Sunday, March 13, 2016

Shooting a Hassie H5D-40 on the street

It's been a while since I have sat down to write anything meaningful and/or photography related in this blog. A compound of many things such as other professional commitments and lack of time have made it difficult to keep posting or taking pictures for myself regularly. But recently I had an opportunity that I couldn't deny myself,which was shooting with a Hassie outside the studio,on the street, which is what I love to do. I've always wanted a Hassie. No it's not a dog breed, nor a lady of loose morals, albeit misspelled. It's the affectionate nickname many photographers give to their Hasselblads. The name Hasselblad for me is enough to send me on flights of fancy, daydreaming and planning assignments that I hope one day to materialise. I admire craftsmanship and in particular if that craftsmanship translates into functional craftsmanship of the highest quality, helping you materialise your vision as you want it to be. And this is what defines Hasselblad as photographic tool and that's why many photographers covet one. Well some don't need to covet and those are the lucky ones. Craftsmanship of that quality costs and while it does, it does not mean that the opportunities to use or own one are not out there for a wider range of photographers.

The Hasselblad H5D-40 with HC80mm f2.8

I have always been the type of photographer that likes to stretch their own skills and equipment beyond their limits and get them a little beyond their comfort zone. It's a good developmental experience. I have always looked at classic photographers and admired how they did so much with so little. It all came down to skill and knowing your equipment and pushing boundaries. This is one of the reasons why I love street and press photography, because it puts me in that situation and these styles create opportunities to pull out visual narratives out of real life and real people, which in terms of availability makes these styles great, they're everyone and they're everywhere. I love using both digital and film in all their formats, but I love the quality and versatility of medium format. The medium just has an ability to bring subjects to life that is not quite there in 35mm (and I love 35mm) or APS-C, while still keeping the size of the camera relatively small. This characteristic is obviously also present in digital medium format, but Hasselblad simply does it better.

I had the chance to shoot with a Hasselblad H5D-40, for a couple of weekends, and use their excellent Phocus software to convert the images. Yes, convert. Hasselblad is serious about quality as such the camera shoots RAW in their proprietary .3FR format, which needs to be converted for any use. More on this later. The camera is of two parts (another reason why I love the system), the camera part (H5D - the latest model) and the back (40 - a 40 megapixel back, there are other backs with different pixel counts which can be used). The backs are interchangeable and you can use either film or digital, whatever your creative vision requires.
By now you must be thinking, why kick up a fuss about a medium format camera being used on the street. Well the reason is, in  many a photographer's head, the place of the Hasselblad is firmly on a tripod, in the studio or at least in hand in a studio. And many a street photographer want their camera to be as inconspicuous as possible as to not get in the way of things. In fact, when I used my loan one on the street, apart from puzzled looks, other photographers asked questions as to why and how would I use such a beast of a camera on the street.

I had in the past, about 10 years or so ago, met a fellow photographer who was shooting press with a Hasselblad H1 with a film back. I had a go at it and imediately fell in love with it. Since then, the H series cameras never struck me as the type of camera to be slotted in a specific type of photography. In fact, I thought back then and still do, that everything about its design just shouts versatility and flexibility. I would argue that the older 500 series were more of a studio oriented cameras, but even that is very subjective. Granted, the H series are not lightweight cameras, the H5D-40 coming in at 2.3Kg with standard lens (HC80mm), battery and card included. But 2.3Kg is hardly Bob Sapp and I don't mind my cameras a little on the heavy side, in fact I prefer it. The camera is extremely comfortable to hold for long periods of time and if you have a strap that goes across your chest and back, you barely fell it. Of course, other lenses may be heavier, but with the standard lens you feel relatively free.

Going back to my statement above on the H series body, the camera is very versatile and everything is very well thought out and believe it or not, one of the things that impressed me the most was that the battery is the handle, which is of course, removable for charging. Trust me, I have left the house many a times with a camera to then realize out in the field that I forgot the battery. I don't leave batteries in cameras, because they are easy to forget inside and that can lead to all kinds of problems. The Hasselblad way, it's impossible to forget. Battery life is also great for a camera of that size with that big sensor with such large output to handle (between 50-80MB files), probably why turning the handle into a battery was a good idea. I managed about 150 shots (and that's not counting reviewing and deleting) with still some juice left in it in the end. I never actually managed to completely drain it to zero. So I would say, that you can probably shoot 180 maybe a bit over 200 pushing it on a single charge.

The controls are just very well placed, with very little finger gymnastics to do. At first, when you look at the size of the camera you think it's going to be a real handful, but again the ingenuity of the design quickly fades away any such worries.
One thing in fact, that unapologetically does hint that Hasselblad really wants users to use the camera outside the studio or perhaps even in a more casual style of shooting is that it has a built-in flash, which is not that common on high end "studio" cameras. I did not use it on any of the photos I took below, but used it on small objects and things around the house just to get an idea of how good it is and I can tell it's a good little built-in unit and if I wanted to go shoot street with flash for fill effects and travel a little lighter, I could rely on it, leaving the hotshoe units at home.

Another feature that I found useful but seldom used was the TrueFocus feature. In short, it takes into account that you are shooting a medium format camera and getting accurate focus at large apertures can be tricky particularly at certain distances. With the TrueFocus feature you can tell the camera were is the correct focus and if there are any changes such as subject or camera movement, the camera will make focussing adjustments to ensure you get what you want in focus.
Focussing with medium format cameras digital or film with large apertures is trickier and critical. The larger size of the format gives you shallower depth of field. While there is a level of misfocus that is acceptable (street photographers often use zone focus and print viewing size/distance ratio to determine this), at times it can really make or break a photo. As such, the TrueFocus feature is a welcome feature, but probably with subjects that are still or slow. The problem I had (for want of a better expression) is that I felt compelled to use the HC80mm f2.8 at large apertures, because it's just a beautiful lens with a beautiful bokeh to do so with. The shallower depth of field native to the format allows you to further isolate your subject, giving you beautiful defocussed backgrounds, near 3D effect to subjects in focus (particularly if you fill in with a flash) and if you have a beautifully crafted lens like the HC80mm f2.8 mounted on your camera, you are more than tempted to exploit that. While it can be hard in the situations I have used it in, mainly in a press capacity, the AF is actually quite capable and will help you get the shot at large apertures.  I have found myself plenty of times, walking backwards to keep up with my moving subjects and the camera did well. If you pace yourself well, the camera can cope with the incoming moving subjects, contrary to what many photographers would think of it outside the studio. Of course, we live in the era of the ultra fast focussing and shooting Canon or Nikon DSLR designed for the press photographer that help you get that shot more easily, but even in all their glory they fall short in image quality to the Hasselblad by comparison and that's just the way it is, you can't beat physics. The larger sensor of the Hasselblad simply outperforms the smaller sensors of even the highest end APS-C or Full Frame DSLR.  Any of the focussing mistakes I have made during my trial were due to me and myself alone (and the temptation to make use of the gorgeous bokeh of the HC80mm lens at large apertures). In part it comes down to knowing your equipment too.

So ultimately, I am kicking a fuss about using a medium format camera on the street, because quality is paramount for 99% of us and a Hassie can do it just as well in the studio as on the street and head and shoulders above others, you just need to know the camera.

The only thing that left me scratching my head was how picky the camera was with memory cards. The camera uses compact flash cards and it would simply reject almost all my cards, giving an "incompatible media" message of some sort, with the exception of a Fujifilm 2GB 40x card and a Fujifilm 4GB 100x card. So I decided to get a Fujifilm 16GB 40x card, which to my surprise did not reject but would not read, displaying a message of "missing media". I then bought a 4GB Sandisk, 25MB/s card which it accepted. Among the rejected brands were a Lexar 8GB 133x, a Toshiba 2GB card, a Lexar 1GB 100x, 2 Kingston 2GB and 1GB cards and a few other cards. It turned out in the end, that the camera needed a firmware update, which I didn't perform because the camera was on loan from Hasselblad and not mine, as such I didn't want to take any liberties or risks.

I had made plans to shoot some things such as small essays and a model at a local lido, but these plans did not materialise, so I decided to stick to press and street work, which pretty much ended up closer to press work, due to time constraints. The only thing I wished I had was a wide angle lens for the camera, but the HC80mm was what was available, and you don't stop yourself if someone throws you an opportunity to shoot with a Hasselblad. Here's a selection of images (please do not reproduce without expressed, explicit consent):

 A demonstration leader receives a call during a march against Trident and for the human rights of refugees
ISO400 @1/640 f2.8. The subject was pacing relatively fast but the H5D-40's focus handled it well. I was walking backwards and adjusting focus repetitively
the camera was responsive throughout. 

 A member of Anonymous joins the Anti-Trident March
ISO400 @ 1/200 f6.3. Sunpak Hammerhead Flash set @ 1/16
Subject walked across the frame while I walked towards the subject. The AF was responsive throughout.
Note the near "3D effect" result from using fill flash with the large aperture of the HC80mm lens.

An emotional Vanessa Redgrave addresses the crowd during the Anti-Trident gathering at Trafalgar Square
ISO200 @ 1/640 f2.8

A Kurdish artist marches down the road ahead of demonstrators with a painting entitled "Massacre of the Kurds" during a march agains the genocide of Kurds by the Turkish regime under Erdogan
ISO100 @ 1/320 f2.8

 A demonstrator takes a rest during the Kurdish Demonstration against the Erdogan regime's genocide of Kurds.
 ISO400 @ 1/250 f2.8

 A Father and Son at the Kurdish Demonstration against the genocide of Kurds by the Erdogan Regime
ISO400 @ 1/500 f5

A Kurdish man at the Kurdish demonstration against Erdogan gathering at Trafalgar Square
ISO400 @ 1/320 f2.8

Indian women perform traditional dancing at the Million Women Rise march
ISO200 @1/320 f6.3
Once again, the camera's AF demonstrates that it can deal with subjects moving towards the camera and changing direction.

 Two young ladies joined the crowd of women at the Million Women Rise march
ISO 100 @ 1/320 f2.8

 A Million Women Rise demonstrator plays a percursion instrument and dances throughout the march
ISO400 @ 1/320 f2.8 
One of the instances in which I had to walk backwards and shoot, carefully keeping distance and priming the AF for the shot

A Million Women Rise March leader addresses the demonstrators and public from a pedicab. Another instance 
where the AF of the H5D was challenged but coped quite well with moving subjects.
ISO400 @ 1/500 f2.8

The system is not totally complete without Hasselblad's own, free Phocus software. You need to use Phocus to turn the .3FR files into .3FF, for then to be able to make a TIFF or a JPEG from them. TIFF is recommended for obvious reasons, you just get a higher quality file with loads of colour information. But be aware that it will churn out a 114-120MB file from the 40MP 3FF file. While there may be other solutions out there, I found Phocus intuitive to use and it does a great job in pulling out detail, dealing with noise and the awesome dynamic range. I have tried the free and very good multi format RAWTherapee too for comparison, which although less of a two step process as it can read the 3FR files and process them straight into a TIFF or JPEG file, it does not quite know how to process the noise from the sensor, particularly the chroma noise and its sharpening algorythms seemed a bit harsh with the files. The colour also looked dull, although it could be pushed in the software. Phocus is also compatible with other file formats,  as it picked up the files from my Sony A700 that I had taken along when out shooting, simply because it had a wide angle attached to it. I have not tried to process those with Phocus, but that might be another blog posting.
There is a tremendous amount of colour information and dynamic range from the 40MP back of the H5D-40. I didn't take any measurements, but I could say that accidental overexposure is not much of a problem, if you knock a setting off accidentally while out shooting by a good 4-5 stops, you could still end up with a usable file. Colour rendition and skin tones looked accurate and "silky" to me, so plenty of scope to get gritty in post editing if you want a "street grit" look. Finally, you can print those files the size of a wall if you so wish. The H5D-40 makes all those pixels count.

In conclusion, I ended up feeling very positive about using a Hassie on the street and I am now considering to invest in my own kit. It's a highly capable, highly versatile, high quality photographic, technical tool that true to Hasselblad's promise, can help you take your photography from "good enough" to excellent, even if you are just on the beat on the streets. As such I can't recommend it enough to street photographers if it's within your budget and you are after a high quality output to do work you can hang on the exhibition floor walls or why not, print your work on a wall!

Until next time,


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Loose Fujica 35EE lens barrel? It's a very simple fix

Loose Fujica 35 ee lens barrel? Here's the solution which I found by going the wrong way about it ( I disassembled the camera unnecessarily). Open the back and you will spot the two grooves on either side of the lens back element. Use a couple of precision screwdrivers or anything appropriate and safe and turn it around if I remember, clockwise. I am posting this because I haven't used my Fujica for 2 years, as there's nothing online to describe such a simple fix. A repairer suggested that the lens barrel had to be opened but it doesn't at all. Hope this helps someone out there. Until next time, Luis