Hasselblad X1D: Is This the Camera that Will Save Hasselblad?

Just six months ago I wondered if Hasselblad -- among other beloved photography brands -- would "...fade, like old photographs, into the sands of time." Fast forward to April of this year, when Hasselblad announced a brand new H6D in 50 and 100mp versions, coupled with the best software interface in a camera I've ever seen -- and an eye-watering price of $32,995 for the 100mp model, body only. Now Hasselblad has announced another new camera, the X1D at $8,995 (body only). While the X1D has the same sensor and user interface as the H6D-50c, it is roughly one third the price and less than half the weight. What does this mean for photographers -- and for Hasselblad? Video at bottom of post.

Hasselblad X1D is one third the price of its full-boat bigger brother H6D-50c, even though it has the same sensor and software user interface.

Hasselblad X1D is one third the price of its full-boat bigger brother H6D-50c, even though it has the same sensor and software user interface.

No more re-badged Sony cameras. No more Hasselblad as a luxury brand. Under CEO Perry Oosting, Hasselblad is back in the business of making Hasselblad cameras.

Even if it means using Sony sensors.

But are you really going to get upset that the small, legendary Swedish company (less than 200 employees at its headquarters in Gothenburg) has decided to focus its finite resources on developing the best user experience (hardware and software) out there, and then wrapping it around one of the best sensors from the best sensor company out there?

Didn't think so.

Still, nothing is ever that simple. Let's take a closer look at what's going on, now that I've had time to reflect after the NY launch just a couple of days ago.

At the X1D's launch in New York City's Meat Packing District the same day as the live stream from Gothenburg.

At the X1D's launch in New York City's Meat Packing District the same day as the live stream from Gothenburg.

The Camera

Hasselblad calls the X1D the world's first mirrorless medium format camera.

But what makes the X1D really special is that it appears to be Hasselblad's first attempt under new management to deliver a true Hasselblad camera at a price and features/tradeoff point designed to bring new customers into the fold.

Weighing just 100 grams more than my current favorite camera, Sony's a6300  [B&H|Amazon], I'd say that the 1XD's physical design splits the difference between the a6300's rangefinder-esque profile and that of its faux-SLR-humped bigger brother, the a7rII  [B&H|Amazon

The X1D is surprisingly close in size to Sony's a6300.

The X1D is surprisingly close in size to Sony's a6300.

The a6300 is just 100g lighter. That's Sony's E 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens on it, yielding about the same field of view as that 90 on the X1D. 

The a6300 is just 100g lighter. That's Sony's E 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens on it, yielding about the same field of view as that 90 on the X1D. 

In fact, what little hump the X1D does have, when looked at head-on without the lens, is a clear visual homage to the 500-series cameras that really put Hasselblad on the map.

Clever design cue on the top plate is an optical illusion intended as an homage (well, I think so, anyway) to the original 500.

Clever design cue on the top plate is an optical illusion intended as an homage (well, I think so, anyway) to the original 500.

I got my hands on one of the seven pre-production models that will be making their way across the U.S., and therefore wasn't allowed to download the images I captured during the New York launch event.

But what I could see right away is that the physical ergos on this camera are superb (even if I'd prefer the big, bright viewfinder to be placed all the way to the left, like the a6300 or equally legendary Leica M series rangefinders) and -- like the latest Leicas -- wonderfullly minimalist. Unlike the Leicas -- or just about any other camera out there -- the touch-based software interface is outstanding, as is the remote app that goes with it.

Even without images from the camera itself to share with you at this point, I can also tell you a few other things, irrespective of price:

  • With contrast detect auto-focus only and a maxim of just under 3fps, the X1D is not aimed at sports photographers.
  • With 1080p/25fps only; no ability to do 4K; a new auto-focus lens line that omits aperture ring and depth of field scale; and no video assists that I saw on the pre-pro model (not sure if they'll show up in production), the X1D is not aimed at Sony a6300/Sony a7x II users, nor pretty much anyone operating in the DSLR or mirrorless hybrid space, where video is just as important as photography.
  • With just two lenses at launch - full frame equivalents of 35mm f/2.5 and 70mm f/2.7 -- the X1D is not aimed at sliver-thin depth of field fans (an adapter will allow access to Hassy's broader HCD line of lenses).
  • Without image stabilization in the lenses nor in the body, the X1D is not aimed at casual shooters (duh -- the price point takes care of that, too).
  • On the other hand, with USB 3.0, GPS, that incredible interface, and that incredible-for-Hasselblad price, it's approachable by enthusiasts as well as pros.
No aperture ring, depth of field scale, nor true manual focus (you can focus manually, but the new lenses are still fly-by-wire), mean the X1D is not aimed at videography application even it it records 1080p/24fps video.

No aperture ring, depth of field scale, nor true manual focus (you can focus manually, but the new lenses are still fly-by-wire), mean the X1D is not aimed at videography application even it it records 1080p/24fps video.

The Photographer

So who IS the X1D for?

With all of this written, there are only a handful of cameras in the market today which have sensors capable of the image quality in the X1D -- even fewer (as in, none) as easy to use at this price level.

I'd guess the first buyers will be existing Hasselblad customers looking for an inexpensive (to a Hassy photographer, the $8995 price point is revelatory) or lightweight companion to their regular H5D or H6D bodies.

Perhaps photography pros considering moving up to Hassy by buying used now have another, relatively low cost entry point to the brand. They might be looking at a Pentax 645z and have the same reaction: for just a little more (well, $2,000 is more than a little for most people) they can go new Hassy. 

I suspect that the X1D will also attract the interest of Leica SL buyers: affluent photography enthusiasts interested in the highest image quality; who take the time to line up their shots; pine for the simpler days when all you could manipulate on a camera were focus, shutter speed and f/stop; or just want something beyond the best Canon or Nikon have to offer. 

The Competition

I suspect the SL is the X1D's closest competitor - same ballpark price, same pedigree. But they're different. I confess: I had to wipe off the drool after I held the SL in the metal.

Leica SL

The X1D with both the XCD 90mm f/3.2 and 45mm f/3.5 comes in at $13,985; the Leica SL with Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 f/2.8 comes in at $12,400. The SL has 4K video recording, 11fps, maximum ISO of 50,000 and a 4.4mp EVF; the X1D has that 50mp sensor, the brilliant user interface, and -- I'm not yet sure -- perhaps superior physical ergos. The X1D is also significantly lighter.

Then again, they both are new camera lines with new lenses, neither of which represent anything remotely close to a full range -- though both can adapt their existing lenses, mitigating that particular problem.

Pentax 645z

Maybe you think the 51mp medium-format Pentax 645z is the more apt comparison. You might be right, though I've never taken a close look at one.

Canon 5Ds

Blogger extraordinaire and bud Tony Northrup has made the excellent point that if it's pure image quality that you're after, a Canon 5DS or 5Ds R with 50mp sensor and faster, image-stabilized primes would likely yield superior images at just about half the price. I suspect he's right for all but a limited set of circumstances -- but what I really need to do is find out for myself!

Sony a7R II

And then there's Sony's a7R II -- a brilliant camera (along with its a7s II twin) with 42mp sensor, 5-axis in-body image stabilization, a wide selection of fast primes (both native and third party), in-camera lens compensation, 4K video with full complement of video assists and other functionality, and a body-only price  1/3 that of the X1D. They are incredible.

Bottom line: If it's just about specs and price, there are other, fantastic options.

In a Nutshell

If you asked me to sum up the X1D in a single image (you know, a picture is worth a thousand words?), it would be this one from Hasselblad's press kit.

I'm pretty sure that's a Canon 5D in silhouette. The message? Big sensors rule, and Hasselblad has figured out how to put it into a dramatically smaller form factor than the usual DSLR suspects. Subtext: you have an alternative to Canikon. Sub-sub-text: we want new Hasselblad shooters.

I'm pretty sure that's a Canon 5D in silhouette. The message? Big sensors rule, and Hasselblad has figured out how to put it into a dramatically smaller form factor than the usual DSLR suspects. Subtext: you have an alternative to Canikon. Sub-sub-text: we want new Hasselblad shooters.

If you asked me to sum up the X1D with two images, this would be the second:

This is incredibly expensive to a Canon 5D, Sony a7, or Panasonic GH4 user - but it's CHEAP to a Hasselblad shooter. Hasselblad is looking to expand its market.

This is incredibly expensive to a Canon 5D, Sony a7, or Panasonic GH4 user - but it's CHEAP to a Hasselblad shooter. Hasselblad is looking to expand its market.

If you asked me to sum up the X1D with any more than two images, this would be the last one before I walked away from the conversation:

The X1D is a deliberate stills camera emphasizing high image quality, with video almost an afterthought - just like the original Canon 5D Mk II.

The X1D is a deliberate stills camera emphasizing high image quality, with video almost an afterthought - just like the original Canon 5D Mk II.

The Bigger Picture

But I want to step back from specs and price to write about the value of supporting a small company like Hasselblad.

No, I don't get anything from Hasselblad for writing this stuff. I don't even think I'm going to be able to get a loaner.

I just love underdog stories. Who doesn't? But it's more than that.

Hasselblad was in bad shape just a couple of years ago, pretty much universally derided (including by yours truly) for what I'll call their "bling" strategy of gussied up and over-priced re-badged Sonys. There's a palpable sense of relief from Hasselblad people who've ridden out the bad times and believe that the company is finally doing the right things.

I agree. Kudos to CEO Perry Oosting and the team. 

On the other hand, "desperate times call for desperate measures," and Hasselblad had no choice but to innovate its way out and figure out how to bring prices down to more accessible levels -- all while getting clarity around what it means to create a Hasselblad camera and maintaining its commitment to keep design, development and manufacturing in-house, on site in Gothenburg, Sweden.

They're succeeding.

In my book, their software interface is the new gold standard in the industry. That they haven't off-shored their operations and chosen instead to support the local folks who have supported them -- again, to me -- is a big deal. That they haven't made the mistake of trying to do everything themselves -- and using the Sony sensor -- was smart, allowing them to concentrate on what makes Hasselblad unique.

Photo by Chris Gampat.

Photo by Chris Gampat.

As I wrote above, I can already see that I'd like it to be more than what it is, but all that means is that I'm not the ideal target.

I'm OK with that, and I'm sure Hasselblad is, too.

What's most important to me is that an icon of photography may be down but it's not out. It's back. And it's showing the big dogs a thing or two, to everyone's benefit.

It was during a conversation with a Sony exec that I learned what wabi-sabi means: essentially, beauty in imperfections, impermanence, or incompleteness. I see it in other company's efforts, like Sony. I see it in my own work.

And I see it, delightfully on display, at Hasselblad.

I'm rooting for Hasselblad, big time.

If you like what you've read here, please subscribe; visit our YouTube channel and subscribe there too and give us a "like"; and if you're in the market for gear, consider using our affiliate links at B&H and Amazon  (once you click on them, any purchase will help out) - they don't cost you anything, but they help me stay caffeinated.