First Thoughts on the Hasselblad H4D-40

11.28.11 | 3 Comments

In late 2010, Hasselblad USA had a special promotion in which it would include a lens of one’s choice when a Hasselblad medium format digital camera was purchased (that’s the gist of it; I didn’t see the ad, so I may have some of the details wrong). At the time, I was waffling over my love affair with film (discussed in a previous post), and I decided to purchase the Hasselblad H4D-40 along with the Hasselblad 35-90mm f/4-5.6 lens.

Despite the fact I was getting a very expensive lens nearly for free, I was still paying more than I had ever dreamed of paying for a camera body. I don’t earn money from my photography, and for many that’s a significant reason to not spend so much on any photography equipment.

Nevertheless, I made the leap. Now, nine months later, if I had it to do over again, with the advantage of knowing what I know now, I would make the same leap without hesitation. This post, while not a full review or evaluation, will provide my initial thoughts regarding the H4D-40.

The outstanding attribute of the H4D system is, IMO, the tonal range the camera is able to capture in a single exposure and which the Phocus software is able to bring out from the digital file. The first time I came to appreciate this is when I took a photo of some storm clouds, and the light varied from very bright clouds in the sky to wheat fields in shadow on the ground. I was impressed when I looked at the histogram after taking the shot, and I was astounded when I saw the image on my computer screen and later in a print. That first photo is shown here:

Storm clouds above Skyrocket Road Near Prescott, WA. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 35-90mm f/-5.6 lens.

The camera came with two PDF manuals, one covering the camera and the other covering the software (Phocus) that brings photos from the camera, makes corrections and edits to the digital files, and then saves them in a designated place (it does more than that, but that’s its main function).

I found the camera manual to be well-organized and fairly easy to understand. I also found the camera’s menu system, in which options regarding the functions of the camera can be selected, to be fairly intuitive. Navigation through the menu system has not been difficult, I’ve been able to easily access my most used function (2-second timer, a.k.a. 2-second delay in raising the mirror to the actual opening of the shutter to make the exposure after the shutter button is pressed), and I’ve easily transferred lens focusing from the shutter button to another button on the back of the camera. Much of this is important to many photographers who do a lot of photography.

The camera handles well in my hands. I always shoot from a tripod, but I would anticipate no difficulty using this camera hand-held. The only handling difficulty I may have is removing the lens with one hand, simply because the lens barrel is relatively large and it can be difficult to get a good grip, press the lens release button, and twist the lens off in one motion, especially if the camera is on an elevated tripod. Fortunately, the lens does not have to rotate far before it disengages from the body; this seems to be a characteristic of Hasselblad cameras, because the same was true of my Hasselblad 501cm film camera. Note: I have fairly large hands and I like to lift weights; a more diminutive, less strong person may find themselves using two hands to change lenses and to mount the camera on a tripod.

If I had a complaint about the body, it would be regarding the battery. A fully charged battery will generally last just for a medium-long day of shooting, and then it requires a number of hours to fully recharge when plugged into an electrical outlet. This is in strong contrast to the battery on my Canon 1DsMkIII which seems to last for days of shooting and then recharges in relatively short order. Sorry I can’t quantify this, but it’s a very distinct difference. As a result of this characteristics of the Hasselblad battery, I carry two such batteries as well as a battery holder that can run the camera with three CR123 lithium batteries.

A second complaint that I hear from some Hasselblad owners is the relatively poor resolution of the LCD screen on the back of the camera. It can be very difficult to get a good view on that screen of the photo that has just been taken, even with hardware improvement that was recently implemented to improve screen resolution and function. However, I’ve never used a screen to evaluate the adequacy of a photograph except in the most gross sense. Instead, I use the screen for the histogram, and I don’t expect this to change even with an improved screen. I use the screens on my Canon cameras in the same manner.

My experience with the Phocus software has had its frustrations. I must quickly add that the software is more integrated into the characteristics and use of this system than I’ve found in any other camera system I’ve owned. It’s hard for me to think of the camera by itself; the Phocus software is a very significant component of the Hasselblad system.

In general, I’ve found the software manual to be less clear than its hardware counterpart. Most especially, I’ve found the software to be less intuitive; it just doesn’t seem to manage the files in the way that I would expect. It has been a struggle to get the images where I can view them, select some and discard others, and then save the edited image and it’s RAW original in a specified location. It took a few months with the camera to have a photo session that went smoothly from start to finish when processing photos.

Despite the difficulties I’ve had understanding Phocus software when files are being moved around, I’m incredibly impressed with the ability of the software to bring out the most from a RAW file to a finished photograph. Processing a file that’s on my screen has been relatively easy, intuitive, and very thorough. I’m sure there are features that I have not yet discovered, but what I have found has sometimes made any additional processing with Photoshop completely unnecessary. I will soon have a very smooth and powerful workflow as well as two great partners in hardware and software.

An aspect of the Hasselblad system that was new to me is the ongoing relationship that is expected between the new camera buyer and the Hasselblad dealer. To help with my difficulties in understanding Phocus, I should be going to the dealer who sold me the camera. That’s a relationship that I’ve never had or expected after purchasing any previous camera system. The problem I have in this regard is that my camera was a special leftover from Hasselblad’s promotional program of 2010, and only a single dealer in Detroit had a deal like this available when I decided to make the leap. My dealer, therefore, is in Detroit. Perhaps I should have or still could initiate that on-going relationship, but I have not yet pursued it.

I started out using my “old” “V” lenses from the 501cm film camera by purchasing an adapter that enabled their use on the H4D. However, they were manual focus only and required a cable to be attached to the sensor in order to be fully functional. This was a hassle, and I soon made it my goal to use “H” rather than “V” lenses; most of the “H” lenses are designed and meant for use on the H4D and other Hasselblad “H” cameras.

New “H” lenses are expensive. Fortunately (at least for me), new lenses seem to experience a sharp decline in value when they leave the camera store; it’s somewhat like buying a new car. All of my additional lenses (28mm HCD, 100mm HC, 150mm HC, 120mm HC macro, 210mm HC, 300mm HC, and 1.7x converter) have been purchased used, in excellent condition with relatively low activations (number of times the lens has taken a picture), for about 50% of the price of a new lens (37% at the low end and 67% at the high end). As a result, I feel that I have a nice range of lenses for not a huge outlay of funds, and I’d be able to recoup most of my lens costs if I had to sell my equipment in the near future.

I’m finding the H4D to be somewhat overlapping in its functions as a landscape camera with my Canon 1DsMkIII. The fact that I also have a Canon 1DMkIV makes the 1DsIII have an advantage only at very wide angles. However, when traveling to faraway destinations for once-in-a-lifetime trips, I would prefer to have two camera bodies that use the same lenses. For that reason alone, I plan to keep both Canon camera bodies.

I once said I had all of the camera equipment I would ever need. That was two camera bodies and several lenses ago. I’m thrilled to be using the H4D-40, and the Canon bodies complete it in special ways. This time I really mean it when I say that I have all of the camera equipment I will ever need. Except maybe for lights if I try my hand at portraiture. Except maybe for extension tubes if I want to get serious with macrophotography. Except maybe for a really nice walk-around camera for non-photography trips (if such a trip exists). If my photography is ever exceptional, it will be in this sense of the word.


  • On 11.30.11 Paul Mongillo wrote these words:

    I enjoyed your review..although it made me a bit jealous. I may have talked to you about this before, but with all the money you have tied up in your equipement have you looked into personal property insurance with your homeowners policy. I have about $6000 worth of stuff insured and it cost about $8 per month. There is no deductable and you are covered no matter what happens or where in the world. I don’t even need to insure by camera body when I ship it for service because that is covered as well. X biologists like us usually can’t afford to replace a $2000 lens without blinking and eye let alone a digital Hasseblad. Thanks Steve.

  • On 04.27.13 Erik Johansson wrote these words:

    Great review, I’m also considering moving to hasselblad. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • On 05.18.13 Clark wrote these words:

    That is such a good photograph. You say you don’t make money from photography – I’m sure you could sell that print!