Review: Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2 (and thoughts on Hasselbad H2F)

RKB 9448

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.

110926 025555 60mm f3

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.

4844 14

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:

3661 13

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:

4844 10

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).

3663 06

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.

More photos:

3658 09

3661 02

3660 06

Quick Review: Nikon 40mm f/2.8 Micro DX

Specs and Pricing Info

110303 161306 200mm f18So much new camera gear comes out all the time that my first thought at any new release is “Could this possibly be useful to me?” If not, I tend to not pay it much attention — such as the endless string of seemingly cloned compact cameras. Since all of my DSLR work is done on full-frame cameras, I haven’t paid too much attention to Nikon’s DX lineup for a while. And it’s a shame, since they’re still doing interesting things in that area. I know I wish that in my DX days I’d had access to newer designs like the 10-24mm.

But it got my attention that Nikon had recently released not one, but two DX-specific macro lenses, the 85mm f/3.5 and the 40mm f/2.8. I’d heard enough chatter to know that people were slightly disappointed by the 85mm’s sharpness (important for a macro) and slow maximum aperture, but I thought that if Nikon had done a good job with the 40mm, they might have a hit on their hands. As I mentioned in my review of the Sigma 150mm OS Macro, my close-up work tends to be of things that are not alive and do not move, and a short focal length makes that easier in some ways. I love the heck out of my Nikon 60mm AF-S Micro, and this new lens seems to serve the same niche for DX shooters at less size and weight and half the cost.

The first thing you notice when you open the box is how small the lens is. Like the 50mm f/1.8, you can barely feel the weight in your hand. The 60mm Macro isn’t exactly a monster itself, but given that both of these lenses have the same frame of view on their respective systems, you can see the size advantage that the DX frame gives in a comparison of the two with the hood and without:

110907 194616 35mm f2 2

I’ve also noticed on both this and the 50mm that Nikon has greatly increased the size of the lens mount marker on their new lenses and cameras. It will be interesting to see if they do this on new professional bodies, because while useful it also has just a bit of a Fisher-Price feel to it:

110907 194328 60mm f3

But the really important thing is “How does it perform?” Can it stand up to the 60mm, which is an amazingly sharp macro with great rendering? To properly test it, B&H also loaned me a great DX camera, the Nikon D7000. I don’t have enough use with that camera to review it properly, but I will say that its video functions run circles around my Nikon D3s‘s, and it was alarmingly fun to use.

DX cameras also have an inherent advantage in macro work. We generally call true macros anything that renders 1:1, which means that they can take a photo of an area the same size as their sensor. The larger the sensor, though, the less tiny that is. For maximum resolution of a tiny scene, it helps to have a small sensor crammed in with pixels. For most uses, the giant pixels on the D3s will give you less noise and greater dynamic range than the smaller ones on the D7000, but the D7000 is overall a much better macro camera.

110907 192946 40mm f16

Here we have the same rings photographed by the 40mm on the D7000 and the 60mm on the D3s, both at f/16. Which is which? The great news is that it’s really hard to tell — if I didn’t have the EXIF I wouldn’t be able to. (The 40mm is on the left).

But almost any lens is limited by diffraction at f/16, not the lens qualities themselves, so let’s look at the 40mm wide-open. The shot below, from the D7000, is a bigger magnification than is possible with the 60mm + D3s combo:

110907 193641 40mm f4

Depth-of-field is extremely shallow here, but a 100 percent crop will show how sharp this lens is wide-open — perhaps TOO sharp for a ring that’s seen better days:

110907 193641 40mm f4 crop

There’s a bit of a false haze that comes from the way I lit this subject, and is similar in both lenses, so let’s look at another, cuter subject. I figure a $280 DX lens is going to see a lot of cat pictures, so I beat you to it:

110907 165041 40mm f3

This close-up of the side of a soda bottle says a lot about the lens’s character, good and bad, because the highlight-filled edges curve out of the focal plane and the high contrast shows a bit of magenta and green making an appearance:

110908 150204 40mm f4

But if you want to pixel-peep boring photos? Because I didn’t use this much on professional shoots, just this one I’m happy to oblige. For the pixel peepers, I took shots of a cereal box at f/8 and wide-open. Clicking those links will download the full-res JPG. But it’s just a cereal box (and not even my favorite cereal), so I’ll give you spoilers: It’s sharp.

This shot shows more of the DoF and contrast rendering, as well as some classy gear:

110907 191750 40mm f3 3

And there’s a little surprise as well: That is a full-frame capture from my D3s. Yes, at close-up distances the vignetting goes away even on a full-frame camera, disappearing almost completely when you stop down. I wouldn’t recommend this lens for full-frame users, but it means you can be quite sure you aren’t going to see any vignetting at all with a stopped-down image on a DX frame.

Light, small, cheap, sharp, and well-behaved across the frame? If I were a DX shooter I’d snap this up immediately.

Review: Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS

Specs and Purchasing Info: (Nikon) (Canon) (Sony) (Pentax) (Sigma)

090401 003510 150mm f16During the season, I shoot essentially constantly — I’m in the middle of a stretch of 21 days with shoots on 20 of them, sometimes more than one a day. This means it’s worth it to me to use absolutely the best equipment for my needs, whatever the price — and so it’s telling that my bag has Sigma lenses strewn in among the Nikkors. Gone are the days where third-party lenses are just cheaper, less sturdy versions of existing lenses. Now these makers, Sigma especially, have a knack for filling the sort of niches you might not have realized you needed. Only Sigma lets me shoot at 12mm on full frame. Want a lens that goes from 50-500mm? Sigma. A standard f/1.4 lens for APS-C cameras? Sigma. In my experience, they are less sturdy than professional Nikkors, and I’ve sent plenty to the repair shop, but it’s worth it to open up new ways of seeing.

The Sigma 150mm OS Macro is subtle in its uniqueness. There’s nothing unique about a true, 1:1 macro lens, and there’s nothing unique about an f/2.8 telephoto lens. But when you put them together? Impressive. Generally true macro lenses tend to be about one stop slower than equivalent non-macro lenses, such as Nikon’s 105mm f/2.8 macro versus their 105mm f/2 non-macro. But f/2.8 is a perfectly respectable aperture for a 150mm lens — any faster and you’re getting into super-expensive exotic lens territory. Throw in Optical Stabilization and you have a lens that, on paper at least, would be tempting even for photographers who never shoot macro, especially for photographers who occasionally want telephoto reach but don’t want the weight or expense of a 70-200mm VR.

Does it live up to its role? In all important ways yes, but given the strengths of the alternative choices, the full user report should be helpful in deciding what the right choice is for you.

Optical performance:

It is almost safe to assume that any true macro lens is going to be sharp. There are just a few notable exceptions, but these lenses are designed for resolution, and the Sigma 150mm is no exception. It doesn’t have the shocking almost-too-sharp-for-general-use quality of, say, the Sigma 70mm macro but wide-open it’s more than good enough for rock n’ roll, and stopped down just a few notches it easily out resolves my D3s sensor. I used this lens all for work, not safe shots of brick walls, so the image below was taken in a mahogany room at a quite-unsafe 4000 ISO, but it still gives you an idea of the crispness and color transmission of this lens.

110807 193301 150mm f3 3

Bokeh

If you are taking close-up pictures at 150mm and f/2.8, you’re going to have a lot more out-of-focus than in-focus, so the quality of those areas (“bokeh”) might matter quite a bit. What I’ve found in general is that the background bokeh is quite pleasing but the foreground areas can be somewhat busy, especially if there are multiple areas that overlap each other. All of my sample photos will have out-of-focus areas to look over, but here are specific examples:

Background bokeh:

110807 133736 150mm f5 6

Foreground and background, with lots of overlap (worst-case scenario)

110808 195525 150mm f3

Keep in mind that a photo can have choppy bokeh and still be aesthetically pleasing, which I think is the case in the second photo, but it’s handy to be aware of as you make compositions.

Overall usage:

This is a great lens to have in your bag. My biggest worry before I used it was that many macro lenses either don’t focus very quickly or have trouble locking focus, even with a focus-limiter switch, because of the huge focus range they have to be optimized for. Happily, though, the Sigma performs admirably. It has a focus-limiter switch that can limit the range to either just-macro or no-macro for general use, but I only had to use it in the worst lighting conditions. It even worked well when a care-free bride decided to start running straight at the camera:

110813 174604 150mm f2

Because of its specs, this lens seems to have two different specializations: Macro usage and general telephoto performance. For me, the macro usage was mixed in terms of its usefulness. The lens performs admirably, and a true 1:1 macro is very handy when I have to do tiny-detail work such as capturing the inscription on the inside of a ring. But the feel of using a macro lens can change dramatically with focal length. Longer macro lenses have a longer working distance, which is very handy when you’re photographing insects, who would be spooked if you were one inch away from them with a shorter lens, or when you’re using complicated lighting set-up and need to get out of the way of your own shadow. But I tend to photograph objects like rings, and there the shallower depth-of-field usually works against me. The ring in the picture below would seem slightly sharper if shot with a 60mm at the same aperture (f/5.6), because the plane of focus would run through the whole diamond. Generally, it’s a good idea to break out the tripod when doing long-macro work, which I often don’t have time for:

110724 092315 150mm f5 6
(You can see how insanely narrow the DoF is by looking at the line of texture beneath the ring)

For general use, this is a great option for people who want the reach of a 70-200 without the weight or cost. Given the focus breathing issue of Nikon’s 70-200, at closer distances the Sigma 150 has at least as much reach as the zoom at 200mm! The Sigma comes with two hoods — one for FX users and a narrower one for DX users, but both are a little bit intimidating, taking away a bit of the relative size advantage versus the 70-200:

110831 113447 85mm f2

The only other issue is that while it’s significantly lighter than the 70-200, it’s not a light lens. Sigma unfortunately was unable to add optical stabilization without significantly increasing the weight. The new 150mm is 1150g, or 75 percent as much weight as the 70-200 VRII. But the old, OS-free 150mm was only 895g, or 58 percent the weight of the 70-200! For people like me who try to travel as light as possible, it’s a bit of a shame.

Also, general users should note that all macro lenses transmit less light as they reach close-focusing distances, and modern macro lenses report this to the camera as a smaller f-stop. The Sigma 150 will often give a light-transmission-rating of f/3 instead of f/2.8 even at normal portrait distances.

Buying recommendations:

If you want a lens that can photograph little critters and also function as a general telephoto lens in all sorts of light, this is probably the lens for you. If you don’t care about the macro functions, then you are likely finding yourself choosing between this and a 70-200. This lens is much cheaper than the Nikon or Canon versions, but only $300 cheaper than the Sigma 70-200 OS, so it comes down to personal preference. Even though I love primes, I’ve found that in that range a zoom is really handy to have, because zooming with your feet at 150mm might mean walking back or forth 10 feet to get the right composition.

In some ways the heaviest competition for this lens would be the OS-free version, which might be a better companion to a 70-200 VR, as backup and for times when weight really matters, while this is the better 70-200 replacement. But it seems that Sigma is making the choice for you by discontinuing the old model. Luckily the new one is a great performer.

Sample photos:

110720 210746 150mm f3

110813 182610 150mm f2

110731 191359 150mm f2