Digital Transitions in New York recently loaned us a Phase One 100mp camera system to test out. Would the Phase One live up to the hype we’ve heard? We tested it in two types of typical on location shoots we do: automotive photography and lifestyle sports photography.
Phase One 100MP Review
We are always looking for ways to improve the photos we deliver to our customers, and to make new types of photos. We’ve been considering various alternatives to our normal Nikon and Canon SLRs. Don’t get me wrong, they work great, but they are rather … common.
Digital mirror-less doesn’t really offer anything new either, excluding the latest round of medium format mirror-less from Hasselblad and Fuji. Sure, crop frame mirror-less Fujis are nice and light, and Sony offers full frame mirror-less at the cost of ergonomics. But, at the end of the day they do pretty much what any SLR does, EVF not withstanding.
We are interested in trying something that could be a game changer, which 35 and smaller mirror-less cameras are not. Enter digital medium format cameras like the Phase One IQ3 100MP. We had a short window to test the camera so we set up 2 shoots: a high power Toyota Supra and a fitness model.
Beauty in the Details
The Phase One produces beautiful files with incredible range. Paired with Capture One (I’m a long time user), I could get away with just about anything other than missed focus. Is a test shot underexposed 5 stops? No problem. Just do +4 exposure (the max in C1) then 50 or 100 shadow recovery and another 50 in “brightness”. It is unreal what can be pulled out of the shadows… and the highlights.
And let us not forget about the resolution of the sensor and the lenses…
I thought culling and processing would be slow for a 100mp raw file. After all, the 24mp files from Josh’s 5DIII and the 36mp files from a D810 both take some time to scroll through and edit. I expected slow image processing, even with my SSD MacBook Pro. I was surprised when previews and adjustments took the same time as adjustments on 12mp D3s raw files. Phase One has done a spectacular job on Capture One. I knew it was good before this test, but coupled with a digital back’s it was crafted to support, it is magical. Capture One is tuned for the Phase One cameras perfectly.
One of the major advantages of medium format is leaf shutters. Without a long explanation, magic gnomes power leaf shutters. You can shoot at any speed the shutter can manage.
On the Phase, that means 1/1600s using regular old flash equipment. You can use the simplest radio trigger firing the dumbest light at any shutter speed. Suddenly you can dispense with all the shenanigans of various “high speed” systems, proprietary and expensive lighting setups. Gone are system specific flash systems.
You can use any cheap dumb flash you want while still opening the lens all the way up. You can shoot with shallow depth of field while dropping mid day ambient down to blue hour levels way easier than on focus plain shutters (like SLRs have) and without any complicated flash system.
Gumby in Camera Form
I’m a fan of flexibility. I hate making decisions I can’t reverse. Phase One’s IQ system seems to be made for those that can’t decide which type of photography they want to do.
Need a dSLR on steroids? Use the IQ body and back. Need the flexibility of a technical camera? Well, the back can go on beautiful camera “bodies” made by Arca Swiss and Alpa (among others). Want to do focus stacking or automated aerial photography mapping… There are modes for that too.
The IQ body and backs have a ton of specialized functionality built in allowing them to handle many special case work loads without having to fall back to accessories or hacks. Most of that flexibility wouldn’t come into play for us, but knowing it is there could allow us to go after work we might otherwise pass up.
Mystery Canned Goods
All that flexibility comes at a cost. Somewhere along the line I imagine a Phase One engineer said “wow, a completely re-configurable interface with no labels sounds cool!” Reality is a little more pragmatic though.
Yes, I figured it out quickly… mostly. And the re-configurable interface is certainly great if you want to take the time to build a setup for each way you shoot. But for me, I know I will never do that. The result is that basic things that every photographer does in every situation required way more effort than necessary. Changing ISO, white balance, aperture and shutter speed are all cumbersome.
This is an area where Nikon and Canon excel. Their cameras have been extremely consistent for decades. Their ergonomics are great and I can pick up almost any Nikon or Canon and within minutes shoot and adjust it without taking my eye from the view finder. The Phase simply doesn’t have that type of design included.
The use case for the Phase shouldn’t be making hundreds of photos an hour. The Phase would be terrible for shooting something like a trail race. High volume photography is where Nikon or Canon SLRs are the strongest.
Regardless, shooting with it was much slower than it needed to be because of the lack of a good physical interface. The flexibility is probably a huge advantage for some photographers, but not me.
While we are on the topic of ergonomics and usability, the Phase suffer from something a lot of smaller quantity products do. Phase One did not refine the design that well. There are metaphorical rough edges for usability. Rather than provide a laundry list of small annoyances with the design that all result in a less efficient shooting experience, I’ll point out one.
Phase One oriented the CF card door backwards. It hinges from the wrong side. The little lip on the CF card is right up against the door. The ejection button (at least on our loaner) didn’t pop the CF card out far enough to get a hold of directly. This seems minor until a subject is waiting for you to change cards and you can’t get the full one out.
It’s a minor thing, but it is a great example of how he higher volume manufacturers like Nikon and Canon make cameras that are such work horses. We never notice how right they do things like this until we use a camera that lacks that refinement.
The 800lb Gorilla in the Room…
I’m the sort of guy that walks around with a full size Nikon and a 70-200 2.8 at weddings. That is a heavy SLR setup. I don’t normally mind a heavy camera, but the IQ3 with the 35mm 3.5 lens was painful to carry. It was unbelievably heavy.
I realize this is a result of optics and physics so it isn’t Phase One’s fault. It is the result of pairing a fast(ish) wide angle lens (about 20mm equiv on a 35mm camera) to a full 645 size sensor. Optical glass is really heavy and there is a lot of it.
The weight is fine when paired with a more modest lens. I think the 110 f2.8 might have been my favorite, but the 80 f2.8 was also great. It is still no walk around camera compared to a 35mm camera even with the biggest fastest glass available.
What shooting style will the camera work for? Our style involves a lot of hiking and unusual camera positions while holding the camera. Heavy makes that hard. If you shoot portraits in a studio, the weight isn’t such an issue. Drive to a location and work in one spot all day on a tripod? Good too. Even for landscape where the camera can live in a backpack between shots (or better yet just have the back attached to a lighter tech camera instead of the IQ body), the weight isn’t such an issue. It’s all about how you use the system.
Not So Fast
Medium format SLR type cameras like the Phase suffer from being subject to the laws of physics. A medium format mirror is big. Swinging it up takes time. If you normally shoot on an SLR, then you will notice the lag. It is not a huge issue in a studio or posed shot situation.
Of course, we don’t normally do studio based photography. Our subject are frequently moving around and we are trying to catch moments. With a few tries I was able to adjust my mental timing to capture action at the point I wanted. The lag was consistent and not really that long. I got used to it with some practice.
Double tapping on fast action isn’t possible either. You take one shot per pass for action.
The camera uses 2 large batteries, one in the back and one in the body. When the batteries reached 50%, the camera usually stopped working. The real problem isn’t that you need full batteries, or even the comically low number of shots you can get out of each one. The real problem is that despite the indicator being above 0, the camera would just refuse to work.
Imagine a car running out of gas when the gauge registers half a tank. If there isn’t enough gas to move the car, then the tank is at empty, not half full no matter how much gas is left. If you need 50% power to work, then readjust your scale so 50% shows as 0%.
A photographer can always carry more batteries. They are expensive and heavy though. And, after using Nikon and Canon cameras with 1000+ frame battery lives, that is a change in thinking. You can not take power for granted when using this camera.
And now I have to address my least favorite things, poor reliability. I’ve heard it from other people, medium format digital isn’t reliable and I got to experience that first hand. The short battery life isn’t really an issue since this isn’t a camera for bulk work, but the mysterious work stoppages are.
At the end of our day we started getting a “Capture Error” on the control screen and weren’t able to get the camera working again. I’ve been told this was likely battery related and we were out of replacements. On a for fun shoot this isn’t a big deal.
But who has a $70k camera system to do for fun shoots? Seriously, I’m asking! I want to be their friend.
For those of us in the business world, this scenario is disastrous. If a client expects medium format I can’t simply get out a 35mm camera and finish the shoot. Now I need a second Phase One camera doubling the already substantial capital outlay.
I can count the number of times my Nikons have let me down on one finger… One. The shutter on my D3s failed after almost 2x it’s rated number of exposures. Even submerging my D700 didn’t stop it from working during that shoot even if I did have to get it serviced afterwards.
Without the confidence in the gear, I can’t charge for it. I can’t sell medium format if I can’t deliver it.
The Bottom Line
Would I buy one? That is a loaded question:
- If money were no object?
- If I only shot landscape photos?
- If I was a studio shooter mostly?
- To do some specialized stuff?
- As the photographer I want to be?
Despite the negative things above, the output files are spectacular and worth putting up with a system that isn’t perfect. This camera can do things that no other camera I’ve used can, bar none.
I’d buy one if I could find the money.
But, I’m unfortunately stuck in the pragmatic world of business where the overriding question is “can I make enough extra money to pay for it?”
That boils down to a chicken or the egg problem. If you have a Phase One and can build a portfolio of work with it, then you can use that portfolio to try to make money with the camera. But you can’t buy it to make that demo work until someone pays you enough to buy one. I just can’t make a 8x leap in gear cost from where I am now. I could literally buy 8 Nikon D5 bodies for the cost of the 100mp back, body and 3 lenses… That is a tough sell for most photographers.
My Favorite Images
Here are a few of our favorite images from our time with the Phase One:
The OVRKIL Supra
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.