Hasselblad X1D: A Medium Format MVP?

Hasselblad X1D: A Medium Format MVP?

In software design, there is a concept called the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Instead of building a fully fledged app or website that might incorrectly anticipate a user’s need, the MVP model suggests that product designers should start with small set of features and use feedback to iterate quickly towards a more perfect product. It’s supposed to be a faster, cheaper and smarter way to develop a product.

This isn’t to suggest that the Hasselblad X1D is minimally featured. Hardware design (particularly an entirely new camera system) is enormously complex, and Hasselblad did a tremendous job creating a beautiful mirrorless medium format system in an unbelievably compact package.

Photo by Allen Murabayashi

But there was clearly a design thesis that drove many of the features on this camera. For example, minimalism and compactness make the X1D paradigmatically different than other medium format cameras like the Fuji GFX-50S or Pentax 645Z which are much more akin to DSLRs. Standard buttons and dials have been replaced with a touch screen menu system – a decision that reminds me of BMW’s early iDrive systems, which were widely criticized for choosing form over function, or perhaps more accurately, trying to push a new paradigm for vehicular control that was both ahead of its time and impractical for common functions like air conditioning. Iteration is needed to perfect the system.

Hasselblad has released four lenses so far, but their roadmap has five more lenses planned for 2018, including a 65mm f/2.8 – their fastest lens. Some photographers have bemoaned the lack of faster glass, but V-series lenses weren’t particularly fast, and the slightly slower lenses seem to strike a good balance of size, price and performance.

Before I get into the weeds, let me start on a positive note: the X1D’s image quality (IQ) is eye-popping. I shoot regularly with a Nikon D850, so the increased resolution isn’t driving this IQ statement. Viewing the X1D images on a large screen makes you appreciate how modern lens design coupled with high sensor resolution can yield spectacular results.

ISO 100, 45mm f/8 at 6s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

MEDIUM FORMAT

If you regularly shoot DSLR/ILP, then using medium format can be an exercise in patience. I own medium and large format film cameras so I’m familiar with the slowness of those systems, and it took a different frame of mind to use the X1D. Digital photography speeds up certain aspects of shooting (e.g. no need to frequently change film, autofocus), but working with the X1D is still significantly slower than its smaller counterparts. It’s not a street photography camera, nor an action camera.

Like medium format film, the camera lends itself to travel, food, and portrait photography – niches where the photographer has more time to compose, focus and shoot.

ISO 100, 45mm, f/4 at 1/1600s. Note the 8-blade aperture. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

ERGONOMICS

The grip is comfortable, even with a heavy lens attached. The X1D has a decently deep notch and a tacky rubber covering that makes it easy to hold with no fear of it slipping from your hand. The mode dial pops in/out to avoid accidental changes. The eyecup is comfortable even with glasses. The shutter button is big, orange and well-positioned. 

Photo by Allen Murabayashi

POWER UP

The design language of the X1D eschews protruding surfaces wherever possible. Buttons on the X1D are inset into the milled aluminum body, and the power button is no exception. One could argue that this prevents accidentally powering on/off the camera, but in reality it’s a pain compared to the power switch that is common with nearly every other manufacturer.

ISO 100, 45mm, f/8 at 1/500s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

Battery life isn’t great, which makes the need for a simple switch all the more valuable (I didn’t get anywhere near the estimated 400 shots per charge, but I didn’t disable the LCD either). On my other cameras, I can flip a switch to control power consumption by feel. With the X1D, it’s hard to tell whether the unit has powered off or not without waiting a few seconds to see if the power light (which is located at the bottom of the LCD screen!) is on or off. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that camera’s start-up time is slow as molasses.

Battery anxiety is a reality of digital life, so I’m not knocking the slim body for not holding more of a charge. But leaving the camera powered on drains the battery quickly, and I wish there was a simpler way of powering the unit on and off.

FOCUS

DSLR shooters are spoiled. Phase detection combined with ultrasonic motors allows for very fast focusing that you might take for granted. The X1D has neither. The focusing mechanism is slow and noisy compared to high-end DSLRs, and the barrel moves during focusing.

The camera frequently hunted for a focus lock and in low light, it couldn’t lock focus at all.

I found the focus lock to be strangely inconsistent. After attaining focus lock and recomposing, I found that the camera often wouldn’t fire. Even when manually focusing, the shutter sometimes didn’t always fire, and I missed some action even when pre-composed. I’m willing to concede some user error, but on the other hand, there’s no reason for the X1D to behave differently than most other cameras in this regard.

ISO 100, 45mm, f/4 at 1/640s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

There are no switches on the lenses. The X1D uses a button to toggle between MF and AF modes. In manual focus, the EVF (electronic viewfinder) uses focus peaking. In AF, you can select a focus point, but the lack of a joystick means selecting different focus points is clunky: hold down the AF/MF button for a second (which was just slightly out of reach of my index finger), the use the front and rear wheels to move the focus point left/right and up/down respectively. This is perhaps the most glaring operational problem. 

You can set the touch screen to select a focus point, but the lack of tactile feedback makes this a less than optimal solution. The screen-based solution is a bit akin to a virtual shutter button on a camera phone. It’s a serviceable and default option, but I prefer to use the volume button on my iPhone to trigger the shutter.

EVF

The X1D has a 2.36MP electronic viewfinder. It’s bright, but the resolution is poor compared to the competition. The Sony A7/A9 lines feature a 3.6MP EVF as does the Leica Q, and that added resolution makes a huge difference in simulating an optical viewfinder.

ISO 100, 45mm f/8 at 1/2000s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

When hitting the shutter button under certain conditions, the EVF went pure white when the camera was trying to attain a focus lock.

SHOOTING

The X1D does have a slight, but noticeable shutter lag. Because the system uses a leaf shutter (thereby offering flash sync up to 1/2000s), the camera doesn’t suffer from mirror vibration like a DSLR. The sound of taking a photo is a tinny click similar to a large format camera. The lack of vibration means the camera uses slower base shutter speeds in non-manual modes than you might be used to (e.g. it was common to have 1/40s and 1/30s shutter while shooting in aperture priority).

ISO 100, 45mm, f/4 at 1/250s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

This is a blessing and a curse. The ability to shoot at lower shutter speeds is great, but I sometimes found that my hand movement caused motion blur when I wasn’t conscious of the shutter speed.

There is a short, but noticeable blackout after you take a photo. Hasselblad seems to have shortened the duration of the blackout since I first tried the camera last year, but it’s still there. Is it a deal killer? That depends on the type of photography you’re trying to accomplish.

IMAGE QUALITY

The images from the X1D are stunning. I solely used the 45mm f/3.5 (35mm FF equivalent), and was amazed at the image clarity. Take a look of this image from the Alexander Farm in New Zealand.

ISO 100, 45mm, f/8 at 1/1000s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

Here’s a 1:1 of the horizon from the same photo. Yes, sheep!

Photo by Allen Murabayashi

The X1D’s sensor is a 16-bit Sony creation with 14-stops of dynamic range. I found that the files had a ton of latitude, and making exposure adjustments of a stop didn’t affect the image quality. Here’s a photo before and after pulling the shadows up.

ISO 100, 45mm, f/5.6 at 1/400s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

 

Photo by Allen Murabayashi

 

ISO 100, 90mm, f/4 at 1/250s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

The camera won’t win contests for high ISO performance compared to the likes of the Sony A9 or Nikon D5, but the camera wasn’t designed for that type of performance. A little noise reduction in Lightroom made my files more than acceptable.

ISO 3200, 45mm, f/3.5 at 1/40s. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

CONCLUSION

The price of the X1D has already dropped precipitously since its release, spurred in part by the release of the Fuji GFX-50S, which uses the same 50MP Sony sensor. But at $6495 for the body and a few thousand more for a lens, it’s still an expensive camera.

As with any product, there is a target market for which the current features match the needs and expectations of the demographic. In its current iteration, I think the market is somewhat limited. As I mentioned before, it’s too slow operationally for niches like sports photography, and another photographer told me that he thought the blackout was too long for studio portraiture/fashion. Travel photographers seeking the best image quality could benefit from this camera if weight isn’t too much of a consideration.

The notion of a medium format, compact mirrorless camera is inspiring, and photographers have been clamoring for legitimate medium format options for years. Compared to Hasselblad’s H-series or options from Phase One, the X1D is a bargain. The image quality speaks for itself, but I’d be hesitant to purchase one myself until some of the operational features are improved. If the “Minimum Viable Product” can become a “Most Valuable Player” with the X2D, Hasselblad will have a formidable and compelling reason for many more photographers to consider medium format.

Next Post:
Previous Post:
This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *