Hasselblad: the Road to Oblivion is Paved with Italian Leather

21Sep12

When I first saw this, I knew I would have to write about it. At first I laughed, then felt sad, with a twinge of nostalgia.

I’m speaking about the recent announcement by Hasselblad, the producer of high-end medium-format digital cameras used mostly by professionals. They announced a partnership with Sony for the sharing of digital camera technology and unveiled the first fruit of this partnership, the Hasselblad Lunar, a mirrorless, interchangeable lens digital camera based largely on the internals of the existing Sony NEX-7. In keeping with its upmarket image, the new camera will be available with trim made from materials ranging from real wood to Italian leather to high-tech carbon fiber. Oh, and it will cost $6500, about six times the cost of the Sony camera it shares specifications with.

Hasselblad Lunar. Basically a Sony NEX-7 with an aluminum chassis, retooled buttons, and snazzy wooden grip.

I’m going to let that sink in while explaining a bit about Hasselblad’s illustrious history with imaging professionals. For almost its entire history, Hasselblad has been known for one basic, beautifully-made and incredibly useful product. Right after World War II, the company’s founder, Victor Hasselblad, envisioned and produced a modular medium-format camera system. It was elegant and logical—a simple metal cube with a moving mirror and viewing screen to which a variety of lenses, film magazines and viewfinders could be attached. At the time, there was nothing else like it, and professional photographers adopted the “Hassy” as a standard tool of the trade despite its relatively high price tag.

The Hasselblad filled a niche for pro photographers who needed image quality that exceeded that which could be obtained with the small film size of 35mm cameras while having the maneuverability and spontaneity of use that was impossible using the large-format view cameras that were the norm for studio work.

My 40-year-old Hasselblad 500C/M. A elegant design that lasted a half century and outlived the widespread use of film by professionals.

I have two of these “classic” Hasselblad cameras with various lenses, all purchased (used) in the 1980’s and still working today. The Hasselblad system was designed to be upgradeable, repairable and long-lasting, and it’s entirely plausible that a photographer purchasing one in 1960 could be using it a half-century later. Made of appropriate, high-quality materials, the classic Hassy is a beautiful, totally-functional yet understated professional tool.

Fast-forward to today. I knew something was up at Hasselblad when they announced a special, red “Ferrari” edition of their digital medium-format camera a while back. I wondered why the management at Hasselblad felt they needed to co-opt the Ferrari brand to boost their status. I also wondered how many folks actually bought this garish red thing—not many professionals, I’d bet.

Hasselblad “Ferrari Edition” digital camera. What does an exotic car manufacturer have to do with cameras?

And now the Lunar. Don’t get me wrong, the camera will take beautiful photographs with its APS-C sensor, 24 megapixel resolution, and the ability to use E-mount lenses from Sony and other lens makers. But it’s mostly just bling, a meaningless application of “luxury” materials to an existing product in an attempt to leverage the appeal of the Hasselblad brand to the same crowd that goes for Gucci handbags.

We’ve seen this before with Alpa. In 1944, Alpa of Switzerland came out with one of the very first 35mm single-lens-reflex cameras. Beautifully-made but with retro design quirks, the Alpa camera evolved at a glacial pace over the decades while Japanese camera designs leapt past it.

Alpa 35mm reflex camera. Alpa was among the first half-dozen or so makers of precision 35mm SLR cameras.

By the 1970’s, far behind their competitors but still with a strong, almost “cult” image, they tried some tricks to stay alive. First, they tried rebranding some existing Japanese camera models (sound familiar?). When that didn’t work, they decided that special versions of their outdated Swiss camera, some plated with gold and adorned in mahogany veneer(!) could be marketed to well-heeled collectors to save the company. It didn’t—Alpa went bankrupt and the brand was purchased by a new company that now makes technical field cameras for use with medium-format digital backs.

What do you do when the competition is eating your lunch? Wrap your 30-year-old camera design in wood veneer and give the top plate a coating of gold! Who wouldn’t go for that?

A friend of mine who worked in a camera store once said that you could tell when a camera maker was in trouble if they started wrapping their cameras in colorful lizard skin and calling them special editions. Leica, the venerable 35mm camera manufacturer, has been doing this for years, of course, as well as rebranding Panasonic cameras with their name. They’re still in business, but their relevancy in the professional imaging market has long since disappeared.

Hasselblad faces a shrinking market for medium-format cameras (digital and film) and stiff competition from the Phase One/Mamiya/Leaf consortium, which is marketing exclusively to professionals and coming out with new products aimed at specialized imaging processes. Hasselblad seems to be leaning the other way, trying to grow market share by catering to the non-professional luxury goods purchaser. To that I say, “good luck,” knowing that if they actually succeed at this, the company will never be the same.

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One Response to “Hasselblad: the Road to Oblivion is Paved with Italian Leather”

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