Hasselblad H1:Hyper-Blad!

Hasselblad's H1 is the most advanced medium-format SLR ever. But at $5,700, is it the best?



The original Hasselblad 1600F of 1948 was the world's first 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 camera based on a compact, box-shaped body, to which lenses, backs, and finder modules could be fitted. This simple, elegant concept and 2-1/4-square format were maintained for over 50 years. Although shutters changed with various models, today's V-series Hasselblads bear more than a passing resemblance to their illustrious forebears.

But for all their Rolls-Roycean panache and performance, the 2-1/4-square Hasselblads had reached the end of the line in terms of technological development. It was simply not feasible to produce an autofocusing, multimode, all-electronically controlled Hasselblad with full film and digital interfaces within the classic body. This led to a five-year development project for the H1, a Hasselblad for the 21st century.

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What's HOT and what's NOT
HOT: • Full interface with film and digital backs • Outstanding AF performance • Very bright eye-level finder • Comfortable ergonomics • Multimode autoexposure • Easy film loading • Motorized advance to 2 fps • Programmable electronic controls • Full-info LCD readouts • Built-in pop-up flash • Flash sync to 1/800 sec • Built-in dark slide NOT: • Won't work without batteries • Lenses largish (except 80mm) • Accepts only HC lenses • Computer-style controls, readouts require familiarization

Format follows function
While Hasselblad maintained its signature modular design, excellent ergonomics, and unsurpassed quality, some things had to give. The most obvious is the format, which is 6x4.5cm (2-1/4 x 2-5/8) on 120/220 rollfilm instead of the time-honored, much-touted 2-1/4-square format provided by the still-current line of V-system Hasselblads. Given the performance of modern films and digital systems, the reduced format size should have little effect on image quality, provides more pictures per roll (16 on 120, 32 on 220), and helps keep camera size and weight down. However, the photographer's ability to crop each square image into a horizontal or vertical format is lost, as is the ability to mount V-system lenses on the H1.

The second major change: All Hasselblad SLRs were made in Sweden, with German-made Carl Zeiss lenses and (in leaf-shutter models) Prontor/Compur shutters. The H1's main body module is still made in Sweden, and many design elements (such as the unique electromagnetic interlens leaf shutters) are of Swedish origin. However, finder screens and cross-field AF-sensor technology are supplied by Minolta. The lenses, shutters, meter finder, and film magazines are all made by Fuji in Japan. Fuji's engineers also had a hand in the H1's design and production engineering. Indeed, Fuji is marketing a Fuji-branded version of the H1 in Japan only.

The Hasselblad H1 has a remarkable number of unique features in its class. Most important, it's the first medium-format SLR to provide a complete electronic interface for compatible digital backs, with histograms displayed on the LCD atop the grip, and the ability to adjust gray balance and delete images, among other things. This month, we put the H1 through its paces as a film camera. In a future issue, we'll assess its performance as a digital camera.

Grab the future
The first thing you notice when holding the H1 is its distinctive light-and-dark-gray color scheme with black accents, which looks sporty but "serious." The second is its excellent feel. The integral right-hand grip is anatomically contoured and nestles very comfortably in your hand, with your right index finger falling naturally on the large shutter-release button atop the sloping front section. In shooting position, the camera feels substantial but not overly heavy, and (with the 80mm lens) it's superbly balanced. The main mode-selection buttons arrayed along the main LCD panel atop the grip are all easily accessible.

Bring the camera to eye level and you see an extraordinarily large, bright, crisp viewing image with an AF-zone rectangle and spotmetering circle inscribed in the center, and a commendably clear, illuminated, full-information LCD panel below the viewing area. The H1's prismless reflex finder, a modified Kepler type, sets a new standard for the class-it's at least as bright and contrasty as that of its closest competitors, the Contax 645 and Mamiya 645 AFD. With a finder claimed to show 100 percent of the on-film image at nearly 1:1 with the 80mm lens, the image presented to the eye is significantly larger-this makes it much easier to evaluate details and focus manually.

Viewfinder: Focusing screen is very bright and contrasty. Viewfinder magnification was measured at 0.93X, an excellent result and highest among SLRs tested, including 35mm models! Screen image shows 94% of picture area (not 100% as claimed), but this is best in its class. Autofocus and time lag: Actual cross-field AF area is about 20% narrower and 20% shorter than indicated by viewfinder markings. Overall AF speed was faster than average for the class. With high-contrast target, from EV 1 to EV 2, AF took about 1.4 sec; from EV 3 to EV 6, 0.8 to 1.2 sec; from EV 7 to EV 12, 0.5 to 0.6 sec. With low-contrast target, figures were about 0.2 sec longer below EV 5 and similar to those above, from EV 7 to EV 12. AF-assist illuminator activates at EV 1 (f/2.8 and 4 sec at ISO 100), an excellent result. Time between pressing the release and shutter opening measured 160 milliseconds, slightly faster than other 645 SLRs tested. Shutter speeds: We were only able to test speeds from 2 sec to 1/500 sec (not the 1/800 top speed) on our equipment. Tested speeds were extremely accurate, with virtually no error detected from 2 to 1/250 sec, and about 1/5-stop underexposure at 1/500 sec. Exposure accuracy: Centerweighted metering, in all autoexposure modes and in manual metering mode, was extremely accurate, with over/underexposure from 1/3- to 2/5-stop from EV 1 to EV 6, and underexposure of less than 1/10-stop from EV 7 to EV 17. In spotmetering mode, exposure accuracy was also extremely high, with less than 1/5-stop over/underexposure from EV 1 to EV 17. The centerweighted metering pattern was perfectly centered for both horizontal and vertical shooting. The spotmetering pattern covers about 4% of the picture area, and corresponds almost perfectly with the 7.4mm-diameter spotmetering circle inscribed on the finder screen. Sound level: Overall, very quiet.

Let's load up
The H1's snap-on film backs have built-in dark slides, a great convenience since you don't have to remove and store a separate slide. The control buttons atop the back turn data imprinting on and off, set the frame counter to display the number of frames taken or remaining, set the film length (120 or 220), number of exposures (8, 16, or 32), and ISO (from 6 to 6400). There's also a bar-code icon that sets film speed and ISO automatically when you load bar-coded films (Fuji is the only manufacturer currently offering this feature).

Remove the magazine's film-holder insert, which comes off and loads in the usual way. Since the H1, like all Hasselblads, features an S-curved, reverse-curl film path, it's especially important to wind it one complete turn so the paper leader is firmly affixed to the take-up spool. If you don't, we discovered that the end of the paper leader can slip out of the take-up spool and the film won't advance. If this happens, or if you forget to open the dark slide before shooting, you'll get a warning in the viewfinder.

When the camera is turned on, the film automatically advances to the first frame as soon as the film holder is reattached and an H1 logo is displayed on the LCD atop the grip. Press the shutter-release button partway in and the LCD will display your present camera settings. Taking into consideration the vast array of settings and functions built into the H1, we found the camera controls logical, intuitive, and straightforward. For example, if you want to change the AF setting, press the AF button, and use the front control wheel behind the shutter release to scroll through the AF options: AFS (single-shot AF with focus priority), AFC (continuous AF with release priority), and MF (manual focus). To select your option, look at the top band on the LCD, where you'll see two choices: "exit" and "save." To save (that is, activate) the setting on display, press the button closest to the word "save" (in this case, the Drive button).

The same basic procedure is used to choose drive, flash, and intervalometer settings-you turn the front control dial to scroll through different sub-menus, press Enter, scroll to the specific setting you want, and press Save to activate it. Because the dot-matrix LCD displays words and easily understandable icons, we found the whole process of learning to control this electronically complex camera remarkably quick and user-friendly. The same basic system is used for metering settings, which are a function of the reflex finder unit. They're controlled with buttons marked +/- (exposure compensation) and Exp (meter modes and patterns) on the finder's right side, but still conveniently accessible.

Just shoot it
Okay, let's do some shooting. Bring the H1 to eye level, press the shutter release partway in and, if you're in an AF mode, the H1 will rapidly snap into focus. The very legible, illuminated dot-matrix LCD panel displays meter mode, meter pattern, aperture, shutter speed, film status, frame number, exposure compensation, focus-aid/confirmation LED arrows, and, if applicable, flash-ready and warning LEDs. Shutter-release action is very smooth and predictable, with a clear differentiation between the first part of the stroke (meter on, autofocus) and the follow-through (shutter firing) phase. When the shutter fires, you'll hear a sharp "clack." No, that's not the sound of the shutter, but of the mirror flipping out of the light path and returning to viewing position. This is followed by a softer "ssst" as the film advances.

In fact, we found that the H1's actual shutter noise is extremely low, but the "click" of taking a picture is fairly loud-typical of medium-format cameras with instant-return mirrors. More important, mirror-induced vibration (perceived as camera shake) is extraordinarily low, according to our tests. Hasselblad claims this is partly attributable to special circuitry that slows the mirror's action just before exposure. In any case, we found the H1 to be an excellent choice among 2-1/4 SLRs for shooting handheld at slow speeds, as borne out by our field test results.

Focus on AF
Another area where the H1 excels is in AF performance. It's the only medium-format autofocus SLR with a central cross-field AF sensor, and it certainly is a giant step ahead of all other medium-format cameras without cross sensors. In low light, with low-contrast subjects, it snaps into focus with speed and alacrity. Under unfavorable focusing conditions, it proved noticeably better than its competitors. Aiding its stellar performance is a near-infrared AF-aid light built into the grip, with a tested range of 7.3 meters (about 24 feet).

No AF system can autofocus under all conditions, and the H1 clearly indicates when it can't. If your subject is too close, only the left-hand focus-confirmation arrow lights up. In other cases, when AF cannot be achieved, both AF arrows flash in warning. To focus manually, just keep the shutter button partially depressed and turn the manual focusing ring. However, you must then judge the sharpness of the finder screen image visually-the arrows confirm focus only in manual-focus (M) mode.

The H1's built-in flash is a marvel of compact, integrated design. Push a tab on the left side of the finder housing to pop it up. When it's fully charged, a lightning bolt (which also indicates low flash and flash OK) lights up in the finder. When the flash is in use, the metering system continues to read out the ambient light exposure and indicate the deviation from the correct exposure via the exposure-compensation scale. By turning the front wheel, we were able to easily balance the flash-to-ambient ratio to get any effect we wanted, from a hint of fill to an all-flash exposure. Brilliant!

This technique is easiest to use in A, S, or M modes. In P mode, the camera automatically selects a 1/60 sec exposure. This flash unit also reads TTL and OTF (off-the-film), and we found it to be extremely accurate. While its power output (Guide Number of 40 at ISO 100) is reasonable for a small built-in unit, it won't cover the field of lenses shorter than 80mm-you'll see light falloff with wide-angle lenses.

As our lab data suggest, the Hasselblad H1 provides a very high level of performance in terms of exposure and shutter-speed accuracy, autofocus speed, and (judging by the 80mm lens for starters) optical performance. These data are fully corroborated by its field performance, which we found generally outstanding. We shot close to 1000 pictures on a variety of color transparency, color negative, and black-and-white films. The H1 acquitted itself admirably, producing sharp, accurate available-light and flash exposures even under less-than-favorable conditions.

Nobody's perfect
Criticisms? You have to be precise when installing the finder unit, lens, or film magazine. If you're sloppy, what you're mounting may seem to click in place, but the contacts on the module and body may not mate perfectly. Result: a strange reading on the grip LCD (such as "autofocus not possible with this lens," when an AF lens is mounted). Once, the camera wouldn't turn on at all; we cured the problem by removing the finder unit and remounting it properly, as suggested in the manual. Speaking of the manual, what we received with our H1 was a "preliminary version." It's a valiant effort, but we found it to be organizationally challenged in places, with a few rough edges. Hasselblad expects an improved manual to be in the hands of H1 owners by late this year.

So what, in the final analysis, do we think of the H1? Frankly, it's the camera Hasselblad had to produce for the company to prosper in the future. On balance, they did a splendid job. No, it's not all European, and it's not compatible with 2-1/4-square Hasselblads. But, in our opinion, it is also the best integrated, most technologically advanced medium-format SLR on the planet, and the one best positioned to allow photographers to expand into today's brave new world of combined film and digital photography.

Camera: Hasselblad H1 6x4.5cm AF SLR. Approx. street price: $5,700 with 80mm f/2.8 Hasselblad HC lens, standard film magazine, and eye-level reflex meter finder. Focusing and viewing: Automatic focus using passive phase-detection system with central cross-field sensor, electronic-focus confirmation in manual mode, single-shot and continuous AF modes, instant manual-focus override; AF range EV 1-19 at ISO 100; infrared focus-assist beam in grip rated to 6 meters (about 20 feet); spherical Acute-matte finder screen shows central AF-zone rectangle and spotmetering circle; lightable dot-matrix finder LCD displays exposure mode and pattern, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, frame number and film status, and flash and warning LEDs; eyepiece adjustable from -4 to +2.5 diopters. Shutter and exposure controls: Electromagnetically controlled leaf shutters in each lens provide speeds from 18 hours to 1/800 sec plus B and T; adjustable program, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority autoexposure, plus metered manual; exposure compensation ±5 EV in 1¼3-EV steps; programmable autobracketing up to five frames in 1¼3-, 1¼2-, or 1-EV steps, intervalometer programmable from 2 to 32 exposures and 1-sec to 24-hour intervals, 2- to 59-sec self-timer, multi-exposure mode, IR remote connection. Metering: Through-the-lens metering with Hasselblad HC lenses; shiftable program modes allow instant equivalent-exposure or exposure-compensation settings; Pv mode includes lens focal length in exposure calculations; average (70% of image area), centerweighted (20%) and spotmetering (2%) modes, zone system mode, AE lock; metering ranges at f/2.8 and ISO 100: Average, EV 1-21; centerweighted, EV 1-21; spot, EV 2-21. Loading and winding: Interchangeable film backs or optional digital backs. Manual film loading with auto wind-on and first-frame positioning, auto film length and ISO setting with bar-coded film, manual settings with non-bar-coded film, back settable to count frames exposed or remaining; single frame, or continuous advance to 2 fps; manual ISO settings,16 to 6400. Flash: Built-in, manual, pop-up autoflash (footage Guide Number 40 at ISO 100) covers field of 80mm lens, makes through-lens and off-the-film readings, with adjustable fill ratio; TTL centerweighted flash system can be used with Metz SCA 3002 flash system and SCA 3902 adapter via dedicated hot-shoe; PC contact; in flash-metering mode, camera operates as a flashmeter; X-sync at all speeds; rear sync option. Other features: Integral tripod socket and quick-coupling plate; programmable data-imprinting function includes date, time, settings, modes, or user-input data imprinted outside image area; user button and profiles mode allow quick selection of specific groups of user-input settings; with compatible digital backs, LCD on grip displays histograms and controls, which can be used to set gray balance, delete images, etc.; 21 custom settings; true exposure mode corrects for deviations due to shutter characteristics; powered by three 3-volt CR123 lithium cells in camera grip or eight Ni-MH AAA cells in optional cassette.

How does the Hasselblad H1 stack up against competitors?
Contax 645
($4,000 street with 80mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Planar T* lens, meter prism and film back) A beautifully made modular SLR, the Contax features an optically excellent line of Carl Zeiss lenses, built-in motor drive with speeds up to 1.6 fps, multimode (but no program) metering, and a dedicated TTL autoflash system that provides preflash metering. Its pentaprism viewfinder is very bright and contrasty, and has manual focusing aids plus excellent finder readouts. It also has data-imprinting capability. The 645's six-sensor (no cross sensor) autofocus system is adequate in bright light but less reliable in low light or with low-contrast subjects. Sync speed at 1/90 sec; 1/125 sec with TLA-series units.

Pentax 645nii
($2,500 street with 75mm f/2.8 Pentax-FA lens) Much less expensive than the H1, the 645nii is the most compact camera in its class, handles very well, and has a fine line of AF lenses. AF performance is quite good, but it has no cross-field sensor. It does have motor drive with speeds to 2 fps, excellent finder readouts, a fine-performing six-zone multipattern metering system with all the usual modes (including spot and metered manual), mirror-up function, comprehensive on-film data imprinting, and ten custom functions. However, the 645nii lacks interchangeable film backs (and, therefore, easy digital compatibility), the viewfinder is not as bright or contrasty as its rivals, and its focal-plane shutter syncs at a slow 1/60 sec.

Mamiya 645 AFD
($3,750 street with 80mm f/2.8 Mamiya AF lens) Distinctively styled, the 645 AFD is comfortably contoured, very well-balanced, has a bright, contrasty viewfinder (fixed prism; screens are user-interchangeable), and good three-sensor, H-pattern autofocus system that focuses very quickly but has no cross-field sensor. Its metering system, providing centerweighted, spot or dual-zone evaluative readings, performs well and has all the usual modes. It has interchangeable film backs with dark-slide storage slots, and, based on our tests, its lens line is of very high quality. Considering its overall performance and relatively moderate price, the 645 AFD is the H1's top competitor, in our opinion.

Want more info? Call Hasselblad at 973-227-7320 or go to www.hasselbladusa.com.