Medium-format vs full-frame: Testing the Hasselblad H6D-100c and Nikon D850

I was recently asked by Hasselblad to make a series of videos, several of which were a comparison between the medium-format Hasselblad H6D-100c and the best 35mm full-frame camera on the market at the time — the Nikon D850.

I was given free-reign by Hasselblad to shoot what I wanted how I wanted, as long as it showed real-world examples of the two cameras in action. Mindful of what photographers look for in cameras, I decided to shoot a sunset, sunrise and a series of studio portraits as I felt these would thoroughly test both cameras in different situations.

While we were shooting this series of videos we took the opportunity to film a couple of exciting new photography classes. Keep an eye on our website for these new product photography, fashion photography and landscape courses, as well as a tutorial on using a tilt and shift adaptor.

I was looking to explore the capabilities of both when it came to image detail, three dimensionality, tonal range, shadow detail, color fidelity, color accuracy and tethered shooting.

The purpose of this comparison was as an educational piece aimed at both dealers and customers. Hasselblad approached me to create a series of videos that would help dealers understand the medium format system and why it exists. They also wanted their customers to understand the difference between medium-format and full-frame 35mm cameras and the benefits of each.

Setting up the Hasselblad H6D-100c and Nikon D850 for landscape comparison shots

Setting up the Hasselblad H6D-100c and Nikon D850 for comparison shots

What is a medium format camera?

The first thing many will notice about medium-format cameras is the size. They’re noticeably larger than 35mm cameras. This is largely due to the fact that they have a much bigger sensor. This is the main advantage of medium-format as the physics of a large sensor provides superior image quality. The larger sensor means medium-format cameras have a far greater light capturing ability — they have a larger area to gather light and the pixels are not usually as tightly packed as they are in a smaller format sensor for the same resolution.

The larger sensor also provides greater dynamic range, which results in smoother tonal transition, better tonal accuracy and better color accuracy. This combination of more megapixels and larger dynamic range means medium-format cameras offer far smoother tonal range and higher resolution.

To find out more about medium-format systems, this article by Hasselblad offers a detailed explanation.

    Picture of Hasselblad H6D-100c medium format and Nikon D850 full frame sensors

    Nikon D850 & Hasselblad H6D-100c sensors

    Medium format vs full frame comparison test

    The first video we started work on was the sunset shoot. This turned out to be a thoroughly trying shoot, not just for the cameras, but for the team as well. Living in Guernsey, it very rarely snows. But when it does, it decided to snow during the week we need to film a landscape shot!

    I’d agreed on a location where we would conduct the test with both cameras prior to the shoot, but that was about all we could control. It took us three attempts before we were finally able to get the shot. Our first attempt was foiled by the inclement weather rolling in. The dramatic sky we’d had when we first arrived was soon replaced with monotone clouds and snow. Despite our best intentions, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to get anything good in that weather.

    The second day, despite arriving to blustering snowfall, held more promise when it briefly cleared. I quickly set up and was just waiting for the light to drop when the second round of snow came in. Again, we packed our bags and headed home without getting the shot (but we did have a good snowball fight).

    Our third attempt proved to be the lucky one as we finally got a clear hour, good skies and ideal tides. In our three days out in minus temperatures, both cameras withstood the icy conditions. Despite both getting wet from the melting snow and sea spray, neither gave any problems.

    The sunrise shoot proved to be far easier and we managed to get the shot in one outing albeit starting very early. That meant the final test left was the studio shoot, where I tested each camera in two different lighting setups.

    For the first setup I wanted to create an image that would really allow us to determine how well each camera captured shadow detail. For the second, I went for a lighter, fresher feel, looking to test the color accuracy, tonal range and three dimensionality. Shooting in studio also allowed me to test the tethered capabilities of the cameras, using the appropriate tethering software for each.

      Studio fashion shoot
      Studio fashion shoot

      Medium-format and full-frame 35mm comparison test results

      After completing the three shoots, the landscapes and studio portraits, I sat down to examine the images in greater detail. To ensure a fair comparison I used neutral software, in this case Photoshop, to examine the RAW files. This was to avoid any unfair advantages that might be offered by automated software corrections by each brands own proprietary software.

      To see the full results from each camera, you can watch each video here:

        Medium Format Advantages, Sunset Captures and Image Comparison.

          Medium Format Advantages, Sunrise Captures and Image Comparison.

            Medium Format Advantages, Studio Captures and Image Comparison.

              Medium Format Advantages, Depth of Field Comparison

                Throughout this project I continually aimed to ensure fair testing for each camera and looking at the results, I was pleasantly surprised. I expected the Hasselblad would win but I thought it wouldn’t be as far ahead in certain areas as it was.

                Although the medium-format delivered better results in every scenario (apart from shooting speed and auto focus speed), the Nikon D850 performed far better than I anticipated in terms of image quality and it was by far the best full-frame camera I had ever shot with. It delivered image quality that any photographer would be happy with, but just wasn’t on the same level as the Hasselblad.

                This was most apparent in the tonal range of landscape images. The Nikon’s smaller sensor size limited it’s ability to capture smooth transitions between tones, resulting in somewhat softer looking images that lacked the same color clarity and depth. The Hasselblad, however, delivered smooth color transitions and I was able to recover far greater shadow detail in the darker rocks and with less noise.

                When I examined the first image from the studio shoot I was initially very pleased with the result from the Nikon, but upon closer inspection the medium-format’s larger sensor came into play as I could see the tonal range and color fidelity looked much better. It had a far richer shadow tone, therefore delivering a much more pleasing three-dimensionality.

                The other images, which I shot using just the Para 222, allowed me to see the skin tones and highlights. What I immediately noticed was the Hasselblad’s superior color accuracy. This was especially apparent in the final images where the model was wearing a pink jacket. I found the image shot with the Nikon looked a little cold (even after grey card neutralizing) and a little flat. While I could correct this with some small adjustments to the hue and saturation, as a photographer you always want to start with the best possible image.

                  Sunset landscape taken using Hasselblad H6D-100c
                  Sunset landscape H6D-100c

                  Medium format vs full frame 35mm - The verdict

                  Medium-format is what every photographer aspires to shoot with, but unfortunately, mostly due to the higher price tag, it often isn’t possible. That being said, I feel that the camera you shoot with is only as good as your own knowledge. You could shoot with the best camera in the world, but if you don’t know what to do and how to get a good shot, the result will be a reflection of that.

                  The Nikon D850 was the best 35mm camera i’ve ever shot with (and I’ve also been a Canon user all my life too!) but Medium-format cameras are designed to deliver superior images, in every way. As a commercial photographer, that’s important to me. Quality is one thing I’m unwilling to compromise. It is for that reason that I believe Hasselblad’s medium-format system is the right one for me. However, it might not be the one for you.

                  Before committing to buying it, think about whether you really need it. For many, the Nikon would prove to be more than adequate — it delivered superb results in each of these examples. For those wanting to shoot landscapes, fashion work or even some basic product photography, it would certainly suffice. But for those unwilling to compromise on quality who have a strong focus on technical capabilities, then the Hasselblad is the way to go.

                    Sunset landscape H6D-100c
                    Sunset landscape H6D-100c
                    Detail from above sunset landscape using H6D-100c
                    Detail from above sunset landscape H6D-100c
                    Detail from above sunset landscape using Nikon D850
                    Detail from above sunset landscape Nikon D850
                    Model & eye detail shot with Hasselblad H6D-100c
                    Model & eye detail H6D-100c
                    Eye detail from Hasselblad H6D-100c file
                    Eye detail H6D-100c
                    Sunrise Landscape taken with H6D-100c

                    Sunrise Landscape taken with H6D-100c

                    Model shoot with H6D-100c
                    Model shoot H6D-100c
                    Model portrait captured with H6D-100c
                    Model shoot H6D-100c
                    Model shoot of girl - shot using H6D-100c
                    Model shoot H6D-100c
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                    1. Whilst I enjoyed watching I think it’s a bit of a pointless comparison. If someone wants a Hasselblad – they will buy a Hasselblad. Nothing beats them. But most can’t afford them and so that is the worst restraint and so people buy a Nikon D850 and tell themselves they are really happy as we often do in life.

                    2. Thanks for the reply Karl. Obviously the Hasselblad is a superb and superior camera (I own several Nikon cameras amongst the D850). Shame that it cost an arm (almost 2 ?). I personally think that these cameras can’t be compared being too different in their technologies. However, it would be interesting to compare a Leica to a Hasselblad and see what would justify such a prohibitive price from the Leica. I was told that it had a lot of shortcomings and the image quality is not as terrific as its reputation.

                    3. At the same time, wouldn’t it be more consistant to compare the Hasselblad HD50 with the Nikon D850 which is a 46Mpx? Many of the differences could be due to the sensor size.

                      1. Hi Jean, I was asked by Hasselblad to compare these two particular cameras, as it was meant to be the best Medium Format against the best 35mm.

                    4. Hello there

                      In the sunrise video, Karl says that he needs two fingers to check the focus on the Nikon D850 screen while he only has to touch the screen of the Hasselblad. Well, the Nikon D850 is also touch screen and touch focus. I think there is a mistake here.


                      Jean Jacques Fabien

                      1. Hi Jean, thanks for pointing this out, this has been noted and was my mistake as I didn’t realise it also had that feature.

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