Welcome Back Hasselblad… We’ve Missed You
Reasons to celebrate the world’s first digital medium format camera system.
There are a number of reasons to celebrate Hasselblad’s announcement of the world’s first digital medium format camera system (the full details are in this issue’s news section). Firstly, it marks a return to original thinking by the famous Swedish marque. The last few years have been pretty uninspiring and it looked for a while there as if Hasselblad was incapable of responding to its much more active rival in digital medium format, Phase One. While the Sony-based clones weren’t as damaging to the reputation as some asserted, they were a big distraction and, it has to be said, a big waste of resources. I well remember going to the launch of the Lunar – a Sony NEX-7 dressed up in fancy clothes – at Photokina 2012 and not only being stunned at just how misguided the whole project was, but also noting how most of the Hasselblad personnel manning the displays didn’t quite believe what was happening either. To Hasselblad’s credit, it’s actually emerged from this debacle with a pretty remarkable home-grown product and, critically, its all-important relationship with Sony still intact.
To make sure nobody is missing the point, the new X1D’s body is engraved “Handmade In Sweden”, and not on the base either, but on the top plate where it can be easily seen.
Back in 1948 Victor Hasselblad turned the rollfilm camera world upside down with his modular 6x6cm SLR which was designed to combine compactness, flexibility and performance. It took a while to refine, but when the much-improved 500C arrived in 1957, medium format photography was changed forever. The basic concept was subsequently copied by just about everyone, and the 500 Series cameras rival Leica’s RF line for just how many significant moments in global history they have recorded. Hasselblad did it again with the 35mm XPan – another dramatic rejigging of the portability-versus-performance equation – a camera still much in use around the world because there has never been a digital equivalent… until now.
The front profile of the X1D pays homage to that of the 500 Series cameras (a stylised version was actually the company’s logo for a while), but Hasselblad has been careful not to go too far down the retro route. So the new camera looks thoroughly modern and has, among other features; touchscreen controls, built-in WiFi and, of course, an electronic viewfinder. It’s ambitious, it’s innovative, it’s brave, but it’s also pure Hasselblad… as much as a new Hasselblad camera should be in 2016.
There are wider implications too. The X1D is mirrorless. Need I say more? OK, I will. Hasselblad joins Leica, Olympus, Fujifilm, Sony and Panasonic in believing this is the future for both enthusiast-level and professional interchangeable-lens cameras. As with Leica and the SL, Hasselblad’s investment in this configuration is considerable, but it will pay off longterm and it is yet another important endorsement of mirrorless. Handle the X1D and the point is made even more powerfully… here is a camera that’s smaller and lighter than most full-35mm SLRs, but has a 50 megapixels ‘medium format’ sensor with, surely, a 100 MP model to come down the track. It just makes sense.
And because it makes so much sense, digital medium format photography just got a big shot in the arm too. It’s estimated, roughly, that the global market for annual sales of DMF cameras/systems is 8000 units. It’s hard not to see the X1D easily doubling this over the next 12 months which, of course, is good news for Hasselblad, but also for key component suppliers such as Sony. An increased demand for its big sensors will keep Sony developing them (important because I’m not convinced that the electronics giant actually wants to be in this sector with its own camera, as has been suggested elsewhere), while the DMF business as a whole will benefit from a significantly larger user base and an increased awareness of why big is still ultimately better when it comes to pixel size.
For a while back there it looked as if Hasselblad might not have survived and that would have been a tragedy. It took Leica a while to find its way in the digital era – balancing the importance of its past with the imperatives of its future – but it’s there now and will only get stronger. The X1D is Hasselblad’s first step along this road, but it’s the right camera at the right time… and beyond the product itself, there’s the clear evidence that the people now in charge actually understand the challenges ahead and how to maintain the marque’s identity and integrity, but also find a way to profitability. I can’t help thinking that Victor Hasselblad, wherever he may be now, is applauding loudly.
Paul Burrows, Editor