Hasselblad H1 – An Accidental Journey into Phase One P Series Digital Backs – By Bill Thoo

I bought a Hasselblad H1 by accident. Like it’s older cousin, the Hasselblad V, the H series is modular. It has options for batteries, viewfinders, and camera backs, in addition to lenses. Sometimes, it turns out, coming into possession of just one camera component can start you on a camera journey.

A while ago I had bought a Phase One P30 back for my Hasselblad V at a price I had thought acceptable. It turns out, of course, it doesn’t fit the V. I had bought a H series back, and there was no mechanism of adapting it to a V camera. The P30 went into a box in a drawer. Play the montage of time passing. Then last year I saw a Hasselblad H1 camera for a reasonable price.

Hasselblad H1

My interest was piqued. Not helped by GASsy discussions with my Pixels and Grain Collective friends about digital medium format, and drawn to the prospect of “vintage” digital and the ability to finally utilize this neglected camera back, I plunged in. I became the proud owner of a Hasselblad H1, a HC 80/2.8 and 50/3.5 lenses, and then later, a P45 back.

Hasselblad H1 HC 80/2.8 lens and P30 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens and P30 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens and P30 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens and P30 back

The H series was launched in 2002. They are co-manufactured with Fujifilm. The H series are 645 cameras that can accommodate both film and digital. Models in this line are still in production. It is an electronic autofocusing SLR. The Fujifilm version of this camera is the GX645, and the same in all but name. There is a film back that has automatic film advance, electronic ISO settings, auto detection of 120 and 220 rolls, and an integrated fold away dark slide.

Phase One is currently known for its Capture One software and high-end medium format digital cameras and backs. The Phase One P series of digital backs were launched in 2004 and made with specific compatibilities with several different camera bodies. Unlike its predecessors, they do not require computer tethering, and they don’t need cables when paired with a H camera. The sensor dimensions did not quite match the 645 film format dimensions, though they were clearly larger than full frame 35mm (36x24mm). The P30 was 44.2 x33.1mm CCD, and the larger P45 was 49.1×36.8mm (in comparison, the GFX 100 sensor size is 43.9×32.9mm, the CFV II is 43.8×32.9mm, and X1d II is 44x33mm).

Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 50/3.5 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 50/3.5 lens + P45 back

The fully assembled Hasselblad H1 camera is heavy, heavier than a V camera, and bulkier too. The handling is ergonomic, though, with a right sided grip which includes the battery, and control buttons and wheels for the thumb and finger. The prism finder has an integrated LCD with exposure and meter information (the chimney finder has optics only and no LCD), and there is a separate LCD top plate. The camera firmware is updatable. The H2 is largely a firmware update compared to the H1. Use of the newer range of H lenses will also require more modern firmware. Firmware updates are also available for the Phase One backs. The RAW files seem to process as TIFFs in an Adobe environment (I have yet to open them in Capture One to see if they are proper RAW files).

Except for my 4×5 camera, there has not been another camera in use that has slowed down my photography. I almost always use it on a tripod. (Annoyingly the arca style tripod plate I originally bought for the V series needs frequent tightening.) The autofocus is slow even in perfect conditions, and it can hunt in low contrast or low light, but it is accurate. Of course, there is no focus peaking or focus magnification that I am used to from a mirrorless EVF, and the focus plane is thin. Manual focus at your own peril. Another absence I missed from a mirrorless experience was a live histogram. The Hasselblad H1 histogram is displayed on the top plate after a capture. It doesn’t make exposing to the right easy with fast changing light (I almost never capture photos that way with the H1 as a result). The vintage sensor only resolves 12 stops of dynamic range, and not the 14 stops I am used to from my old Sony. I can’t recover the shadows without excessive noise, and not having a live histogram doesn’t help with my usual mirrorless focused shooting workflow. There is prominent chromatic aberrations in harsh contrast that isn’t easily tamed with post processing. Whilst the back is integrated with the camera, it is a separate electronic unit and must be turned on and off independently of the camera. And whilst the back has an LCD for image review, the screen is of such low quality that nothing meaningful can be obtained by the post capture preview except to confirm an image was taken.

Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back
Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back

Yet there is also a pleasure in its use. The Hasselblad H1 metering is accurate and the controls intuitive. A potential useful feature is that the shutter can be set for up to 18 hours, rather than relying solely on B or T shutter settings. Whether the digital back supports those shutter speeds might be another thing. The images have a lovely rendering that feels less clinical than my more modern cameras with their near perfect sensors and lenses. There is a pleasure in being forced to slow down that comes with a mindfulness of being so involved with the task at hand and the environment you are in.

Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back

Hasselblad H1, HC 80/2.8 lens + P45 back

Would I recommend the Hasselblad H1 system? I don’t know. This is still an early ownership review. There are a lot of issues. I have yet to sort out the kinks (if it was easy to update the firmware of the camera, I would have done so by now; I’m still sorting out how to process the capture files as a RAW). Even slightly more modern digital backs are very expensive even second hand. In comparison, modern digital cameras are just more capable, lighter, have better optics, and are plain younger (electronics and all that). But if you are drawn to older cameras and slower processes, and if you want to shoot both film and digital with the one camera, then maybe. I hope you enjoy the photos.

You can find me at the Pixels and Grain Collective here: pixelsandgrain.photo.blog

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22 thoughts on “Hasselblad H1 – An Accidental Journey into Phase One P Series Digital Backs – By Bill Thoo”

  1. Hey Bill! I also have a GF645AF, with the 50 / 80 / 150 lenses which I use for shooting film. Yes it’s a heavy beast, I often use it with a monopod – but I find it’s a great camera for certain purposes. I use if mainly for making environmental portraits and shooting people at work, where the slow-ish AF is not such a big deal. The viewfinder is so big and beautiful I find it easy to focus manually too if needed, and the auto wind on of the film helps keep the shooting experience quite fluid. I’ve been curious about the old digi backs – but would really want a full size 645 sensor. I saw an IQ180 for sale earlier this year but it was still £5,000 and that pays for a lot of film and processing!

    1. I would love a full sized 645 sensor, but the cost is prohibitive, particularly as a hobbyist. I haven’t used it as much as a film camera. Do you think this film system has distinct advantages over other 645 systems?

  2. I have the the h2 with p31+ back and it can be somewhat cumbersome to use in comparison to a smaller mirrorless or DSLRs. Probably much like driving a dump truck when you are used to a sedan. As you mentioned the amount of chromatic aberration (specifically purple fringing) in high contract situations has been a real disappointment when using the 80mm. Exposing to the right with these older sensors isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’ve found that even when the overexposure warning is “blinking” in the post shot preview their is still plenty of available highlight information. Exposing more towards the center might help with the shadows. Though they can be somewhat difficult to use I think they are worth the trouble. Many will tell you you the newer higher megapixel cameras are as good as these old digital backs and these older backs are obsolete. Don’t listen to them. There is something about the images these older sensors produce that can’t be measured by looking at specs or charts. Your images are a testament to that. I still struggle with how to explain it in words. I can only describe it as “Pop” or 3d effect. I really like the one of the pool. The composition and shades of green/tortoise are wonderful.

    1. Thank you. As with anything, it comes down to knowing how to work within the limitations, doesn’t it? The CCD sensors certainly have a reputation for a more pleasing render.

  3. Yeah it’s also fun the push the limitations of these older cameras. Unless I am shooting in really dark situations I leave my tripod at home and push the iso. There will be some noise but it’s not unpleasant to look at. You might be aware but there is a mirror up feature on these camera’s. It can help eliminate the motion blur can occur from the huge shutter slap these cameras produce. It can only be used for non moving subject but I’ve found it very useful for gaining a couple stops of shutter speed in lower light situations.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out. And I should emphasised that the buttons are very customisable. I have allocated a mirror up function to one of the front finger buttons.

  4. Some very sweet pics! I have an H1 and use it with the film backs. I’m not sure about the AF, at least on mine, it never seems to get it exactly right and I seem to always have to correct for it manually. Which kinda takes away the point of AF!

  5. My main client, a portrait photographer, made the jump to digital in 2006 when he purchased a P-30 back for his Hasselblad film camera. Was something like $18- 20,000 for that P-30 if my memory serves me correctly. I had retouched his darkroom work since 1990 so when he bought the P-30 he asked me to make the jump to a computer and PS. Trying to find tutorials about retouching digital files of that resolution and size was impossible. I even had a PS Guru respond to me with “Why would anyone need a file that size?” Needless to say they were unable to answer the question I had posed. Those files were just amazing but a bear to manipulate because of the quality of the details. Even on an 11×14 sized image you could see the fabric weave so I taught myself the techniques required to achieve undetectable image manipulation. Flash forward to present day and this photographer is now shooting with the GFX 100 so those P-30 files will always hold a special place in my heart since they helped establish the groundwork for forcing me to figure out the methods for high rez portrait/image retouching. And yes, they are still some of my favorite looking images because they created what I would say was a perfect blend between digital and film. Even the look of those files through Capture 1 had a distinct appearance. We still process all our RAW Fuji files with Capture 1_22 and I am a big fan of that software. The photographer and myself have talked about the differences between the two camera systems and we both still lean towards the P-30 _Hasselblad duo but when it comes to day to day fast moving portrait shoots the Fuji system wins out.

  6. These are gorgeous frames. Well done! At least on the scale of a computer monitor, they look different than the standard modern high megapixel digital pic. that you see posted everywhere. I expect much of it has to do with your skill, but maybe the large CCD sensor really does look different.

  7. I love my H1 which I use with 50/80/150 lenses and a 1.7 teleconver (which turns the 150 into a very handy 250 f/5). I mostly use it with film, but it came with a P25 back when I bought it, which I use occasionally. It’s great to use on a tripod, especially for long exposures, but I love the fact that you can take it off the tripod and use it like a (huge) point and shoot if you want to.

  8. Hi Bill, I too have an H1 with a film back and a Phase One P45 back, as well as the 80/2.8 and 50-110/3.5-4.5 zoom lenses. Just some notes sharing knowledge I’ve gained over the past year: there is a DB (digital back) version of Capture One that should be free to you as a Phase One digital back owner, with the caveat that you can only use it with Phase One digital backs; if you want to use other camera makes, you will have to pay full price. There are also different file types that come off this back- if I’m attached to my old iMac via FireWire, it ingests files as .iiq . If I use the card reader for either that iMac or my newer Mac Mini, they both ingest as .tif (which I had to have explained to me by Scott at Digital Transitions: .tif is a RAW file just like the .iiq file, it is not the same as a TIFF file).
    Also learned- a 39MP is dangerous in that if you miss focus for portraits, you will know an a brutal way. If you do nail focus and your model does not have good skin or her make-up needs help, you will know in a brutal way. More thoughts: Sometimes it’s too easy to hit the battery release on the digital back and the battery comes falling out at inopportune times. It’s an absolute beast to handhold with the big zooms attached. and ball heads on tripods don’t care for all that weight in the portrait position, either. Batteries should not be connected to the back in your bag, somehow they power the back on and will be drained by the time you get to your photoshoot. It’s a pain to hike in a 35 pound/16 kilogram Thank Tank bag into the woods or onto a long stretch of beach. Shooting film with it actually is less stressful for me. Irritatingly, if I place film downloads in Adobe Lightroom Classic, I can’t access the ‘Lens Corrections’ for my Hasselblad lenses (fix this, Adobe!)
    Would I recommend it? No. Why? Because I don’t want anybody else figuring out that despite it’s shortcomings, this camera absolutely rips and makes the files coming off my Canon 5D III look like they came off a 2003 digital point and shoot. I wish I could keep it my little secret, but apparently all of you figured it out, hahaha!

  9. For sure all of the above comments! I am an avid film shooter but love the files from my H3d-31 and P25+ . The rendering and colors are very different to my eyes and even with the shortcomings of the older tech the images are the best to my eyes compared to my normal DSLR rigs. Now I love film as well but for a different experience I prefer the old school CCDs 🙂 happy shooting!

  10. What size CF card were you able to use with your digital back? I just purchased one and it seems to have trouble with cards larger than 512 mb which is WAY too small. Thanks!

    1. Hi Kristin, I am using a 32GB Lexar Professional CF card, UDMA 7, 160MB/s. When the Phase One P series backs were made, I believe they were optimized for UDMA 3 or 4 (7 did not exist yet), they actually write slower to UDMA 7. You can ask Digital Transitions in New York, I think they were the ones to test brand compatibility, but I think it was down to Lexar and SanDisk CF cards.

      1. Update to my reply: I now remember the testing of these P series compatible cards was carried out by Phase One themselves, but I have no idea where to find this particular service bulletin, it very well may have been taken down

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