My thoughts on the recent silly-ness at Photokina involving Sony and Hasselblad.

Remember that company that made really, really good medium format cameras?

By now I'm going to assume that most people who read my stuff have looked at the announcement going around the web about the upcoming joint ventures between Hasselblad and Sony. If you haven't been paying attention you can read the facts here on DPReview.  And here.

The people who wrote the release could be excused for not filling in with very many facts and details of plans but almost certainly there aren't many facts to fill in at this point.  Hasselblad will most probably "re-badge" some of the cooler Sony cameras like the Nex-7 (which is cooler than the Nex-6 if only by dint of not having built in wi-fi), the a99 and the a77. But I'd love to meet the mastermind who decided to go ahead and release the Jetson's age illustration of what the future Hassel-Nex camera may look like. I'm anticipating a mini-Jihad among the Hasselblad faithful for the blasphemous mediocrity of either the artist's rendering or the actual spaz design of the camera.

The sketchy sketch made the camera look like a 1950's duck's ass hairdo. But the real problem with the announcement in general is that it made Hasselblad seem--------desperate.

Let me tell you what I think Hasselblad did wrong over the last decade and then let me tell you how I think they could fix it and get back a bit of both the prestige and market share they once enjoyed in the old days of film.

The Hasselblad that professional photographers and well heeled photography lovers came to trust and enjoy using wasn't based solely on the resolution it brought to the table but was based on a melange of parameters that included the bigger frame with its attendant different look from all things 35mm. The other factors were both the modularity of the system and its backward compatibility. 

The New Coke of Hasselblad saw a race to offer more and more megapixels and to supply features that no one really wanted and no one outside the development even asked for. The biggest "feature" being the mediocre and not very accurate autofocus.  Had they not deluded themselves into believing that working pros were pining for even so-so autofocus they could have taken a different path and preserved a backward compatibility to their enormous installed base. And that would have given upgraders and new recruits a rich selection of legacy glass to use while building their systems.

Where Hasselblad stumbled (and stumbled badly) was in trying to make a completely new and completely closed system when in fact they should have concentrated on just the opposite.  With their interchangeable back set up they could have been  in the cat bird seat when it came to adding cool digital backs to the existing system. Rather than figure out how to construct artificial barriers by making a proprietary system and shunning competing products they should have pressed all of their engineering staff and the staffs of their technology suppliers into the effort to make all future Hasselblad V series bodies and lenses fully compatible with the widest range of digital backs possible.  At most it would have required the addition of some contacts and connectors on the back tied the sync of the leaf shutter on the CF, CFi, CFe and C lenses.

Since the allure (at least to me) of shooting with medium format cameras is the way the depth of field looks when shooting from five to eight or ten feet away with a 150mm or 180mm lens on film the brain trust should have looked for a way to emulate this otherwise unattainable look that combines high sharpness with shallow depth of field by making (or having made) imaging sensors bigger rather than focusing on making the sensors more heavily populated with pixels (and, by extension, more expensive).  Imagine if they had pushed to make a 20 megapixel sensor that was a square geometry and which totally filled the 6 by 6 cm space that graces every 120mm A12 back. It would have been glorious.

Even now there are millions of Hasselblad 500C/M's and other variants floating around just waiting for someone to make a cost effective back with a large sensor that will restore them as a primary working tool. It's easy to say that the market is tiny if you've priced all of your products in a way that ensures that your market will be tiny. Had they concentrated on making stand alone backs more and more useable and affordable Hasselblad could have potentially sold to hundreds of thousands of people in their previously embedded base while continuing to churn out 500 series variants ad infinitum.

I think Hasselblad believed the usual drivel from the optimistic-new-age-the-digital-revolution-is-different gurus and decided that they'd never be able to compete in a large market scenario and could only succeed if they "upped their game" and aimed solely at the people with the deepest pockets. But those people had a notoriously short attention span and no real buy-in to the products. Not in the way a working pro or obsessed hobbyist is bought-in.  Which makes sense. After all, the current digital backs sourced from one company, new (incompatible with legacy) bodies are made by Hasselbad and the lenses sourced from a third company.  Had they aimed like a laser at their core existing market of real professional photographers they could have captured the story and defined their own trajectory and the trajectory of the markets. Instead they let their market be defined by the vagaries of focus groups and faith in new and different technology. Technology that's too expensive and too fraught with the usual dead end peril of all closed systems. If you invest and they die then it's all over and you lose...

Even now, if they came out with an affordable back that could be coupled to a V system camera and sold for around $5000 I think they would see tremendous interest and increased sales.  Even if the product was a re-issue of their own previous 16 megapixel style back with maybe 28 million big, fat 
pixels I am convinced that used 500's, 501's and 503's would go flying off the shelves and into the hands of people who desperately want and need to differentiate their offerings from the legions of rectangular small frame shooters.

Were I the CEO of Hblad I would relaunch my Classic Coke. I would have my team re-introduce the 501 C/M, update the holy trinity  of lenses (50, 80 and 150) with appropriate com-links between shutter and backs and put it on the market with a 24 megapixel back (square sensor, of course) of bigger, juicier 9nm pixels, couple it with a digital optimized 80mm Planar lens and package the whole thing at a street price of $9999. Then step back and watch it toast all the smaller format pretenders to the crown.

While the big sensor/big lens paradigm would be the primary seller the secondary consideration would be that, with a growing market, new backs would become available and instead of the entire camera becoming disposable users would get an infinite sensor upgrade path with no impingement or loss of their investment in all the surrounding hardware. 

If you were a Nikon shooter and you bought a Nikon D3x you might have gotten three years of market life before you started pining for a D800e. And two or three years down the road the same thing will happen with the next market churn. But in my scenario all you'd need to do is to upgrade the back.  

I'm keenly aware that none of this will happen and that the horse is out of the barn. They've burned away too much good will and dissipated way too much of the perceived market dominance they clearly enjoyed at the beginning of the digital age. 

But what pro wouldn't want to have a great, scalable system, with great glass, that looks, feels and works like a real production camera? 

Instead we get the feeling that we're watching a once noble camera company putting its logo and stamp onto products that don't need them and doing it in a way that's irrational. If you re-badge a product there's supposed to be a "value add" not a value subtract. The Nex 7 is a beautifully designed and very useable camera. It looks as though Hasselblad is pulling a Cadillac Cimarron.  Putting a cosmetic shell over the top of a J-class Chevy Cavalier chassis and trying to sell it at an insane premium.  It almost killed an entire GM division and it will most certainly not work well for Hasselblad. No matter how different we think the Chinese and Russian luxury markets are. Even people gauche enough to buy a $1500 purse would have more sense than to buy such a perverse camera design as has been presented in the sketches.

So sad to watch a company get lost further and further into a labyrinth. And to know that once their products (and potential) seemed unbeatable.

Kudos to Rollei for having the balls to introduce another potentially incredible medium format camera. Film only and right in line with 60 years of design.  An elegant response to a market that's running too fast and producing too little.

Next day edit:  I shouldn't use the term "re-badge" because clearly the folks at Hasselblad are intending to do much more that just change the logo on a Sony camera. They insist that they are replacing all sorts of stuff with better materials and different physical (not technical) design inferences. But their statements and interviews have been very clear, the imaging path is all Sony from front end to back. Sensor, electronics, software; the works.

I guess the real issue for buyers is whether or not you feel that Hasselblad is adding $3000 to $4000 in value by upgrading the knobs and putting the guts of an already very good to handle camera into a new frame.  To use a car analogy, if the engine, tires, suspension and transmission are all the same have you really built your own car or are you a bespoke body shop?