Medium-format vs full-frame: Testing the Hasselblad H6D-100c and Nikon D850
I was recently asked by Hasselblad to make a series of videos, several of which were a comparison between the medium-format Hasselblad H6D-100c and the best 35mm full-frame camera on the market at the time — the Nikon D850.
I was given free-reign by Hasselblad to shoot what I wanted how I wanted, as long as it showed real-world examples of the two cameras in action. Mindful of what photographers look for in cameras, I decided to shoot a sunset, sunrise and a series of studio portraits as I felt these would thoroughly test both cameras in different situations.
While we were shooting this series of videos we took the opportunity to film a couple of exciting new photography classes for our members. Keep an eye on our website for these new product, fashion and landscape courses, as well as a tutorial on using a tilt and shift adaptor.
I was looking to explore the capabilities of both when it came to image detail, three dimensionality, tonal range, shadow detail, color fidelity, color accuracy and tethered shooting.
The purpose of this comparison was as an educational piece aimed at both dealers and customers. Hasselblad approached me to create a series of videos that would help dealers understand the medium format system and why it exists. They also wanted their customers to understand the difference between medium-format and full-frame 35mm cameras and the benefits of each.
What is medium format?
The first thing many will notice about medium-format cameras is the size. They’re noticeably larger than 35mm cameras. This is largely due to the fact that they have a much bigger sensor. This is the main advantage of medium-format as the physics of a large sensor provides superior image quality. The larger sensor means medium-format cameras have a far greater light capturing ability — they have a larger area to gather light and the pixels are not usually as tightly packed as they are in a smaller format sensor for the same resolution.
The larger sensor also provides greater dynamic range, which results in smoother tonal transition, better tonal accuracy and better color accuracy. This combination of more megapixels and larger dynamic range means medium-format cameras offer far smoother tonal range and higher resolution.
To find out more about medium-format systems, this article by Hasselblad offers a detailed explanation.
Putting it to the test
The first video we started work on was the sunset shoot. This turned out to be a thoroughly trying shoot, not just for the cameras, but for the team as well. Living in Guernsey, it very rarely snows. But when it does, it decided to snow during the week we need to film a landscape shot!
I’d agreed on a location where we would conduct the test with both cameras prior to the shoot, but that was about all we could control. It took us three attempts before we were finally able to get the shot. Our first attempt was foiled by the inclement weather rolling in. The dramatic sky we’d had when we first arrived was soon replaced with monotone clouds and snow. Despite our best intentions, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to get anything good in that weather.
The second day, despite arriving to blustering snowfall, held more promise when it briefly cleared. I quickly set up and was just waiting for the light to drop when the second round of snow came in. Again, we packed our bags and headed home without getting the shot (but we did have a good snowball fight).
Our third attempt proved to be the lucky one as we finally got a clear hour, good skies and ideal tides. In our three days out in minus temperatures, both cameras withstood the icy conditions. Despite both getting wet from the melting snow and sea spray, neither gave any problems.
The sunrise shoot proved to be far easier and we managed to get the shot in one outing albeit starting very early. That meant the final test left was the studio shoot, where I tested each camera in two different lighting setups.
For the first setup I wanted to create an image that would really allow us to determine how well each camera captured shadow detail. For the second, I went for a lighter, fresher feel, looking to test the color accuracy, tonal range and three dimensionality. Shooting in studio also allowed me to test the tethered capabilities of the cameras, using the appropriate tethering software for each.
After completing the three shoots, the landscapes and studio portraits, I sat down to examine the images in greater detail. To ensure a fair comparison I used neutral software, in this case Photoshop, to examine the RAW files. This was to avoid any unfair advantages that might be offered by automated software corrections by each brands own proprietary software.
To see the full results from each camera, you can watch each video here:
Medium Format Advantages, Sunset Captures and Image Comparison.
Medium Format Advantages, Sunrise Captures and Image Comparison.
Medium Format Advantages, Studio Captures and Image Comparison.
Medium Format Advantages, Depth of Field Comparison
Throughout this project I continually aimed to ensure fair testing for each camera and looking at the results, I was pleasantly surprised. I expected the Hasselblad would win but I thought it wouldn’t be as far ahead in certain areas as it was.
Although the medium-format delivered better results in every scenario (apart from shooting speed and auto focus speed), the Nikon D850 performed far better than I anticipated in terms of image quality and it was by far the best full-frame camera I had ever shot with. It delivered image quality that any photographer would be happy with, but just wasn’t on the same level as the Hasselblad.
This was most apparent in the tonal range of landscape images. The Nikon’s smaller sensor size limited it’s ability to capture smooth transitions between tones, resulting in somewhat softer looking images that lacked the same color clarity and depth. The Hasselblad, however, delivered smooth color transitions and I was able to recover far greater shadow detail in the darker rocks and with less noise.
When I examined the first image from the studio shoot I was initially very pleased with the result from the Nikon, but upon closer inspection the medium-format’s larger sensor came into play as I could see the tonal range and color fidelity looked much better. It had a far richer shadow tone, therefore delivering a much more pleasing three-dimensionality.
The other images, which I shot using just the Para 222, allowed me to see the skin tones and highlights. What I immediately noticed was the Hasselblad’s superior color accuracy. This was especially apparent in the final images where the model was wearing a pink jacket. I found the image shot with the Nikon looked a little cold (even after grey card neutralizing) and a little flat. While I could correct this with some small adjustments to the hue and saturation, as a photographer you always want to start with the best possible image.
Medium-format is what every photographer aspires to shoot with, but unfortunately, mostly due to the higher price tag, it often isn’t possible. That being said, I feel that the camera you shoot with is only as good as your own knowledge. You could shoot with the best camera in the world, but if you don’t know what to do and how to get a good shot, the result will be a reflection of that.
The Nikon D850 was the best 35mm camera i’ve ever shot with (and I’ve also been a Canon user all my life too!) but Medium-format cameras are designed to deliver superior images, in every way. As a commercial photographer, that’s important to me. Quality is one thing I’m unwilling to compromise. It is for that reason that I believe Hasselblad’s medium-format system is the right one for me. However, it might not be the one for you.
Before committing to buying it, think about whether you really need it. For many, the Nikon would prove to be more than adequate — it delivered superb results in each of these examples. For those wanting to shoot landscapes, fashion work or even some basic product photography, it would certainly suffice. But for those unwilling to compromise on quality who have a strong focus on technical capabilities, then the Hasselblad is the way to go.