The Magic of Christmas
This article is about the joy of capturing Christmas images and using the Hassleblad X1D which is generally bashed on the internet, similar to Leica, by incompetent reviewers. I do not normally provide detailed camera settings but thought it may be of interest due to the nature of the subject.
The Hassy was only purchased a few months ago although I knew that the X1D update would be coming any moment but we are way past sufficiency on cameras some time ago and I got a fabulous price on it and 3 new lenses from a dealer who was no longer going to carry Hasselblad. I am more than delighted with it and it well suits the methodical aspects of my photography. Also, I have the amazing Panasonic G9 M4/3 system to complement the X1D for zooms, non-redundant glass such as long telephotos, and for more spontaneous photography – I love it as well.
I was long overdue to get out for some “shutter therapy “(a term Robin Wong coined; which means “go out and enjoy making images”. robinwong.blogspot.com) as well as to capture some Christmas lights over the 2018 Christmas season. We had been hit with unusually extreme winds (70 to over 100 km/h) and very heavy constant rains. This caused extensive wind damage and lengthy power outages. There was more rain in the first two days of January than we get typically for the whole month. The weather finally cleared and I managed to get out for the second last day of the Magic of Christmas at The Butchart Gardens located on Vancouver Island, Canada. It is located about 90 minutes from where I live.
The Butchart Gradens is a world class tourism destination and a National Historic Site of Canada. It is 55 acres of amazing gardens that can be enjoyed year round. The flowers, shrubbery, and trees are a joy to see during the spring to fall seasons. For about a month starting in December, they have The Magic of Christmas event where a large area of the site is covered in countless Christmas decorations and lights creating a breathtaking experience. It has to be seen to believe how magical it is.
I had not been at The Magic of Christmas for about three years and I am still in awe when I walk in. The picture below is the view that greets you when you step through the entrance. It was awkward at first adapting to taking pictures in the dark and ensuring that the exposure was ETTR. But the large sharp LCD made for a truly lovely experience working on the tripod – for readily seeing and changing settings plus adjusting the exact image viewpoint without having to look in the viewfinder; it felt like I was working with a view camera. It slows you down in a positive way.
You are not allowed to block paths with a tripod but I put two legs over railings and found that perfect for also not being jostled by people very much. It was a challenge capturing this image as I had to wait for a break in the endless people to keep people photo bombing down to a minimum.
It is a challenge to capture the high dynamic range of the night scenes and have natural colours so I was keen to try out the Hasselblad X1D. I took it and a XCD 30mm/3.5 (approx. 24mm in full frame), a XCD 45/3.5 (approx. 35mm in full frame) and a Gitzo full height tripod. 35 to 50 MP sensors need great care, premium glass, and shot discipline to have crisp images. This requires extra careful steadiness with handholding and higher shutter speeds than usual or better yet, a sturdy tripod.
I also took the generally amazing Panasonic G9 and the Olympus Pro 12-100/4. I have an incredible copy of the Oly 12-100 and cannot believe the professional grade of glass it is for such a long zoom. I only took one photo with the G9 during the evening. I tried to take some more photos with it and could not figure out why I could not get the camera to focus. I forgot to bring my tiny flash light and had left my cell phone (no fake flashlight available) in the car to avoid distractions and keep my pockets free for lens caps and so on. This caused me great grief with the G9 and Oly glass as I could not see in the dark what the problem was with achieving focus – a disaster if I had had only one camera! In the darkness, I did not notice that the stupid Olympus MF clutch ring had pulled forward putting it into manual focus mode. I gave up with the camera (not the camera’s fault) after roaming through countless menus and pushing buttons.
In the past, I tried gaffer tape on the Oly pro glass but that prevented a quick shift to manual focus. Hence, I cheerfully sold my Olympus 17/1.2 and 25/1.2 because I kept missing decisive moments since the MF clutch ring (did I mention that this is a stupid design “innovation”) constantly moved – what was Olympus thinking – how about a button on the lens like everyone else? The Oly 17/1.2 has a magical Leica-like 3D rendering but the MF clutch was more than annoying and I do have a redundant prime in the Hassy 45mm. The Oly 25/1.2 is sharp but has a clinical rendering and is over-priced in my view especially compared to the amazing Oly 17/1.2 and Oly 45/1.2. Hence, the Oly 17/1.2 and Oly 25/1.2 have found new homes. I have kept the 45/1.2 as it has a gorgeous rendering and is worth the haptics headache.
The weather was unusually warm at 9 degrees C when I arrived at 5pm. Normally the temperature would be 0 to 5 at that hour so this was a real treat for my naked finger tips. This made for my most pleasant winter experience here. All my happy snaps with the Hassy were taken on the tripod of course.
The image below of the musicians was captured with the Panasonic G9 and I am amazed at the quality and there is no need to apologize that it is not full frame. I had never taken night images with it before and I am delighted with the result. The image stabilization dramatically helps out on keeping the ISO and noise down. A very nice thing about M4/3, compared to full frame, is there is a lot more depth of field at a given aperture plus 2 stops more light helping keep ISO way down. Combined with amazing M4/3 image stabilization, you can get a fantastic sharp image. I had tried full frame on this subject in the past and was never quite happy with the results. Ignore people on the internet that trash M4/3 and declare its early demise. Instead, get out there and enjoy photography and your fabulous images without having to carry the heavy glass around of other sensor sizes.
The musicians had just started and alternate hourly with carolers. I really enjoy the carolers but was not going to hang around for an hour when the lights were coaxing me to get on with my much needed shutter therapy. So I proceeded onward toward more captivating lights.
These trees below appeared immediately as I stepped around the corner and was enchanted by them. This was a new display and I spent a several minutes deciding on the correct vantage point. To get a great angle, I had to step over the public boundary fence and immediately got eye-balled by staff. I looked at them and smiled and acted like I was supposed to be there. When they saw my camera mounted on the professional grade tripod they let me continue exploring for the best vantage point; I guess I looked like a professional doing their job.
As a curious experiment and comparison test, I also tried to capture this scene with the Panasonic G9 but the dynamic range was hopeless. Processing various exposures resulted in the red decorations in the background appearing like they were hanging in dark space with ghosting of the trees. Plus there was no quality image in the grassy area in the foreground or I got burned out lights. The Hasselblad X1d files are amazing. I could bring up images to look almost like daylight images with sharp detail in the shadows. However, I wanted a natural look not the poorly processed unnatural “HDR” look often seen.
The dining room of the gardens was the next scene encountered. I have never dined there but it looked like such a delightful Christmas movie setting and I felt tempted to go in. Again, I love the natural colours and look to the scene. This image is currently my first choice for my next Christmas card. I send out handmade note cards to my clients and friends (I am working in real estate) and a number of people collect and also frame my cards so it is a nice outlet for my photography and helps motivate me to capture images. I send out about 150 Christmas cards each year. I like to print images rather than just have them sit on the computer or internet. There is something about holding a photo in your hands.
The photo below is where the original quarry was and is taken from the top edge. It is hard to imagine how many lights there are. Before I forget, I find the XCD 30/3.5 to be the most incredible wide angle lens, in the general range of 24mm full frame equivalency, I have used. Besides a gorgeous and ultra-sharp edge to edge rendering from wide open, it creates the most amazing crisp sun stars that I have ever seen. I cannot wait to try it out on cars, motorcycles, and bicycles!
It was truly amazing to get down into the quarry and be immersed in the lights. There were so many image options but knowing the size of the gardens it was important to keep on moving. This is a place that a number of shoots would not exhaust the creative opportunities. If the image is zoomed, there are endless sun stars.
Hasselblad XCD 30mm/3.5, 4 sec, f/16, ISO 1600
The red tree blew me away and stopped me in my tracks. The angle and height of the optimal camera location was first determined before setting up the tripod. It was tough setting up because the path was narrow and people jostling me was a regular problem. It is important to decide view point angle and height before setting up a tripod or the tripod will anchor you to a less than optimal position. It was interesting to observe people only stopping because they saw me with the tripod set up. Then they would notice the tree and start taking pictures with smartphones and often the flash was going off….
This is another contender for my next Christmas card.
The pond scene was an extremely challenging place as the subject dynamic range was enormous but the colours out of the X1D are incredibly natural. This camera has the most natural colours I have enjoyed and I do not experience any near as much sensitivity to colour shifts with contrast adjustment. Some cameras have driven me crazy with colours shifting in hue and saturation as contrast is adjusted –then if you fix one colour another colour goes off kilter.
The Winter Fountain feature was the most challenging subject to capture. The spray was rapidly changing shape and cycled quickly through various colours and tones. It was about 20 minutes of cycles before the deep red was captured at full saturation without a bright white light up the centre overexposing the spray. If I was slightly late on the shutter, the magical moment was missed. Lots of practice was gained on colours that were not as appealing to me! This is a great hobby for helping me to learn patience and perseverance which is great for helping keep my marriage to an awesome wife together after 38 years!
The scene of the house was another challenging high dynamic range subject for keeping a natural looking image. The raw file is truly incredible for artistic possibilities. I tested the capability of the X1D by initially brightening the image and was able to make the whole scene bright with detail and natural colours and no significant noise. That was not the aesthetic rendering desired but it was a revelation on the file flexibility. The image was then processed for the interpretation I wanted and the front corners were darkened to keep the viewer being led into the image.
All of the previous Hasselblad images were captured with the XCD 30mm (full frame equivalent of 24mm). This scene of the eight milk maids a milking, required a longer lens so the lens was changed to the XCD 45mm/3.5 (full frame equivalent of 35mm). The theme in the gardens is the 12 days of Christmas and each day has a setup in the garden.
The next interesting large subject was this enormous asterisk decoration with the individual lights turning different shades from white to full density of a particular colour. Often, there were various colours in the design and the light pattern changed very quickly and created a feeling that it was dancing in rhythm to the four musicians playing nearby. The pattern that I preferred was a solid dark blue or sold dark red. White lights in the pattern were not visually attractive to me for an image and occured frequently in the patterns. After about 25 minutes of trying to capture solid light patterns, a solid red pattern was captured (a tripod is truly a blessing at times!) – moving on…armed and ready.
The “tree” scene from the opposite side appealed to me and again there was a methodical search for the best view point. My wife loves this image (and the other “tree” image) but she wants me to remove the background and show only the trees. I think it works both ways; a great opportunity for two distinct images out of one picture! Close inspection, shows very nice crisp sun stars but they are not nearly as big as the XCD 30mm/3.5 in general; it is important to know a lenses rendering when you have lens options for a scene so that the desired rendering is achieved.
My final image was a delight to capture. I had captured this same scene previously with a full frame Sony and was never truly happy with the final image looking as natural as I wanted. This image was very easy to process and all I did was some dodging and burning to balance the image. I try to process my images so they have a depth to them and do not look like they are a scene that has been steamrolled flat. That is accomplished by finessing contrast curves and delicate dodging and burning. I never use contrast curve presets as that generally makes images look harsh or flat. This particular image has the most pleasant sun stars that I have ever achieved out of the 45mm/f3.5.
The shutter therapy stroll lasted from 5pm to 10pm and was a fabulous boost to my mood after a long exhausting week. I almost did not go but it was now or never for my Christmas adventure. I feel blessed to be able to see the world more clearly when I walk with a camera in hand. Most people are walking around not noticing things-preoccupied with their thoughts/smartphone. I feel I have the fresh eyes of a child when there is a camera in my hand. Even if I come home with no keepers, I have enjoyed the journey by being truly in the moment engaged and experiencing my environment.
In summary, the Hasselblad X1D is a delight to capture images with when used for what it was designed for. I waited a year thinking that a new version would come out and solve the so called “problems”. Then I realized that if this camera is good enough for the talented and skilled Ming Thein to use, why am I waiting. Amongst the noise on the internet, I found a couple of competent reviews and decided that it suited my needs and desires and that the great price reduction opportunity was the perfect time. The camera is a pleasure to use. I prefer the haptics on the Leica SL but this camera has very good haptics and a bigger sensor in a similar size. I miss having overexposure warning/histogram prior to taking photo but it is not a deal breaker for me. I did not like the shutter release at first, but adapted to it by having my finger half on it and half on the body surface in front of it. Then rolling my finger pressure down solved the problem but who would think they could not get that perfect. There is no perfect camera but this camera is a joy to use within its application: methodical shooting. Most importantly, it will give me the Joy of Photography for many years; striving to capture compelling images out of chaos. I do not sweat specs, mostly incompetent reviews, and the siren marketing call to the next camera which usually has no practical difference to the current model. If the camera delivers, I am happy- no matter how old it is. The X1D has been around for a while but it is not obsolete! Now I am off for more shutter therapy.