road-tripping the end of the world

first digital medium format experience

Somehow I was gonna try to avoid sexual connotations here as per the usual straight-dude technology whatever … maybe I will nonetheless.

Anyhow, my colleague and friend Derek Liddington hired me to do some photography work for his art practice, and rented the studio at Gallery 44 and their delightful Hasselblad H3DII. It was some very challenging work, really enjoyable, and the experience of working with the digital medium format was very rewarding … and enlightening. Before I get to that, I just noticed Derek already posted the shots from this afternoon, so have a look at our endeavours:

(I also documented a performance a few weeks ago that Derek directed at The Power Plant: )

Best to let his work speak for itself, tho there’s some very eloquent descriptions in the sidebar on the site.

The camera itself was a joy to work with; the image sharpness was superb, colour accuracy and dynamic range was amazing (although I’m proud to say my S5 Pro was just about on par with the H3DII in the this regard), very satisfying clunk to the shutter and everything functioned as and when it was supposed to.

That being said; I was suprised at how clumsy and clunky the interface was, both the buttons/dials and the onscreen menus. It felt like a standard had been created out of utility some twenty years ago and never updated or optimized. Menus were clustered together seemingly at random; ISO selection was followed by Mode (M, A) followed by “Browse” … white balance was hidden somewhere I never found, thankfully it could be adjusted from the LCD screen with nominal difficulty.

I realize that this was my first encounter with this interface, but honestly, for what the camera was worth, and a general sense of the section of business using it … I expected it’d be designed for a more optimized workflow.

A couple things I noticed before I move onto a software issue:

– I’d used a film medium format before, but for some reason I never noticed just how narrow a depth of field was achievable until I used this particular camera. That was pretty neato.
– There seems to be a lot if misinformation or misunderstanding about the size of the files coming out of these cameras; the RAW files were only 45 megs. Because they’re compressed. Why anyone would only describe the uncompressed size – which, of course, is over half a gig – when talking about storage mediums, I have no idea, unless it comes down to sexual innuendo and big numbers, once again. This camera could hold about 75 RAW files on a 4 gig card, quite respectable.
– I’ve never encountered a camera with more inscrutable safety covers in my life. The tripod mount, the battery cover … it was the first time I had to read the manual to figure out how to remove something so simple as … well, a glorified lid. It was like the Puzzle Box from Hellraiser.

Hasselblad has developed its own software for their medium digital cameras called Phocus. And again – this is just an afternoon with no instruction, playing with the software – but I was slightly dissappointed.

I should say, right away, that the processing engine in Phocus is amazing – fast, beautiful results, adjustments are brilliant. All the core bits that should be there are there, and they exceeded my expectations.

What shocked me, again, was the interface. I will credit Phocus with having excellent batch processing, and indeed, batch processing options attached to pretty much everything.

But its interface was very, very clumsy. A few things that have stuck in my brain:

– Phocus has a pseudo-filmstrip, but not quite a filmstrip, because it’s more like viewing “medium icons” in the Finder / Explorer. It’s pretty awkward to move around a lot of images, doesn’t scroll smoothly, and generally seems to get in the way.
– Image adjustments ARE NOT SAVED IF YOU DON’T SAVE THEM DELIBERATELY. In other words: I’m working on one image, I’ve adjusted the exposure, sharpness, brightness, but I want to compare it to another image in my filmstrip group. I click on another image – poof, all those adjustments are gone forever. Even a mis-click of the mouse and you’re pooched.
– For some reason, EV adjustment only goes up 2 stops. I might have been missing something there. Recovery/Fill light seemed to be lacking too.
– Any and all image adjustments palettes are unavailable if you’re in the semi-fullscreen mode; most adjustments you have to make while the image is occupying a scant third of your monitor space.
– For yet another strange reason, there are only two “zoom” modes: 100% (actual pixels) and fit-into-a-small-portion-of-the-screen. There’s no in-between.
– … the file-viewer/finder/whatever sidebar is kinda oddly programmed. If I click on the eject button, say, next to the memory card so I can yank the card … it effectively Selects the Card > Ejects it > Selects nothing … in other words, you’re working on an image, you need to pop the card back into the camera … you click eject and whatever you’re working on goes away. The files are still there, but if you didn’t save your adjustments, they’re gone, and you have to navigate the confusing file structure to get back to where you were. Phocus does not take advantage of the MacOS “shortcuts” to the desktop, etc… it only shows the actual file structure.

Again, DISCLAIMER: I might be an idiot. This could all be an idiot’s reaction to something that’s just smarter than I am.

But it still felt clumsy.

Nonetheless, the product is superb and what we produced this afternoon looked great, in my humblest of opinions.

As for my continuing “do I get a medium format digital / do I get a full frame SLR” debate … I’ll have to see what the next generation of full-frame Nikons are like. I loved the big sensor on this H3DII but I gotta say, that is a big, clunky camera to be dragging around with me on roadtrips in the field. It might be completely impractical. Let’s hope the D700 replacement is 20+ megapixels. The D3x is just a bit out of my price range.

… way more technical and dorky than I usually get, apologies all.

One response

  1. Ray Schroeder

    Love The Portfolio. Out of a possible ten days of Cthulhu I think 7,8 and 2 are my favs.

    Still working through your blog. Love from the WEst.

    November 28, 2010 at 3:00 am

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