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End of an Era

The Long, Slow End of the Iconic Hasselblad

The classic Hasselblad 503CW

Courtesy Hasselblad

The classic Hasselblad 503CW

Hasselblad ceased production of an icon this week, announcing the end of the 503CW film camera, direct descendant of the 500-series camera, used by everyone from Ansel Adams to the crew of the Apollo missions.

The Swedish cameras were belovedly archaic, taking pictures in a square format on actual, physical film. They were solid black boxes with a Zeiss lens up front, a replaceable film back, and, typically, a waist-level viewfinder that let photographers peer down and see a little square image of any picture they were considering. The 503CW was great for taking pictures without losing eye contact—or without really being obvious about it. That made it perfect for portraiture, and the camera became a mainstay for fine-art students and professionals.

It’s been a bumpy decade for Hasselblad, which basically slid sideways into the production of digital cameras. In 2002 the company announced it would not be making any more … digital cameras. That effectively meant all such technology would be outsourced to other firms, which built backs that would clap into the same place the 503CW’s film backs used to go. It was nice for photographers, who had a choice of manufacturers from which to select the expensive part, but possibly not the best business decision made in the history of technology.

Hasselblad was acquired in 2003 by Japanese distributor Shriro. Among Shriro’s moves was a return to digital, which it accomplished by merging with Imacon, which made digital backs and other items that don’t require sending pictures to a guy running a tub of chemicals. In 2011, Hasselblad was purchased by the Ventizz Capital Fund IV, run by German private equity group Vorndran Mannheims.

Hasselblad’s current lineup includes the H System, with a Hasselblad-branded lens made by Fujinon (4901:JP) with the Imacon back. That leaves the Hasselblad name in the middle. It’s like a vestigial tail, only extremely valuable. A new Hasselblad H4D-50 costs about $24,495.

Urstadt is an editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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