by Larry Lytle

Published Winter ’09

Studio Testing Medium-Format

Here in the beginning of 2009, some camera manufacturers are in the unenviable position of having to provide platforms for two media—film and digital. When you think about it, this occurrence is unprecedented in the history of photography. There have been changes—from Daguerreotypes to glass plate, from glass plate to roll film (for brevities sake I left out a few in between). Whatever the substrate, the “capture device” was always silver or dye-based and the means for printing either through contact or projection. So, except for the development of new bells and whistles to improve the camera, the technology remained essentially the same.

Hasselblad, along with many other camera manufacturers, are in a similar position. They have to offer two camera bodies, one for film and one for digital. Or, in the case of medium-format, they have a camera body that, by switching the back, accomplishes the change from digital to film. In the olden days with film, one could use the same body and change out the back to shoot either transparency or various print films. And, although the Hasselblad HD3II-39 accommodates either a film or digital back, I tested this camera using only the digital back.

Getting Acquainted

When I opened the case, I was impressed by its size. I had been used to a smaller medium-format camera. The weight of this camera comes in at just under five lbs. with the 80mm lens. A bit heavy for constant hand held shooting, but fine when mounted on a tripod or studio stand.

I turned on my computer and popped in the tutorial on Phocus, the new capture and conversion software that ships with the kit. It appears to be a great program for tethered shooting, and/or for browsing and converting downloaded files. After viewing the tutorial, in happy anticipation, I attempted to load the program and found that I couldn’t. With a brief phone call I found out that you must run system 10.5 for the Mac and have at least 4 gigs of ram. So I used FlexColor, the precursor to Phocus, and although the interface isn’t nearly as slick, it works adequately.

Since I’m primarily a studio photographer, I went about setting up a still life. I set up my strobes, tethered the camera to my iMac and began shooting. Trying out a new camera is time consuming; attempting to figure out all the buttons and what they do. Hasselblad provided only a digital manual. And so, working my way through the buttons and dials I found them to be fairly logical, if not sometimes a bit complicated. The one strange dial is the rear control wheel, which is vertical instead of horizontal. It took a bit of thumb retraining to get used to it. However, it probably keeps you from accidentally bumping it and changing a setting.

As I got the feel of the camera it occurred to me that this is not a grab-shot camera. I’m sure that Hasselblad did not intend it to be one. It is more like handling a 4 x 5 camera as opposed to a film based 120 camera. You have to navigate through pushing buttons, dialing in choices and then selecting that choice. Each different shot takes time and thought. For speedier shooting there are two Program modes as well as an Aperture preferred and a Shutter preferred mode. I must admit I used only the manual mode.

The HD311-39 Delivers

The lens was excellent— I got spot-on color rendition and good contrast. When I compared the image on my computer to the colors of the flowers, they were satisfyingly accurate with no blown out highlights. The edges of the image were as sharp as its center. And, with the contrast and illumination of the subject, the auto focus worked quickly and efficiently. The cropped area of the flowers in one of my images, which is still a large image, held sharpness. This is due I’m sure both to the quality of the lens, and the large CCD sensor. I have a caveat about any lens in the digital camera realm. For the non-techy photographer, like me, it is difficult to know whether the sharpness of the image is due to the lens or the sensor or a combination of the two. You can know only through specialized testing or by comparing a consumer lens (not applicable in this case) with a pro lens using the same camera body and subject.

The Downside

Despite the kudos above, I had problems with the lens/AF system. First, although excellent in good contrasty light, the auto focus wouldn’t lock on in low or flat lighting. Although you can manually focus the lens while still in auto focus, if you want to switch the auto focus off you have to go into a menu and select manual focus. I’m not sure if the auto focus problem is a result of the type of mechanism Hassalblad uses to focus (“…a passive center cross phase type detection sensor”). Whatever type of auto focusing system the camera utilizes, it uses the center of the lens to do it. That means if you are shooting in low light, you have to point the center of the lens at your main subject (hoping that it has enough light) while holding the shutter button halfway down as you recompose the image.

The f-stops and shutter speeds are in quarter stop increments, which is nice. But the ISO range is small, 50, 100, 200 and 400. I don’t know if this is because of sensor size limitations or noise problems. It appears that Leaf offers an IS0 of 800 on several of their backs. In general use, I found 400 to be fine in handling noise, but when combined with a shutter speed just over a second, you can see noise in the shadow areas.

The white balance options run the typical gamut. However, there is no auto white balance setting. Using the camera tethered to a computer, FlexColor gives you remote control over ISO, f-stop and shutter speed, but not white balance. This is curious since, once again, this is offered in many 35mm D-SLR remote capture programs.

Processing RAW files, as it is with any digital camera, is an important issue. Hasselblad has engineered this camera, indeed all their digital cameras, to be closed systems. You can’t use any other manufacturers’ backs or lenses. That is fine, and I feel that it makes for a more reliable and integrated system. My point of contention though is that Phocus or FlexColor are the only two programs that can process Hassalblad’s proprietary .fff file. (It yields a roughly 89 mg file that when processed grows to 112 mgs.) Once again fine, as long as Hassablad will support it, and as long as you possess one of the two aforementioned programs to convert it. In processing, the .fff file FlexColor or Phocus gives you the ability to convert the file to a DNG or TIFF file.

Bottom Line

So, would I pay $21,995 for this camera, or any digital camera for that matter? Remember too, that this is only the base price. By the time you add some more lenses and an upgrade to your computer for the large files you’ll be handling, you’re probably going to spend at least another $10,000 to $20,000. If you’re a steady commercial photographer billing over a quarter of a million a year, this camera would definitely be in the running (as well as the Leaf, Mamiya, Phase One and Sinar who all market medium-format digital cameras). The answer comes down to the demands of your clients or your own personal shooting requirements. If you need the bigger files, then you bite the bullet and buy the equipment that fulfills those needs. To use an old cliché, “The proper tool for the proper job.”


MSRP: $21,995 (comes with an 80mm lens and 39-megapixel digital back)
  • Size/Weight:
  • 8.3”H x 6“W x 5.1”D, 5 lbs. (with 80mm lens and digital back)
  • Image Sensor:
  • 39 MP
  • Sensor Dimensions:
  • 36.8 x 49.1 mm. (1.44 x 1.93 inches)
  • Sensor:
  • CCD with IR filter
  • Maximum Resolution:
  • 5412 x 7212 pixels
  • Color Definition:
  • 16 bit
  • Still Recording format:
  • .fff (Hasselblad RAW file format)
  • Memory:
  • 2 GB CF card holds 40 images on average
  • Capture Rate:
  • 1.4 seconds per capture
  • ISO Range:
  • 50, 100, 200 and 400
  • Shutter Range:
  • 32 seconds to 1/800
  • Display:
  • 3-inch LCD, 90º through the lens viewfinder or waist-level finder
  • Manual Exposure Control:
  • Manual, Av, Tv, two Program modes
  • Exposure Metering:
  • Spot, Center Spot and Center Weighted
  • Special Features:
  • Film Compatible
  • Provided Accessories:
  • Conversion software, AC battery charger, Li-ion battery
  • Power Source:
  • Li-ion batteries
  • Contact:
  • www.hasselbladusa.com

3 Responses to “HASSELBLAD H3DII-39 Review”

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