My Switch to Medium Format

With Nikon’s D800 at a whopping 36 megapixels, why on earth did I opt for a medium format digital camera? I’ve been a Nikon shooter for years and have a bunch of professional Nikon glass and speedlites so adding a D800 to the mix seems a no brainer – or is it? There are many reasons. Bigger chip, bigger sensor. More real estate and bigger pixels. Insanely shallow depth of field. Full 16-bit color depth. Insane dynamic range and detail. To name a few. Oh, and I’m not abandoning 35mm – I’m holding steady to my D3s for everything else I won’t shoot on the Hassy.

I’d been on a medium format digital quest since last year and spent countless hours researching different camera systems. I looked at Phase One, Mamiya and Leaf even the Pentax, but the Hasselblad was always on the top of my list after I spent some time with one. Sure, I’d love a Phase One IQ system. But for the price of a new Mini Cooper, it’s a bit too far out of reach.

I knew I’d be looking at used systems and kept one eye open at all times. In the meantime, I watched as the D4 came out and then the D800. As tempting as the D800 may seem, I wanted something more than just megapixels. Whenever I saw a medium format image that I loved, it was typically Hasselblad. For the Hassy, skin tones are king. And being that portraits are my thing, it’s a great fit. Sure the Hassy system is way more locked down than that Phase One systems as those systems are more modular and have lots of interchangeable bits – from backs to lenses etc. But the handling of the Hassy body and the look and feel of the skin tones with the Hassy back sold me.

The Hasselblad has slowed me down. It takes more time to shoot. And I’m good with that. With just one focus point, there’s less flexibility on the fly and it just takes more time to focus – or even manual focus to get the focus just right. Funny though, I rarely miss focus with the Hassy and can say the humungous bright viewfinder is fantastic.


I dig that Hasselblad’s Phocus software is a free download. Sure it’s proprietary, but it’s free and has a very robust RAW converter. And there’s a free mobile version which means I can hand my iPad to an Art Director to watch live captures, while I’m tethered to my MacBook Pro. Even better is that Hasselblad just released an Adobe Lightroom 4 plugin that allows you to tether your Hasselblad with Lightroom 4. All of the functionality including the mobile connections and all thru Lightroom! Hasselblad is apparently bundling Lightroom 4 with their new H5D in addition to Phocus.

The Hasselblad H3DII-31 is a beautiful piece of machinery. 31 massive megapixels attached to a beastly tank of a camera. The Viewfinder is simply insane – so massive and bright and the thunk of the shutter will give you goosebumps. Pair the 120mm f/4 on it and suddenly the D3s seems dinky. The handling of the H3D body is fantastic. The grip feels just right in the hand and I can’t stress enough how amazing the viewfinder is. As much as I love the quality of the Phase One, I don’t like the handling of the 645DF body. It feels huge and awkward. The grip is built on to the camera and I can’t seem to find a way to handhold that camera comfortably. Interestingly, many pro photographers opt for renting Hasselblad H2D bodies with Phase One backs. The great handling and viewfinder of the Hasselblad, combined with Hassy’s amazing glass going to a Phase body.


The Hassey offers a completely different kind of image and workflow. Lighting is key. As with most medium format cameras (and even with the D800), lower ISO is better. The Hassy is not meant for low-light conditions and again, when that need arises, the D3s is there to handle those situations. If you’re primarily an available light shooter, then then medium format digital is not for you. And as a caveat, even if you want the very best quality files from the D800, you’ll still want to be at ISO 100.

I’ve already synced my Nikon SB800 speedlites and Einstein strobes with the H3DII-31 with pocketwizards – both the FlexTT5′s and PlusIII’s. Couldn’t be easier. It also helps that all the Hassy’s leaf shutter lenses sync up to 1/800 sec allowing for far greater flexibility with strobes. And it’s a bit of a must when you’re relegated to shooting 100 – 200 ISO max. Sure the H3DII-31 is capable of ISO 1600, but the noise and loss of detail isn’t worth it for me and I’d rather light the scene whenever possible to stay at low ISOs. Yes, the latest Phase IQ systems sync at 1600th sec, however to achieve that you’ll need the latest Schneider digital leaf-shutter lenses to achieve this, and as appealing as that sounds, I’m perfectly fine at 1/800th sec. (The Nikon D800 as well as most pro DSLRs sync speed maxes out at 1/250th – 1/320th sec).

I’ve seen several photographers do comparison tests with medium format digital cameras and the D800. Unsurprisingly the Hasselblad produces better results with fine details and skin tones, however it’s difficult to accurately compare two uniquely different systems. Sure Nikon has made some huge leaps in coming closer to medium format sensor quality, however you’re still limited by the quality on Nikon glass vs Hasselblad glass, 14 bit vs 16 bit color depth, and shutter sync speed to name a few.


Having shot with a D800 and being a D3s owner, I can say that the difference for me in shooting theHasselblad is stunning. I know that there are tons of folks that love to pixel peep but for me and other curious folks, the difference in shooting a D800 vs a Hasselblad is profound. Workflow, aesthetics, quality of glass all contribute to keeping the gap fairly wide. And then there’s that scenario in showing up to a job with a D800 and having the art director say she just bought one for her husband at Best Buy  Frankly I don’t give a shit what people think nor do I purchase gear to impress, but there is an air of professionalism that accompanies doing a job with a medium format digital system.

I have nothing against the D800 and may even add one to my arsenal, but for the time being, I love my Hasselblad H3DII-31. Let me repeat. I love the Hasselblad. For all of the continued amazement I’ve felt about the performance of my Nikon D3s, I don’t think I can say I’ve ever loved it. I did feel stronger feelings toward it once I got the 85mm f/1.4 G, however that certain something was never there for me. It’s always felt utilitarian – in a good way and I have a profound appreciation for it’s capabilities.

So at the end of the day, what camera is best? Really there is no clear winner. If budget is a big factor and you need to shoot past ISO 100, then the Nikon is a clear choice. Otherwise, it’s the Hasselblad all the way. At some point I could see getting rid of my 35mm Nikon gear to go fully medium format digital. Of course I would want to have my X100 or something similar in the arsenal. I wouldn’t recommend medium format digital for everyone. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it for most photographers due to its limitations and workflow, however if you’re into the look and feel of that format, you will love it.


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