In-depth review of the Hartblei Hcam B1
The Hartblei Hcam B1 is a unique fusion of different formats and photographic ideas, which brings together some of the best elements of each. The Hcam body itself, is essentially the shutter, and aperture control. Various removable and customizable parts do everything else. The Hcam comes with a a Hasselblad V mount for its viewfinder. This allows you to use any viewfinders you have in this mount. This is especially useful if you already own a V system (I own the 503CW with two viewfinders) since you have access to some great, viewfinders. The camera comes native with a Canon EOS mount, with full aperture communication with the lens. You don’t have autofocus, but this is ok because of the way that the camera functions. With adapters (notably those from Novoflex), you have the opportunity to use lenses like Nikon’s F mount (and G with a specific adapter with aperture control) Leica R, Pentax 67, Pentax 645, Mamiya M, Hasselblad V and many other lenses with the plethora of adapters out there.
Also please note, the areas which are intended like this, include comments from the creator of the camera Stefan Steib of Hartblei (Hcam.de). These are direct quotes from conversations that I have had with him, which I think bring extra information to the review, which I was unaware of, but are indeed comments from the creator and sell of the camera.
The main purpose of this camera, is to allow you to use your medium format digital back with 35mm lenses for even wider perspective then that achievable with standard lenses within your system. Leica’s widest lense currently for its S system is a 30mm (with wider planned), PhaseOne/Mamiya/Leaf have a 28mm and Hasselblad as well has a 28mm lens. However, there are times, especially when shooting Landscape and Architectural scenes, that you may desire wider. Typicaly this would mean transferring to a view camera, with large format lenses, or a plate camera (if you are less concerned about camera movements). However these offerings from companies like Arca-Swiss, Cambo, Linhof, and Alpa among others, are expensive in terms of the body price as well as the prices for the excellent Schneider or Rodenstock optics that these cameras accept. These systems have a few draw backs, mainly their mechanical nature, and price point. The Hartblei Hcam addresses these two points.
While the Hartblei Hcam B1 commands a similar price to a Plate / View camera body (€6295, or $8275 on February 5, 2012), it has some unique offerings. First, it lets you use 35mm lenses. This drastically shrinks the price of the system, especially if you are already a Canon or Nikon user and have ultra-wides or tilt shifts, then you can use them with your digital back to achieve great wide-angle results. It also offers you the opportunity to use faster lenses then those available for medium format. The fastest lenese currently available for medium format include the Mamiya C 80mm f/1.9 and the Hasselblad 110mm f/2 (for focal plane shutter cameras). These lenses are limited in their usage because of their systems and focal lengths. Lenses for 35mm cameras go (typically) from f/1.4 up for most focal lengths. The Hartblei Hcam B1 is most ideally suited for Tilt-Shift lenses because these have larger image circles, to accommodate for tilt and shit, which means that they can cover the full 53.7 x 40.4mm of my PhaseOne IQ180’s sensor. Other lenses, as you will see, can be mounted on the camera and achieve wonderful results, with wider angle lenses typically covering more of the sensor then telephoto lenses. The areas not covered by the Lens, will result in a black region around the image circle projected on the sensor. This is easy to crop down to whatever aspect ratio you wish. Especially when using higher megapixel count digital backs, like the 80mp PhaseOne IQ180, this loss of data due to the image circle is easily overcome, because even if you have to crop out 25-35% of an image because of this effect, you are still left with a 50 – 60 megapixel image which is still much greater then anything you’d get on a 35mm system. Of course this only takes into account the megapixel count, and not other features, like low noise and dynamic range which also contribute to excellent results with this camera.
Note from Stefan Steib: With the 17mm we keep the wideangle worldrecord for any (built and freely available, there have been similar military special cameras) Camera on this planet. The image angle of the 17mm with the IQ 180 is 126,3 degr diagonal which no Rodenstock or Schneider lens can achieve. We are even having less Light falloff, close to none colorfringing and no color cast for wideangles as the viewcameras show now with the 80 Mpix backs. This is becaus we use retrofocus lenses with a longer flange focal distance that do not exhibit these problems. The shorter 23/24mm/28mm and still 32mm real wideangle lenses from Schneider have only 9,7 millimeters of distance from the back lense to the chip and do cause heavy problems With color cast and light falloff, they need Centerfilters which remove another 2 stops of light sensitivity from the camera. Rodenstock is better, they changed to retrofocus designs Some years ago the start at 22mm flange focal distance, but even this reaches a limit now with the actual 80 Mpix technology and the Microlenses hit slanted in the corners and borders of a Large 645 chip .
This is true, the 17mm provides an insanely wide image from this camera. I did not personally use this lens with the camera, but tried the camera withs some extreme wide angles like the Canon 8-15mm f/4 and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and found that it preformed very nicely at the wider settings. I frankly, found them to wide for my purposes, but that really depends on your applications. I would say that light fall off and color fringing would be more determined by what lens you are using, and what conditions from my experience; garbage in garbage out and all that. The point about center filters is especially valid, because center filters are used to balances and corrects for light fall off in the corners of an image taken with lenses from Rodenstock and Schneider (among others), which will make the image darker, and take away from the capabilities of the camera in certain situations. This fact, combined with the already faster apertures of 35mm DSLR lenses compared to large format lenses, is certainly an advantage of this camera system.
History and Design
Attaching 35mm lenses to a medium format digital back is not a new concept. Horseman had created the Digiwide and the Digiflex. The Digiwide, was very similar to plate cameras like those from Alpa or Arca. It was fairly well received. The Digiflex, was very similar in that it also took Nikon lenses, however this solution had a reflex mirror that made composition easier to visualize. Kapture Group had also created the TrueWide which was specially adapted for older Nikon perspective control, tilt-shift lenses. These solutions filled the niche market to some extent, but lacked the polish and over all appeal that the Hartblei Hcam brings to the table.
Through my discussions with Stefan Steib about the camera, I learned that these cameras were not really considered when the Hartblei Hcam was being conceived. The camera is truly a modern solution. It house sophisticated electronics that these other solutions could only dream of. One of the most notable features of the camera is Mamiya designed shutter. The shutter is the same shutter used in the Mamiya 645DF camera, which is to say it is very accurate. And because there is no mirror to influence vibration, it is virtually vibration free, making long exposures a breeze. The cameras Canon EOS mount, is very robust and well built. Its as study as anything from Canon, and easily accepts adapters for other lens types. When placing a Canon lens on the camera, there is no question that the lens is on there, like you would expect. The camera also features two different screens. The one on the top of the camera is for controlling the aperture of the lense, when you have a Canon mounted lens on it. This is because the Hartblei Hcam, is fully integrated with the electronics of Canon lenses. This means you can control the aperture, which is very convenient, especially since there are so many great lenses now that do not have manual aperture rings. This screen is very bright, and visible in any conditions. Next to it are two buttons, which control the aperture of the camera. They are well placed, and are used to open the lens wide open for composition and then stop it down when your ready to shoot, just like the same concept as a view camera, which the Hartblei Hcam shares a lot of shooting technique with. The rear screen, controls all of the other functions of the camera including shutter speed. One of the most unique features of the camera, which I will give my opinion on later, is it’s motorized back. I have been told that this was done to ensure the best alignment with the back and lenses, and it’s a pretty cool feature, you hit a button and it moves to and from shooting position, like other manual sliding backs for Technical and View cameras. The camera also has some other standard features including a hotshoe and two integrated spirit levels. The hotshoe allows you to use things such as pocket wizards for triggering lighting set ups. One of the best things about this camera is the illuminated back display, but also the illuminated spirit levels. This shows a little bit of extra thought and is especially useful when attempting to compose in darker conditions. The battery for the camera is placed on the front, into a sliding holder which is very easy to use and operate and not finicky or difficult, which again speaks volume to the thought that was put into the design of this camera. Also the parts of the back include the Hasselblad V mount viewfinder, and the mount for the digital back.
Design and Functionality, my opinion
The build quality of this camera is superb; all metal construction makes you feel like you are holding something very substantial. Of course you will never really be holding it since its always used on a tripod. As I said above I think that there are a lot of really well thought out features. Everything on the camera is designed so that it is an asset in the studio, but also in the field. All of the buttons are easily useable with gloves, and are firm enough that you can get the result you want by pressing it once, but not difficult to the point that you will have to go out of your way to press a button. The aperture is controllable, as discussed from the top of the camera, but there is also a +/- button on the back of the camera where the aperture can be controlled from again. Also very convenient depending on how you are using the camera, one of the selectors might not be as easily accessible, so redundancy is good. The back of the camera also contained the “Time” setting which will determine the shutter speed of the exposure. The system for controlling the major functions of the camera works incredibly well, and is very precise, and there is nothing to complain about. Again, the integrated spirit levels, which are also illuminated, along with all of the displays, shows the thought that was put into this camera, which makes it so much more interesting and enjoyable to use.
There are two different ways of triggering the camera. The digital back, is connected via its sync port, to a cable which connects with the camera body, and allows for precise timing of the shutter and digital back firing. This is of course; the same way things are done on technical cameras with large format lenses. The cables provided with the camera contain a shoot off from the cable, which ends in a very simple single button shutter release. This was my preferred method for triggering the camera. The button provides a solid click, and is large enough to be pleasant to use with or without gloves. It also is very easy because it allows you to simply let it drop, and you don’t have to worry about it being a separate part coming out since its integrated into the cable. The other, more unique accessory is the integrated radio trigger. This trigger allows for you to remotely control the camera. It has a simple design and offers two functions. The first is to control the camera, and the second is used as a release for longer exposure shots based on how you wish to use the camera. This accessory is nice, especially if you are using the camera indoors since it adds convenience if you are doing a still life or similar work. Again a nice feature, but not as useful for me personally when using it in the field, because it just became one more thing to carry around with me, and eventually lose.
As I have said, this camera offers a motorized sliding back. The concept of the sliding back is nothing new, and is most often seen in technical large format cameras. It is a system, which allows you to compose, and then slide the digital back into position for image capture. On large format cameras, you are typically focusing on a nice big ground glass, which is a unique experience, that I have never seen replicated in any other form of photography. Because of the precision and extra thought needed to compose in this manner (bending over, moving in the opposite direction of where you want it to go because of the lack of a reflex mirror etc) large format photography, has lent itself to a more methodical and deliberate approach which is a nice thing to have at times, to make you slow down and think more. This camera replicates this experience exceptionally well. The viewfinder is very similar to the Hasselblad V viewfinder, mostly because it is has the same mount and operation. You can mount all forms of Hasselblad V viewfinders to this camera. There are 90 degree viewfinders (what is shipped with the camera is a Hartblei version of this), as well as 45 degree viewfinders among others. The one which I found to be most useful however, was the standard flip-up viewfinder from my 503CW. This viewfinder is the most compact, lends itself to use outdoors, has a self-contained magnification accessory and allows for easy access to the digital backs CF card slot and sync ports. While I cannot speak to other backs, on my back the PhaseOne IQ180, but I believe most (possibly excluding the Hasselblad’s) the CF card slot and the sync ports are on the left side of the camera. And this area can get a bit cramped with the other viewfinders like the Hartblei viewfinder or my Hasselblad PME45 viewfinder combined with the addition of the sync cable into the port which remains directly in-front of the CF card slot. For me, the flip-up Hasselblad viewfinder worked best, but I can certainly see how other viewfinders could be well applied for different uses.
All and all I had a very positive experience with the camera ergonomically, and functionality wise. Nothing to complain about, it is as advertised and it works. However, one of the features that I found the most unusual was the motorized sliding back. Most sliding backs, are simply mechanically and user positioned into place. When they are for smaller formats, they typically have a stop, or marker in place so you know when the digital back is properly aligned for image capture. However, Hartblei, has done something different. As can be seen in my video review, they offer a motorized sliding back. This would be a fine feature if there were still the option to manually position the back into place, but in fact there is not. I do not know why, on a camera that was so well thought out, this feature was included. First of all, It eats battery, I don’t know exactly how much, and never had an issues with battery life (since it takes the same batteries as PhaseOne digital backs, and in fact can take larger versions of these). Second, it takes time, and is kind of annoying if you like to have rapid succession between composition and capture, especially when working in the field. When I asked Stefan Steib about this feature, I was told that it was done to ensure optimum alignment with the back and the lens for best results. To this, I say ok fine, that makes sense for including the feature, and is certainly marketable, but why not include a manual override. What happens if the motor fails? Especially since the sliding back is integrated into the camera, simply putting a stop in the slider, where it would be perfectly aligned, would seem to me, to be just as accurate. This feature did not exactly fit my shooting style, because I found myself always waiting for the back to slide into position, and wishing I could just push it along myself.
Note from Stefan Steib: About the motorized Slider. The problem with making an override to this would be loosing calibration of the positioning stop which is also electronically Achieved. Also the Motor and the Belt are directly connected, so without using a lockable gearbox, which would make the camera more complicated and prone to defects We would not be able to do it manually. The battery on the Camera lasts longer than the battery on the backs, when you use a larger 4800mHa battery mostly for the whole day, So battery consumption is also not a point to worry about, this is valid for temperatures down to 20degr. Celsius (and less) but then the back gets a problem!
While this explains why it isn’t possible to have both with the current system I believe it should be something to be considered. Yes, with the ability to use larger batteries this does help things, but I would still continue to point out, its still using power and so on. Stefan also mentioned later that there is a possibility that on a later version of the camera it is possible that there will be a manually sliding option. I think many, especially those who plan to use the camera in the field, will greatly appreciate this feature.
One other negative feature of the camera is the fact that it only has a Arca-Swiss dovetail mount for tripod use. This is a very nice, large and accommodating dovetail mount, but not helpful if you are like me and don’t use an Arca-swiss mount tripod quick release system. So, for the first day I had the camera, I was unable to use it because I had not been aware that this was the ONLY mount that the camera has. Of course, I understand that having an integrated Arca-Swiss dovetail mount is a wonderful feature, and their quick release system is arguably the best in the world, but it is strange that this is the only mount. I would certainly recommend a standard tripod screw if not for use with other quick release systems and tripods, but also as a back up. For me there was a bit of extra difficulty. I ordered a cheap 20 buck adapter off of Amazon, simply because it was the only Arca-Swiss adapter to fit a standard screw that I could get overnight, ah the wonders of Amazon. But I digress, this adapter, however was slightly too big for the quick release plate. Since Novoflex, which has a very good reputation, makes the quick release plate I believe it was the adapter I had purchased which most likely not made to the strictest standards. To rectify this situation I cleverly, cut some strips of paper, and inserted them into the adapter between it and the Novoflex plate on the camera. Shimming the adapter in this way, allowed for me to get a very tight lock on the camera, and it was not an issue for the rest of my time shooting with the camera.
Correction from Stefan Steib: About the tripod mount: You can of course remove the Novoflex Q-PL 4 / Arca style rail and use whatever you want. The camera has 2 standard drilled large Tripod mount threads that can attach any Manfrotto, RRS, or whatever you have plates.
I was unaware of this during my time with the camera, and while writing the review.
Now this is really the $60,000 question, can 35mm lenses resolve enough resolution for a high-resolution 80mp sensor? And I am here to tell you that they can. That being said, I was using some of the best optics in 35mm photography, so it is reasonable to assume that lesser lenses would have less performance, just like you’d expect on a 35mm DSLR. Since the camera has a native Canon EOS mount, I rented a Canon 24mm f/3.5ii lens from lensrentals.com, which was one of the best performers. I also borrowed a Canon 17-40mm f/4 USM and 90mm f/2.8 Tilt shift lenses from a friend. The 90mm also worked incredibly well and was I believe sharper then the 24mm on medium format digital. I also rented a Novoflex Canon EOS to Nikon G Adapter ring from lensrentals.com, which I used for my Nikon Lenses. I talk about and demonstrate the finicky nature of the design of this adapter in my video review, but I will say again, that it is not that functional with this camera. And for this reason I would mostly recommend sticking to Canon lenses or lenses, which have aperture rings for overall ease of use. Nikons lenses used include my 50mm 1.4G, 85mm 1.4G, 24-70mm 2.8, 70-200mm 2.8, and 14-25mm 2.8. The lenses I will illustrate below are the 50mm and the 24-70mm simply because these were lenses which I got the best shots with from my time with the camera.
Obviously a medium format digital sensor is significantly larger then a 35mm sensor. Just like large format lenses, which have an extremely large image circle to accommodate for camera movements (titl and shift, etc), Tilt-Shift lenses for 35mm cameras also have larger image circles. This makes them the best lenses to be used with the Hartblei Hcam. This is because they are capable of movements, and full coverage of the medium format sensor. Other lenses require cropping of the image to make an image from within the image circle. As discussed above this is a non-issue when working with ultra-high resolution backs where loss of a certain percentage of the image will not greatly impact image quality. Please note all of these images were processed using standard settings in Capture 1.
This one was of the first images I took once I had acclimated myself to the use of the camera. This image was taken with the Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens mounted on the Hartblei Hcam with my IQ180 digital back. As you can see here, this image is very sharp from corner to corner and no significant vignetting occurs. There is not even that much distortion, or at least not more then would be expected from a 24mm lens on a medium format camera, which provides an effective focal length of 15mm on a full-frame 35mm sensor provides a very wide field of view. This image was taken stopped down and exhibits excellent depth of field and sharpness.
This image was taken at the same time as the first image but in a slightly different location. It was also taken with my Nikon 50mm 1.4G using the Novoflex adapter ring on the Hartblei Hcam. While this image was stopped down, as you can see this is a very useable image from a lens, which has possibilities to be, stopped all the way down to f/1.4 which is like nothing possible on medium format. While this camera is a bit bulky to be used for portraits, if you demand the highest quality and desire shallow DOF effects, this could be a solution for you. This image, was cropped, from the image seen below.
This was the original image that was taken straight from the camera without being cropped. As you can see, this lens was not made to cover the full frame medium format sensor. Consequently you get the black edges, which show the end of the image circle. This is a perfect example of how you must crop when using lenses like these, and how it does not affect the image. Cropping here, does not loose significant quality as can be seen from the final image proving the viability of the Hartblei Hcam for all 35mm lenses. And again, it should be noted that the PhaseOne IQ180, did not out resolve the Nikon lens.
This image was taken with my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 mounted on the Hartblei Hcam, again with the Novoflex adapter ring for Nikon G lenses. It is nice having the zoom range available to you as an added tool for composition of images, and it makes life easier. I would have personally expected the zoom lenses, even the highest quality, to have preformed worse then their prime counter parts, since any small differences in image quality on a full-frame 35mm sensor would be multiplied that many times larger on a full-frame medium format sensor. However this was not the case, and this image yielded me possibly my favorite image from my time with this camera. Again providing tack sharp results, and an extreme wide angle.
I believe this picture may have been my favorite image taken with this camera setup. It demonstrates so many of the capabilities of this camera. This image was taken, out in about 15-degree weather. The camera preformed all of its functions beautifully in this situation, and the only limiting factor was my ability to withstand the cold. This image was taken with the Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens, tilted towards the extreme still providing tack sharp results.
This image was taken with the Canon 90mm f/2.8 Tilt shift, and exhibits excellent quality wide open at f/2.8. The Shallow Depth of field provided this wide, combined with some minor although aesthetically pleasing vingetting in this shot makes for an interesting image. As you can see from this crop, this lens also provides tack sharp results, which I believe are some of the sharpest I got with this lens.
This still life, of a ceramic basket of vegetables, demonstrates the capabilities of the Hartblei Hcam combined with tilt-shift lenses for product photography. Utilizing the perspective control features of the Canon 90mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens, I was able to extend and control the DOF of this image to allow for a greater portion of the subject to be brought into focus. This image was left unsharpened in post work, because it was so sharp straight out of the camera. This image especially solidified in my mind, 35mm DSLR lenses abilities to preform with the highest resolution medium format digital backs.
This camera does a lot of things really well. I believe that if you are shopping for this camera, you know it will work for you. Especially if you need wide angle, and are using a medium format digital back, and happen to have a 35mm kit, like most photographers, this can provide a compact solution for you without too much of an investment. That said, The Hartblei Hcam runs about $8500, However this is pretty reasonable considering other options, and the situation you would most likely be in if you are looking to purchase this camera. You will most likely already have the digital back, which is the most significant investment to build a kit with this camera. You will also more then likely have lenses which you can use on the camera, which again takes out another major cost center. That said, 35mm lenses, even the most expensive that you would use on this camera, are still cheaper then larger format lenses. Building an Alpa kit for example will run about 14k for one or two lenses, a body and back adapter and viewfinder, if not more depending on what you need, and pricing will similarly run above the 10k mark when looking into many other systems including one lens. In this way the versatility and unique niche of this camera is exposed. If I were to ever to be doing architectural photography, either interiors or exteriors, I would certainly add this capable camera to my kit. It can also be very well utilized for fine art landscape and general photographic applications. It is also very well suited for studio and technical applications. The things, which differentiate it from its competitors, will either make you love it or hate it, namely its extensive use of electronics which for some may be a deal breaker in one way or another. I would certainly recommend anyone looking to ad an extreme wide-angle solution to their kit to consider this camera.
For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that I was sent this camera to review, at the request of Stefan Steib, after conversations I had had with him about it. I did not receive any financial compensation from Stefan Steib or Hartblei.de in exchange for my review of the camera.