The X1D focuses on the meeting of technology, design, and hand-built machinery, then takes an incredibly beautiful 100MB photo of it.
Cover image via Hasselblad.
The X1D is smaller than many full-frame cameras. Its sensor is approximately 40% larger than full frame 24x36mm, allowing it to capture more accurate color information and higher image detail, all while being very intuitive and comfortable to use.
“The X1D seamlessly combines portability with excellent optical quality for which the brand is renowned. Hasselblad has ingeniously introduced mirrorless technology to digital medium format for the first time ever.”
Seamlessly would be an understatement. I couldn’t imagine a better representation of elite light-gathering properties in a grab-and-go camera of this size. Holding this handmade piece of technology and machinery really brings all the marketing materials into reality.
Released in 2016, it wouldn’t be premature, or a stretch, to include this modern digital mirrorless with their historic legacy of legendary cameras — among them, the camera used to photograph the moon landing and medium- and large format cameras you’ll find in the finest photography studios on Earth. The X1D is worthy of representing the pedigree.
Handling and Admiring the X1D
The X1D is a beautiful piece of industrial art. Scandinavian to the core, it represents the clean edges and thoughtful, unfussy surfaces indicative of its famous design heritage. Like other examples of this design school, form blends with function naturally. At 725g (1.6lbs) for the body and battery, it is hefty and substantial in the hands. However, it is actually quite a bit lighter than digital medium format competitors (FujiFilm GFX 50S at 825g,/1.8lbs), dipping down into full-frame weight (the Nikon D750 comes in at a portly 840g/1.9lbs.)
Lifting the camera body out of the Pelican case, I was struck by the elegant and simple surfaces, then I was struck again with how the artistry met the needs of the camera’s functions. Absurd degrees of utilitarian elegance, executed perfectly. The milled aluminum body is rugged and built to withstand the rigors of field work — not that you would be tossing the $7,000 camera (plus at least a $2,000 lens) on the ground to fidget with a prop, but apparently it can handle it. Just thinking about getting a nick on this piece of fine sculpture gives me the bad butterflies.
Powering-on the X1D is an 8-second process. The X1D is slow overall, and we’ll get more into the pros and cons of that, but the results are incomparable. This is understandable for a sensor this size, and with a touchscreen this fine — there’s a lot of computation inside that elegant casing. Once you get used to it, you make mental adjustments, as with anything else.
When you snap a photo with the X1D, the sound is a satisfying “metallic-click, pause, and snick.” This sound is not the actual shutter but the leaf shutter mechanism completing its cycle. It’s also not the only mirrorless to make a shutter sound, but it’s pretty different. This interface is a continuation of thoughtful design, in that the Pavlovian cues we are used to from a camera have been updated for this camera’s complex machinations.
The manual controls are completely intuitive, as well as artfully rethought. Without reading the manual, as is my protocol when using new gear, I was able to find the shutter speed and aperture wheels, as well as switch between autofocus and manual focus. No surprises here, just . . . better.
The mode wheel on the top, with its familiar function and order of modes, is lockable; after you select a mode, you press down to lock, then press again to pop up to change modes. I’m not sure if many photographers needed this, but it makes sense to me. I know I’ve picked up a camera in the midst of a shoot, assuming the mode was correct, then wondered why my photos were suddenly weird. This solves that problem.
Other people will take notice of the design, too. Even non-photographers asked me about the camera as I composed shots in public. Having never even touched a Ferrari, I imagine it’s like parking a Ferrari in a McDonald’s parking lot, but on a far smaller scale. Like way smaller, but still noticeable.
Shooting with the X1D
Ease of use, out-of-the-box, is usually my initial measure of a thing. If I can’t figure out how to use a camera, or most electronics, I tend to resent cracking open the manual to get started. I want to be able to turn it on, find the settings, and start shooting. The X1D laughed at my personal standards, apologized, then presented one of the easiest-to-use interfaces I’ve seen.
Not only is the 3″ screen hi-res (24 bit color, 920K pixels) and beautiful, it is touch responsive. Snap a photo, double tap an area on the preview to check for motion blur and focus. Since the image is gigantic, once it’s written to the SD card, the preview is exceptionally detailed.
From the screen, the histogram and camera controls are easy to find and edit or set. Shooting modes, focus, and deeper menu items, like focus zoom in the EVF, are all intuitive and also easy to find. (Confession: I resorted to the manual to look up focus zoom because I couldn’t remember if it had a special name, but when I saw where it was, I thought, “Well that makes sense.”)
In a dark church, lit only by stained glass-diffused light on a cloudy morning, I found the low-light sensitivity to be completely satisfactory. Full-auto mode was just fine to start out and get used to the functionality of the camera. Then, using full-manual and then shutter-priority and aperture-priority, I found them all to be a cinch to use and adjust on the fly.
One very important property about the X1D is the time it takes to capture and process a single photo. At first, I was a bit surprised — a tad worried — but as I got used to it, I found that it made me think about my shots. That’s a good thing. If we’re used to automatic burst mode and 25MB shots being written to an SD card at a rate of hundreds per minute, it’s pretty cool to be forced to think about each shot. It’s like considering an exposure of finite film on a roll, and then we wind and/or recompose the next shot. In the age of vinyl and cassette tapes renaissance, it’s a mindfulness people seem to enjoy and appreciate — myself included. However, it’s not nostalgia and lack of speed for the sake of whimsy; the camera is working on the beautiful image you just captured.
Another note about shooting speed: when I was taking rapid shots, the camera got pretty warm near the memory slots. This was really putting the camera through its paces, though. It can handle those family-style photo shoots, when you’re trying to take as many as possible, hoping everyone’s eyes are open in at least one, but it’s probably better to use something else for that. The Hasselblad X1D demands, but also rewards, composition.
Relying on the auto-focus, in full auto mode, I found it was tricky to get the right focal point where multiple distances were present. The priority modes were the most natural for me while composing. This way I could quickly dial in the speed with my thumb and focus with the responsive focus zoom, all while watching the meters in the EVF. This dance was a sheer pleasure in assisted-manual photography. The resulting images I captured were razor sharp at 300% zoom — exactly where I wanted the focus to be, beautifully exposed. Even if they weren’t perfect, I had very little post-production work to do. The information collected provided ample color info in the shadows, and it brought down highlights in skin tones.
For storage, I used a 16GB Sandisk Extreme PRO card. 16GB fills up quickly with images in the 95MB range. What stood out most, though, was write speed. I don’t have numbers, but I stuck a 32GB SanDisk Ultra Micro card with adapter in the second slot. The write speed between the two was noticeable. I had to reformat my card in the camera twice, and it still displayed warning messages saying it couldn’t write to the card. I powered the camera on and off a few times, then it went away. But I’m guessing the heat from the processor was related to the difference in card speed. The ability to reformat the card inside the camera saved the day.
Hasselblad XCD 45mm and 90mm Lenses
The lenses I received with the camera were every bit as exceptional as the camera body itself — beautifully minimalistic and focused on function. Attaching the lens to the body was an act of engineered perfection and security — a tactile sensation of micron-level fit and finish. The focus ring and even the lens caps capture this as well. Secure, perfectly fitted parts coming together to create a seamless whole.
The 45mm lens is a moderately wide-angle lens, akin to a 35mm a on a full-frame camera. This is a great general purpose lens. With its largest aperture at f/3.5, the clarity and depth of field were stunning, in bright or low light.
The 90mm lens is more zoomed, like a 70mm lens, for portraiture. This lens provides excellent equivalence for framing with the naked eye — it’s nearly dead-on in the viewfinder. With its f/3.2 aperture, it captures a ton of light, with beautiful, buttery-smooth bokeh. With a sensor as large as the X1D’s, f/3.2 is plenty accommodating for low-light and close-up shots.
For some night-time shots, with porch-bulb lighting, the ISO was pushed quite a bit . . . to 3200. This is where I must make a qualifying statement. The images are huge, 90-110MB shooting in RAW (Hasselblad’s 3FR file type), so if I’m worried about digital graininess, it’s at a level of a 20×28″ image at 300 dpi. Viewing at 100% on a 4k monitor is where I start to see grain in a light environment that you can reasonably expect to give most cameras a challenge. I wouldn’t say this is the thing that held me back from the X1D, but it’s worth mentioning.
The detail never ends!
It’s pretty hard to find shortcomings in the X1D’s kit to be wary of. Yes, this camera and the lenses are probably prohibitively priced for the average hobbyist, or even most professional shooters. That said, for those who can benefit from the X1D system, the build and usability exceed what you can read about in reviews like this one. This camera and its peripherals are worth every penny. They’re hand-built to last, and you not only feel that, you also see it in the results.
I would cite the high ISO in dim light as being predicated on the sensor’s pixel count, but that’s picking nits. There is plenty of information in these shots to bring out shadows without sacrificing the overall exposure for dim light. Both the lenses performed beautifully and sharply. When your poorly lit lifestyle image is at ISO 3200, but it’s huge and detailed, that’s, like, not as big a deal.
In my opinion, the main consideration is the processing speed of each shot. This puts it in a realm of photography that rewards experience and, if not clairvoyance, thoughtfulness and foresight. You must have it ready before you need it. You must choose wisely when starting the shutter action, lest you miss a better moment a second later. This isn’t a street camera but that’s ok, too — those are readily available at single-digit fractions of the X1D’s price tag.
Hasselblad has delivered a high-end, medium format digital camera that offers the ultimate experience in hand-held sharpness and sheer range of flexibility. That is a space no one else occupies right now, and the X1D fills it admirably.