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Hasselblad overhauls sensors with new 50-megapixel camera

A move to an image sensor made with CMOS chip manufacturing technology will mean more adaptable cameras, the medium-format camera maker promises.

The Hasselblad H5D-50c will move the medium-format camera maker from CCD image sensor technology to CMOS technology.
The Hasselblad H5D-50c will move the medium-format camera maker from CCD image sensor technology to CMOS technology.

Instead of going for more pixels, medium-format digital camera maker Hasselblad is going for better ones.

Over the last decade, much of the camera world has switched image sensors from the older CCD (charge-coupled device) technology to CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor), the same manufacturing process used to build conventional microprocessors. Now the high-end digital camera maker is making the same shift -- something its primary rival, Phase One, has so far chosen not to do.

Hasselblad is planning a new flagship camera, its H5D-50c, that aside from the sensor looks like its existing 50-megapixel H5D-50. The company hasn't said when it'll ship or how much it'll cost, but promises to release further details in March. A debut at the Photokina show in September wouldn't be a big surprise.

A CMOS sensor will mean the camera can take more frames per second, since data can be slurped off the sensor faster; let photographers shoot longer exposures; and perhaps most important, will work better at high ISO sensitivity settings, the company said Tuesday. And image quality won't be sacrificed, it promised -- an essential assurance given that very high image quality is the main reason pros put up with medium format's bulk and expense.

"We believe this will provide a highly compelling option for professional photographers who prefer a more versatile camera that enables them to immediately embrace a wider range of photo disciplines," said Ove Bengtson, Hasselblad's product manager, in a statement. The H5D-50c will still provide "exceptionally high-end image quality."

Medium-format cameras use much larger image sensors to provide higher image quality, mostly for professional photographers with big budgets. A Hasselblad H5D-50 with an 80mm f/2.8 lens costs $30,000 right now -- and that's cheaper than the 80-megapixel models that Phase One sells.

In the film era, the price difference between medium-format and more ordinary 35mm SLRs wasn't that big a deal. The vastly higher expense of manufacturing large image sensors, though, has dramatically changed the situation, and medium-format photography has been relegated to a very premium niche even as high-end full-frame SLRs from Canon and Nikon have steadily increased in performance and sensor resolution.

Hasselblad has responded by repackaging Sony camera bodies into the glitzy Stellar and Lunar lines, but they're much more expensive than their Sony originals.

A CMOS sensor likely won't be dramatically less expensive to manufacture, so it's not clear the H5D-50c will prove to be a money machine for the Swedish company. But encouraging professionals to expand their range with a more flexible medium-format model fits better with the company's long photographic legacy than appealing to the yacht set.