My buddy Joe and I spent an afternoon at the beautiful Highlight Studio in Manhattan, New York with a small group of great photographers checking out the Phase One IQ250 digital back for the impressive Phase One camera systems. This event was put on by the good folks at Digital Transitions and featured a presentation by, and full day with, great photographer and all around good dude, Douglas Sonders who shared his thoughts, images, and stories of growing as a photographer and falling in love with medium format cameras and, specifically, why he settled on Phase One as his camera of choice.
We had a great model, Cari Funkhouser (awesome last name!) in house as our test subject for the day so we could test drive the camera and check out sharpness, color, resolution, and more..
There is plenty of technical information on the Phase One IQ250 and exactly how it works online and can be readily found. Despite all of this information, I was still having a difficult time understanding how this medium format stuff works and how it all fits together. What exactly is this “Digital back” you speak of? Is it the whole camera? Is it just the box attached to the back? What about the lens? How does that work? Is there a crop on the sensor? Is the sensor equivalent to a full frame DSLR in terms of 100mm being 100mm? I kept running into mental blocks and just wanted to get my hands on the camera system and try it and learn, first-hand, what all this nonsense was about. Enter: Digital Transitions (a Phase One partner) and their event in New York City.
In layman's terms, here’s the deal. You have three pieces to your Phase One: The digital back, the camera body, and the lens. The digital back is the sensor and the magic maker, the camera seems to basically be a lens holder with a shutter release on it, and the lens… well, duh, that’s the lens.
If you’re buying a Phase One you must purchase the digital back (the expensive part), the camera body (the less expensive part), and that usually includes an 80mm lens (worth about $3,000).
When I first picked up the camera I was impressed by the size and feel. It has a little weight, but nothing crazy. I want robust, I want tough, I want people to know I mean business when I show up to shoot. The cast and crew will no doubt know that you’re the big man in the room when you break out your Phase One.
I grabbed the 80mm f2.8 Schneider lens and turned the camera on our model. Immediately I noticed a very different viewfinder from what I am accustomed to in my Canon DSLR. Not bad; just different. Comfortable feeling and easy to use. I pressed the shutter and fired my first shot. Not bad, not bad at all. The sound is like the sound of a freshly cleaned battle rifle crisply chambering it’s first round before you unleash a torrent of hell on whatever poor sod is standing down range. I could almost smell gunpowder in the air. It was love at first sight and sound.
Then I checked the monitor to get a better look at what I shot. Out of focus; not blurry, just out of focus. I was shooting at f2.8 on a camera system that has a sensor cropped to something like 1.3x (when compared with a DSLR sensor) and I’d never used the camera before so growing pains are just going to be a part of this process, right?
I adjusted my aperture to f5.6 to give myself a better shot at nailing focus and adjusted my shutter appropriately. I focused the camera, recomposed, and shot again. Still it was out of focus. Here is when I learned that the Phase One only has three focus points, a big circle in the middle, and two rectangular shaped regions on each side. It is a breeze to select which area will be your focus region, but I would really love to have finer control of the focus because…
The aperture of these lenses is absolutely amazing!! f2.8 shoots like f1.2. It’s positively beautiful and amazingly versatile… if you manage to lock focus. At the end of the day I was never able to get even a sharp picture with the 80mm at anything less than f5. However when you shoot at f5 it’s sharper than a needle wearing a tuxedo and you still have the depth of a tradition DSLR lens shooting at closer to f3.5. Amazing-taculous. Still, I wanted f2.8 on that 80mm and I couldn't get it.
I grabbed the Schneider 110mm F2.8 Leaf Shutter (Google “Leaf Shutter”, it’s amazing as well) lens and stopped up to f2.8 and shot away. Wow! f2.8 and it was incredibly sharp! Focus is quick-ish and the lens is just beautiful. I turned to the Phase One guy and learned that I can trade the 80mm in and just get the 110mm for a couple thousand more instead of paying the standard $5,400 for this lens as a stand alone. My advice: If you’re buying this camera, get the 110mm Leaf Shutter lens. You have sharpness at f2.8 and it gets sharper and sharper and sharper from there. The most impressive 100% crop I’ve seen in my life, bar none.
I also played with the ramping up ISO to the newly flaunted ISO 6400 (typically ISO 400 was about as high as you could go if you wanted a usable commercial image on the older CCD sensors) and it performs admirably. Really you get usable stuff to about ISO 1600, but depending on application, ISO 6400 is absolutely usable as well. Impressive.
The camera tethers to Capture One flawlessly, it renders a preview of your image quickly and loads the larger resolution in the 100% chunks that you’re viewing so it all loads up quickly.
The camera is comfortable to hold, the UI is both beautiful and took me less than 30 seconds to figure out, in fact, I had never used this camera before and I helped at least a half dozen other folks set the camera, lock focus, change lenses, adjust ISO, preview and zoom into images on the retina, touch screen display on the IQ250 back, and just get started with the camera (I had only used the thing once!)
If they had better pin-point control on the focusing system I just may have walked out of that event having bought my very own Phase One flat-out. All things considered, the Phase One camera system is amazing and it is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ I will get one of these beasts of the photography world.