Medium Format vs 35MM – Sony A9 and Hasselblad X1D shoot Low Light…Together

Sony A9 and Hasselblad X1D shoot Low Light…Together

By Steve Huff

So last night I went out with Debby to shoot the Sony A9 with Voigtlander 65mm f/2 and the Hasselblad X1D with the 90 f/3.2 (I extended my rental for a day). Since I raved and loved the X1D so much for low light shooting at one of my fave local hangouts here in Phoenix, I decided to put it to the test against the might A9, what I feel is the best overall 35mm format mirrorless camera on the market. With the A9, I had the stunning Voigtlander 65mm f/2 APO attached, and to be clear, this is a fantastic lens. The more I use it, the more I really fall for it. I now OWN this lens, as on the A9, it is fantastic. At its asking price, for your Sony, it is a versatile lens that doubles as a macro and a general purpose lens.

Hasselblad X1D, click it for larger. 90mm f/3.2, ISO 6400

In any case, the Sony combo will allow me to shoot at f/2, so letting more light into the sensor..but the X1D with its much larger sensor and somewhat slower lens will mean I will have to crank the ISO up to the max at times, which is 25,600 on the X1D. While it has proven itself to me in this location, at this ISO, I wondered how the A9 would do with the f/2 lens. So away we went once again to the Lost Leaf in Phoenix. This is an awesome place where local bands play 365 days per year. It’s about a 40 minute drive from us, but soon we will be moving within 5 minutes from this location, and I can not wait. I will be able to shoot music 3-4 nights per week instead of 2-3 times per month.

I had both cameras in my Wotancraft Camp Ryker and they both fit in, snugly, with lenses attached. Both cameras were about the same size with lenses attached, though the Sony was a tad heavier due to the Voigtlander lens being built like a tank. Both felt great in the hand, in use but the Hasselblad felt better. Even so, I could not complain about the A9 here. It feels good as well.

X1D

I will write my 100% honest heartfelt opinions here as I adore and own both of these cameras. While I am currently having a love affair with the X1D, that does not mean my opinion of the A9 is any different than it was when I shot it at launch. It’s a capable versatile camera that doubles as my main video camera as well. It can use Leica M lenses, and provides me with a better EVF experience over the X1D.

Sony A9 and Voigtlander 65mm f/2, ISO 2500

So with that, away we go.

I set both cameras to Auto ISO, and shot RAW on both. Photos from the X1D were processed with the free Hasselblad Phocus software, as it just works best for X1D files (and runs fast and smooth on my Mac Pro). The Sony files were processed with ACR. I let the cameras meter in most cases though for some I adjusted in real time with some exposure compensation. A note about the Lost Leaf: It is about as low light as one gets when shooting in this type of scenario. No stage lights, no big stage, just a small room, a red light or two and the band. It’s a challenge and most cameras can not cut it. Cameras that have passed the test here have been the Sony A7SII, A7RII, A9, X1D and that is about it. I have tested a Fuji here without the best of luck, I have tested an Olympus here with some luck using the 25 1.2 lens..but the cameras that have always been the best here have been the X1D and the Sony’s.

Tonights band was “Jiggle” and they were a fabulous Jazz band that sounded amazing. 

The Photos…

Below are two shots, taken in near darkness. Click them for larger, and to see better details as these are small compressed versions you see here. I exposed these to be somewhat dark as if I brought them up, both cameras would show an ugly sort of image noise, plus I like the dark moods sometimes. The Red lights here are tough to to tame, so I normally convert most to B&W but here I wanted to show how each camera handled the red lights. 

What is very interesting here is the Sony chose ISO 4000 while at f/2 and the Hasselblad chose ISO 800 at f/3.2 – So the Sony is already at a high ISO yet still looks similar to the X1D as far as noise goes. 

Here are two shots, again, in color to show the way the cameras recreated the red light. Both times, above and below, the A9 renders the red in a bolder way, the X1D a softer way. The Voigtlander shows its stuff here with a nice sharp rendering of the subject. This time the Sony is at ISO 8000 and the X1D at 6400. Click them to see larger. 

For the images I am showing here in this little segment, I tried to take similar style shots, and each was taken one after the other. I was not trying to match any settings, just letting each camera do its job in Aperture Priority mode, and lenses wide open. Here is a B&W conversion, just by taking the saturation slider down to zero. No plug ins or fancy conversion software was used.

The 1st shot, The X1D is at ISO 25,600, and the A9 at ISO 8000. I admit, I prefer the X1D shot here for sure. Click them to see larger. 

Now a few for fun comparisons… The 1st one from the X1D below was at ISO 25,600. The reds are strong and no color degradation from the high ISO can be seen. The A9 was at ISO 2000 in this one, so not a fair fight at all. BUT both look fantastic here. Both lenses are superb, both cameras are superb. But the fact that the Sony A9 can hang with a Medium Format in this scenario is pretty incredible. Just as I said in part of my X1D review, the IQ differences for what most use these cameras for today (sharing, social media, online) are minimal. Where the differences lie are in usability, handling and if you want to print large or shoot high detail landscapes. This is where the IQ difference of the X1D would show itself. 

Here the X1D chose ISO 1600, the Sony chose ISO 800. The Sony at f/2 and the Hasselblad at f/3.2  – Both lenses are similar in the fact that the Hasselblad 90mm f/3.2 behaves like a 70mm f/2 in full frame 35mm. So a little longer than the 65 but DOF is about the same. 

Color test. There was some light here on the mural…I prefer the X1D color here but not are nice. 

X1D at ISO 25,600 outside, with the A9 at ISO 10,000 right after the X1D shot

At the end of the night, and after looking at images from these cameras, yes, I do prefer the X1D’s output but they are close, and for most out there, the Sony is close enough. Having the ability to shoot at f/2 with the Sony allowed for lower ISO’s where the Hasselblad lens limitations of f/3.2 of the 90mm meant it usually needed high ISO. The color output for me goes to the X1D but again, the 35mm full frame A9 did fantastic considering this location is a true torture test for ANY camera.

Shooting both, I can tell you that the A9 has the superior EVF. It is clearer, sharper and looks like a video screen, like watching a HDTV. The X1D’s is more like the A7RII generation of EVF. You would think that Hasselblad would have put something upper end in (Like Leica did with the SL) but it is what it is, and it is very usable and it never hindered me getting a shot.

The X1D start up time of 6 seconds or so is long but once I had it on, I left it on. I have it set to sleep after a couple minutes of not using it. The A9 starts up almost instant and is ready to go at a moments notice, so speed…yes, even with manual focus, the Sony wins for speed. But they are more similar than they are different..size..mirrorless..,etc

X1D B&W version of image earlier up…

Handling for me goes to the X1D but again, the A9 also feels great, no complaints. I am blessed to be able to own both of these cameras and they are both, IMO, the top mirrorless cameras in the world right now, with my old fave the Leica SL and M10 right behind them. With being the top, they do come at a cost of course with the A9 at $4500 for the body only, and the Hasselblad X1D at $8995 body only. Phew, not cheap, but man, so enjoyable. The Leica SL is $5995, the M10 around $7k. Buying these top end mirrorless cameras is not a decision to make or take lightly but some spend way more on other hobbies with watches, boats, audio, etc.

One of my life passions is photography as I enjoy the process from heading out to shoot, to actually shooting to coming home to see the results. Now, an occasional print as well. The enjoyment it brings to my life, well, I can not put a price on that. I would not recommend someone go out and buy an X1D, as honestly, you can get close with something like a Sony A9, or A7RII. The X1D is IMO, for those who fit into one of these categories:

  1. You shoot landscape, on a tripod and do it in gorgeous light. In this way, the X1D will give you amazing files that beat any 35mm full frame format, period. It will also reward you with fantastic colors that need little tweaking. 
  2. You appreciate design, feel, simplicity and appreciate build quality. The X1D is simple, back to basics that does one thing well. Photography. It is like work of art, and feels amazing in the hand. 
  3. You crop a lot and love cropping power. 

That’s about it. Me, I own the X1D due to the design, size, feel, build and the fact that it is simple and takes me back to basics. Aim, frame, click, and walk away. I do love the color, the high ISO, the IQ but I also get that from my Sony A9, and for 99% of you, that will be more than good enough. In IQ you gain a little with the X1D mostly in Dynamic Range and low light but at the end of the day, the Sony A9 can rock it and get close. Neither is cheap, but the Sony is half the cost of the X1D ; ) 

I shot both of these, at the same time, in the roughest shooting conditions I know of for light. The results are above and I had a blast shooting them.

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19 thoughts on “Medium Format vs 35MM – Sony A9 and Hasselblad X1D shoot Low Light…Together

  1. To my eye the results from the Hassy look much better. As far as weight – I did the math. A9 + Voigtlander 65mm = 1,298 grams. X1D + 90mm = 1,344 grams. The difference in size/weight is a measly 46 grams. Of course the Sony system is more versatile.

  2. Based on my solid half-knowledge in physics and in photography I expected same results for f3.2 on 33x44mm sensor and for f1.8 on 24x36mm sensor. Even the combined size of lens and body is similar, at least until focal lengths remain in a moderate band.

    Whatever difference we see, it is the difference between a Sony in-house sensor and a Sony OEM sensor, the difference between in-camera image processors and between image processing software, rather than a magic of medium format.

    Most of the difference in price is production numbers rather than technical challenges.

  3. I can definitely see that the X1D’s photos show more details than the A9’s in low light. However, I am wondering how the dynamic range compares between the two. The photos with the Red Light Bulb and a sketch of a naked figures shows that the X1D’s photo is losing information on highlighted area. For example, the wall behind the light bulb is missing details on the X1D’s photo while the A9’s photo captures all the details of the wall. And this difference is present, despite the A9’s photo being more exposed than the X1D’s, which tells me that the A9’s photos have higher level of dynamic range. Not sure what the situation is, and wondering if this loss of information is due to the post processing…

    1. I did not do any processing, straight from camera on that file purposely, so if need be, I could have saved those highlights on that shot – was my exposure or the way the meter chose to expose I should say. The DR of the X1D is superior to the A9, without question. Both are good though.

  4. Thank you so much for your continuing to provide images and commentary on the X1D. It is nice to be able to follow along for those of us who would love to have the X1D but cannot afford it quite yet or perhaps ever. Since I own the A9, comparson with the X1D is of special interest but I think it helps in general to have some yardstick of comparison to another camera for the user experience as well as IQ. If you can get access to an A7r2, which I assume many more readers have than the A9, comparison of the X1D to the A7r2 might generate a lot of interest.

    How one relates to a canera emotionally and ergonomically becomes perhaps THE critical factor once basic performance and IQ needs are met. Your comments in this regard are helpful in not getting too caught up in pixel peeping alone.

    I’m happy to see that your club project seems to be off to a very promising start. I agree with others who have commented on the interesting and high quality images you have been creating recently.

  5. One further question Steve. In your opinion, how far behind would an aps sensor like the Sony 6500 or Fuji XT2 lag behind these top dogs for IQ in such dim light?

    1. Ive tried Fuji in this place and it was not good. I find Fuji’s to deliver their best IQ in good light, not low light. In really low light the colors go wonky and the noise gets weird (I am talking LOW light, not spotlights or flash, or any of that, true low light). They just do not look that good. One reason I never bought a Fuji XT2 or Pro 2, I shoot a lot in very low lightI have not tried a Sony A6500 in this scenario but assume it would do just under what a Sony A7RII would do here, which was excellent. But hard to say. The Sony’s generally do great in low light.

  6. Looking at your files’ comparison, it’s clearly noticeable that the dynamic range for the higher contrast images is superior on the X1D images. The transitions from highlight to mids & shadows is much smoother on the Hasselblad. To me, this is the only major difference between the image-files. My question would be, is this DR advantage worth more than twice the cost of the Sony? For some pro applications, maybe. If you have the ability to control your lighting scenario, I’d go with the Sony.

    1. I have went over in my review why the X1D is my fave camera of all time, and well worth it to me. ; ) A camera is MUCH more than its output to me. The Sony is excellent in low light, but much of what you see here is also that excellent lens from Voigtlander, the 65 APO f/2. It’s a fantastic lens that beats most $3k lenses in build, optics, etc. The more I use it, the more I appreciate it. Theres more info on it at cameraquest. But the X1D, is hands down, my fave camera of all time and I have zero buyers remorse, and with time on my return policy, I wouldn’t dare.

  7. I’m a Leica S2-P shooter. Is there an adapter on the horizon to mount Leica S Glass to the X1D?
    If that were true, I’d swap right now! Especially if the adapter allowed autofocus. That horrible stop-sign bokeh is a little ridiculous but it doesn’t seem to be an issue in every shot nor every lens. Still, the glass isn’t on par with Leica. I think Leica really nailed it by manufacturing purpose-built adapters to sway shooters from other systems to a smaller, more functional medium format package. Hasselblad would be insane not to do the same.
    If I could design a camera from the ground up, it would look exactly like the X1D. (I would have implemented in-body IS). haha.
    The true test here would be to adapt the Hasselblad 90/3.2 to the Sony A9 and shoot in the same manner. You wouldn’t loose anything in speed (as you’d still be manually focusing on the Sony) and you’d eliminate a huge variable in image quality. Still, it’s nice to see someone doing this with modern cameras. Next up… Leica SL/50 1.4 vs X1D???

    1. The SL lens I would not want to shoot on the X1D. Would take away it’s beauty in size and light weight. Thats a huge lens. It’s also a much smaller mount, so unlikely. There are other lenses one can choose, like the Hasselblad 100 f2.2 which would give about an 80mm FOV for full frame. A 50mm would give around a 38mm FOV. I’m happy with it just the way it is, and I had no hexagonal bokeh in any of these images here, and even if I did, doesn’t bother me in the slightest as I said yesterday. The A9 also did great here, as most Sony’s do in low light. Both were using Sony sensors, yet the X1D sensor is 60+% larger than the A9. You gain massive crop power (as seen in part 2 of the review) and extended DR, and a different tonality that is not seen in all images but some, depending on how you shoot and where. It handles full AZ sun with ease, and is the first camera I can shoot in the full AZ sun that does not make the files look harsh or hard. I love the X1D and my 45 f/3.5, I liked the 90 but would not buy it as it’s not my focal length being a 70mm in FF terms. I will look at the 120 soon or the small 100 f/2.2 from Hasselblad (with an adapter). Thanks.

  8. If you are going to pit FF against MF the Voigtlander 65mm f/2 is not up to the task. There are much better lenses that would have allowed the A9 to make a better accounting of itself. No point in trying to match aperture in this battle I mean it’s Medium Format against Full Frame. Full Frame will not stand a chance here without a fast bright lens of at least Zeiss or G Master quality.

  9. Thanks for your post.The question i have: How big a factor is your Post Processing experience, in presenting the comparison? Same PP effort on both cameras? Would any level of PP be able to produce these results? It would be interesting if you could share the Raw images.
    Thanks

    1. These are shot raw, all I have done to each is for the color versions, lowered the saturation slightly with the saturation slider. For a couple, I lowered exposure as well but did the same to each file. For the non comparison photos, I just processed each to taste, to get the best I could get for what I was going for. I spent maybe 5 seconds on each for PP, all done during the RAW conversion.

  10. Steve, You say “Cameras that have passed the test here have been the Sony A7SII, A7RII, A9, X1D and that is about it.”. I’m wondering if you think that the Sony RX1R II (fixed 35/f2) is up there too?

    1. Well, the RX1R II would do good for IQ, but limited at 35mm, meaning you would have to always be in the performers face..but in general, it would be on par with what the A7rII does in this light, very good. But I would not use it in this situation or venue to to limited focal length here and it’s tougher to manual focus than the A9 or A7, etc. But IQ wise, would be like the A7rII if not a tad better.

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