An Exclusive Interview with
President – Hasselblad USA Inc.
By: Pete Myers
Michael Reichmann and I recently discovered a common interest in our work. We both have purchased new Hasselblad H2 camera systems within two weeks of each other.
Michael’s H2 camera body is equipped with the Hasselblad 50-110 HC zoom lens, and is recording to his Phase One P45 digital back. My configuration utilizes the Hasselblad 50mm HC fixed focus lens, and is recording to film for my monochrome landscape work (www.petemyers.com).
For many years, Michael has been a dedicated Contax medium format camera user, while I have been a dedicated Leica M series camera user. For both of us, moving to the Hasselblad H series is a significant experiment.
Camera-manufacturer Hasselblad USA has recently undergone numerous changes internally, under rapidly changing market conditions. The company seems to have a new direction in both its product line and business structure.
After I learned of Michael’s and my common interest in the future of Hasselblad, I suggested an interview with the president of Hasselblad USA, Jack Showalter. I outlined ten lively questions to Mr. Showalter for the purposes of discussion. Much to the credit of his leadership, and that of Hasselblad USA, he quickly agreed to the interview below. I am grateful to him for his enthusiasm and candor during this project. The hope of both of us is to share with the readership a sense of the difficulties and resolve that it takes in today’s market to stay viable, and provide product leadership in photography.
It should be reiterated at this point that Luminous Landscape does not accept commercial advertising or favors from manufacturers in the selection of editorial material. Both Michael and I have paid full retail price for our Hasselblad H2 systems through our respective photographic equipment dealers. It simply is a matter of our having chosen this camera system, independent of each other, as potentially the best camera tool for our needs. Hence as owners, our curiosity is peaked towards the future of the product line, and therefore this interview. Here is my discussion with Jack Showalter, president of Hasselblad USA:
Pete Myers with his new Hasselblad H2 Camera © 2006, M. Kathy Myers
1) Hasselblad USA is currently in the process of closing down its East Coast facility and moving operations to the former Imacon facility in Redmond, Washington. We can only imagine this to be a costly move for the company, and there must be good reason for such a move. Why was the location of the company changed?
I have not closed our New Jersey facility, and I don’t have any intention of doing so. We have Service, Support, and Sales personnel in New Jersey, but Hasselblad USA headquarters and many key functions were moved to Redmond, WA. at the end of February 2006. This was done to accelerate our Digital initiatives, since Redmond was the home of Imacon USA, and also to streamline the company and make it more responsive, efficient, and focused.
This was expensive, time consuming and took significant internal and external resources. It also meant saying goodbye to some friends and some truly great people. It was not a decision that was made lightly, but it was absolutely vital to achieve the goals I have set for the company.
2) Is it true that the V series cameras will be phased out as current inventory is depleted? Is it the end of the era at Hasselblad for pure mechanical cameras?
I’d like to elaborate, but it’s kind of like answering “Do you still beat your spouse?”…
I can only think of about 2 reasons we would stop building any product:
1) Our customers don’t want it any more and stop buying it
2) We can’t get the parts or components required to build it
I field lots of questions like this. My “stock” answer is that we are in the photography business. We will design, build and sell what we feel the market wants, so long as we can do so at a profit. We will then use a large percentage of these profits to design whatever the market wants next. That is what being a technology company is all about.
3) The Hasselblad HM 16-32 Film Magazine soared in price from retail $1000, to $2000 this past week. Many of us that still photograph with film found this price increase disheartening. Is this a signal by Hasselblad that film is no longer viewed as a welcome element at the company, and the push is on for all of us all to go digital or is there some other reason for the 100% increase in price?
We were not excited about announcing the price increase, either. Unfortunately, our costs at Hasselblad went up dramatically and we had no choice but to pass these along. There are various reasons our costs went up, some associated with declining demand, some associated with production costs.
Between sales of Hasselblad scanners and Hasselblad film cameras, as well as our unique position as being a manufacturer of medium format film and digital solutions, I can assure you that film remains extremely important to Hasselblad, despite the fact that the film business is in decline.
4) It would also appear that there have been across the board price increases with the H system that have coincided with the move to Redmond. With so many production partners involved in the H series camera, can customers be assured that they are getting full value for their money, and not just paying the cost of multi-national production?
There is no correlation between pricing and Hasselblad USA headquarters relocation. Some Hasselblad prices have gone up; some have gone down. Referring specifically to H system, most of the price moves have been up.
Frankly, we made some mistakes in our early pricing of both the H and V systems, and I had a choice to either correct those mistakes or suffer significant consequences that would have been severely negative for Hasselblad and those who own our equipment. I really don’t like price increases, but the alternative (and the impact to the company and our customers) was much less appealing.
Value is a difficult thing to evaluate, and frankly, what I think the “value” is of various Hasselblad goods or services is not terribly important. Probably the easiest gauge of something’s value is whether or not consumers will buy it at the price the manufacturer charges. Consumers are very smart – they will only buy products that meet a very specific set of criteria associated with cost and benefit. Combine cost and benefit, and I think you come up with something approximates a definition of value. H system sales continue to be well beyond our earlier expectations, which indicates to me that consumers feel there is value commensurate with the price, features and performance the H system offers. Having said that, I also know that trees don’t grow to the sky, and there is a limit to what photographers will spend, no matter how unique or fully featured the product is.
5) A number of dealers have reported difficulties in obtaining parts to complete full kits of H series systems, with back orders being a common occurrence. Being that Hasselblad is in the camera production business, will more products be available in the pipeline as the business changes at hand are finalized?
Despite the long lead times that seem to be endemic in our industry, Hasselblad’s performance in this area has been below what I feel is acceptable. Being as good as “brand X” is not good enough.
We have had a number of challenges. First, sales of H have exceeded our expectations, so we were caught short both in production and in our local Americas inventory. Second, at the end of February, we moved all inventory and IT from New Jersey to Redmond. We informed our Dealers of the move 30 days and again 10 days prior to the physical move, and many stocked up, since they knew that we would be without inventory until the trucks arrived from New Jersey. Last of all, certain items (for instance, 120mm macro lenses) have been in chronic short supply since they were announced.
The result have been what I feel are unacceptable lead times and delivery issues. I have a 25 year background in technology distribution, and I know we can and must do better. My goal is not to be at par with my competitors, because in my opinion, we all come up short in this area. This gets my daily personal attention, which will continue until we are the delivering the world-class service and fulfillment our customers deserve. We are improving daily, but still have a ways to go.
6) With Imacon’s acquisition of Hasselblad, will the company still support third party digital backs with enthusiasm or is the interest now shifting to digital back production in-house exclusively?
(For the sake of accuracy: Imacon was purchased by the owner of Hasselblad (Shriro), who then merged Imacon and Hasselblad. It appears to many as an Imacon acquisition, because the senior management of Imacon became the senior management of the new Hasselblad, but the actual event was a merger.)
Would you believe me if I told you I would rather people buy third party backs rather than Hasselblad backs? Obviously, I would prefer that people would use our systems exclusively. It makes for a more consistent “deliverable”, and also helps us support our customers better. I would also prefer that a photographer buy my product rather than my competitor’s, but products and people differ, so the reality is that this doesn’t always happen. If they are not going to buy my digital back, my next choice would be to make sure they buy my camera as the platform for the competitive digital back.
At Hasselblad, we feel it is important that people using our products get the results they expect. When someone buys a complete Hasselblad system, this is much easier for us to guarantee. If a third-party digital back is used with one of our cameras, dozens of variables come into the picture (some of which we know and some of which we only find out later) over which we have little or no control.
It is important to us that photographers get the results they expect, so we have reached out in an initiative to “certify” third party digital backs for use with our cameras. This is important to us, in support of our cameras, and should be important to the photographer as well.
7) As a one of the few photographers that has been able to shoot a pure digital monochrome camera, I find it amazing that there is not a single digital monochrome back in production by any company. Bayer matrix cameras are inadequate for pure monochrome photography— while black and white photography remains an important element of photography. Do you see any possibility that Hasselblad will build a dedicated digital monochrome back for the H series cameras?
Our decisions on what products to build revolve around 1) What do photographers want to do 2) What is possible technologically and 3) Is the market size sufficient to justify R&D and production expense to design a product we can deliver at a profit. You know much more about B&W digital than I do – if you were running Hasselblad, do you think this market fits these criteria? Would you spend 1,000,000 Euros, and commit a significant percentage of your R&D resources to design and build a new camera exclusively for B&W digital?
8) Competition in the medium format camera domain seems to be shrinking by the month, with more and more medium format camera companies throwing in the towel and ending production. Hasselblad seems to be successful despite the market condition changes—what is the secret to its success, and why will medium format continue to be an important tool for professionals?
Generally, the companies that succeed in any market are the ones that are perceived as providing the best value. Value can be defined by a complex combination of criteria such as price, features, technology, functionality, service, support, brand, availability, workflow, etc.. That is why you can have “Market Leaders” as dissimilar as Costco, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon.com (excuse the Seattle bias here). Very different value propositions, but all dominant in their fields.
I think what the market is telling us is that despite the relatively high price of Hasselblad products, and the growing competition from 35mm, Hasselblad products are considered a good value, based on a set of complex criteria. Understanding, addressing, and anticipating those criteria is extremely difficult, but is Hasselblad’s “secret sauce”, and is key to our current success.
In my opinion, we are at the same crossroads digitally today that we were at 30 or 40 years ago in film. There are four basic questions that the consumer demands answers to (in this order):
1) Why photography?
2) Why digital?
3) Why medium format?
4) Why Hasselblad?
The first two questions “Why photography?” and “Why digital?” I think have already been answered. Educating the market as to these last two areas is critical to our continued success.
Just like our initiative to explain why larger format film was “better” than 35mm film many years ago, we now need to explain why larger sensors are better than smaller sensors (and maybe also how CCD’s compare to CMOS). Individual consumers are smart, but collective consumers (via tools like the Internet and Luminous Landscape) are brilliant – they can’t be fooled. If the photographers are confident that they can do things with Hasselblad products they cannot do with competitive products (regardless of technology or format), they will buy Hasselblad products. If not, we’re gone. It’s that simple.
9) Do you think that the marketplace and production tools are beginning to stabilize for professionals as the digital photographic era is now in full swing? Will there still be a need to re-tool camera systems and digital backs every eighteen months, following the trends of the semiconductor industries innovations or will photography finally settle down to a slower and more stable pace?
I could go on for days on this question….
First of all: There are customers still using and generating revenue on 6 megapixel digital backs they bought years ago. I also know people perfectly happy with the Mac or PC they bought in 2001.
Second: I am not sure about the “need to re-tool” vs. the “desire to retool”. Humans are funny animals – who really needs a Hummer or a Maybach or a Cayenne? Won’t an Explorer or a Lexus or a Touareg do about the same thing for you at a fraction of the price? Isn’t the 1975 Toyota you drove in college still capable of getting you from point A to point B? I realize this is an apples/oranges comparison to photography, and is a little tongue in cheek, but I think there are elements here that apply to photography as well.
I am not an engineer, but I see no empirical evidence of a slowing of technological advances in any major field, be it biotech, electronics, or computers. It seems to me that every time we have said we “can’t fly faster than the speed of sound” or “can’t make disks and denser” or “no more transistors will fit in that space” or “we could do it, but not cost effectively”, some smart guys have found a way to re-define the model, so either the component or the space changes to make the “impossible” possible. Again, humans are funny animals – we won’t tolerate “can’ts”.
I think it is logical that this applies to digital photography as well. Do people need 39 megapixel chips delivering 234MB 16 bit images? Will they pay over $20,000 for a 22 megapixel digital back, when for $8,000 they can get a complete 16.7 megapixel DSLR? 5 years ago, I think most people would have said “no”, but I can tell you that today it looks like our 39MP product offerings will be the most successful we have had to date. People want and are willing to pay for “bigger, better, faster”, whether it is cameras or cars.
If history is any indication of the things to come, I see no indication of technological slowdowns. On the contrary, I expect the rate of change to increase. The one constant we can predict and expect is change. The problem is, only a handful of people in our industry have a clue what the changes will be. We are fortunate in having one as our Hasselblad CEO, Christian Poulsen.
Anyone involved in any technical field who does not accept and even embrace change is in for a very difficult future, in my opinion.
10) Hasselblad USA is in a new era. What vision is there for the company in terms of what you would like to accomplish under your leadership over the next five years? Many photography companies have been just concerned about their survival. It would seem that Hasselblad is in a unique position to dream forward beyond survival. Is there any insight that you can provide our readership towards a Hasselblad future?
We have been blessed with the unique combination of a solid medium format camera heritage and a solid digital heritage. In my opinion, no-one else can offer what Hasselblad can offer in terms of high-end photography. No-one else can provide the complete solution, from the lens to the sensor to the final image, in the format and with the quality we can.
Our focus at Hasselblad has always been to concentrate on what the photographer wants, rather than what the photographer thinks we should build. The fact is, most people have no idea what is possible technologically, but they know exactly what they want photographically (faster shooting speed, truer colors, longer exposures, less artifacting, faster image processing, higher ISO, film/digital hybrid work flow, etc etc).
The photographer doesn’t necessarily know the technical possibilities, and we don’t necessarily know what the photographer’s wants and needs are. We try to make the best of both worlds by asking “what do you want?” and then finding innovative technological solutions that sometimes deliver features and benefits far beyond what anyone thought was possible.
In future months, I am sure Michael and I will be able to report more extensively on our own experience with the Hasselblad H2 camera system and whether it is suitable to our styles of photography and needs in image-making. It simply takes time in order for us to use these camera systems day in and day out for our projects before we have a true sense of their worth to our work.
What I can report from my own work to date is a sense of enthusiasm towards the Hasselblad H2 system. In my article, Enough Already, published here in Luminous Landscape last summer, I outlined my need for simplicity in the field with my camera equipment. My impression before ownership of the Hasselblad H2 camera system was that it struck me as an ultra-modern camera system with far too many menu options for a conservative photographer, such as myself.
Much to my surprise, I am happy to report that the automation and menu setup provide many options for the user—including simplifying the camera back to the basics of a fully manual camera in the tradition of the Hasselblad 200 or 500 series. In other words, the automation is there if you need it, but can be “turned off” to get down to the basics of photography—which are, focus, aperture, and exposure time.
My one “cheat,” and a point of bliss to the naturally aging
eyes of this photographer, has been in assigning one-shot auto-focus to the
“user button” on the H2 body. This is the first button up the
handgrip. With a simple flick of my thumb, the camera will transform from
“manual focus,” perform a one-time digital auto-focus of the lens
to create a perfectly focused image—switching back completely to manual
focus after it has finished. The auto-focus function is independent of the
release button by utilizing the
I look forward to a summer of adventure with my new Hasselblad H2 camera system. I am hoping that its use will become second nature to my image-making, and all but forgotten in the process of my photography—a truly transparent tool for the artist.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Andrew Martin, Gary Farber, and Rich Yagjian of Hunt’s Photo & Video for pulling my new H2 camera system components together. Whomever you use as your dealer, it is important to appreciate and celebrate that person’s help in the process of re-tooling your work—it is not an easy job.