Mirrorless is 'probably' the future: an interview with Hasselblad Product Manager Ove Bengtson
It is quite extraordinary for Hasselblad to produce a mirrorless camera like the X1D for a number of reasons. Firstly is the obvious: it has predominantly produced cameras with very large mirrors since its first consumer camera in 1948 - the 1600F. Second, mirrorless cameras with touch screens and electronic view finders are very modern, and we may not all think of Hasselblad as a manufacturer of entirely up-to-date electronic products.
In the X1D we are looking at a medium-format sensor in a body that can hide behind a standard high-enthusiast 35mm-style DSLR. Okay, so plenty of people will point out that it isn't 'full frame' 645 (the smallest of the 120 film formats), but it's very similar to 127 film which was considered medium format by the ISO organization. More to the point, it's much bigger than the 'full frame' 35mm format and is essentially the same size as the sensors used in Leica's S series, the Pentax 645Z, Phase One IQ3 50MP and Hasselblad's own H6D-50c.
I guess this kind of breakthrough is one we'd expect to come from what we might consider a high-tech company, not a business that has traditionally created a relatively low volume of very high-priced and principally mechanical professional tools.
Of course Hasselblad marked a technological turn around when it introduced the H6D with its new electronic platform, but this new X series camera takes what the H6D did a few steps further. Shortly after the announcement of the X1D in Gothenburg I got some time with Hasselblad product manager Ove Bengtson to discuss some of the technical challenges that had to be overcome to create the X1D and to find out some more detail about how the product will work when it comes to market.
'The X1D took only between 18 and 20 months to develop from the final concept to where we are today,' says Ove Bengtson. 'As it uses the same 50-million-pixel Sony IMX161 sensor, the same electronic platform and same processor as the H6D-50c most of the work was already done - designing a mirrorless system is relatively easy compared to our usual H cameras as there are no moving parts. We started discussing the idea in November 2013 but were still talking about it a year later before we decided to go ahead. The work that we had already done in the development of the H6D saved us a lot of time in research for the X1D.'
As mirrorless cameras are so much easier to make and offer so much more flexibility I wonder if mirrorless is the future for Hasselblad. 'Yes, it probably is, but not for a while. Mirrorless systems can be smaller and lighter, and because they have no internal movement they are more durable and they create less vibration so there is less to disturb image quality. Electronic viewfinders will need to get better though and the AF systems will need to improve to catch up with phase detection systems.'
'It is a great benefit to be able to have AF points all over the screen, as in our H system we are really restricted to the centre of the frame, but phase detection wasn't even an option for the X1D. We discussed having phase detection AF points built into the sensor, but Sony was already too far down the road with the sensor development at that stage. We really do want phase detection but we'll have to wait for the sensor manufacturer.
So, while mirrorless has many advantages over mirrored systems there are still just as many reasons to use the H system. The H system has better AF in low light, and a lot of photographers prefer an optical viewfinder. The H system is also modular so you can change the backs and use a waistlevel viewfinder – not to mention a choice of 12 lenses including technical lenses – so it is still a very different experience.'
To allow X1D users access to the existing range of H system lenses Hasselblad will introduce what it describes as a 'simple adapter', but in the announcement there wasn't much more detail than that. 'Yes, this adapter will allow autofocus to operate with most of the H lenses, but they weren't designed to work with contrast detection systems. Consequently users will need to update the firmware in their lenses to allow them to work properly. Not all lenses have firmware that can be upgraded as early H lenses in 2002 were fixed, but all more recent lenses will be able to be used.'
The cameras on display at the announcement event had touch screen controls for working the menus and for making feature selections, but they didn't allow touch AF controls. 'It is still early days for this camera but when it comes to market it will have touch AF and the AF points will be spread across the screen. You will press the AF/MF button and an AF point display will appear on the screen and then you can select the point you want to use.'
|The X1D's touch-driven interface. The menu screens and displays are controlled via a series of swiping motions, much as we are used to in smartphones.|
Ove said that the company hadn't directly considered allowing the rear screen to be used as a touch pad while the EVF is in use, but that it would probably be a question of firmware and that they would consider it. 'The touch experience for the user has been a major consideration for us, and we want the touch sensitivity to be the best there is. Users will all have smart phones and we couldn't allow the screen of the X1D to present an experience that isn't as good as people will be used to.'
We also talked about the company's integration of the Nikon flash system and what the reasons were for not developing a system of their own. 'We don't want to have to develop our own flash system, as we'd prefer to concentrate our resources on making cameras and lenses. Any system needs a range of flash units as customers want a choice, so it makes much more sense to work with an existing system that already has that range and choice. When we only had the V system we partnered with Sunpak, and in more recent years we worked with Metz, but Metz discontinued the gun as they didn't sell enough. Nikon agreed to work with us and we are very happy that they offer excellent flash units that will work well with our X1D.'
The XCD lenses that Hasselblad has developed to go with the X1D use leaf shutters and offer a top shutter speed of 1/2000sec. Leaf shutter systems allow much faster flash synchronization than focal plane shutter systems and, as is the case with the H6D, the X1D can work with full power flash at that shortest shutter opening. 'In this camera and in the H6D we use a dual shutter system to achieve the top 1/2000sec flash sync speed,' explains Ove.
The shutter opens electronically (almost instantaneously), but closes with the mechanical shutter. The exercise requires careful synchronization between the electronic shutter of the sensor and the mechanical shutter in the lens so that the leaf shutter cuts off the electronic opening when the flash power is at its peak. The sensor can then take its time reading and resetting all the pixels, since the leaf shutter has ended the exposure 'globally' (A leaf shutter doesn't swipe across the sensor, it progressively darkens the entire sensor).
In effect the system uses two 1/1000sec shutter speeds, one electronic and one mechanical, and off-sets them by half a shutter speed so that they are only open together for 1/2000sec – when the flash is at its peak. 'In tests we have achieved shorter shutter speeds and flash sync speeds' says Mr. Bengtson, 'but we need more tests to ensure the system is reliable. The electronic shutter function is otherwise only available in video mode, so we won't be introducing a general electronic shutter for normal shutter speeds as this sensor works best with a mechanical shutter.'
'The new XCD lenses are designed and built to the same specification standards that we use for the H series lenses. We have to produce the best that we can and allowing reduced quality just isn't an option. In fact these have a short back focus which makes it easier to design them to really excellent standards. The lenses are designed by us and manufactured by Nittoh who have made many great lenses in the past, including the lenses for the X-Pan. These XCD lenses have no crosstalk and the angle of the light as it approaches the sensor is well within the limits. You'll notice that the exit pupil of the wide angle particularly is set well inside the barrel.'
'To start with we will concentrate on fixed focal length lenses as we can make these small in line with the compact concept of the camera. I expect there will be some demand for zooms but we will wait and see what that demand is and then respond to it. Right now though, we have no zooms on the roadmap. Personally I think they will have to be too big, and I want us to concentrate on the best performance and the highest resolution possible.'
Speaking to Ove and other technicians at the event it is obvious that Hasselblad has built this system around the specific physical dimensions of the 43.8x32.9mm sensor. If there will be a 100MP version of the X camera it will not be one using the current Sony offering that measures 53.4x40mm. 'The camera isn't designed to take a larger sensor,' I was told, 'and the XCD lenses don't have the covering circle to work with it. We designed the camera to be small and portable, and a part of that equation is the size of the sensor. If we work with a larger sensor it means we need a bigger body and bigger lenses, and that would defeat the principles of what the X1D is about.'
No one would be drawn on how many lenses the company expects to have in the XDC range in five years' time, but it is clear there will be more and that they will start coming shortly. The 30mm will be formally announced at Photokina and I think it reasonable to assume there will be hints of other focal lengths at the time, even if the announcements aren't formal.
The X1D really does mark quite a departure for Hasselblad and a step towards a larger market (though still some way from the mass market) that will allow the company to broaden its user base. The step too though is as much about demonstrating it is a modern company now that can make modern products. It has also drawn an unmistakable line under that period of its life when it rebadged and allowed other brands to have too much of a hand in its manufacturing.
Things are looking up; Hasselblad seems to be back on track, innovating once more and in many ways getting ahead of the game. The X1D is certainly the coolest, most flexible, portable and accessible digital medium format almost on the market.
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