Pretty much any photographer I’ve ever met has “dream gear,” stuff they keep their eye on. When the Nikon D2X came out, I used a picture of it as my desktop background for months, just to keep me pounding the pavement. Lots of hard work has meant that my basic “work bag” has pretty much everything in it I could need, so my wandering eye turns toward luxurious items that would be fun to use, but are outside my core body of work. A Leica M9 with a 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux? Yes please.
For years, one target of my lust were wide-aperture medium format lenses. There’s generally a big size and weight jump from 35mm cameras to 645 and larger camera systems, and so most lenses have smaller apertures — in medium format, f/4 lenses can be considered fast. But the larger image field means that you can get very shallow depth-of-field at these smaller apertures … so if you put a truly wide aperture lens on it, you can combine extremely shallow depth-of-field with the clarity and resolution of medium format. There are a lot of options for this, but I’ve been curious about the Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2 ever since its release. It’s part of the Hasselblad H system, which can be as old- or new-school as you want it to be, integrating easily with digital backs and auto-focus ready. It’s also still in production and easier to rent than a lot of other systems. Finally, the Hasselblad HC lenses were controversial when they came out, since they were made by Fuji, not part of Hasselblad’s traditional partnership with Zeiss. Those are some awfully big shoes to fill.
I wanted to test this lens on film for a few reasons, so I used the Hasselblad H2F. First, film is fun. But more importantly, all medium format digital backs have a crop factor compared to 645 film, and I believe that if you really want to get to know a lens, you should see as much of its imaging circle as you can. And, of course, a crop factor limits depth-of-field control, the main reason I’d want to shoot wide aperture on medium format in the first place. The Hasselblad H4D-60 has gotten really close to the usable area of 645 film, but it also costs more than my annual rent … and I live in midtown Manhattan.
On film, the 100mm f/2.2 has a similar depth-of-field profile to what a 60mm f/1.3 would on 35mm — quite similar to my 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, so I spent some time shooting them together on the same assignments. The image below shows the Hasselblad 100mm in between my Nikon 105mm f/1.8 (similar focal length and aperture) and the Noct (similar output on a given system). You can see that despite the big difference in the imaging circle (which makes the Hasselblad lenses very fat), and the fact that the 100mm is autofocus and the Nikon lenses are manual-focus, the 100mm isn’t unnecessarily huge or unwieldy.
In the field: The Hasselblad H system is definitely optimized for studio and landscape. The shutter is in the lens itself, which means that you can sync your flash with it up to 1/800th of a second (very good!), but it also means that 1/800th of a second is the maximum shutter speed at all (very bad!). I had to be very careful with what film I put in at what times, especially since I wanted to shoot mostly wide-open. With the giant slapping mirror of the Hasselblad, I was loath to shoot below 1/100th of a second — which meant that at a given aperture and film speed, I only had three stops of possible light that would give me a correct exposure! Proper field use definitely required foresight and a light meter was helpful, even the Light Meter app on my iPhone.
Despite being outside of the camera’s comfort zone, it performed beautifully overall. It is so solid and ergonomically sound that even my Nikon D3s started to feel a bit toylike in comparison. It didn’t take me long to get used to the controls, which were intuitively laid out for general use. And the viewfinder … or dear lord, how I love the viewfinder. It felt like I was actually seeing the picture in front of me at all times, in the way it would finally look in print. I felt like I could crawl inside and live there. Between the size of the finder and the fact that you are getting all of this depth-of-field gorgeousness at f/2.2 instead of f/1.2, there is a HUGE difference between shooting this in practice and the D3s + the Noct. The D3s viewfinder doesn’t show anything close to the true depth-of-field of an f/1.2 lens, so you never really know what’s in focus. Live View tends to be the way to go for extended use, and that brings with it a bit of shutter delay. With the Hasselblad, I could see exactly which eyelash was in focus and which wasn’t. It never bothered me that I couldn’t look at the back of the camera to see what the picture looked like, because as long as the exposure was dead-on, I already knew.
As I said before, the Hasselblad H system is as modern as you want it to be. It actually says in the manual that after you put it together, “the camera is now ready to use as a point-and-shoot!” No lie. And the metering system, which uses matrix, center, or spot-metering, seemed dead-on accurate with proper usage. The autofocus system was also surprisingly zippy, given the weight of the lens elements to be moved around. However, there is only ONE autofocus point, so you are stuck focusing and re-composing. More recent Hasselblads have a unique system that actually corrects for the focusing errors that focus-and-re-compose can bring about, but not the H2. But the viewfinder is so good that you can actually see the focal plane shift, and adjust for it as necessary. Because the camera made precision so easy, I ignored the modern features most of the time and used a light meter and manual focus, but I kept checking the automatic systems to see if they were giving me accurate results. They did a great job.
The look of the lens:
As mentioned before, the basic depth-of-field profile is very similar to the Noct-Nikkor (with the Noct taking it by a hair), and it is quite adept at knocking out backgrounds. In the photo above on the left, we were extremely limited about shooting locations at the time, but the 100mm allows the eye to focus on the gorgeous bride and her great expression instead of the houses and cars on the streets behind. And closer up for the bouquet the transition from razor-sharp to out-of-focus is dramatic and pleasing.
But there are as many differences as similarities:
We have Valerie in the photo above with the Hasselblad 100mm on the left and the Noct-Nikkor on the right. This is not the sort of shot that would show off vignetting, but even so you can still see it dramatically in the lower-left of the Noct photo. The Noct has deeply imperfect corners in terms of sharpness and vignetting (which is perfectly fine for my portraiture uses). Given that I was shooting on film (with no crop factor), I expected some of the same from the Hasselblad, but it was virtually nowhere to be found! Even wide-open the sides and corners are sharp and clear. It made me glad I was shooting film, because it could otherwise appear so perfect as to be clinical (though of course it’s easy to add vignetting in post, if you like to).
I could see this being a perfect setup for a digital studio. The lens focuses as close as you need it to for portraiture, and the focal length is an in-between that can feel like a normal or a telephoto depending on your perspective. It gives stunning results at any aperture, and starting so wide means that if you need to stop down to resolve the 60 megapixels of an H4D-60, you might only be at f/5.6 instead of f/11. The hood is metal and sturdy and the diameter is 77mm, so professional dSLR shooters will probably have all sorts of filters they can use on it (and good ND filters will come in handy in the field when the sun comes out).
I had way too much fun with this. I am sure this will not be my last time playing with this set-up.