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Using the Hasselblad H4D In an Outside Studio

by Chris Gampat on 06/26/2011

A couple of weeks back, I helped my friend a co-worker Jason Geller with a test and shooting with the Hasselblad H4D-40. When using it, I mostly stuck with the 80mm F/2.8 lens that the camera can be bundled with. Now, 40MP and Medium format is usually above what I’d shoot with (I’m at most a full frame guy and own a Canon 5D Mk II) but I decided to give it a try. I came back floored by the results—especially when I let my creative side (both the dark and the fun) come out to play.

The Studio Setup

Jason loves to use natural light. To get the best light we could, we shot during the middle of the day (don’t stop there, just trust me.) In his backyard, we set up a black background and a scrim above that to diffuse the sunlight coming into the backyard. The scrim was large—just imagine the equivalent of a giant shower curtain set up and diffusing the incoming sunlight. This softened the light a lot and provided for some really nice light when used with a reflector.

The Camera in Use

We tethered the camera to Jason’s laptop, which was running the Focus software from Hasselblad. Transmission to the computer was fairly quick and we were able to view the images easily on the Macbook screen. This was much better than viewing them on the H4D’s, which I felt wasn’t up to par for most photographers since there are many cameras with higher grade LCD screens. We often just used the camera’s metering and the TruFocus setting on the camera to get our shots.

To be fair, the TruFocus system is actually a bit slow, and at times I resorted to using the regular single point focusing.

First off, let me say that Hasselblad’s metering is really quite good: in fact I’d say that it’s the best I’ve ever seen in a camera.

The camera felt great in my hands, and had some heft to it. I honestly thought that the heft would be too much when shooting handheld since the shutter is very heavy and could cause camera shake. However, that statement proved to be wrong: each image came out very, very sharp. Jason and I traded places being the model and photographer.

I couldn’t believe just how amazing the images came out looking with the diffused natural light. To even the light out some more, we added a white reflector camera left since the scrim was camera right and at least a good 10 feet in the air.

I kept messing with Jason, telling him that Natural light was for hipsters. In fact, I even attached a Canon 580 EX II to the camera via the PC cable and synched the shutter speed so fast that it killed all the ambient light. The result was something like in the opening image of this story.

If you’ve been a long time reader of this site, you’ll know that I had hands on time with this camera before and also showed off one of the first sample photos from the camera. When I tested the camera out, it was in a traditional studio where we had full control of the light. Outside, we didn’t totally have the luxury because the sun kept moving, and therefore changed the way the shadows looked.

The Results

The color rendering from the Hasselblad H4D-40 is simply stunning, and the dynamic range is very wide which means that the files can always be saved in post if needed. Granted, the meter is quite good and you may not even have to in the first place.

While we’re talking more about the Hasselblad’s, this is perhaps the most flattering I’ve ever seen myself captured. That’s owed to the Hasselblad and the way that the CCD sensor renders colors. Now, I’m not sure how this would do against a Canon or Nikon top-notch professional camera, but I can tell you that their colors would not look or feel as life-like as this. In fact, they’d probably be more punchy and saturated.

Now, Jason got the Focus software but I wasn’t able to get my own, so I had to edit my RAW files using Adobe Lightroom. On each of the darker, “Jack the Ripper” type photos, I boosted the contrast, increased the clarity and sharpness, dodged the axe, raised the red levels, and desaturated the overall image a bit to achieve that particular look.

Before, the axe was very, very dark (almost pitch black). However, I raised the exposure, clarity and contrast on it to look the way it does in each photo. The photo directly above is the original and the photo below is the edited version. Once again, these were purposely meant to look evil and dark.

That was my process for editing pretty much all of the photos from that particular session with variations on each. To do these photos, I shot at 1/800th and at F/8 with the Canon 580 EX II set to 1/4 power output with a Sto-fen Omnibounce on the flash head.

Then what I did was I placed the flash above and camera-left. This was all done with the camera being held with one hand while the other held the flash—proof of just how easily one can still obtain sharp images with a heavy camera. To ensure it didn’t drop, I wrapped the strap around my wrist.

I didn’t only shoot dark images though: I also shot normal portraits. There is something about the Hasselblad look that I can’t really put my finger on, but the color and the sharpness of the lenses working together just seems so…perfect; dare I say it. This is how photography ought to be.

What we noticed is that the background changed from black to gray because of the sunlight hitting it. In our minds, we thought it was black until we actually looked at it. This proves that the Hasselblad’s color accuracy is also really stellar.

Combined with a flash meter and the Macro lens that came with the camera, Jason turned the flash on me with a ring flash attachment and was able to shoot this photo of me.

Needless to say, I love it despite the focusing being very slightly off. As a note, this was human error, he was too close. Either way, it’s an excellent photo.

Parting Ways with the Camera

Eventually, we had to return the Hasselblad H4D-40. Though the camera was amazing and I still miss it, I couldn’t justify the purchase to myself (though Jason’s considering it, I hear.) The reason why is because of the fact that I already have good cameras, and I rarely need that much resolution. Additionally, I need better high ISO performance than what a medium format camera could offer me.

However, if I did need one, I would not hesitate to rent one and I believe that other camera manufacturers need to learn from Hasselblad’s metering algorithms and focusing system with TruFocus. Indeed, this was designed for photographers who use the center point and recompose. When you recompose, the TruFocus system refocuses to ensure that the target is sharply in focus.

Don’t get me wrong as well, I believe that the photographer’s vision comes first and gear comes second. But the Hasselblad is a tool that one can use to ensure that almost (not sports or fast moving objects) any vision they have will be accurately shot.

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