Hasselblad True Zoom

Hasselblad True Zoom hands-on – Has the Moto Z got the ultimate camera add-on?

Companies have been trying to make the ultimate smartphone camera for over a decade, with things really hotting up after Nokia launched the Pureview 808 in 2011. However, in my mind, no-one’s really nailed it.

Noble efforts, including the Galaxy K Zoom, the Sony DSC-QX100 attachable camera and the Huawei P9 have worked hard to innovate, but all universally fallen short of their creators’ lofty photography claims.

The Sony lens was chunky and had a habit of overheating. The K Zoom may have had optical zoom, but the main sensor wasn’t up to scratch. The P9’s dual-lens system is innovative and pretty good, but it’s a Leica camera in name only and doesn’t perform as well as even the most basic of dedicated cameras.

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The True Zoom is Motorola’s attempt to rectify the situation and finally deliver the ultimate camera-phone experience. The Zoom’s one of the Moto Z and Moto Z Play’s add-on modules and brings with it a number of useful photographic features, including optical zoom.

Having had a chance to wander around Berlin for half an hour testing the device, I’m not certain the True Zoom will offer the leap forward that we might all like, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Here’s what you need to know about the Hasselblad True Zoom…

1. Its hardware is out of this world (sort of)

Hasselblad cameras have a serious pedigree, so the fact that the legendary Swedish company has lent its branding to the True Zoom is a massive positive.

Hasselblad’s iconic medium-format cameras have been used to chronicle numerous points in history, including the moon landing. Hasselblad claims Buzz Aldrin actually used one of their cameras to take the first space selfie. As a result, it’s no surprise the module packs some pretty awesome hardware.

2. Optical not digital zoom

The headline feature for the True Zoom is the fact that it has optical, not digital, zoom. This is a big deal, as digital zoom essentially just crops into the image to make an area appear larger, with the end result being reduced resolution and a photo that looks pretty awful.

Optical zoom, however, uses the lens optics to zoom in on your subject matter, letting you capture full-resolution shots of distant objects. The tech isn’t foolproof and still requires a very steady hand, or tripod, to get the best results. But testing the True Zoom around central Berlin during a bright summer day, I was impressed with how well it worked.

The True Zoom simply attaches to the back of the Moto Z via magnets. You might think that sounds a little precarious, but it’s a surprisingly strong connection – I never sensed any movement between the phone and module while shooting.

The zoom is controlled using a physical dial on top of the camera, which sits next to the dedicated shutter button. Using it at its maximum 10x zoom I was able to capture usable shots, although my shaky hands meant it usually took a few attempts, even with the inclusion of optical image stabilisation.

The module also works with the Android camera app’s manual controls, which means you can get a little arty and control key settings, such as focus, white balance, ISO and aperture. I found the manual focus particularly useful when shooting busy street scenes where the autofocus would struggle to find my intended subject matter.

True Zoom

3. RAW photos and free access to Hasselblad software

Android phones have been able to shoot RAW photos, the uncompressed file type used by most professional photographers, for some time. RAW files include a lot of data that gets stripped from the compressed JPEG format, which makes them better for serious editing.

Motorola’s tried to make it easier for fans to take advantage of RAW shooting by bundling the True Zoom with Hasselblad’s Phocus software, a custom editing app that’s specifically designed for RAW photos. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to test it during my hands-on.

4. But it ain’t perfect

All this sounds great, but I had some issues with the True Zoom camera. In regular light the zoom works fine, but in more averse or specialist conditions it can struggle.

There’s no dedicated macro mode and Android doesn’t have the manual controls to get a really nice close-up.

The True Zoom’s sensor is also smaller than expected, measuring in at 1/2.3-inch. That makes it only slightly larger than the Moto Z Play’s built-in 16-megapixel sensor.

I also wasn’t sold on the True Zone’s aperture range, which switches between f/3.5 at the wide-angle end of the zoom range and f/6.5 at the telephoto end. It’s a compromise you find on most optical zoom lenses, but the maximum f/3.5 setting isn’t great for low-light situations, and f/6.5 is going to result in slower shutter speeds that will result in motion blur unless you’ve got strong lighting.

The combination of a small sensor and relatively narrow maximum aperture meant I found it almost impossible to achieve a shallow depth of field for shots with out-of-focus bokeh in the background, and there was a lot of noise in low-light shots.

Also, probably as a result of the optical design, photos taken at maximum zoom weren’t as detailed or rich as those at the wide end and with the wider aperture.

Hasselblad True Zoom photo reel

True Zoom elephant

In regular light the camera is good

True Zoom

Images look sharp

 True Zoom

Shots don’t look overly processed

True Zoom

It can capture a decent amount of detail

True Zoom

The optical zoom also works

 True Zoom

But it struggles with macro shotsTrue Zoom flags

But colours can be muted

True Zoom rocks

And getting a shallow-depth-of-field effect is pretty much impossible

True Zoom flash

Even with the flash it’s not great in low light

Hasselblad True Zoom price and release date

The True Zoom is set to launch in September, with pricing starting at £199.

Related: Best smartphones 2016

Hasselblad True Zoom opening impressions

The Hasselblad True Zoom isn’t going to set the world of mobile photography on fire. The sensor isn’t as good as it needs to be. If my opening impressions are anything to go by, its technical limitations also mean you’ll have a hard time taking advantage of its headline feature – optical zoom – in low-light conditions.

It is a step in the right direction, though, and another positive sign that smartphone vendors are willing to experiment with camera technology. Hopefully some of my early issues will be ironed out before the True Zoom’s release. But even if they aren’t, I can also see it being a hit with non-techie types looking for a compact camera replacement for family and holiday photos.

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