D2X vs. H3D (medium format digital) -- my impressions (part 1)

Started Apr 23, 2007 | Discussions thread
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Ben Hattenbach
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D2X vs. H3D (medium format digital) -- my impressions (part 1)
Apr 23, 2007

I’ve been shooting a D2X for a couple of years now and decided to give medium format a try. I acquired a Hasselblad H3D-39, a decision influenced in significant part by Hasselblad’s new 28mm lens for which Hasselblad’s software automatically corrects distortion and chromatic aberration. The H3D and the 28mm accompanied me to Death Valley this weekend and these are my initial impressions.

I am making this posting because I had a difficult time finding this sort of information on the web before making my purchase. I hope that those of you considering a jump to medium format digital find this useful. I’m a professional, but not a professional photographer. I am in no way presenting this as a comprehensive or scientific analysis, or suggesting that in the abstract one camera is better than the other—they are plainly different horses for different courses.

Ease of use: The ergonomics of the D2X are phenomenal – it is simply not a fair fight. Many of the functions I frequently use on the D2X, which are directly accessible through buttons on the D2X body, are buried in menus in the H3D, menus that are something of a challenge to navigate. This includes white balance, ISO, and deleting recent photos. In fairness, the H3D does have a user-programmable button and I’m still becoming familiar with the camera, but I would put the D2X ahead in this category by a wide margin.

Autofocus: The H3D has only one center focus point. Focus is slow relative to the D2X and seems to require far more light. In low light where the D2X would have no problem whatsoever, the H3D often hunts without locking focus.

Display: I’m sure there is a reason for it, but the display on the digital back of the H3D is abysmal. The resolution, quite seriously, seems materially worse than that on your average $99 point-and-shoot. It is useful for displaying a histogram and that’s about it. I hear that this shortcoming is shared by most medium format digital backs out there.

White balance: The D2X auto white balance rarely requires correction. The H3D does not even determine a white balance. You can dial it in when you’re shooting based on your own measurement at the scene, or you can shoot a white balance card and use eyedroppers in post. This was a disappointment, but I’ll live with it. At this point you may be asking yourself why anyone in their right mind would ever want an H3D. Read on.

Light meter: The H3D light meter does seem quite accurate. With my D2X I typically dial in at least a third of a stop of exposure compensation. This seems to be unnecessary as a general rule with the H3D.

Viewfinder: I never had a problem with the D2X finder. The H3D viewfinder is much larger and brighter.

Weather sealing: The H3D, unlike the D2X, is not weather sealed. I used it in 50-60 MPH winds in Death Valley this morning (so strong that it was a real challenge to remain standing) and there does not seem to be much dust on the sensor. Time will tell whether the lack of weather sealing will become an issue, but the camera certainly passed the first test.

Mirror up: The H3D has a large mirror to accompany its large sensor and large viewfinder. When the mirror goes up there is a significant kick. While I have been able to take sharp pictures handheld, the H3D is at home on a solid tripod. I use a Gitzo 1325, RRS BH-55 and RRS L-bracket. The H3D has an easily accessible mirror up button on the front of the body. The button puts the mirror up and it stays up until the button is pressed again. Thus, when bracketing, the mirror does not go up and down between exposures like on the D2X.

Lenses: Hasselblad lenses are expensive, but once you hold one you will understand why. They need to cast a far larger image on the sensor and, thus, are far larger. They are also made with impeccable workmanship. They are built like tanks and weigh approximately as much. They lack advanced features such as VR, but as mentioned, they live on tripods so this distinction is one without much of a difference.

The lenses feature a leaf shutter. Consequently, there is less shutter vibration than with a focal plane shutter. You can hardly hear the shutter open and shut. The price you pay is that the maximum shutter speed on the H3D is 1/800th. For landscapes this is a worthwhile tradeoff.

(part 2 to follow)

-Ben

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