Hartblei Cam Review

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

Hartblei Cam with Canon 24mm f/3.5L II lens


Imagine a camera that can take 35mm format lenses in the front, and medium format digital backs on the back. Imagine a 645 format digital camera that can take a 24mm or 17mm lens tilt / shift lens that can still handle movements and that has no lens vignetting worth mentioning.

Imagine a camera that can take Canon EF mount lenses, has electronic aperture control, and is able to also take Nikon F (and G mount lenses with an aperture control adapter), Pentax 645, Pentax 67, Leica R, Contax 645, Hasselblad V and Pentax 35mm lenses.

Imagine a camera that can take Phase One, Hasselblad, Leaf, Contax, Sinar, and Mamiya mount digital backs. Imagine a camera that takes Phase One digital backs with a built in two-shot release capability. Imagine a camera with a built-in electronically controlled focal plane shutter, with speeds from 30 sec to 1/4000 sec. Imagine a medium format camera that takes any Hasselblad V series viewing accessory, including fold out hoods and magnifiers, right angle finders and magnifiers. Imagine a camera that comes with a viewfinder incorporating a metering prism. Now imagine that it has a motorized mounting panel on a sliding back that exchanges the viewfinder with the medium format back automatically in a few seconds at the touch of a button.

Enough imagining. What I’ve just described is the forthcomingHartblei Cam, which will start to become available in mid-January, 2010, at a cost of 5,000 Euros.


Stefan Steib

Stefan Steib is the CEO of Hartblei. He is a German photographer and entrepreneur who lives in Munich. Hartblei is a company that has been around for a while, manufacturing camera lenses in the Ukraine, most recently with tilt / shift models using Carl Zeiss manufactured glass and designs.

But the Hartblei Cam, which I’ll tell you more about in a moment, is the new future of the company. It is actually manufactured in Italy by a company that has been building specialty camera for many years. The Hartblei Cam,HCam, as I’ll call it from now on, is the results of a vision by Stefan Steib and the cooperation of a number of German and Italian manufacturing and engineering firms – so put aside any notions about inferior quality Russian cameras and lenses that you might have previously associated with the Hartblei name.

Fig #1
BCE Place, Toronto. November, 2009

Hartblei Cam. Phase One P45+. Canon 24mm T/S

Fig #2

In late November, 2009, Stefan flew from Munich to Toronto to bring a pre-production sample of the HCam for me to test. Frankly, I didn’t quite know what to expect, because when initially told that this was a camera that could take 35mm lens, yet which used medium format digital backs, I was more than a little dubious. Every photographer knows that 35mm lenses project an image circle that is much smaller than 645, and so what you’d end up with would be a circular image in the center of the larger medium format frame, with lots of black space around it. Right?

Well – not quite.


Squaring The Circle

Fig #3

Let’s start with some basics about the way that lenses work. Lenses project round images. Human beings though prefer pictures with four sides, be they squares or rectangles. The above graphic shows the relationship between the size of 135 format and the image circle needed to cover it, and the 645 format and the larger image circle needed to cover that format.

The orange rectangle in the center of the illustration above represents the full-frame 135mm format. The green circle immediately surrounding it is the nominal size of the image circle that a 35mm format lens must project to properly cover the 35mm format area.

The red rectangle represents the area of a full 645 format sensor (and 645 format film), shown to scale with the enclosed 135mm format area.

The pale green outer surrounding circle represents the size of the image circle that a 645 format lens needs to project to properly cover the 645 image area.

So – someone designing a lens for a 35mm camera only needs to make the image circle the size of the center green area, right? To make it any larger would likely mean needing to make a larger lens, and why do that when it would add bulk, not to mention cost?

But, curiously, it turns out that there are quite a few lenses designed solely for 35mm format cameras that projectmuchlarger image circles than one would imagine necessary. Two of these are the new (Spring, 2009) Canon 24mm T/S and the 17mm T/S. Ireviewed the 17mmhere back in August.

Well,of course, you’ll say. A perspective control lensmusthave a larger image circle because of the need to accommodate movements. But, in the case of these two lenses there’s more available than meets the eye. Much more.

Hartblei Cam in focusing / composition position
with Phase One P45+ and provided reflex metering viewfinder


The Canon 24mm T/S and 17mm T/S Lenses on Medium Format

This is where the magic begins. The HCam has a Canon EF lens mount with electronic control of the aperture. The other side of the HCam takes a medium format back of your choice. The unit I had for testing was fitted with a 39 MP Phase One P45+, (my personal P65+ was in use elsewhere that week). It also has a standard Hasselblad viewing screen on a motorized sliding back, allowing interchanging the viewfinder and the back at the press of a button.

When Stefan arrived at my studio and first showed me this system I was impressed at the ingenuity of it all, but what I wasn’t prepared for was that the Canon 24mm T/S not only could cover the 645 format but allowed significant movements without visible vignetting.

Fig #4

Hartblei Cam with 24mm Canon T/S and Phase One P45+
f/14 with +6mm rise

Figure #4 above tells the story better than I can. Look at the corner. There is hardly any vignetting to be seen, and that’s with 6mm of rise!

Figure # 5 – Corner Figure #6 – Center

Figure #5 above shows the the extreme upper left corner. The amount of shading is very small and the resolution and lack of any form of aberration is amazing for a lens of this type, covering a format that it was never intended for – (or was it)?

Figure #6 beside it shows the center of that shot at 100% as well, just for the sake of completeness of the example. A 20X24" print of this shot is exceptionally sharp.

Figure #7

Though the Canon 24mm T/S does not have barrel distortion per se, because of its extreme wide angle coverage it can appear to, with closer objects looming larger than slightly further ones. Figure #7 above was brought into Photoshop andFilter / Distort / Lens Correctionwas used to "normalize" the perspective somewhat. Season to taste.

Fig. #8

Hartblei Cam. Phase One P45+. Canon 17mm T/S
No Movements / No Vignetting Correction

The Canon 17mm is another kettle of fish. On a full-frame 645 digital camera the lens is equivalent to 11mm in 35mm format terms. That’s crazy wide. Yet remarkably, the image quality is still quite excellent. I saw very little fall off at the corners in terms of vignetting. When movements are used shading begins much sooner than with the 24mm, but it isn’t until about 5mm that it will need correction in post. Beginning at 7mm the comers drop off precipitously, but that’s about as much as anyone is ever going to use with this lens. (See Figure #9 below).

Unfortunately corner resolution does not hold up as well as it does with the 24mm. That lens’ image quality is extremely solid all the way to the corners even with extreme movements. The Canon 17mm holds to the sides but the corners start to deteriorate quite badly. They might be acceptable for landscape work (sky and foliage) but for architectural images with important detail, I’d judge the corner coverage as unacceptable.

Of course the lens was never designed for this extreme usage, and in the area covered by the 35mm frame image quality is remarkably good. Even a ways beyond this in fact. But it’s my sense that for critical work the Canon 24mm lens covers almost as wide a field of view as the Canon 17mm does before one loses too much quality. In other words, you’ll likely end up cropping the 17mm’s files to the equivalent of about 21mm to obtain maximum image quality at the corners. Still pretty impressive.

I should caution that the 17mm lens that I was using was on loan from Canon Canada and might not have been an optimal sample, or, since it is their demo and loaner lens, might have seen some hard knocks along the way. But in summary, if I were in need of what the HCam can offer I would hands-down purchase the 24mm lens as my primary go-to lens and would use it without hesitation for any project and wouldn’t hesitate to use it with maximum movements. And, if at the end of the fiscal year my accountant told me that I had a spare $2,500 to spend, or give it to the tax man, I’d likely get the 17mm as well, simply because it can offer a perspective on the world that has to be seen to be believed.

Fig #9

Hartblei Cam. Phase One P45+. Canon 17mm T/S
+7mm rise along with 2 increment swing. No vignetting correction applied.


What About Other Lenses?

As far as I’m concerned the Canon 24mm T/S II and to a somewhat lesser extent the Canon 17mm T/S arethelenses that will make the Hartblei Cam a huge success. If it didn’t work with any others, it would still be a winner. But via adaptors one can use Pentax 645, Pentax 67, Contax 645 and Hasselblad V lenses. With these coverage isn’t an issue. As long as a lens has a manual diaphragm ring it will work. At the moment there is no adaptor available for Mamiya / Phase One lenses or Hasselblad H lenses, because these have electronic diaphragm controls. The only electronic aperture lenses that work on the HCam are Canon EF lenses directly, and also Nikon G with an appropriate adaptor. There are also adaptors available for Contax and Nikon 35mm, Leica R, and Pentax 35mm lenses.

There are likely quite a few other lenses that will work with the HCam. These include the 17-35 Nikon ED and Nikon new PCs, the 24mm, 45mm and 85mm. These will almost certainly cover, though I don´t know yet if movements will be possible. Of course the Hartblei 40mm, 80mm and 120mm tilt / shift lenses will also cover. But whether any particular lens will cover the 645 format is something that you’ll have to discover for yourself. I expect to open a Hartblei Cam discussion section on our forum, and users will be able to post their lens compatibility discoveries.

Figure #10

Hartblei Cam in shooting position


The Camera Itself

The photographs of the camera above tell part of the story. The camera itself is not terribly large, but by the time you’ve added a lens, a viewer and a back it bulks up quite a bit. There are no hand grips or even lugs for a neck strap. This camera is designed exclusively for use on a tripod, and indeed a precision head such as theArca Cubeis an ideal compliment to the HCam. (I haven’t written about it, but since early 2009 I have been working with theArca Cube (B&H link), and would now never return to a ball head for medium or large format work).

The body’s construction is of a seemingly solid block of aluminum, and the fit and finish are excellent. Not quite in Alpa territory, but fine enough so that you aren’t left wondering where your investment has gone. The control interface is quite well done, with membrane style click pads for all controls. The ones on the right side of the camera turn the camera on and off and control the motorized sliding back and the backlight illumination of the rear LCD panel.

The rear buttons control aperture (on Canon EF lenses) and shutter speed, along with front or rear curtain flash sync. My only real complaint is that changing either EF lens aperture or the camera’s shutter speeds requires multiple presses of the buttons, as they don’t allow being held down continiously.

On the top of the body, along with the two flash shoes, there is an small LCD display showing the aperture being set on Canon EF lenses. On the pre-production sample camera that I had this disp;lay was too small and had no backlight, but I’m told that this will be revised by full production time.

The camera’s electronic shutter(sourced from Mamiya, and the same as the shutter in the Mamiya and Phase One 645 cameras), is powered by a supplied Sony video battery mounted to the front panel. This also powers the motorized sliding back transport.

The only real design and operational concern that I had was that there is no preset for the EF lens aperture when viewing. In other words the lens needs to be reopened after a shot for subsequent viewing and framing before you return the slider to the viewing position, because in that position the aperture control buttons are hidden.

I was told by Stefan that this design quirk had been noted and that a top mounted button would be available that opens and closes the aperture to the user’s pre-set shooting aperture at any time with a single press. This will include green and red LEDs to indicate aperture position.

On the bottom panel there is an Arca style mounting plate and also a proprietary shutter release cable plug. This cable has an electronic release button and also a sync cable to attach to the digital back. As mentioned, the wake-up capability for Phase One backs is built into the body of the camera.

If you are going to be shooting tethered, then a different cable is required because the back’s timing is altered in that mode. This cable is available from Hartblei.

The camera is supplied with an old-style Zenit reflex viewer (upside down image) with a built-in meter. It works fine, but frankly I would replace it with either a stove-pipe style magnifier or even a single V series Hasselblad pop-up viewing hood.

Figure #11
Conservatory. Toronto. November, 2009

Hartblei Cam. Phase One P45+. Canon 17mm T/S
No vignetting correction applied.


The Motorized Sliding Back

What captures everyone’s attention when they first see the HCam is its motorized sliding back. It’s kind of cute, but you immediately ask yourself –why motorized?

The answer has to do with the issue of mounting precision. Some companys have been producing sliding back adaptors for technical cameras for years, even before the days of digital backs. But the cruel reality is that when it comes to high resolution digital backs they don’t necessarily offer the required precision needed to precisely position both the ground glass and the sensor for accurate and reliable alignment with the exact focal plane. As we’ve seen before, backs of 40MP and higher simply place tremendous demands on every aspect of both equipment design and user technique, and sliding back on roller bearings just don’t offer the precision that critical users demand.

That’s the reason for the motorized slider on the HCam. The ground glass and the back itself are mounted to a rigid panel which is supported on two knife edges that sliding along grooves in the main chassis. These grooves are coated with teflon to ensure smooth transport. Because there are no click stops or detents needed to position the back there is no opportunity for slop or wear over time, which can lead to lack of precision alignment.

That’s the story as I understand it, and looking at the HCam in operation, feeling the rigidity to the groundglass and back carrier panel, I can believe it. This of course also begs the question of the level of precision that Hartblei and their Italian manufacturer apply to the actual back mount tolerances, but we’ll have to wait for production cameras to see. The pre-production camera that I had seemed to be very precisely aligned.

Figure #12
Stairs and Figures. Toronto. November, 2009

Hartblei Cam. Phase One P45+. Canon 24mm T/S
+ 6mm rise


Who is it For?

Which brings us to the question – who is the HCam for? Clearly this is a camera for someone who already owns a medium format digital back and who is interested in having access to extreme wide angle lenses and likely also lenses with movements.

The HCam is therefore not for the hobbyist – even a wealthy one. But if you are an architectural photographer or a landscape photographer in need of either extreme wide angle or movements, or particularly both at the same time, then there simply isn’t another camera in the world that can offer the HCam’s capabilities. It’s as simple as that.

It doesn’t come cheap though. The body is EUR 5,000, which at the early December ’09 exchange rates is some US $7,500. Add to that a24mm Canon TS-E IIat $2,200, or aCanon 17mm T/Slens at $2,500 and you’re looking at ten large to get in the game, and that’s assuming that you already own a medium format digital back.

As this is being written in early December I’m told that the Hartblei Cam will start to ship within a few weeks. With the holidays almost upon us, let’s call it early January. If you want to be among the first to have one you should contactStefan Steibdirectly, or throughthe Hartblei web site. He has just appointedB3K Digitalas the Hartblei Cam’s North American distributor, so if you live in the US or Canada you can contactWalter Borchenkothere for more information.

In the meanwhile, the Hartblei Cam, when used in combination with one or both of the new Canon T/S lenses, fills a unique niche that is bound to appeal to a select group of photographers with either specialized needs or who are looking to add a unique "look" to their work.

Highly recommend for those that know what they both want and need.

NB:The older Canon 24mm T/S lens (prior to 2009) does not have the required image circle capabilities for use with the HCam.


* The Bumblebee Flies in From Left Field

This review’s subtitle may seem a bit strange, but it was motivated by something that Stefan said when he came to deliver the camera to me. I was commenting on how it seemed so strange to be using a lens (the Canon 24mm) designed for 35mm format on a 645 format back. Stefan observed that as he was developing the camera’s concept and showing early prototypes to both people in the industry and photographers, he was met with frequent comments to the effect that what he was trying to do was impossible – akin to the old and misunderstood urban myth that bumble bees can’t fly because they don’t have a large enough wing span in relation to their weight.

But bumble beesdofly, and the Canon 24mm T/S II and 17mm do cover medium format,withmovements.

As for the "left field" part of the line – for those living outside North America – it’s an American baseball term meaning to come unexpectedly from nowhere.

December, 2009

Avatar photo

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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