Quick thoughts/ hands on: The Hasselblad Lunar

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I’ll admit that I was one of the Lunar’s early detractors. There is no doubt that this is a polarizing camera; it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Many were left questioning Hasselblad’s decision to effectively rebody a Sony NEX-7 – in itself a competent camera – but it was likely the price and design direction that really created a bit of a tempest. There’s no question that the Leica-reshelled Panasonics do look better; the design is cleaner and less fussy. And the premium is partially explained by the extended warranty and inclusion of Lightroom with your purchase. This isn’t the case with the Lunar/NEX-7 – the price difference is several multiples, almost certainly due to the choice of materials.

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Yesterday I met with the MD of Hasselblad’s Asia Pacific distributors, Egon Heldner of Shriro. He had with him a Lunar prototype; at some point during the conversation – initially about Zeiss – the camera magically appeared in his hands. I got to play with it a little (but not make test shots) and have a conversation to try to understand exactly what they were thinking when they decided to push the collective go button on the project. Please note that this camera is an engineering prototype, which means that electronics, fit and finish (and even some aspects of design) are not final. It was working, however, and felt remarkably well put-together for a prototype – though unfinished in some areas.

Firstly, the Lunar is not just limited to the NEX-7. As has been reported elsewhere, there will be other variants based on existing Sony cameras; to what extent the cameras are modified beyond external appearance is still not disclosed, but it’s possible – even likely – that they will have some customized processing algorithms to bring in some of the DNA from the firm’s medium format cameras. (I presume this means things like tonal response and color palette etc.)

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Secondly, none of the photos or press images I’ve seen do the camera justice. In the metal, I won’t say it’s minimalist beautiful in the way a Leica M is, but it certainly isn’t ugly. The odd orthogonal projection for the original drawings didn’t have any sense of perspective and overemphasized the size of the grip (I do consciously think about these things, because I am a product photographer). The big surprise for me was the way it felt in the hand – it has an ergonomic ‘rightness’ to it that most cameras lack, including the original NEX-7. The grip shape is surprisingly very comfortable, and for the most part, the choice of materials is excellent. I still think the rubies are utterly pointless, and I’m undecided about the carbon fiber front plate, but the titanium top deck is utterly gorgeous. And I don’t mind the wood either, to be quite honest. As much as I like the idea of blue leather, I suspect that it’s going to be utterly impractical; I live in the tropics and cameras getting wet from rain or sweat is inevitable. Hasselblad’s designer got one thing absolutely spot on: the tactility of the object. If you spend a large number of hours every day with camera in hand, you don’t take these things for granted; the weight (yes, something can be too light); the way the controls feel in terms of dial/ button resistance etc.; the grip shape, etc. are all very, very important. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not bonding with the D600: it’s not the image quality or functionality, it’s the angular feel of the grip that just doesn’t make you want to hold it for very long. As a result, I don’t use it.

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Again: it’s not for everybody; a lot of people think it’s a) ugly and b) pointlessly overpriced. Yet some will buy it because it’s a ‘Blad/ status symbol. I wouldn’t not buy it because it’s a rebodied Sony; the original could definitely use some improvements in the tactility department. But I’ll say two things: firstly, I strongly encourage people to pick one up and feel it before making a judgement. Secondly, it’s not going to be as expensive as expected.

Here’s an interesting thought about publicity – they say any form of it is good – at the release of most modern DSLRs/ enthusiast compacts, on forums you’ll get a whole bunch of people saying ‘I’ve preordered’, a number saying ‘if only it had XYZ’, and others saying it’s pointless. Let’s ignore the usual silent majority. With the Lunar, I think there were 500+ comments on the DPReview announcement page within a day; about 70-80% were negative. Yet there were 20% who liked the camera – given that something of this price is an emotional purchase, generally buyers tend to fall into one of two camps: you either like it, or you don’t. Sadly, most of their buyers won’t be pros or serious photographers – though that doesn’t stop them from making it a serious photographic tool. I don’t think Hasselblad will sell many of these as body-only outfits; most buyers won’t have lenses, and the obvious choice for bundling would be the new Zeiss AF series.

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And even if Hasselblad sells 100 of these things off the mark, that will represent a significant chunk of change. I’m sure the actual number is much higher – there are apparently quite a number of pre-orders in Malaysia already – given that their target clientele generally don’t frequent forums. The difference here is whilst a lot of people on forums will coo over a D4 or 1Dx, most will not buy one for various reasons. At the other end of the market – and I know this from being involved in the high end watch business – a very different dynamic is at play.

As much as this camera is really a NEX-7 rebodied, it could be much more. Sony have already confirmed that the E mount is large enough to accept a full frame sensor; what if Hasselblad were to put a D800E sensor in it, default to DX mode when using the regular E mount/ lenses, and then include an F-E adaptor to allow the use of ZF.2 lenses? That would certainly be a very interesting option, and would at a stroke solve the shutter vibration issue. I’d definitely like to see a conventional hotshoe, though. Again, there’s a watchmaking analogy here: a lot of very high end watches use pedestrian base movements; whilst some of them really don’t do anything with a $200 movement other than put it in a case, slap a brand on it, then add a couple of zeroes at the end, there are others who consciously select the pedestrian tractor as a base to develop off because it is a) reliable and proven; b) easy to service; c) has the properties required to support complications; and c) frees up limited development funds that would otherwise have been spent on the base movement to be used in other parts of the watch. I’m sure you can see the parallel here.

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Here’s the thought that’s been nagging at me all of this time: if you ignore the design, price etc – the positive vibe about the NEX-7 at launch was incredible. If that had been launched at the same time with a series of AF Zeiss lenses and supplied in sufficient quantity, I think Sony could have well gotten the jump on M4/3 – at least in the high end market. We have that happening now with the Lunar – yet just because it’s been rebodied doesn’t make it any less capable a photographic tool than the original camera was. Is it four, five times better like the price suggests it should be? No, but then again neither are any of the $5,000 cameras (except perhaps the D800E). Take a D4 or M9-P for example: with the former, you gain speed, high ISO capability, ergonomics and AF, but less resolution and considerably greater bulk. It’s not five times faster, nor does it shoot ISO6400 like the NEX-7’s 1600. With the latter, resolution is probably about the same given the lack of an AA filter, but it’s much, much slower, a poorer performer at high ISO, and nowhere near as reliable. Yet it doesn’t stop Leica selling in impressive numbers.

Yes, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but the more I think about it, the more I think the Lunar gets a surprising number of things right and actually hits a part of the market most forums don’t see – right or wrong – whether those things are important to you or not are a different matter. Taste is relative, personal and subjective. I think I now understand why this camera exists – and it’s not entirely because of marketing. Before you think I’ve gone completely crazy, I encourage you to hold one in your hands for a little while. MT

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and open this up to a general discussion – please leave a comment below. Thanks!

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