Friday, August 12, 2016

Euro cameras and badge engineering turned up to 11.

The world of cameras, or at least of modern camera companies, is so much younger than firearms.

The biggest names in American firearms mostly date to the dawn of the industrial era: Winchester, Smith & Wesson, and Colt, for instance, all being creations of the early-to-middle 19th Century. Thus it is for most of the recognizable names on the world scene, with occasional youngsters like FNH (a fin de siècle firm formed to produce license-built Mausers for the Belgian military) or elder statesmen like Beretta, who was making guns when they were still called gonnes and lit with matches.

European camera makers have especially ephemeral career arcs in comparison. Rollei, a company that was a pioneer of the use of roll (as opposed to sheet) film, was formed in 1920 and was bought by Korean giant Samsung in 1995. Bits and fragments and brand & model names still exist, but the company's been a dead letter since the early Aughties.

Zeiss, under the Contax name, pretty much invented the single-lens reflex camera as we know it today, but by the '70s, "Contax" was just a name that appeared on a succession of, first Yashica, and then Kyocera cameras.

Voigtländer, being an 18th Century optics company that started making lenses for the newfangled daguerreotypes the early 1800s, is a name as old as photography itself. It wound up getting folded into Zeiss in the '70s before getting passed off to Rollei, and now is a name applied to Japanese Cosina cameras.

Two big names still hold magic, though.

First, of course, is Leica. Inventors of the 35mm camera in the interwar years, their rangefinder cameras were legendary. In retrospect, however, their period of commercial dominance was remarkably brief. Dragging their heels into the SLR era, they were passed by the Japanese and by the 1990s, you would be hard-pressed to find a working commercial photographer still using Leicas. As early as the 1980s, Leica had abandoned their own in-house SLR design and were selling cameras that were joint ventures with Minolta.

These days Leicas come in two flavors: Obscenely expensive German-built objets d'art, and the "-Lux Leicas" (C-Lux, D-Lux, V-Lux) that are re-badged Panasonic digicams with some luxury touches, a red circle, and a 50% price premium.

The other name with which to conjure was Hasselblad, who held onto a surprisingly large share of the medium format camera market. In 2003, they were bought by their Far East distributors, and progress was made on large-sensor digital cameras. Despite being just about the last medium format maker left standing, the company's future seems to be constantly hanging by a thread.

Still, there's that name. Hasselblad is the camera that NASA took to the moon, after all (there are still a dozen up there) and Hasselblad's marketing department milks it to the fullest. Thus it should have been no surprise to me that the luxe Swedish brand name tore a page from Leica's playbook and cranked it to 11.

That camera in the previous post? Underneath all the carbon fiber and hand-stitched Tuscan leather and titanium vapor deposition and the fancy Hasselblad Lunar's a Sony NEX-7. Now, that's not a bad thing; the NEX-7 is a solid mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. But the Sony sold for a $1,300 MSRP new. Hasselblad, apparently deciding to go big or go home, wrapped it in their shiny aura and presented it to the market with a nearly $7,000 sticker.

That's chutzpah.

Sales apparently went about as well as you would expect. Hasselblad Lunar jokes were told. Fire sales ensued. I'm having flashbacks.

Still...that's a sexy-looking thing, innit? Especially at a fraction of its... HAHAHAHAHAHA! ...original asking price?