Photographer of South Island Rural landscapes and people

Bill Irwin

Medium format two years on

Two years ago I jumped in to medium format digital photography with a Hasselblad H4D-40. My mainstay equipment for a long time has been Canon DSLR, currently 5DMk3. I have plenty of nice L series primes, including 14 mm f2.8, 35 mm f1.4, 135 mm f2.0. I should have no excuses for being unable to create excellent images.

When I'm asked about gear my first reaction is, “it’s not about what camera you use, it’s just a tool”. I have people admire an image then say, “Oh, you must have a good camera!” Right - buy a ‘good’ camera, push the button, and fantastic images will automagically result.

But at some point it is about the gear. A poorly shot, but compelling image, will always beat a bland, technically excellent shot.

The combination of a beautifully composed, superbly executed image is what excites me.

I always felt slightly unsatisfied with what I could get out of 35mm DSLR. Softness at the edges, compromising shadow or highlight detail in contrasty conditions. After seeing files from medium format capture I knew why – it’s a whole different ballpark of image quality.

Dairy, FoxtonHasselblad HC 50 II, f 8.
With sun glaring off whitewashed walls, there is still detail in shadows within. Crisp detail also!

Yes for many uses it is overkill. But I just love starting with a superb file. It is like a fog has been cleared from my eyes – I am capturing all this detail I hadn't seen before. The personal satisfaction and firing of creative juices has been huge. There is something just different about these files. I've yet to understand the physics behind the large sensor, but my brain loves the feeling it produces. The transition to medium format capture was not exactly straightforward. There is an ongoing learning curve, it is not just a matter of an expensive camera with more pixels. This post is about what I have learned in the last two years. It’s not a rigorous review, it’s just some real world observations on the experience.

Hasselblad HC 50 II lens at f 10. All signs point to crisp detail, even with blinding glare

Slow down

How I photograph has changed. The bulky gear, mostly using a tripod, has forced a slower, more measured style. I don’t take dozens of frames to sort through later. I spend more time looking at the composition, fine tuning how everything fits, waiting for the right light to come within the frame. Then I expose. It is almost a return to the attitude I had in the days of film and can only be good. Digital has fostered spray and pray shooting which just constipates post production.

Depth of field

With a wide angle lens you still get significant background blur when focussed on a foreground object.

Winter, AwaAwaRata ReserveHasselblad HCD 28mm at 4.0, full frame
Hasselblad HCD 28mm at 4.0, cropped

Change to a short telephoto, wide open, and the depth of field is razor thin. The creative options this opens up are massive but so much more care is needed when you need a large depth of field. Sometimes it even necessitates focus stacking (merging multiple exposure focussed at different depths).

Full frame, unedited file. H4D-40, HC 100 mm f 2.2. 1/80th @ f2.2, ISO 100
Crop of full frame - note rapid fall off from razor sharp eyelashes to beautifully soft out of focus hair

Storage and processing

This quality comes at a cost. A raw file is around 60 mb, by the time you open it as a 16 bit file in Photoshop and add a few layers you are playing with hundreds of megabytes. You will soon know if your computer is lacking. Luckily hard drives seems to keep getting bigger and cheaper just in time, but your backup systems need to grow as well.

An abundance of crispness

With DSLR’s I'm used to closing down the lens a few stops and avoiding the edge of the frame for crucial detail. Not with these Hasselblad lenses. Superbly sharp, edge to edge, even wide open. It’s a revelation to pan around a frame at 100% and see how well the file holds together.

Dynamic range

I don’t mind shooting in high contrast light anymore. I was used to sacrificing either highlight or shadow detail, or else blending bracketed exposures (not HDR – I’m not a fan of the look – but manually compositing highlight or shadow detail in to a frame with maxed out dynamic range). With the Hasselblad raw files I rarely fail to capture all necessary detail in one exposure, the exception would be shooting in to the sun and even then adjustments in Lightroom for shadow and highlight exposure do a marvellous job.

Wheat harvest, MethvenHCD 28mm, f/6.3. I don't mind shooting in to the sun anymore - it's doesn't just end in 'artistic' flare

Dust on sensor

With most new DSLR’s sensor dust isn’t much of an issue any more, the auto cleaning functions work well. The H4D has none of this, and it has a lot of sensor real estate to collect dust. The good news is it’s easy to clean – just clip off the digital back, and there’s the sensor. I seem to get by cleaning with just air (using a Rocket blower). It’s just part of the slowed down, methodical approach now: before I go out to shoot, I clean the sensor.

Battery Life

The lithium handgrip / batteries are big, expensive, slow to charge and don’t last long. In real life practice I get by with two batteries for a day out, shooting a few hundred frames at most. They take several hours to charge which can get tricky to manage if you are heading out the next day. I try to avoid using the rear screen too much, just a quick histogram check.

Portability 

The camera, 3 lenses, spare battery and a few other bits fit in a Pelican 1550 case. Throw this in your average car, and the car doubles in value. But you will need the car to go places – I can’t imagine hiking for hours with this gear, not to mention the tripod too. I know all the old photographers who hauled 8x10 cameras plus plates in to the mountains would think this was a sign the world has gone soft, and they are probably right. 

Summary 

Portability or quality, the choice is yours. iPhone or Blad, each tool has its place

Medium format camera are big, slow to use, expensive to buy, clog up your computer, attract dust, are no use for fast action. But the images are in a world of their own. 

For many practical uses the quality is overkill and the hassles of using it may interrupt the creative flow. Sometimes it may be better just to pull out the iPhone. But when you have experienced what this gear can do, it’s hard to settle for less.