A re-publication of an article from 2008.
A Medium Format Digital Camera With Enhanced Handling. Phase One Delivers The Goods.
by Kirk Tuck
In the past few years medium format digital cameras have captured a smaller and smaller share of camera sales worldwide for two reasons: 1. They seem to come equipped with extravagant price tags... and, 2. They handled, for the most part, like the Frankenstein inventions they were. The communication between the removable backs and the traditional camera bodies was kludgy and slow. Autofocus implementation seemed like an afterthought and the “mix and match” batteries had the endurance of a chain smoker trying to run a marathon. It’s little wonder that many photographers chose to go with high megapixel DSLR style cameras like the Canon 1DS mk3.
But in 2008 the landscape is beginning to shift. Prices seems to be dropping even while pixel counts are rising while at the same time the engineering that matters is getting better and better. The Hasselblad 3D camera system seems focused on providing the tightest integration on the market. Its totally closed system of backs, body and lenses is a contrast to the less integrated but far more open system that was introduced in the form of the Hy6 body being used by Sinar, Leaf, and Rollei. The problem with the Hasselblad system is that it is closed to outside vendors which prohibits you from being able to select the digital back you might really want. An issue with the Hy6 systems is that, in order to provide the most “open” system, the integration of lenses, bodies and backs is less elegant.
The bottom line is that the camera bodies, lenses and support accessories are actually the foundation or platform for an efficient and effective medium format system. These parts should be a long term investment that stands the test of time while allowing for backs to be upgraded as technology improves. Nikon and Canon understand that your real, long term investment will be in their lenses, not in their camera bodies. Now the medium format digital camera makers are starting to come around. And the competition will start to heat up.
Mamiya and Phase One have teamed up to take advantage of a truly open platform that promises to run over the competition by dint of having a wide and growing vertical integration of options for medium format shooters. Phase One makes incredible, high density digital camera backs. Mamiya makes one of the most comfortable high performance medium format camera bodies on the market today. Bundled together the combination is formidable competition for everyone in this small market. And it’s not an entirely exclusive relationship. If technology moves on and the Phase One back becomes obsolete the open nature of the camera system leaves ample space for you to choose replacement backs from a range of suppliers, including Leaf and even Mamiya. Kudos to Phase One and Mamiya for establishing a clean upgrade path.
A fun part of camera reviewing is unwrapping the packages after the FedEx truck trundles away. I recently reviewed a passel of Leica stuff, including an M8 and four lenses. They arrived rattling around in a box in a sea of styrofoam peanuts and nothing else. No manuals, no original boxes. No additional protection. By contrast, the Phase One camera system arrived in a really bulletproof manner: A solid cardboard box, filled with the requisite peanuts, held a solid hard case. Inside the highly protective (and water/weatherproof ) case was a system obviously packed by a truly obsessive person. Every piece had its own compartment and the overall package included manuals, cables, and even a memory stick with an extensive user’s guide.
Here are the basic details of the Phase One camera I tested: The camera itself is a rebadged Mamiya AFD3 camera body. The back is Phase One’s latest 39 megapixel back, the 45+. The back and the body looked like a matched set and featured the same matte surface finish. The AFD3 is the fourth generation of the Mamiya 645 AF format camera body. As a camera system that’s been on the market for well over a decade just about any flaw or shortcoming has been eliminated during its long evolution. What is left is a camera that handles just about as easily as a Nikon D3 or a Canon 1DS xx camera. The traditional camera functions were absolutely flawless and as easy to understand as just about any camera in the market today. I’ll be frank, I loved the body and the lenses more than any other medium format camera I have ever handled. And that’s saying a lot since I’ve owned a slew of Rollei 6000 variants, many Hasselblads, as well as Pentax 645’s. The Mamiya body represents the very best that medium format manufacturers have been able to design. Your mileage may vary but not by much.
The only caveat I would have about buying the Mamiya camera body would be for users who need to be able to remove the pentaprism finder and replace it with a waistlevel finder or other accessory. That doesn’t seem like a pressing priority for most photographers as even stalwarts like Nikon and Canon have done away with the removable finders that, in the past, were always part of their professional camera bodies.
So, thumbs up to the camera body, let’s move on to the lenses. All the senuous body ergonomics in the world are meaningless if the glass doesn’t measure up. I’ve compared it with the Zeiss glass I own for my Rollei system as well as the Schneider glass used in the Leaf camera system (Hy6) and at 100% on my monitor the Mamiya glass definitely makes the grade. I worked with three lenses while testing the Phase One camera system, a really incredible 28mm lens, a 75mm to 150mm f 4.5 zoom lens and the 80mm f2.8 “normal” lens.
The 28mm Phase One lens is, along with the digital 28 from Hasselblad, the widest production lens available for medium format digital SLR systems. With a field of view that matches a 17mm lens on a 35mm camera this 14 element wide angle is a powerful optic. This, along with the 45mm tilt shift lens offered by Phase One, should really appeal to architectural photographers who miss the highly corrected wide angles they used on their 4x5 view cameras. The image quality of the 75 to 150mm Mamiya zoom blew away the output of my 75 to 150mm Schneider zoom for the Rollei while the 80 was sharp, well behaved, and a welcome relief from all the big, fat glass of the other optics. While not silent focusing lenses with integral motors, the lenses were quick to autofocus and bitingly sharp at all medium apertures.
There’s an additional advantage to the Mamiya system. They’ve been making a wide range of autofocus and specialty lenses for their 645AF camera system for the better part of 15 years. The landscape is literally littered with great used lenses at ridiculously good prices. And all of these AF lenses, as well as many of the manual lenses from previous Mamiya systems, are usable on the Phase One body. If you are so inclined you can also pick up a real, live film back and shoot your choice of slide, color print or black and white film!
For my money, the Mamiya AFD3 camera and lens implementation is close to perfect. That leaves the digital back. Here’s what I want from a digital back: I want it to be so boring in actual operation that I don’t have to waste any mindshare worrying about it. It should start up quickly, the menu and control options should be straighforward and easy to set, it should be easy to shoot tethered, its raw files should be intelligently compressed and write quickly to disk, and the LCD screen should give me a good idea of what I’m capturing under all lighting conditions. The back should be parsimonious with batteries and should not have any “nervous tics” or idiosyncrasies. It should give me enormous, high bit depth files that brutally trump the resolution, color accuracy and other rendering characteristic of all smaller format cameras.
So, how does it stack up?
Set up: One click of its power button and the back springs to life. It takes three seconds from button touch to open the menu. All the back navigation is done with four silver buttons on the back and all the menus are straightforward and easy to understand. I felt right at home with the back in the first half hour of operation. Unlike other systems which offer a range of profiles and adjustments in nested menus the Phase One 45+ back sticks to the basics, “format, white balance, etc.” The benefit? You’re up and shooting quickly.
Shooting tethered: Here Phase One cheats. They offer a big, fat fireware port (not one of those mini, four connector fireware pinholes) with which to tether the camera and then they provide you with one of the best software systems for tethering and raw conversion found on planet Earth right now: Capture One. To say that tethering the camera and shooting to a Mac laptop is smooth and easy is an understatement. Do it twice and it becomes as easy and fun as eating chocolate. In six weeks I never lost connection with the back and never had a crash.
Writing with RAW: Okay. Each of these files opens up as a tiff that is over 120 megabytes but... sitting on the card, waiting to be hatched, they are a slim 33 megabytes. Using Sandisk 4gb Extreme cards gave me a system that shot at approximately 1.5 fps and rarely left me waiting with a full buffer. One thing I would love would be the option to shoot at a reduced file size as I don’t always need the full bucket of pixels for the kind of portrait work I do. It’s a feature I always loved on the Kodak DSLR/n cameras. They were capable of shooting raw files at 14 megs 6 megs and 3 megs. It was a very underrated camera.…….
Chimping: The LCD screen is fine in the studio and just okay out in the Texas sunlight. I bring along my Hoodman viewing chimney along when I head outdoors and with that accessory in hand I was able to see the histograms and check relative light balances. It’s no match for the three inch screen on the back of a Nikon D90 which costs a mere $999 but then the D90’s not really up to making a 17 by 22 inch print at 300 dpi with little or no interpolation either! If you shoot tethered the LCD becomes a convenient “menu” screen while all serious evaluation gets done on your laptop.
Batteries: Like the Leaf camera I tested several months ago the Phase One camera/back system uses two sets of batteries. One set of “off the shelf” double “A’s” powers the camera body and the autofocus functions while the back is powered by one of the ubiquitous and “not interchangeable with any other appliance” lithium batteries that manufacturers have become so fond of. In six weeks of shooting I never had to change out the Kirkland brand, Costco double “A” alkaline batteries I in shoved into the camera handgrip. The back was another story. Depending on how often I checked the image on the LCD the battery for the digital back lasted for between 120 and 240 exposures. As the back can also draw power from the firewire connection the short battery life isn’t problematic in the studio. Location shooters will want to take at least three of the batteries with them on the road. Another bright spot for the camera back was the included battery charger which can charge two batteries at a time and has a nice little info window for each battery indicating where the battery is in its charge cycle. Cheers for an efficient and well made charger system.
If I were to use the Phase One 45+ back in its un-tethered mode often I would want to have a repair person whip me a up a cable and connector to use with a Quantum Turbo battery or Digital Camera battery for day long shooting.
Cutting To The Chase: The image quality from the back was very, very good. Having worked my way through the early generations of digital cameras my proclivity is to always use digital cameras at their lowest rated sensitivity. I started using the Phase One 45+ at its calibrated ISO 50 setting but after reviewing my first test files I got braver and started playing with the sensitivity settings. The back is flawless up to 200 ISO and even ISO 400 is amazingly clean. I didn’t get to do too many long exposures with the camera but I did deliberately try it at 4 and 8 seconds and got back files that were essentially noiseless using ISO 100.
While Adobe ACR works well on Phase One 45+ files, yielding neutral colors and high sharpness, Capture One (the RAW conversion software created by Phase One for a wide range of camera raw files) renders files that are breathtaking. Fine detail is more translucent while color is rendered with a more lifelike differentiation in tonality and subtlety. But whatever your software choice for massaging your files you need to be ready for a totally different computing experience than you’ll likely have with something like a Nikon D3 file. The Phase One files are huge once they are opened and operations that appeared seamless on my Intel processor Mac machine move a good bit slower with the Phase One files whether in ACR or Capture One.
Bottom Line: There were no stumbles with the holistic Phase One system. The camera is quite fluid and its operation becomes second nature within minutes of use. The lenses are as good and as varied as any available for any of the other systems. There is the added benefit of a decade and a half of lens development which means more choices at more price points. The back is well behaved and plays quite well with the body. And the Capture One software is the component that brings all the other pieces together and raises them to the next level. In fact, Capture One is so good I now find myself using it with my Nikon files instead of the visually splendid but very interfaced challenged, Nikon Capture NX.
Would I buy the system? If I were in the market for a medium format system I would consider the Mamiya/Phase One option for several reasons. First, the open nature of the system is wonderful. An entry level professional could opt for a lower priced system from Mamiya with the intention of moving up to one of Phase One’s better backs as his or her business grows. Second, the feeling of integration makes the camera and back a joy to shoot. It actually harkens back to the golden days of film when one could shoot more and think less about technology.
Who Needs A Medium Format Digital System? Many argue that today’s 21 and 24 megapixel cameras are “good enough” but nothing in the 35mm style comes close to equaling the look you get with the increased real estate of the Phase One sensor and the way larger format lenses “draw”. This camera and back combination is the perfect match for any photography that requires very high production value or loads of detail. In closing, this system (and its direct competitors) is the antidote for “good enough”. It renews and supports our commitment as artists to aim for perfection. Even if the only audience that really cares is ourselves!
Kirk Tuck is a corporate photographer in Austin, Texas who also writes books about photography. His first book, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, has been a best seller since its publication. His second book on Studio Photography Techniques is due out in the Spring of 2009, and he is currently hard at work on a third book about which he is very secretive.……..