Just Announced: PhaseOne IQ250, The Rise of CMOS

the all new just launched PhaseOne IQ250 medium format CMOS digital back

Its been common knowledge since the second half of 2013 that 2014 would be the year of medium format digital CMOS sensored cameras. It was announced on January 21, 2014 that Hasselblad was developing the H5D-50c, which they did giving Nikon D4s levels of detail about their product. To be fair, at least Hasselblad’s press release sounds like it was written by a person (unlike Nikon’s)…who was rushed. And now we see why that is, as was uncovered via info within Photoshop CC , which peaked the interest of many (okay well at least myself).  Hasselblad, currently only has a sensor for their CMOS camera, though they have not developed a fully functioning digital back. Their announcement was basically that they have conducted research into CMOS and will eventually be producing a product. PhaseOne has countered with the announcement of their IQ250 CMOS MFDB, based on the same Sony made 50mp 1.3x crop CMOS medium format digital sensor, which is now in production and will be shipping on Monday, January 27, 2013.


You can check out information about the new PhaseOne IQ250 in a series of videos launched today along with the product. 

First lets look at some of the knowns between the PhaseOne and Hasselblad versions. Aside from the fact that PhaseOne actually has a production digital back and Hasselblad doesn’t, we come to the issue of live view. In the Hasselblad press release they already state that their live view will be coming through the live video feature of their Phocus software and not be available through the digital back. Where as PhaseOne’s IQ250 CMOS digital back will be an improved version of the live view feature already available on the IQ series. Currently, on backs like my PhaseOne IQ180 the CCD based sensor is not the best for live-view, though in good lighting conditions it works relatively well, though the refresh rate is still relatively slow.  However, with the IQ250 there is an improved refresh rate thanks to the CMOS sensor, which provides a refresh rate between 20-24 frames per second, with very low latency. Of course the improved ISO sensitivity of the sensor means that it will perform much much better in weak lighting (and apparently better in high-contrast and bright light as well. This could be very helpful, especially with view cameras but we will get to that.

The IQ series have great rear screens. We all know that, and I have always felt that the quality of live-view did not do justice to the quality of the screen that the IQ series has. This is simply an affect of having milked the CCD technology to allow some semblance of live-view. Which as we have said, has some merits but also could be vastly improved in the medium format arena.

Further the IQ250 will feature an improved CPU and RAM to handle the extreme data load of the 20-24 FPS refresh rate (this is not to be confused with the shutter of the camera which will still be the ~1.x FPS that is currently is). This could help when inserting big cards into the camera (which you may want to do now if you are planning on shooting a time-lapse with the greater flexibility of this platform).  Personally, I like big cards. Especially when I am out for a day of shooting I much prefer to keep a backup card or two in my pocket but not much more then that. With cards larger then 32GB my PhaseOne IQ180 and other PhaseOne digital backs take a little while to start-up when using 64GB cards and up. Especially when I’m shooting my Mamiya 300mm f/2.8 APO and Mamiya 500mm f/4.5 APO (i.e a nature / wildlife setting) this can sometimes be annoying. Consequently I tend to just leave the camera on which then hurts battery life. This is something else which the IQ250 promises to improve.

One of my first thoughts when I learned about this project was that it would be an absolute drain on the digital backs power supply. However, I have been told that this is not true since apparently CMOS sensors are much more efficient energy users, which could make this really great, and possibly a boon.

One of the main uses of live-view on the CCD based IQ series cameras (all of them up until this point) has been for focusing and composition when using technical cameras. Since its more efficient (and safer) to leave you back on the camera, if you want to precisely focus you would generally look to ground glass on your large format camera. Since technical cameras were spawned by medium format digital backs, while most feature some small ground glass attachment, it is not practical on a number of levels. Foremost of these being that you don’t want to be taking on and removing your expensive medium format digital back in the field. Thus PhaseOne’s CCD based live-view was a great thing. However, I have been told that the Sony based 50mp MFD sensor in the IQ250 (and the Hasselblad H5D-50c) has very strong microlenses on the sensor, which will be a problem when shooting wide-angle lenses and when utilizing camera movements. This will undoubtedly be upsetting to some since the improved live-view sounds great on paper for technical cameras. I will report back once I have gotten to use a IQ250 on this issue.

Image showing PhaseOne's IQ series open platform on Hasselblad V-series cameras like the 500EL (pictured) and 503CW, Mamiya RB67 / RZ67, Contax 645, Hasselblad H1, H2 and H4x as well as the PhaseOne / MamiyaLeaf 645DF platforms latest iteration the 645DF+

Moving on from live-view we come to the elephant in the room. ISO range. As we have all whispered about a CMOS medium format digital sensor for a few years now we have all talked about the endless possibilities of the increased ISO performance of CMOS over CCD. It seems that the IQ250 will feature excellent ISO performance, which is said to be usable up to the top of its range at ISO 6400. Of course, as of yet I cannot comment on this, however I can say that it will be very interesting to see where this goes. My general rule for medium format digital back ISO range usability is you take the top number and subtract to stops from it. So if the back is rated to ISO 6400 then the usable ISO would end at 1600. This isn’t a bad thing, it just seems to be a universal fact of life that I have discovered. In fact this is a good thing since backs like the my IQ180 and the IQ2 series top out at ISO 800 at full-resolution and ISO 3200 in sensor+ mode. It seems that the IQ250’s lauded ISO range obviates the need for sensor+ in a CMOS PhaseOne back.

Another improvement on paper of the IQ250 is that it should feature very good long exposure performance. It is rated to the same 1-hour max long exposure as the PhaseOne IQ260 which is currently class leading for a 60mp medium format digital back, and now the IQ250 looks to set a new standard. While it does not feature a longer “max” exposure time, it looks to improve noise performance at all ISO’s. Thanks to the IQ250’s assumed high-ISO performance long exposure times will be able to be dropped increasing the chances of getting usable results by decreasing sensor heat which generates noise in long-exposures. The most important addition that goes hand in hand with this is the ability to do long exposures at all ISO’s. For the long exposure mode the IQ260 raised the base ISO from ISO 50 to ISO 140. With the IQ250 you will be able to shoot long-exposure pushing an 1 hour with the full ISO range of ISO 100-6400.

Other then these (major) improvements this medium format digital back is typically PhaseOne sitting in their industry leading IQ series body and featuring the same great firmware etc. Also coming soon will be some firmware improvements (available to IQ2 series backs, and IQ1 series backs as well). This features, moveable guides on the digital back for composition purposes, which is a nice touch and will make live-view composition that much better on the IQ250. Also coming to IQ2 series and possibly the IQ1 series is GPS logging via the iOS Capture Pilot app. This last feature sounds cool, but again I see some problems with it. Namely battery life, whenever you ask the IQ series digital backs to do anything beyond taking pictures (i.e Live-view or wireless tethering) it sucks an incredible amount of battery. I have also found that the Capture Pilot app is very battery intensive as well. So as far as I can tell this feature will not only drain your MFDB batteries but it will also drain your cell-phone’s batteries since not only will you be using the Capture Pilot app but you will also be accessing and updating GPS information constantly. Of course, they may have implemented some amazing new system, which makes this a non-issue, but I doubt it personally. Still it’s always nice to have more features available, and I certainly wouldn’t ask for less in a system like this. And for a digital camera costing tens of thousands of dollars there should be as many features provided as are humanely possibly that could possibly be useful.

Hopefully I will be getting my hands on this back to play with very soon, and of course I will report back with my thoughts along with RAW and sample images for your pleasure.

If your interested in this digital back you can head over to my PhaseOne dealer of choice Digital Transitions to read more information on the PhaseOne IQ250 medium format CMOS digital back and get pricing and trade-in info here: http://www.digitaltransitions.com/blog/dt-blog/phase-one-iq250-11-things-to-know

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