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Hasselblad aims for luxury camera market, not just pros

The professional camera maker, expanding beyond its market with a big boost from Sony, announces the $6,500 NEX-compatible Lunar camera and its ambitions for much more.

This Hasselblad Lunar prototype brings a sculpted wooden grip and jewel-bedecked controls to a Sony NEX-7 camera design.
This Hasselblad Lunar prototype brings a sculpted wood grip to a Sony NEX-7 camera design.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

COLOGNE, Germany -- Pining for camera with a hand-stitched Italian leather grip and jeweled control dials? You're in luck.

The digital photography revolution exiled Hasselblad's medium-format cameras to an expensive niche inhabited almost solely by professionals. But today, the company announced Lunar, the first camera in an effort that Chief Executive Larry Hansen hopes will bring the storied photography brand back to a wider -- if not mainstream -- market.

Through a partnership with Sony, Hasselblad unveiled its 24-megapixel mirrorless interchangeable-lens model built on the bones and brains of Sony's high-end NEX-7. It's due to ship in February and will cost about 5,000 euros ($6,500), Hansen said in an interview with CNET after unveiling three Lunar prototypes at a press conference at the Photokina trade show here.

That's not all. Hasselblad will push into the SLR and compact camera markets, also through the Sony partnership, Hansen said. The digital SLR, based on Sony's Alpha line, should arrive in mid-2013, and the compact camera within a year.

"I'd like to say this is the moment where Hasselblad shakes off its dust," Hansen said.

Unlike Sony's models, Hasselblad's will feature leather, wood, or carbon-fiber exteriors -- design elements inspired by luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Bentley. The cameras are even designed in Italy at a new center not far from Venice. That means this camera is aimed at people who want to accessorize their lifestyles more than merely snap photos.

Lunar isn't just about show, though. Hasselblad's designs will offer the best performance and image quality in their segments, Hansen said.

"Hasselblad will participate in each photographic segment at the top of each category," he said.

The first extension beyond medium-format models such as the new Hasselblad H5D also announced at Photokina is the Lunar, named for the fact that U.S. astronauts took famous photos from the moon with Hasselblad cameras.

"But we will also launch cameras further in that segment," Hansen said. "We also want to have digital compact cameras -- always at the top, always state-of-the-art. It's part of our brand promise."

It's a tough market to be in. A high-end handbag or car can be stylish and somewhat practical for years, but digital devices don't have shelf lives much longer than those of bananas these days. A gold-plated, diamond-encrusted phone from five years ago would be an expensive embarrassment in the present age of smartphones.

Hansen is confident that there's an opportunity, though. For one thing, the cameras are high-performance models. "As long as we choose to use top state-of-the-art components, the life is longer than the 100-euro point-and-shoot," he said.

There's also integration time to take into account, though. Sony's NEX-7 will be a year old by the time next February rolls around.

Hansen doesn't expect the likes of Lunar to stay competitive for 10 years, but 3 years is possible, he said.

It's clear the new line is fulfilling some of Hansen's older ambitions. When working years ago for another venerable brand, Carl Zeiss, Hansen longed to compete better against Hasselblad with medium-format film cameras and against Leica -- yes, a third historic name in photography -- with something more compact.

Now he's trying again, this time as the leader of Hasselblad. The idea is to reclaim lost customers. Medium-format film cameras were more expensive than conventional 35mm film SLRs, but not that much more. With digital image sensors costing vastly more for larger areas, though, Hasselblad lost all but its professional customer base.

"Fifteen years ago, 65 percent of our customers were not professionals," Hansen said, and they ask him, "'Why don't you bring back a camera for me? Why do you only have professional cameras?' I've always said, 'Just wait, we'll come back with it.' Our goal is to be accessible to all serious photographers and enthusiasts."

For a price tag more than five times that of a regular Sony NEX-7, you'd better be serious.