Wel­come Back Has­sel­blad… We’ve Missed You

Rea­sons to cel­e­brate the world’s first dig­i­tal medium for­mat cam­era sys­tem.

ProPhoto - - FIRST FRAME -

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

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