Bigger sensors are the future. As we discussed in our NAB podcast, the camera market hasn't felt super dynamic lately (with the exception of perhaps the EVA1), and at least part of that is the feeling that the Super 35mm sensor size has really peaked. Super 35mm cameras are amazing and affordable. The Alexa sensor is almost a decade old and still cranking out beautiful footage. The Varicam has a native 5000 ISO that provides clean footage. The new Red Helium is squeezing 8K out of Super 35mm.  Where do we go from here?

More resolution doesn't get that exciting anymore, with 8K not being wildly more exciting than 6K. Instead of focusing on more pixels and higher frame rates, the next wave of cinematic camera development will be larger sensors. At the high end, this has already started with the Alexa 65 turning out truly stunning imagery in films like The Revenant. And while you can't buy an Alexa 65, you could buy a 4K medium format camera today: the Hasselblad H6D-100c. That is, if you have $33,000 to spare.

[Full disclosure: we basically pestered Hasselblad for nearly a year until we got to play with the H6D-100c for a weekend. Our contacts at Hasselblad are very nice folks, and we're grateful for the experience.]

How will a drone maker help create the medium format cinema camera of our dreams?

While Hasselblad has entered into a creative and technical partnership with DJI (DJI, in fact, now owns a majority stake in Hasselblad), cross-pollination between the companies will be an evolution rather a revolution, so it should come as no surprise that a Hasselblad that fits in your pocket and flies hasn't appeared overnight. Hasselblad remains a company that isn't obsessed with constant news or attention, and focuses on making absolutely the best medium format camera and lenses money can buy. The company doesn't even have a Super 35mm camera.

Hasselblad is medium format, and has been for a very long time. This makes the teaming of their medium format knowledge with DJI's motion expertise uniquely positioned to bring us what we are all really waiting for, which is the "5D Mark II" of medium format.

Nofilmschool_hasselblad_h6n_100c_video_4k_cinema-2_0Credit: Charles Haine

The H6D-100c is not the "5D Mark II" of medium format cinematography

The H6D-100c isn't the "5D Mark II" of medium format cinematography, but it's getting close enough that we believe this will happen soon. For starters, the H6D-100c is ten times the price of the original 5D Mark II, and the price is one of the most important parts of starting a camera revolution. The medium format cinema camera of our dreams (MFC-cood for short) won't be as cheap as the 5D, but will be under $10K.

Additionally, the 100c suffers from some pretty intense rolling shutter artifacts. Of course, so did the original 5D Mark II, but it's even worse here and our expectations have changed. Filmmakers of 2018 won't suffer the same rolling shutter we put up with in 2008 because we've had too many years of cameras that don't suffer from that artifact. The 100c is putting out a tremendous amount of data, so the shutter rolls pretty drastically and the only thing that will fix it is faster processing at the sensor level. This is an area where DJI can help with its experience of stabilizing cameras and avoiding rolling shutter in drones (which are basically vibration machines).

Nofilmschool_hasselblad_h6n_100c_video_4k_cinema-4Credit: Charles Haine

If it's too expensive and the shutter rolls too badly for handheld or even fast pans, why were we so excited to play with the H6D-100c? Because, in proper conditions, the footage just looks amazing, turning out beautiful creamy shots from a very small package. The H6D-100c body is roughly the size of the FS7, but packs a full size 53.4 x 40.0mm sensor. 

Medium format means a much larger sensor than Super 35mm

A medium format still photo sensor is significantly larger than even a Full Frame 35mm sensor like you see in the 5D or the Vista Vision RED cameras. In the 100c, it's 53.4 x 40mm, versus the 25 x 18mm size of Super 35mm sensors. That's over four times the area covered with Super 35mm sensors. In the days of shooting film, that tremendous size allowed much higher resolution imagery, and medium format was used not just in fashion photography, but also on the Apollo moon missions and in aerial work. Hasselblad has been one of the pioneers of medium format imagery throughout its history.

Nofilmschool_hasselblad_h6n_100c_video_4k_cinema-9Credit: Charles Haine

From a purely technical perspective, massive sensors make low-light senstivity easier to achieve. Of course, the Varicam LT achieves pretty stunning results at 5000 ISO on a Super 35mm sensor, but as we push into lower and lower light shooting, bigger sensors mean bigger photosites, and bigger photosites are able to record image information with less light. Like a bucket in the rain, a wider bucket will catch more water than a narrower bucket, for the same number of drops. The same is true with photosites and lightwaves, and noise free, high ISO video will come more easily from a bigger sensor. In our tests at 12K8, or 12800 ISO, we found the video to be exceptionally useful with low noise. Yes, the A7SII gives useable footage up to 25600 ISO, but it will be a medium format sensor that first gives us really useable footage above that.

Medium format isn't purely a technical distinction between cameras, either. There is also a real aesthetic difference between smaller and larger sensors. As you go to a larger sensor, for the same field of view, you need longer and longer glass, which gives you a shallower depth of field that you can feel in the imagery. This becomes especially important as a differentiator. As more footage is shot with iPhones and GH5s and other small sensor images, big sensor footage will set a project apart. A larger sensor provides a distinctly different relationship to scale, as The Revenant and other projects with sweeping cinematography demonstrate. You get that from the H6D-100c. Just don't let the camera shake.

One current frustration is that to work with the RAW 4K files, you need to use Phocus, the proprietary Hasselblad software. It's actually pretty good and works quite well, but filmmakers are creatures of habit and will be much happier when Resolve is able to import the RAW footage natively.

Medium format is the future

The film industry is already anticipating the medium format cinematography wave. Hasselblad glass provides most of your options for shooting on the Alexa 65. RED has floated designs for larger sensor imagery on a few occasions (and is teasing the Monstro brand again), but has released nothing bigger than Vista Vision/FF because the company can't support the full infrastructure. RED doesn't have the history with lens engineering and image processing to deal with it. Hasselblad does.

Combine that with DJI cash and expertise, and we would bet money that Hasselblad will be in the running with a strong contender for the "5D Mark II of medium format" sometime soon. The camera that most of us shoot our first medium format movie on. The camera that every Alexa 65 production uses for its B-cam/action cam. The first one you can (maybe, someday, if you rent it out a lot) afford to buy. Or if not you, your rich buddy who wants to get into movies and will loan it to you if you teach him how to use it.

Nofilmschool_hasselblad_h6n_100c_video_4k_cinema-17Credit: Charles Haine

Medium format cinema lenses will soon be in demand

After the RED ONE came out, there was a price spike in vintage PL mount glass, as there was a tremendous hunger for cinema lenses that fit the camera and covered the circle. While we aren't guaranteeing a timeframe for when medium format cinematography will arrive, vintage medium format lenses will appreciate in value when the wave finally hits. Currently, Whitepoint Optics is rehousing vintage Hasselblad V-mount lenses into a cinema-friendly setting, with a cinema-style price point of renting for $200/day each. Those same vintage V-mount lenses, which are available with smooth aperture and focus rings, regularly show up under $1,000 on eBay, with some as low as $200. 

To be clear, these lens aren't easy to convert to full cinema mode. Medium format lenses use an internal shutter mechanism that makes the conversion more difficult than other lenses. We reached out to Duclos Lenses, which suggested that Mamiya lenses were much easier to convert to a modern cinema system, and Duclos is happy to do it. There are piles of them on eBay for a few hundred dollars right now. PL mount glass has always been rarer than medium format glass, and none of these lenses are guaranteed to go up. But as a DP, it's interesting to consider spending only a few thousand dollars and getting a full set of medium format capable cinema quality glass, designed from scratch for larger sensors and high resolving power. That stock sitting there waiting for conversion will help adoption of whatever medium format cinema platform comes down the pike.

Nofilmschool_hasselblad_h6n_100c_video_4k_cinema-11Credit: Charles Haine

In the meantime, it's a bit too early to say this revolution has started, but it feels like we're achingly close, and nobody is poised like Hasselblad. But if you want to be ready for the revolution when it happens, it's time to start reading up on medium format, trying to rent one for a weekend if you can, pitch a client on it if possible. If you have an upcoming job that calls for a locked-off camera or lots of controlled, steady movements on a geared head, where an epic, pristine look is required, get your hands on the H6D-100c and give it a test.

Tech Specs:

  • 100MP 53.4 x 40.0mm CMOS sensor
  • 16-bit color, 15-stop dynamic range
  • UHD 4K and full HD RAW video at 30 fps
  • ISO 64-12800, shooting up to 1.5 fps
  • Shutter speeds: 60 min to 1/2000 sec
  • 3.0" 920k-dot touchscreen LCD monitor
  • Dual CFast and SD memory card slots
  • Built-in Wi-Fi, USB 3.0 Type-C