It’s not often that a new camera needs to be taken out of my hands, but that was the case when my loaner Hasselblad X2D 100C was picked up recently. Despite its price ($8,199 / £7,369 / AU$12,399), this bloated design marvel has become my favorite medium format camera – and it eclipses my full frame Nikon Z6II in almost every way.
Medium format sensors are almost 2.5 times larger than full frame, and Hasselblad has a serious heritage in this area. Sitting above the equally charming Hasselblad X1D II, the X2D is at least twice as fast as that camera, delivers twice the detail with its 100 MP sensor, and has seven stops of in-body image stabilization (IBIS), meaning you can easily take freehand pictures. It even adds 1TB of internal SSD storage for good measure.
But despite all these exotic features, can a mirrorless camera justify the price? After all, it’s not just the body itself that’s expensive – the new XCD V divine lenses cost between $3,699 / £3,599 and $4,299 / £4,059 each. And how much better is the X2D 100C than any of the best full frame cameras?
I spent a week testing this mirrorless beast against my trusty Nikon Z6II to discover what there is in Hasselblad that still attracts photographers…
Gothenburg-based Hasselblad does digital a little differently than most manufacturers, and the X2D is a superb modern take on a classic format.
The camera’s high-quality design stands out, with a comfortable full-length grip in both landscape and portrait format. The touchscreen response is more smartphone-like, meaning it handles better than most other cameras, and at 3.6-inches that screen is huge too.
Putting a 1TB SSD inside is great too, with most other cameras still relying solely on removable media. There is an additional CFexpress B card slot, so both options are covered. If you were to buy a 1TB CFexpress B card in 2022, it would cost you almost $1,000 / £1,000 – hopefully other brands will follow Hasselblad’s lead.
Image 1 of 4
The X2D 100C’s shutter design also sets Hasselblad apart, with a “leaf shutter” type built into the lenses instead of the camera. The benefits are quieter and less aggressive shutter action, but also that flash sync is available with any shutter speed – in the X2D it’s down to 1/2000sec. Other shutter types are limited to 1/250s, which is why portrait photographers who use flash love Hasselblads.
As you’d expect from Scandinavian design, the menus are also pared down to the bare essentials. Yes, the X2D is a purist photography experience that lets you focus on creating images. But people don’t just buy Hasselblad because it looks, feels and handles differently. The main selling point is the quality of the images – and that’s what I wanted to dig into.
Do you need a medium format?
“Do you really need a medium format?” is a question often asked in photography circles. After all, it’s a more expensive format than smaller ones like full-frame and crop sensors, and medium-format cameras are also slower.
This means that the focus is on image quality. And the hard truth is, if controlling depth of field (or blurring backgrounds to make your subjects stand out) is your primary concern, there’s no real advantage to medium format over other cameras. Photo.
This is because there are full frame sensor and wider aperture crop lenses that can balance out the difference in sensor size for depth of field.
For example, I used the XCD 2.5/55V lens (i.e. a 55mm f/2.5) with the X2D. Its equivalent full-frame focal length and aperture (for depth of field only, I must emphasize) is around 43mm f/2. So a full-frame 50mm f/1.8 lens can match that, and then some.
So there’s not really a benefit to medium format for depth of field. But there’s more to image quality and depth than just depth of field. It’s about color depth and tone. It’s a matter of color accuracy. And this is where things get more interesting.
I took identical photos with a full-frame Nikon Z6 II and the Hasselblad X2D 100C to take a closer look at the differences between the cameras.
As you’d expect, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of the Hasselblad X2D over full-frame; its 100MP BSI sensor (back illuminated) produces 16-bit raw images at 200MB per pop. With full frame we have the Sony A7R IV with its peak resolution of 60MP. Incidentally, the pixel pitch (size) is identical in these two cameras at 3.76μm.
My Z6 II is a full-frame all-rounder with a resolution of 24 megapixels, which is a quarter of that of the X2D. The detail quality is day and night, resembling the difference between 4K and Full HD. Of course, we’ll only notice this difference when the images are displayed in large format, but the amount of detail in the X2D is staggering. Landscape, studio, portrait photographers – anyone who demands the most detail will love the X2D.
Exceptionally, Hasselblad does not make color profiles. Like virtually every other camera, the Nikon Z6 II has a range of profiles; neutral, standard, vivid, monochrome, etc. For X2D, you rely on Hasselblad’s “natural color science” and then the editing software to make changes afterwards. Hasselblad’s own software is called “Phocus”.
The Z6 II’s color profile is set to “Standard” by default, although I changed it to “Neutral” for a more natural look. I also modified these two profiles to compare with the color rendering of the X2D.
Image 1 of 3
Take a look at the portrait shot with the Z6 II’s “neutral” profile in isolation and it all looks stunning. Beautiful skin tones, natural colors. However, put the X2D portrait alongside (below), and there are subtle differences that a trained eye notices when viewed at full size.
There’s real precision with the X2D’s skin tones, whereas the Z6 II’s tones have a very subtle yellow tint. You wouldn’t notice it in isolation. Tones are also flatter than those of the X2D, while the ‘Standard’ profile appears particularly contrasty – as if trying too hard.
To match the skin tone of the X2D, I increased the contrast and vividness of the Z6 II “Neutral” image – a happy medium between Neutral and Standard. Attractive. However, when I zoom out to see the full image, other tones like the yellow sweater became too vibrant to be real and a bit off looking somewhat artificial.
In summary, Hasselblad’s natural color science in the X2D is a simple one-click edit for rich, natural tones throughout the image. It’s real depth and more accurate in terms of what the eye sees. I should work on skin tones and other elements of the Z6 II’s image separately to get closer to the overall quality, and spend more time tweaking those colors.
Don’t get me wrong, I will always use the Z6 II for professional work and the difference to the X2D is subtle at first glance, but once you take a closer look your eyes open to a better world.
However, the medium format has its drawbacks. One thing I didn’t mention about using these cameras is focus. In the above example of a static portrait, the playing field is level because manual focus of the X2D was as easy as I could hope. But for any action that requires autofocus, the X2D is much harder to control, and getting sharp focus where it matters most can be tricky.
The X2D’s single-point AF mode cannot be used for super critical focus in shallow depth of field portraits. The Z6 II, on the other hand, has subject tracking as well as face and eye detection, so sharp focus is one less thing to worry about. In short, it’s all well and good to have the most accurate colors and depth of tone, but it’s a waste if the focus is soft.
That said, I’m encouraged by the progress of the X2D. I was already familiar with Hasselblad’s quality, having used the X1D II 50C and 907X 50C for a long time, but the X2D with image stabilization and improved autofocus is a much more usable camera in a variety of scenarios, showing that the format average can close the performance gap.
But this question keeps coming back: is the Hasselblad X2D worth it, being three times more expensive than my full-frame camera and lens? In a professional context, yes. It’s kind of like why professional filmmakers use bulky film cameras rather than a mirrorless camera. These subtle differences in color tone and depth are important. The image looks… natural. Whether or not those differences are enough to justify the X2D 100C’s premium is a question for you (and, perhaps, your bank manager).