PhaseOne IQ180, a love story
When writing a review about the highest resolution consumer camera in the world, it is really hard to come up with a good opening. There really isn’t anyway to get around it, this camera is, as of the writing of this review the best camera in the world*.
Of course there is the caveat that this is a full-frame sensor sized medium format digital back, it is very different from any other type of camera. You can’t expect to get high-resolution images of sports or fast moving wildlife; the autofocus speed isn’t there. You also cant expect great high ISO performance, if you want that, then you should get a D3s like I have, which would also cover the first condition.
PhasOne 645DF Camera Body
This camera is the best not only in terms of resolution, but also in terms of optics, ergonomics and functionality. The optics are superior Schneider Optics which have been specially designed for the PhaseOne 645DF. Not only are they made to a higher standard then the Mamiya lenses (still not anything to be scoffed at) and they also have leaf shutters, which allows for higher shutter speeds with strobe or off camera lighting. Ergonomically, I believe that the PhaseOne 645DF is far superior to the other widely used systems, the Hasselblad H series (currently H4 and H4X) and the Sinar/Rollei/Leaf Hy6 which apparently people use. Of course there are other cameras out there including the Hasselblad V series (most modern being the 503CW) and slightly older systems like the Contax 645 system (which has autofocus and vertical grip and most comparable in terms of accessories but no longer made). Again, this is only counting cameras, which are Medium format Digital Back DSLR’s meaning they have a mirror box, and removable digital backs. So this analysis excludes the Leica S2 and Pentax 645D, if you are interested in these cameras, you can read extensively about the Leica S2 here, and in brief about the Pentax 645D.
It is true, the PhaseOne 645DF camera body, is most similar to a 35mm DSLR, in terms of feel, form, and functionality. It feels good to hold, it feels sturdy, albeit plastic, and you wouldn’t feel terribly out of place picking it up coming from professional grade DSLR’s since the control scheme is fairly straightforward and similar. The shape of the PhaseOne 645DF body has every element that a 35mm DSLR body would have. It has a flash sync input, cable release input, and tripod screw mount. The On/Off function of the camera is achieved by placing the dial around the shutter in the (L) position, meaning lock. Now interestingly, here, there is also an (S)(C) and (M.UP) option. The (S) is, single shot, the setting that you will most often use. (C) Is the continuous setting that lets you blast away at 1fps with the IQ180 (smaller resolution backs are faster but not significantly.) I like the positioning of the Mirror up function on this camera. On others it is sometimes hidden, or slightly confusing to find, however here it is right on the dial and easily and quickly accessible. If you do not know what Mirror up means, it is a way of decreasing shutter vibration when making exposures. The difference wont really be noticed or significant until you get below 1/30 of a second and are invariable on a tripod. This means it is mostly for work where the highest resolution and focus is desired, like Landscape, Architecture or reprographic work. Normally, in an SLR, when you release the shutter, the mirror box goes up, the shutter opens (shutter speed), the sensor is exposed, and then the shutter is closed and the mirror reset. When the mirror is up, this is the time that you cannot see through the viewfinder. This is the step that mirror up takes away. It is very difficult to control the vibration of the mirror moving so quickly. In Mirror up, the first time the shutter is pressed the mirror goes up but the shutter remains closed. This means at this point, you cannot compose through the viewfinder, which means you must have pre-focused and all that. Then the second press of the shutter will open the shutter (you will notice this is significantly quitter because there is no mirror going up and always remember, sounds is vibration…) and then after the exposure has finished it will close itself. This significantly reduces shutter vibration, which will be especially noticeable with finely focused subjects and an 80mp digital sensor, which is not very forgiving. Adding another degree of separation from the camera and vibration, the very good Mamiya/PhaseOne shutter release is a must accessory.
Vertical Grip (V-Grip AIR)
One of my favorite features of this camera is that is the first PhaseOne camera to be offered with a vertical grip. This is something I sorely missed with my Hasselblad H, and envied about the Contax 645 and Leica S2. When deciding on what camera system to finally purchase, it came down to the Leica S2 and PhaseOne IQ180 with 645DF body. I did not consider the Contax, even though it fit the requirement of a vertical grip because its not longer made or supported so really, there won’t be anything new for it ever (until the impossible project decides that the world sorely misses it or something). In the end the price of a Leica S2 system, coming in close to the cost of upgrading to the IQ180, was not justifiable because the Leica sports a 40mp sensor and the PhaseOne is rocking a 80mp sensor. One of they key things I considered was the vertical grip, since it something I use quite a lot on my D3s. The PhaseOne V-Grip Air, not only allows you to add an extra battery (same as the back but can be used to power the body as well if your AA’s fail) but also has a Profoto Air remote built into it. This means when using equipped Profoto lights, you have can trigger the lights without needing to use a Pocketwizard or other trigger. When I discuss the back, I will have a more in-depth decision about my process for deciding on the PhaseOne.
Honestly, there really isn’t that much else to say about the PhaseOne 645DF camera body. It should be noted that it is very similar to the Mamiya 645AFD (I, II, and III) in form and basic functionality. Some noted differences include a more robust construction as the option to use Leaf shutter lenses, which is not available with the older Mamiya 645AFD camera. The PhaseOne 645DF is the perfect camera for anyone wishing to do portraiture, landscape and some other types of photography. The great thing about the modular design of PhaseOne (and leaf, and some Hasselblad’s) camera system is that you can remove the digital back and mount it on various other technical cameras for higher precision as well as complex tilt shift abilities.
Lenses (Schneider-Kreuznach 80mm f/2.8 LS D, Mamiya 120mm f/4 Macro MF D and others)
What is a camera without its lenses? Pretty depressing actually, you just get blurry pictures of the colors of a scene if you’ve ever tried it, anyway lenses really matter, and with 80mp you can tell the difference. Lenses designated by a “D” somewhere in their title, are inherently better then those without this moniker. Examples of these are the Schneider-Kreuznach leaf shutter lenses, the 75-150mm, 120mm Macro D, and some others. These lenses were designed with digital backs in mind (not just for film backs) and you an really notice the difference. The camera body kit, comes with the Schendier 80mm LS, and this lens is absolutely perfect. It is built to high quality German optical specifications. This lens is solid rubber and metal, unlike many of its Mamiya cousins. The 80mm is the most similar to a 35mm full frame camera’s 50mm lens. Consequently, this lens could possibly be the only lens you ever need if you want superior optical performance as well as a fast aperture (for medium format anyway). There are also 55mm, 110mm, and new 150mm variants of leaf shutter lenses, that I do not doubt are stellar optically.
An interesting feature of note, and one I was negligibly unaware of, was it’s focus confirmation. I had assumed that when using a manual focus lens on the camera, like with the still produced Mamiya/PhaseOne 120mm f/4 Macro MF D and the popular 80mm f/1.9 C lens, or the 25mm Fisheye lens, you had to do your best using the focusing screen and viewfinder which would generally be inconvenient. However, two details that I neglected were that of course, the MF lenses, were purpose built to be manual focus (not to the same standards, but a similar concept of Leica’s M lens focusing mechanism), which makes lenses like the 120mm f/4 Macro MF D a pleasure to use. But also, the focus confirmation feature makes these manual focus lenses quite usable. Within the viewfinder, three symbols will appear. (>) and (o) and (<) to determine whether you are focused in front of, perfectly, or behind what the AF system would have focused on. This makes it quite easy to use these lenses on the PhaseOne 645DF body. Also, it should be noted especially with the 120mm f/4 Macro MF D, which the lens extends quite a bit when you are focusing close. Of course, this is similar to a bellows system, in that it extends and closes to change the focus and the lens elements distance from the film plane allowing close focus. If you are coming from Nikon macro lenses, like the 105mm f/2.8 Macro-Nikkor you will not be used to this side of the equation, however you will be aware of the changing minimum aperture (as the lens internally focuses, changing distances and lessening light). As the distance of lens elements, changes in relation to the film or digital sensor (Think other lenses like the Zeiss 100mm f/2 Macro), there is a fall off of light, which is why the minimum aperture will change, to effectively compensate for this with the meter. The 120mm f/4 Macro MF D lens offered from Mamiya and PhaseOne is a latest generation lens designed for digital photography (hence the “D”) designation. It produces wonderful images that are quite sharp and has no noticeable CA or diffraction in the situations I have tested it in (Albeit limited so far).
Also this lenses is superbly built, it has been pointed out to me, that a lot of the lenses are built out of metal, some particular examples of this are the Mamiya 105-210mm f/4.5 and the 35mm f/3.5 D lens which incorporate significant metal construction into their designs. However a lot of the other lenses I own, while still having metal barrels, tend to feel a bit plastic-y and overall like normal Nikon lenses instead of superiorly built Hasselblad or Leica lenses. However the Mamiya 120mm f/4 Macro MF D is amazingly well built, and heavy in the hand. You know you are holding a good lens when you hold it. You can feel the optical elements in it and know that this lens has been well built.
**Note about the Mamiya 105-210mm f/4.5 ULD**
This lens, has been produced for a number of years now, and it has been, because it is well built, well designed lens, comprising Ultra-Low Dispersion (ULD) elements, allowing for superior resolving power when combined with digital backs. The lens was originally released, to work with Mamiya’s 645AFD (i, ii, iii) cameras, this lens requires slight modification to work with the Mamiya/PhaseOne 645DF camera body. Since some of the contacts have changed between the Mamiya AFD and 645DF, to allow this lens to work with the 645DF, you must send it back to Mamiya to be upgraded. This upgrade, is relatively inexpensive being about $250, which to modify a $3400 lens which I purchased, new for less, from my dealer Camera Wholesalers in Stamford, CT all and all not a bad proposition.
Without this upgrade, the contacts will not fully touch, and you will receive, at best intermittent aperture control, and not autofocus what so ever. Making this lenses useless to use without the upgrade.
PhaseOne IQ180 Digital Back ~ Build
This is of course the most important, and equivalently priced, part of a PhaseOne 645DF camera system. This is where all the money is, and what really matters. The stunning, full frame 80mp sensor in this digital back, at times, defies words. However, I will do my best to address some important parts of it.
PhaseOne has been one of the biggest innovators in digital medium format photography. Leica has even adapted their iconic 4-button layout for their S camera system. I personally, as many others do as well, use Leica as a benchmark for quality in photographic imaging. They are iconic, recognized by everyone whether they know a lot about photography, or only the most cursory knowledge. Most people who also know that Leica is known for their minimalistic, simplified, and streamlined design. In this case, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and a major compliment to PhaseOne’s design team to be emulated by Leica, instead of the other way around. This does not happen often and should be noted as a unique and important event.
Of course, the elephant in the room, is that this camera has a TOUCHSCREEN. Yes, Leaf has had touchscreens for a while, but IN MY PAST EXPEREINCES, they have been less then acceptable for my purposes. PhaseOne however has introduced a scree, that rivals an iPhone retina display in quality and functionality. Of course, this is what PhaseOne keeps touting about the IQ series, and I can definitively say that this is true. While it does not have as complex a multi-touch system of the iPhone, its quality and speed of functionality are superior. The menu system is for the first 20 minutes a little disorienting. This is because some of the functions are controlled through scrolling and touching gestures, while others are run through the hard buttons on the camera. But, within the first half hour, you will have mastered this system and it will be second nature.
The screen. The screen is bright and responsive. Using your finger on it is a breeze and everything happens when you click it, no lag, or significant load time. If you have used a PhaseOne P+ back or Hasselblad back, you know that when you press buttons on the back, things happen immediately. This is what happens, and this is the way that it should be. The screen is miles ahead of other digital medium format back screens, which are generally atrocious, or at least not relative to their cost. I would go so far as to say, it is one of the best screens on any professional camera right now (including 35mm DSLR but not consumer P&Ss’ and m4/3 cameras which I don’t know enough about to comment on).
Other then this, the back is built like a tank. As I previously commented on the build quality of the Mamiya 120mm f/4 Macro MF D, in that you know it has presence when you hold it, the same applies to the IQ180 digital back. It is a solid chunk of metal. Nothing on it feels flimsy, and it’s a stunner aesthetically. All metal construction with no holes or anything for fans or such sticking out (making it better for some outdoor applications where there might be sand, salt, or water if you ask me). The battery cover, and the door where you insert the CF card are also made of metal, and feel quite sturdy.
Also, just a side note of something I found entertaining….the back comes with a cover, for if you take it off your camera to switch it to another or whatever. This cover for the digital back, feels like a blast door. When it is on the camera, it feels as if it couldn’t be pried off if you had industrial strength tools. Of course this is what you expect, when this is your last line of defense between the outside world and your precious sensor. Now, of course there is a glass over in front of the sensor, so there is a chance that only this would be scratched or damaged, but even this costs like $3500 dollars or more to replace. Suffice it to say, you don’t want this getting scratched at all and PhaseOne does a wonderful job of providing you with the means to protect your back.
PhaseOne IQ180 Digital Back ~ Performance and Image Quality
Amazing. Simply amazing. I have posted in the past, my thoughts on the PhaseOne P65+ and Hasselblad H4D-50, and this back obviously trumps that. Now the PhaseOne P65+ is also a full frame back, I believe the H4D-50 is not full frame (again I could be slightly wrong). While this fact isn’t a direct commentary on the image quality of the sensor, it does directly effect the effective focal lengths of the lenses; just like on DSLR’s crop factor must be taken into account with most digital backs except these and a few others. It allows for wider wide angles, and the proper focal lengths, which in most situations is desirable. Exceptions to this are some sports and nature applications where you want to get closer to the subject. But then again you probably wouldn’t be using medium format for these applications, so it is indeed better to have focal lengths be what they say they are.
A full frame, medium format digital sensor, is quite large. Which means that it will have improved dynamic range, particularly over smaller sensor-ed digital cameras (think m4/3 and 35mm). While straight OOC it is possible that empirically some of the results when comparing dynamic range in terms of color are similar, as you starting beating up your files in post/Photoshop, you will see the difference. You will see that a lot of what has happened to smaller files has been things the camera changed, in terms of saturation and what not which effect color. Seeing the colors that an 80mp file is capable of producing, straight OOC, but also with some gentle massaging is truly amazing.
Something else, which should be noted, is the amount of light and detail it captures. A comparably exposed image taken with say my Nikon D3s and the IQ180 would look fairly similar in terms of exposure. However, if I start to futz with levels or something, you will see I can bring back incredibly large amounts of detail from in particular shadows, but highlights as well, which on a smaller sensor would not have been recorded. While you should always attempt to do as much right in camera as possible, this is one of the elements which allows for greater flexibility when fixing/editing.
The elephant in the room, in terms of performance, is of course having 80mp of cropping flexibility. While, again this shouldn’t be your primary motive for using a camera like this, you do have the incredible ability to take a picture, crop it and still be able to print huge files. Of course a 50% crop will retain 40mp and this can be done 2-3 more times and still have an acceptably sized file, which will still out resolve a 10mp camera (assuming you cropped it to 50% its size 3 times). The extra detail an IQ180 file will hold, allows it to endure even more abuse, when put through something like Perfect Resize 7 (formerly Genuine Fractals) as you can see in my review of the Hasselblad 300mm f/4.5 HC lens on my H3Dii-39ms and the PhaseOne P65+ on Hasselblad H. The flexibility provided in all forms is definitely a selling point for these high-resolution medium format digital cameras.
PhaseOne IQ180 Digital Back ~ ISO and Long Exposure
Traditionally, medium format digital backs have had poor ISO performance. This is the second point of irony in medium format digital, beyond the previously unanimous presumption of god-awful screens. However more recent cameras have greatly improved this. The PhaseOne P65+ was ok, not exceptional but not god-awful. The H3Dii-39ms wasn’t usable above ISO400 and the H4D-50 had similar results to the P65+ in terms of noise, while exhibiting other shortcomings. My personal favorite, was the Leica S2 which I felt had pleasant results at almost all of its ISO’s while of course the higher end was less usable, it was still useable for certain applications, where the aesthetic of grain can be accepted (See this Flickr Gallery for Leica S2 ISO Samples).
The IQ180, preforms nice with high-ISO’s as well as long exposures of up to 1 minute (its recommended maximum). I tested both of these in my IQ180 Astrophotography Flickr set. At this point in time, I had a sever chest virus and some other ailments which precluded me from leaving the house. So I had someone else take my camera, and tripod outside for me (which I was incapable of carrying independently) because I had read a Luminous Landscape forum post about people and their results doing it, and it seemed like good fun. The results were not surprising. Straight out of camera, all ISO’s were usable, while of course the last two stops of ISO are the worst of the series. Now, with the P+ series of backs, PhaseOne introduced one technology, which changed ISO on medium format digital greatly. Their proprietary Sensor+ technology, allows for the utilization of the full sensor, at a smaller resolution, in the case of the IQ180, 20mp and it consequently extends and improves the ISO range and performance. The range is extended to 3200, meaning that 3200 and 1600 are less acceptable with ISO’s before that being very nice. Sensor+ is really only important for the higher ISO’s, although I believe it goes down to 400, and possibly 200 because you can get an increased capture rate, when asking the camera to process less data per image file.
Backs like PhaseOne’s P45+ have long exposure times rated at 1 hour, which is quite long. However, for whatever reason, which I cannot explain, but yet sort of makes sense conceptually, is that this is not possible with the cutting-edge IQ180, whose recommended for best results longest exposure is 1 minute. Now usually this is no problem, because even if you want to make waterfalls silky smooth, you typically don’t need over a minute. And if you desperately need more, then you’ll just have to sacrifice some megapixels. My tests, consisted of using the camera continuously over about a 12 minute period of time doing exposures from 10 seconds to 60 seconds in rather cold New England weather. When using a camera for an extended period of time, especially for long exposures, where the sensor is active for long periods of time, the sensor can get got. This will cause heat spots, and possibly lateral banding (although simply poor high ISO performance can be directly attributed to this phenomenon) of images. These will effect Long exposure images, although they are correctable. For heat spots, you can take a “dark slide” which consists of placing your lens cap on your lens, and making an exposure. This will only record the heat spots because no other light will hit the sensor. Then, in post, you can transpose these two images and cancel out the heat noise.
In my tests, the least desirable effect caused by the camera was lateral banding. I attribute this, to what I have said about, being a combination of extended use in a difficult (all is relative) fashion for the sensor and short comings in high ISO performance. However, in post, I found that using levels it is possible to simply get rid of all of this noise, and what not when making the sky black, which is what I did in one of the images. This way the only things visible are the points of light (starts) that you recorded, which I like, since I was photographing a constellation (Orion’s belt) and not trying to contextualize it with interesting foreground elements.
I’m pleased by the high ISO performance, and not bothered by the short-long exposure time, which isn’t usually an issue for my shooting style. Usually I wont ever have an exposure longer then 30 seconds, while 99% of the time I don’t drop below 1/30 of a second.
Where to Purchase?
Deciding where to purchase your medium format digital camera system, is actually an important decision you have to make, because you are not just buying a camera; your are buying service as well. Various companies offer various levels of service with the purchase of a camera from them. Initially, I had done some basic web searching, and had found Digital Transitions in NYC. I e-mailed them and dealt with Jeff Lin, who was very good about answering questions, and in the end, making the deal. PhaseOne as a whole is very good about converting to their system and offers very competitive upgrading options that Leica and Hasselblad do not. In fact, Hasselblad’s upgrade paths are downright awful. Also I’m pretty sure, that Leaf offers very similar options to PhaseOne for their cameras (go figure they are both owned by the same people). Anyway, if you have some other digital back, like a Hasselblad and say it was an H3Dii-39ms (yes, we are talking about me here), this is a 39mp back and consequently, you receive a 39% discount on the price of your new PhaseOne camera. Obviously, if you have an older but, high resolution back, this will amount to a significant gain over attempting to sell your camera on your own to fund a new purchase.
Digital Transitions, also offers 24/7 E-mail (and maybe phone?) support. Especially when starting out with the camera, you may have questions, and calling PhaseOne is not an option, when you buy a Mercedes, you don’t call Germany every time something goes wrong, you call your cars service department. And seeing how as the IQ180 costs more then a Mercedes-Benz C-Class (Sedan or Coupe) it is a fitting analogy. You really rely on your dealer; and Digital Transitions is not slouch. I have at times, e-mailed my sales representative with questions, which are promptly answered. They also have a support department, which is your main source for technical support with your camera or any of PhaseOne’s offers, whether it is Software or Lenses. They always respond quickly and in detail and are happy to hold your hand through whatever problem you may be experiencing. Digital Transitions, also offers a 2hr private lesson with your camera, where you can go over anything you want, whether it is with the camera, or PhasOne software. The latter, is what I wanted to focus on because, the Mamiya 645AFD is fairly similar to the 645DF in form and function. And the IQ180 is of course painfully simple, and not really something which needs much further understanding, that you wouldn’t receive by simply using it more. As a Photoshop CS5 Extended user, not a Lightroom user, I have a feeling that the switch to using Capture 1 in my post processing has been notably awkward. While I don’t plan to use it for my archiving and editing, I know it has more then the very simple things that I am doing with it and it is what I wanted to learn more about.
While not practical for the 99% of photographic enthusiasts, the IQ180 demonstrates the future and offers outstanding image quality. As DSLR’s gain larger chips, especially with the next round of DSLR’s likely to have sensors pushing 30+ megapixels, people question medium format digitals relevance in the perpetually and infinitely improving world of technology. However, there are things that matter more then megapixels, and medium format has quite a few of these. Chief among these attributes would be, to me dynamic range and flexibility. Medium format digital backs, don’t typically lock you into One body, One camera, One system. With the IQ180 it is possible to use your back on scores of technical (think Sinar or Arca-Swiss) and plate cameras (Think Alpa or Cambo) , not to mention other medium format systems (with adapter plates of course) like the Mamiya RZ/RB series of 6×7 cameras (cropped to 645 of course) or the Fuji GX680 series of cameras, all of which offer different styles of shooting and features, which some may want to use for various applications within their bodies of work.
Is it worth the investment? If you want, or need the best, yes. The IQ180 is the premier digital camera on the market today, until tomorrow when something new will come along and seize the throne and drag the then pathetic IQ180’s body through the streets. Of course, I jest, but the fact remains that technology is always improving and what is the best today, will be second best tomorrow, and even worse the day after that. However, some things can outlast this trend. The Nikon D3 is still a relevant camera, and the PhaseOne P65+ is still very much a capable and not obsolete. I believe, the IQ180 holds a certain place, in terms of ergonomics, built quality, functionality, and image quality which will remain capable for many years to come. Although, I’m sure I’ll still upgrade when something new comes out, but that is the Kool-aide I have drunk and it tastes goood
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Couple of unrelated side notes, all of these images were taken with my Nikon D3s and 105mm f/2.8G Macro shot at f/22 and 50mm f/1.4G at f/16 on a tripod, with the self timer. Then they were all processed through raw software and edited. Finally they were processed through JPEGmini ( http://www.jpegmini.com/main/home ) which I think is absolutely amazing, it can take a 6.2MB image and make it into a 450KB image with no significant loss of detail. For all intensive purposes it is exactly the same image, and it is very hard to tell the two apart, they are the same dimensions, resolution etc. The software is great, free, and entirely internet based. Definitely something useful to know about for when you are working on pictures to go online to decrease load times. And side note, it retains exif data if your curious.