Nearly eight years ago I used to write articles and reviews for Studio Photography Magazine (another casualty of the digital transition) and in my role as a freelance technology writer I got asked to review some pretty cool stuff. Sometimes interesting boxes would appear at my doorstep. One day I was shocked and amazed when I got a box from Leica containing the brand new M8.2 and four brand new lenses. The Fedex or UPS driver left the box, unsigned for, right at the front door. I thought that was crazy and risky until I had a similar thing happen with a box from Phase One that contained their latest 40 megapixel, medium format camera and a trio of really nice lenses. $40,000 worth of cool camera gear just hanging out in front of my studio and thunderclouds looming in the northwestern sky....
But, as usual, I digress. What I really wanted to talk about today is the announcement of the latest Phase One camera, with 100 megapixels. The underlying question: Is this camera at all relevant to working photographers or enthusiasts today? I know there is a market for it but for photographers who are not employees of large corporations or museums; does this camera make any sense at all?
When I reviewed the 40 megapixel Phase One camera (based on a Mamiya body) the one thing I really liked about it was somewhat independent from the pixel count. I like the way the larger sensor emulated the look for medium format film cameras by allowing the use of longer lenses for the same angle of view as shorter lenses would give on smaller format cameras. Even a fast 80mm lens gave a different look when coupled with the larger sensor. One could say the benefit of the system was the way it drew images.
While I understand the benefits of higher megapixel counts coupled with low noise CMOS sensors I think that the designers of medium format cameras (and sensors) have been going in the wrong direction. They should have moderated the pursuitof higher and higher megapixel counts and pushed harder to reduce the cost of making larger sized sensors. If the selling point (to me and to other previous users of film medium format systems) is the way the longer lenses draw images (a faster ramp from focus to out of focus for equal angles of view) then the goal should always have been toward achieving a real, full frame 6x6 cm sensor and lenses to match. I wouldn't much care if the "dream" sensor had 40 or 50 megapixels of resolution instead of 100 if it offered a look that's not really achievable by any other technical or operational parameter --- and I feel that serious practitioners of portraiture and still life photography would readily agree.
The Phase One backs, the Leica S series and the Hasselblads of all variety are still hobbled with much smaller sensors than the film gate sizes of our previous commercial favorites like the 6x6 Hasselblads and the 6x7 Mamiya RZ 67 cameras of yore. While the newest crop of sensors is far superior to film as regards noise I'm not sure that was a problem that most of us were looking to get solved.
The latest Phase One Camera (post Mamiya buy out) is an amazing technical achievement that will appeal to enterprises that require enormous amounts of detail in their photo files. But the cost of ownership and operation is, for all intents and purposes, far beyond rational for a small photography business that works in the open market today. Beyond the $50,000+ price of acquisition (camera and accessories) and the $20K to $30K investment in lenses real thought has to be given to handling the enormous files generated. And much of the quality will be lost if the target for the images doesn't match the state of the art of the camera system. How do the advertised 15 stops of dynamic range map to large, high speed inkjet printers limited gamuts? What monitor will you use to glean the results of the 11,000+ long row of pixels generated in each file? Will most of the process require proxy files or will clients also update their systems in order to receive and work on these files?
For a closed loop operation (say an in-house photography resource for a furniture maker) you can justify a certain cost of doing business, but suppose you are a working freelance photographer with regular clients whose biggest stretch is the creation of tradeshow graphics. If I shoot with a camera that generates enormous and hit bit depth images which create 400-600 megapixel tiff files just how many of my corporate clients (sitting in front of minimum spec Dell system) or my typical medium size ad agency art directors (sitting in front of 27 inch Apple iMacs) will be able to pull those files into their systems and work with the images in InDesign or even PhotoShop in an efficient and meaningful way? Damn few.
While the Phase One's are truly aspirational tools the reality of using them and the real inflection of their value is suspect. I think we are approaching the point where film makers are with Panavision cameras and Arriflex's top cameras live; in the rental houses or in the company's rental inventory. Used only on the biggest projects and then only sparingly.
I don't work in the arena of "spare no expenses" clients. I could never justify the benefits of this camera in the current market or even the current milieu. In fact, I am still more or less blown away by the detail I see coming off the D810, the Sony A7R2 and the Canon 5DsR. I live in fear of always running out of hard disk space. My clients already ask for "dumbed down" files that work on their systems.
I think it's wonderful that a company continues to push the envelope and I think it must be exhilarating for the photographer swho buy them to work with such impressive tools. In a way it helps create a new top of the market for users and camera makers. I'll pass on this revolution though; until they make a sensible, full frame 6x6 or 6x7 (I can always crop...) sensor that makes use of the miraculous optics that have already been created and are standing by to be rediscovered in their intended glory.
How about you? Rushing out to buy the 100 megapixel Phase One? I'd love to hear your rationale....
To be shocked back into the reality of actual, visible improvements in use, look no further than Kevin Raber's from the camera over on Luminous-Landscape. Then look fondly at whatever camera you happen to have sitting next to you and smile, knowing it would have done just as good a job.
blog note: between 2008 and 2009 I spent about three months of studio time shooting with MF cameras from Phase One, Leaf, and Mamiya. I enjoyed the process and enjoyed the learning but was more than able to resist their charms. I have recently been playing with a friend's Leica S camera and while I like the feel and quality just fine, in many instances, with the exception of focus ramp differentials, I can't see much difference in file quality between that camera and my D810. Actually using and testing the cameras always trumps informed conjecture.