Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Photokina 2008 Musings


So far, one of the biggest (and frankly totally unexpected) surprises at Photokina 2008 is the announcement by Leica of a "full sized" DSLR camera body offering a unique 37.5-megapixel, 30x45mm sensor together with a complete new line of Leica lenses. This camera offers both leaf and focal-plane shutters. Curiously, it reminds me greatly of a mini-version of the classic Pentax 67! If priced well, this could bring Leica back into the game as the full-frame camera arena is getting crowded these days and there is a speed and handling weakness with current digital medium format offerings by the likes of Hasselbllad, Sinar, Mamiya, PhaseOne, and Leaf.

Clearly, the move is both defensive, in that Leica can no longer look back to those halcyon days when it commanded the premier brand, as well as offensive — specifically to Hasselblad... Consider the following points:

¶ 3 years ago, Hasselblad effectively abandoned its classic 50x architecture in favor of its newer, lighter all-digital system, much to the dismay of its diehard fans. This move eliminated an easy upgrade path to the new architecture, further isolating its user base. Lastly, Hasselblad decided on a closed system, thus forcing users to buy exclusively from Hasselblad. Apple tried this and failed. It remains to be seen if this is a smart move or not.

¶ Additionally, it also abandoned its long-standing relationship with Zeiss in favor of Fuji for its glass. While Fuji lenses are arguably "just as sharp", the Zeiss brand conveyed a prestige and guarantee of top quality. The German lens manufacturers have never forgiven them this slight. This may explain the eagerness Zeiss has shown to get into bed with Sony — to punish Hasselblad.

¶ Phase One has been a long-time competitor to Hasselblad and now they have entered into a strategic relationship with Leica to go after the pro market in a big way. So not only does Phase One have Leica now as a partner, it also has Mamiya. With these strategic alliances, Phase One can squeeze Hasselblad from both ends of the market

¶ In response, Hasselblad has recently offered its entry-level, H3DII-31 system at significant discount rates and is encouraging its resellers to offer agressive lease plans. Lowering prices is their only option at the moment since the overall quality of a Hasselblad system can be equaled by several vendors, most of which offer "open systems". My take: manufacturers lower prices this dramatically only when they plan to end-of-life their product. Expect to see the 31mp Hassy disappear from the official list of Hasselblad products within the next 3-6 months.

¶ Feeling the heat, Hasselblad has recently announced a future delivery of a larger "645" sensor which will likely be 54x40mm to match Phase One's offering. Presumably this new sensor will also require a new body (the HC4?). Further, such a bigger sensor will possibly REQUIRE the use of the special-purpose "tilt/shift" lenses (i.e. HC28, HC35, HC50, HC80, HC100) all of which have a larger image circle. It is not clear how the other current Hassy lenses would/could work with this new larger-sensor model. Changing architectures this significantly mid-stream might add to current user complaints. (unless they make it backward compatible with the 50x series!! Fat chance)

¶ Sinar in particular might be in the cat-bird seat as they stuck with maintaining compatibility with the 6x6 format in their Rollei-based, Hy6 camera system which will eventually allow them to offer 56x56mm sensors as they become available. Given the drastic drop in the cost of silicon sensors, I wouldn't be surprised to see a 6x6 sensor within two years. Such a sensor could relegate Hasselblad to "me too" status among medium format manufacturers. (of course, they could always resurect their 50x series! Wouldn't that be ironic!)

As you can see from the above diagram, Hasselblad's bet on the 36x48mm standard has suddenly become a VERY crowded place with competitors at every turn. It remains to be seen if Hasselblad can survive. Personally I hope so as I admire their products and vision.

What are your thoughts?

MAGNAchrom: End of Article


Eric said...

I was quite surprised by Leica's introduction of the S2... and I guess I'm not alone. Leica just wasn't on my radar for such a product introduction. I agree with Michael, I think the good folks at Hasselblad are having a few sleepless nights. I've only heard rumors about the price, but if the rumors are true, it's going to be a very small market for Leica and perhaps the Hasselblad folks can sleep easier.

As a follow-on, I wouldn't be too surprised to see Leica introduce a new R system camera in the near future.

Anonymous said...

After more than fifty years of "God Himself ordained Square pictures as the ONLY way to photograph"... Hasselblad pissed its heritage away with the pixelography rectangle. They shot themselves in the foot, priced themselves way too high and dumped a once loyal customer base into a market they no longer service.