Getting to spend time with a new Hasselblad is a pretty good reason to get up in the morning, and I’ve had many such days. However, this isn’t just any old/new Hasselblad (if there could be such a thing), this is…something different. This is a whole new platform, a new frontier, and a camera that likely signposts the way to the company’s future.
The evolution of the H system has been in comparatively small steps, but this marks a giant leap for the company that first showed us what Earth looked like from the moon. So, in essence, what it really is, is a lynchpin for Hasselblad – a bit of a gamble. And the question is: has it worked?
Well the short answer is ‘yes’, but that hasn’t always been the case. Which is why the time for this review is now, because the Hasselblad X1D of 6 months ago isn’t the same one that exists today.
The Hasselblad X1D – carving out a niche
The days when there were clearly defined categories of cameras have, in a way, passed. It seems as if anytime there is a defined segment of camera, another will be created to fit between it and the greater or lesser options, juuust in case there might be a customer hiding in the gap.
We see this with the likes of most of the major brands, but not so much in the arena of medium format until Hasselblad came along and did just that.
When I heard that Hasselblad had developed a ‘new’ mirrorless camera, I thought: “With what? Some cash that had just been sitting in plain sight but heretofore missed?” Frankly, I was as nervous as much as curious.
Hasselblad has been steward to some of the most iconic and historically significant cameras since Arvid Hasselblad began this ‘side-project’ business as a division of his family’s trading company, oh some nearly 200 years ago; the 1000F, 500c, and of course the 500EL/70 that Armstrong and Aldrin used to bring photographic evidence as the ultimate ‘F*** you’ to the Russians when it mattered most. I imagine Sergei Korolev, Russian Senior Space Engineer, damn well learned all about the Hasselblad’s after that…
So, that’s quite the resumé then.
But, as the carousel of time ushered us all from an age of celluloid to one of sensors, Hasselblad has struggled to retain currency and relevancy in the consumer market.
In recent years on that end, Hasselblad has been reduced to extolling the successes of the past, not by continuing to create them, but by selling the history of the name. They did it by coming to the utterly ludicrous decision to metaphorically slap some lipstick and a push-up bra on Sony cameras and then sell them for 3x the price. Frankly, it was borderline insulting, and embarrassing. It was like watching Mads Mikkelsen reduced from Casino Royale to doing low-rate car insurance commercials for The General.
The thing is, unlike Phase One, Hasselblad is a hardware company living in a software world – and they seemed to not know what to do about it. I’m happy to report, however, that appears to be changing, and you see it with their new marketing team that’s young and friendly and ‘gets it’, and the consistent iterative approach with the X1D.
Visually it’s beyond an evolution and absolutely a revolution, both inside and out, and yet it somehow maintains the angles and details we very much associate with Hasselblad.
The engine of this X1D started out in life as the beating-heart-sensor of the H6D-50c, but as if taking a strong heart from a body succumbing to the ravages of time, it has been surgically removed and re-purposed in something fresh, something young, something… spectacularly beautiful.
What this is, is a step out of the past whilst still clinging to heritage.
And you think you can’t enjoy a medium format camera everywhere you go? You can now. This is the first digital medium format camera you can actually walk around with as a daily. And it isn’t just ‘small for a medium format camera’ either –which is like being well behaved for a serial killer– but smaller than the DSLR you likely have at arms reach right now.
And the aesthetic design of the X1D deserves some attention. The deceptive simplicity of the lines give the X1D an incredibly clean and uncomplicated look , but then each time you glance at it something new about it catches your eye.
The Fuji GFX isn’t exactly a pretty camera, but next to this it’s positively repellent. It’s much more cumbersome and still heavier and larger, and just looks so fussy in comparison. The X1D looks so much more mature.
Sure, in some ways the Fuji is a more functional and tactile system with its touchscreen and removable EVF and myriad of physical buttons and dials, and as you stab away at them you’re sure to feel a bit like Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu rearranging things on the deck of the Enterprise.
But here’s the thing…
No one ever dreamt of being Sulu. You dreamt of bring Kirk. And like Kirk, the X1D is cool, and I’ll be so bold as to opine that the Fuji is not. It’s not the kind of thing you would bring to dinner and rest on the table, where as the X1D can go anywhere.
How have they managed that? Well, they’ve cut the fat, and taken a very Scandinavian approach to design, and that approach is to be appreciated. Hasselblad has done away with everything you don’t absolutely need and the result is, frankly, one of the most striking, unusual, and beautifully crafted cameras I’ve ever seen.
I mean look at it. It doesn’t scream for attention; it’s not garish and never a blemish in your peripheral vision the way a DSLR is. It’s more subtle than that, but it’s milled form with bronze accent is still sure to attract the attention of the people around you in whatever tax haven you invariably live in…
There’s no doubt the X1D will become a favorite among the kind of people who get their mushrooms from Provence, their frocks from Selfridges, their tans from Biarritz, and their friends from the pages of Hello!
It looks and feels every bit the $9k camera. It looks and feels like an object of desire. There are, in fact, Victoria’s Secret models I’d be less inclined to pick up and hold. And hold you will, because this thing has just about the best grip on any camera, period. The way it swells on both sides of the handle, combined with the rather perfect amount of ‘tack’ means it grabs onto you like a terrified toddler grips onto its parent without trying. Make no mistake, this is a camera you can handle easily and hold with confidence. It’s meant to be taken out of the studio.
Which neatly, however, bring us to its struggle(s).
The X1D is the first step into uncharted territory. It’s mirrorless MF Genesis, if you will, as there has never been a digital medium format camera like it. There’s never been one this small, or in this shape. It straddles the line in design between medium format and a normal ILC, and that form factor and layout dictates that it no longer exists in the cocoon of medium format, but instead onto a playing field with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that have paid their dues and refined over time. Therefore, on the one hand it must be able to handle along those lines, but still not be like the rest. And it isn’t. For better and worse.
The X1D strikes me as the result of a project that had begun where the target was clear but the path to it was not, and in some ways it feels as though the release was a bit premature; as if they were trying to hit a deadline that took precedence over development.
When we first held the X1D it was October 2016 and it wasn’t the retail model, but close enough, and the UX was an utter disaster. It was slow, buggy, and jittery. But that was essentially pre-production so it was almost expected. The problem is the version upon release was still glitchy and the behavior seemed in contrast to the physical design. It was a camera conflicted.
As stated above, the form of the camera and even the sample imagery from Hasselblad upon announcement dictated this to be something that you move around with, and that means it ought to perform as such. It has to be more flexible than a studio-dwelling H6D, more responsive, and really take into consideration all the things a daily camera has to do. But it just wasn’t and it didn’t.
The EVF was large but stuttering, the UI response to the dial input was schizophrenic, and the EVF/LCD eye sensor would REALLY be temperamental too, giving real trouble to register your face up at the EVF when the camera was in portrait orientation. And speaking of EVF, there was no live preview, nor was there the ability to playback your images in it, therefore rendering the EVF without most of its benefits.
And unfortunately there’s more.
The battery life on the X1D isn’t stellar, while not terrible. You’ll get 200-300 shots per charge, but you probably want spare batteries and to preserve your power while out – which isn’t easy to do because start-up time was long which meant you generally leave it on. And if you wanted to recharge you couldn’t do it via USB, which meant if you didn’t have a spare you would have a battery-shaped hole in the bottom of the camera since the end of the battery actually is part of the camera bottom.
Then of course there was the decision for the focal point selection approach to be lifted from a typical studio MF approach, which makes absolutely no sense on a camera that plays in the realm of highbrow DSLR and A7Rs in this form factor. If you wanted to change the focal point you had to hold down a button on the top of the camera for a second (which feels like a decade in the moment) then either use the dials or your finger to touch the point you liked.
This is just not conducive at all to doing anything spontaneous, and all of this combined made it seem like Hasselblad‘s X1D was the product of ambition running at full speed before the talent could walk. A half-formed thought at best.
But then it changed.
Those who jumped on the X1D, eager to part with $9k were probably left with something akin to an awkward buyer’s remorse at some point, even though they’d never admit it. Like some gorgeous temptress the X1D would seduce you and the morning after you may be left thinking you’d made a mistake. You may even wrestle with the idea of correcting course and rummage for the receipt. But then the firmware updates started to come, and relief washed over you like waves on a Caribbean shore. The firmware changed everything…
Progress for the X1D has been through firmware, and it has been staccato, not legato. But progress is progress and it did get better. It is much better.
And then if you waited again for the most recent it got even better still, to the point it’s now so far removed from the original you could be proud to to be an early adopter.
Now those problems listed above have been fixed or improved and the sweet is that much sweeter after the bitter. The EVF now has live preview, has image playback; the battery can be charged via USB, and changing focal points is no longer as tedious, and the touchscreen can control it when using the EVF.
One of the great things about the X1D is that there is no focal plane shutter inside the camera, and it’s all based around a leaf shutter system in its new lenses. This is brilliant for working with strobes as you can sync at ridiculous shutter speeds, and it also means that the camera is incredibly stable during shutter actuations. For something this size, and with this resolution without having IBIS or lens stabilization it’s remarkable just how stable it can be at speeds as low as 1/40 or perhaps even slower.
The downside, however, was that the lack of focal plane shutter meant that adapting lenses was difficult, and that was problematic for a system with only a few lenses. Now though? Now there are 4 native lenses with more on the way, and they’ve added an electronic shutter which makes adaptability a possibility (note the e shutter is slow). And in that vein they’ve just announced an X-Pan adapter for those who have those lenses.
In so many ways this camera is a gift to existing Hasselblad users, and that’s actually lovely to see – a company that isn’t forgetting from whence they came.
It’s really at this point we can consider the camera as a whole, because now it is one, and my what a camera it ought to be. I have to phrase it that way because I haven’t used it with the latest firmware updates, but knowing what I know of it and then adding these in it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to grasp how much more complete a camera it is. The X1D has finally come into its own.
And thank God too, because it had so much right in its foundation to start, and unrealized potential in something this beautiful would be a crime.
Off course it’s not just all face and no trousers; we know this sensor well in some form or another, so you’ll know the image quality out of the X1D is absolutely brilliant. It doesn’t matter that DxO Mark has it currently as the highest ranking camera, because when you shoot with it you’ll see it. The auto white balance is spot on, the color SOOC is gorgeous, and the flexibility in the files is everything you would expect, even if you can’t use them with Capture One. Want to bring back 4 stops? Go ahead.
But beyond that, in a time where so many cameras are becoming just slight variations of the same thing (changing the flesh but keeping the skeleton), the X1D is a different approach and a different way of answering the common questions.
Hasselblad hasn’t built some ‘speeds and feeds’ D850, 5DSR-baiting weapon, and the more time you spend with it the more you get the feeling those cameras weren’t even a blip on its radar, as Hasselblad was aiming to create something with a different purpose.
It’s not a fast camera, but then there are many cameras built to attack a moment or subject, whereas X1D is refreshing in that it allows you to savor it.
Now, I’m not going to say it’s perfect by any means, it’s not. It’s still a bit slower than I’d like, and there are things like a joystick I’d imagine many would prefer it to have, but as a tool for making you feel special, it stands apart. And when it produces it’ll bring tears to your eyes.
So to come full circle, it is, perhaps, the camera that signposts the way to Hasselblad’s future; maybe most notably that out of a venerable and storied past, there will be one. And one we will look forward to.
** Hasselblad X1D is now $6,495 as of June 2018.
*We will hopefully get to spend some time with the updated version of the X1D so see just how far it has come.
Images: All photographs are copyrighted and have been used with permission by Kishore Sawh for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the photographer.