if I add any more Hasselblad boxes to my collection my wife is going to be unhappy.

  • X1D II 50C body
  • 3 batteries – I’m a slow shooter, so a battery does about a day in the warm, and maybe half a day in sub zero (centigrade) temps.
  • 30mm lens – I used to be addicted to 14mm in 35mm equivalent terms, but I now prefer 24mm equivalent on the 5×4 aspect ratio due to a more even balance between foreground and background elements.
  • 45mm lens – a great everyday walk around and life lens.
  • 90mm lens – having previously been a wide angle addict for most of my professional career I was almost surprised by a short telephoto and how much I liked it when I first tried a longer lens last year. I was thinking about some of my favourite film directors and the lenses they used, I thought I should try a normal and short telephoto. Glad I did and this lens is a cracker.
  • brotect Anti-Glare Glass Screen Protector – I tried a few including the atFoliX Protector Film and Bruni Screen Protector but this has the best fit to the screen and it is quite stiff, like a tempered glass screen protector, which is better that the atFoliX and the Bruni film protectors which started to peel at the top off the display due to the swipe down motion to access settings.
  • Hasselblad remote release – it’s essential for my work, it’s part of my self image of how I photograph and Hasselblad have done a bad job on it, see Stuff I don’t like.
  • Hasselblad dual charger – an external charger is essential if you have more than one battery. This one can be charged by USB C in the field, it’s small, and it shows the battery levels. 
  • Gitzo GK1545T-82TQD Series 1 Traveler tripod – light, stiff, pleasure to use and will double as a support for my bivi or pyramid tent.
  • Joby Arca Swiss compatible camera plate – the rubber pad on the plate stops the camera rotating once the plate is tightened up as there is no rubber pad on the bottom of the camera which means metal only plates often rotate.
  • Revelate Designs Egress pocket bike bag – I use the padded liner from this bag in the bottom of my Camelbak rucsac, there is no way I’d put my camera system up front on a mountain bike!
  • Disposable shower caps – great for keeping rain, snow and blown sand off the camera. 
  • Brush blower – the sensor seems slightly prone to getting dust in, but it is easy to clean with a blower.
  • Lens cloth – good for cleaning lenses. In the mountains I also carry a small square of micro fibre towel to allow me to “dry” camera and lens externals before putting them away.

Stuff I don’t like

Yeah, it not perfect.

The shutter release has no autofocus. This is a little irritating as it makes it hard to pre-focus so I can hit the decisive moment if there is movement in the scene. For landscape work I get round this by manual focusing.

Shutter release is not weather sealed and necessitates opening the camera body to plug it in! What were the Hasselblad designers thinking? A weather sealed body designed for use in, well weather, and then a critical component of that system not being weather sealed and use of compromising the integrity of the rest of the system. I get round this as I often work in portrait mode so ensure the open door goes at the bottom of the camera. And cover the camera with a shower cap.

The body doors for cards and ports are awkward to open. I have to dig a finger nail in to these little indents and drag the door open. I might Sugru these to get a bit more friction.

The EVF is good, but I miss an optical viewfinder. I like to be emotionally connected to my subject. The EVF display is good in natural light, but in low light or interiors it’s just like watching TV. This is just all EVF’s and mirrorless for me, I don’t like it. The Fuji X100 with it’s hybrid and oversize (to the captured frame) viewfinder was the pinnacle of digital camera viewfinders for me. 

Weather sealing is unproven. My Nikons took anything the world threw at them. I destroyed a 2 month old Panasonic GH5s earlier this year in a weekend of Scottish rain and it is meant to be weather sealed. I’m nervous about how the X1D will do in Scottish winter.

Lens caps. These are barely operable with bare hands, let alone gloves. Just what? Like the lack of weather sealing on the remote, and when so much thought has gone in to the design of the rest of the camera, to the finest detail, what were the designers thinking? I’m going to either buy some Nikon lens caps, or add some Sugru to the Hasselblad ones to make them easier to operate.

No tilt/shift lenses. I get why, they won’t sell enough to the target market. Would be nice though.

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