Hasselblad Lunar is a camera that many have heard about, many have seen images of, yet we never spoke about it here at Photography Life. We have not compared it to any other camera nor even let you know about the announcement as we usually do with high-end cameras. And the Lunar is indeed a high-end camera, a good one at that (if you choose to ignore one or two facts, more on which later). So… Why didn’t we ever mention it? I will be honest – we don’t like it all that much. No, that is kindly said. Actually, we think it is utterly, utterly pointless.
Yet here I am, writing about it. Why now? Well, there is a good reason to. In fact, I think this is the only reason to ever talk about the Lunar. The heading of this article should have given you a good idea on what I’m on about. You see, there is a good chance that the silliness is about to stop – Hasselblad has replaced its CEO (a while ago, actually) and announced a proper camera, the CMOS-sensored H5D-50c. So then, let’s talk Lunar. Let’s talk Hasselblad.
Let’s Start from the Start
Before we try to understand why the Lunar is such a terrible camera for Hasselblad, we should first remind ourselves a few things about the legendary photographic equipment manufacturer. Let me say that again – Hasselblad is legendary, much like Leica, Carl Zeiss or Rolleiflex, and has earned the same sort of respect from photographers all around the world. Founded as a trading company more than 170 years ago (in 1841, to be precise), the Swedish now-camera maker started off by producing film cameras for the military during World War II. After the war Hasselblad has become best known for its stunningly beautiful, robust, as-good-as-it-gets medium-format film cameras designed for regular people.
Some photographers tend to cringe at the words “film camera” as if they are a thing of the past. And yet they should not – “Hassies” are as craved today as any film camera could ever hope to be. The model you see above is called the 503cw and is the last of the 6×6 format 500-series, still much sought-after. In fact, the only reason I own a Mamiya (as much as I love it) is because I could not afford a Hasselblad 500cm at that time – they are quite expensive!
A classic, then. A manufacturer who is known for producing timeless, gorgeous, highest class medium-format cameras for the last five decades or so. But that is not Hasselblad’s only legacy. There are digital Hasselblads capable of such insanely high quality images (at least when used at base ISO), not even the mighty D800 can match them. Sporting enormous high-resolution sensors (and being quite enormous themselves), cameras such as the H5D-60 cost up to forty thousand dollars. Naturally, such cameras are not for the wedding or wild-life photographers among us, but are used by large studios for commercial photography. They are big, quite cumbersome to use (when compared to conventional DSLR cameras), heavy and very, very loud due to that enormous mirror. Not just the classic camera, it seems, but also the ridiculously expensive choice if you want highest possible image quality (at least in good light). A state-of-art product for photographers with very specific needs. In short – the pedigree is there.
The Fiasco that is Hasselblad Lunar
Hasselblad sounds serious, does it not? Which might lead one to believe the Lunar is also a similarly serious camera. You would expect it to have a large sensor and an accompanying set of high quality Carl Zeiss prime lenses. You would expect it to be targeted at the most demanding photographers among us who would be considering the already-mentioned digital medium-format systems (be it a Hasselblad, Mamiya or any other), but who also need the camera to be a bit more manageable, a bit more portable. A field camera, if you like. Something that towers over conventional DSLRs and compact system cameras, knocks them out of the water, but is as easy to handle, as discreet.
Sorry, but it is none of those things. It just isn’t, not by a mile. What the Hasselblad Lunar is, though, is a Sony NEX-7 with some metal and wooden bits stuck to it. There is only one single aspect that is in line with the manufacturer’s high standards – a high price tag. Absolutely nothing else. At this point you might wonder how expensive the Lunar is. In its cheapest form, the Lunar is $7,000 against $900 of the original Sony NEX-7. Strangely enough, the price is not a problem. You expect a Hasselblad to cost an arm and a leg. You also expect it to deliver something conventional manufacturers simply cannot. And that is where the real problem lies. As a camera, it is completely indistinguishable from any other modern mirrorless camera in its class. It has comparable image quality, electronic viewfinder and the rest of the specs. Some of those specs are already a generation old.
I should try a different approach. I should try to just… open my mind, take it all in and be fine with it. Not mind the absurdity of the Lunar. Yes, it is actually a Sony. And it is quite old by Sony standards. And, alright, it has a 24 megapixel APS-C sensor, which is quite a bit smaller than those used in real Hasselblad cameras. A good APS-C sensor, but good for a $900 camera, not one that costs $7,000. Or $10,000, for that matter. Ten thousand dollars for a Sony NEX-7… No, stop it! Does not matter, remember? “Overpriced” is what springs to mind, but that does not matter. None of it does. “Just take it all in and be fine with it”, I remind myself. Because, you see, perhaps I am missing the point. Hasselblad obviously spent some time designing the product. They spent some time choosing those luxurious materials to drape it in and I have no doubt in my mind they must feel amazing to touch. Perhaps then it is not the function that matters in this case. Perhaps this camera should not be evaluated as a camera, but more as a… collectible. Something that gains value with time. A piece of art. An investment, for some. Not the function, no. The form? The… perceived value? Something to become an eternal classic, an object that is simply craved and wanted? It would make sense. The price, the looks, the limited quantity and the choice of all those materials. Underpinnings would not matter, would they? This is something you buy because it is beautiful, something you never use, but admire on the rarest, most special occasions. Not because of how it performs what would seem to be its main function.
I can’t do this. I really did try, but I can not. A little bit of lunacy (pun intended) has never hurt anyone. I get the Leica M-Monochrom, for example. But this – no. In order for something to become great, to become a classic, a collectible, it has to start out great. The Hasselblad 500C was not a classic when it was released, it was just a camera much like the Canon 5D Mark II is just a camera today. But it was a great camera in its essence, it was designed to perform as well as it could, it was designed as a 500C from the ground up. Back then Hasselblad focused its efforts on designing a great camera which, it so happened years and years later, became a classic. It was beautiful and managed to become even more beautiful today. It aged well, because it was so timeless to start with. But mechanics do not get old the same way electronics do. The Sony NEX-7 started out great, it was a good digital camera. But it was a digital camera. Today, less than three years later, it is already quite old. Give it three more years and it will be hopelessly outdated, just one of many, many other similar cameras that came and went. Thus, there is nothing timeless about the Lunar nor the NEX-7 that is hiding under all the wood. I can’t think of a single Sony interchangeable lens camera that is designed not to get old. Sony is an electronics giant. Those cameras get old – in a year, two, three, five, but they still get old. Some are replaced just months after being released. They are nearly disposable. Temporary. They are designed to be such. The already mentioned Hasselblad 500C never left anywhere, it merely took a step aside to let newer products pass, yet stayed, lingered. Lived on.
That is not to say a digital camera has no chance of becoming a classic, a collectible, simply because electronics become obsolete so quickly. Of course it can. By being innovative, ahead of its time for one. So, the fact the Lunar is digital, like its price, is not as much of a problem as one might think. The big problem is Hasselblad’s approach to designing it. It was launched as a collectible from the start, not as a product to be used, to beat the competition into the mud. Hasselblad did not attempt to launch a truly great camera, one that would hold its own against time, one that would become a classic. They tried to make a classic and failed (or at least it seems like it today). Because they just took an existing model made by a completely different manufacturer, and put it in a new case. Lunar is a Sony, make no mistake. It is a Sony wearing a Hasselblad shirt. That does not make it a Hasselblad much like wearing a Ferrari t-shirt does not mean you own a Ferrari. And in this case, Sony is not the one making itself look silly by trying to be a more desirable product, it is the Swedish manufacturer falling a great number of steps by being dishonest.
Looks Are Not Everything
So, the technical aspect of the camera is not great. But what about the design? Well, the looks are completely subjective, of course, but since this whole article is just basically our opinion, why not express all of it? And, to be honest, the first time I saw the Lunar I thought it was pig ugly. Then I thought – no, no, that’s unfair to the pigs. Since then the looks have grown on me a little (highly depends on the choice of materials, mind), but I still would not call it beautiful. Controversial? Yes (and that is arguably a good thing for an object you’d want to be seen as a collectible). Better than the boring, same-old-same-old shaped DSLRs of today? Yes. And yet still nowhere near a Leica MP, in my mind – a camera that also seems to be a lot more honest about what it is, what it does and who it is for. Even if we don’t compare it to anything else, beauty or materials used alone are not enough. Might as well pick up a Canon 550D and drape it in gold. Would that make it special? No. Not one bit.
The CEO Question and the Hasselblad H5D-50C
After reading the introduction to this article you might have gotten the idea that I was somehow happy that Hasselblad’s CEO got replaced. And I was, but for the right reasons. It is not that I am glad Dr. L. Hansen lost his job. He had the right idea about Hasselblad – it needed change. But he took the wrong step with Lunar. You might have gathered that from my rant :) The new CEO, Ian Rawcliffe, is the step to fix the wrong one. I hope that does not mean they are going back to not trying to shake up the industry. I hope that means they are looking for better ways to do that. The new camera that they announced seems to compliment my hopes, because, along with the recently announced Phase One IQ250 back, Hasselblad H5D-50C will use a CMOS sensor rather than a traditional for medium-format CCD. Hoping not to start the CMOS vs CCD debate (then again, who does not like a good debate?), let me just say that both have their strengths and weaknesses. The point is change itself in a market that, when compared to cheaper cameras from Fujifilm and even Nikon, Canon, Sony and the likes, seemed to have been stagnant for far too long.
I really can’t say what awaits the Hasselblad Lunar. I can say I hope it will be forgotten, purely out of the respect I have for Hasselblad. Maybe, just maybe, it will become a collectible simply because it is so fundamentally wrong. All in all, though, Hasselblad made a mistake. There was a welcome idea at the core. To design a great camera, so great that it would become a classic. They failed firstly because they did not design it. They picked up a Sony. A good manufacturer, but one that is all about being current and modern. And secondly, they skipped the “great camera” part and went straight for “collectible”. I will be very, very surprised and quite disgusted if that will actually work. And if the Lunar was supposed to be used as an actual camera, to compete against similar products… Really? It then becomes even less interesting. Utterly, utterly pointless.
The Sony NEX-7 is a good camera. The Hasselblad Lunar is not. Yes, they are, as near as makes no difference, identical on paper. But the Sony knows what it is, and the Lunar, well, it’s just pretentious. My respect goes to the original thing, not one pretending to be a Hassy. Not the person who’d say – “I have a Hasselblad!”, and to whom you would answer – “Nope, it’s a Sony”.
Now, let’s see some real change from such a legendary manufacturer. Only ten years ago a budget full-frame camera was preposterous, yet now we have the Canon 6D retailing for just $1,899. Perhaps it is about time we saw a relatively affordable digital medium-format camera? Maybe I am ignorant and if so, forgive me, but I see no reason why medium-format camera manufacturers should not learn a thing or two from mainstream brands. After all, Pentax has already made its move with the 645D. Why not Hasselblad or Mamiya? Here’s an idea: a digital Hasselblad 503cw. A manual camera with all the appropriate analog controls, just with a 6×6 sensor at its heart and an LCD at the back. Let’s see the industry shaken up, how about that?