I recently had the opportunity to use a Phase One IQ160 and Phase DF+ camera system. I wanted to get an idea of how the 60 megapixel files would compare to other cameras on the market so I also worked with a Canon 5D Mark III, a Nikon D800, a Sigma DP2 Merrill, and a Fuji XE-1. Not surprisingly, the Phase One back came out on top with regard to image quality and dynamic range. What might surprise you is what camera came in second. The small, compact Sigma DP2 Merrill produced dizzingly sharp files with great color rendition and saturation. These two cameras produced better looking images than the other three in the field. The Sigma’s dynamic range is more limited, however. The Nikon and Canon cameras ranked third and fourth respectively with the Fuji bringing up the rear. Not that that is a bad spot to be. The Fuji has a APS-C sensor compared to 35mm full frame sensors in the Canon and Nikon. No camera in this unscientific test produced bad images. I would rate all the images as being quite respectable in terms of sharpness and overall quality. All of the cameras produced usable files.
The overriding factor in doing this test was to see what advantages users of medium format digital backs have over the rest of us who have relied on 35mm digital sensors for the past decade. The answer is quite a lot. Back in the day, wedding photographers and other people who needed higher quality images relied on medium format film as the gold standard. When digital cameras came into the mainstream a decade ago, most photographers abandoned medium format film in favor of the ease of use of digital technology. When medium format digital backs came into being, most of us did not make step up due to the high cost. Unfortunately, we may have sacrificed our standards to some degree. For the past decade, the fine detail in wedding dresses, landscapes, and architecture has largely been rendered as blobs by 35mm sensors. Yet we as photographers did not complain since our clients had largely ignored the loss of quality in return for the convenience and immediate gratification digital sensors could provide.
Medium format digital backs have changed that equation recently, however. Pictures are rendered in stunning detail and the dynamic range of the sensors is unparalleled. The fine detail that is capable of being captured is truly stunning. Compared side by side, the clarity and sharpness of the files is readily apparent. The good news is that all the cameras produced good to very good images.
To conduct the test, I photographed Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, the Denver Botanic Gardens, and also shot models in a wedding fashion shoot in studio. I was able to check out a Phase One DF+ camera and IQ160 back along with a 28mm, 55mm, 80mm, 110mm, and 75-150 zoom. I used a Nikon D800 with a 24-70m zoom, a Canon 5DMKII with a 24-70mm zoom, a 70-200 2.8 IS II, and a 24mm TSE II. I used a Fuji XE-1 with the 18-55mm zoom and a Sigma DP2. Since the Sigma has a fixed 30mm (45mm equivalent) lens, I tried to shoot a number of pictures as close to 45mm as I could on all the cameras. I used Capture One 7.0 to convert RAW files except for the Sigma. Sigma Photo Pro must still be used to convert the RAW files. I then enlarged several of the photos on screen and compared them side by side. I then cropped the photos and saved the files seen below.
Crop of images shot with Phase One 645 DF+ and IQ160
Crop of images shot on Canon 5D MKIII
Crop of images shot on Nikon D800
Crop of images shot on Sigma DP-2 Merrill
Crop of images shot on Fuji XE-1
First, my impressions of the Phase system were mostly positive. Anyone who has used a Mamiya 645 system will find the controls very familiar. Phase acquired Mamiya several years ago and the Phase body is largely a rebranded Mamiya 645AF II or III. There have been minor improvements to the controls and autofocus, but it is largely the same camera. This is both good and bad. It is easy to use but autofocus remains an on and off proposition. I found myself reverting to manual focus on several occasions because the camera hunted to focus. It also missed focus on a few shots (front or back focus) when I left it in autofocus. This is not ideal since I was shooting in a studio. Phase has promised a completely revised body in the near future so hopefully this situation is temporary. The set up time of the 645 system is also quite long. It takes approximately 10 seconds for the back to power up and be ready to shoot. This threw off my timing on more than one occasion. I was ready to shoot but the camera wasn’t. Once I figured out it was better to leave the camera on and not worry about battery life, this improved quite significantly. I didn’t misfire on nearly as many shots. The back takes just over a second to get ready between shots so it is not a device for rapid fire capture. In comparison to a Canon 1DX, it is a tortoise to Canon’s hare. But this camera simply isn’t designed to handle all shooting situations. This minor delay didn’t prove to be an issue in the studio setting or outside taking landscapes. If you need to bracket exposures for HDR or take pictures of moving subjects, the slow recycle time could become more of an issue.
The IQ back itself is very easy to use. At first, I thought I would be thrown off by the lack of symbols on the back. It has just four unlabeled buttons. But navigating through the menus is quite simple and I got used to the blank button interface quickly. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was how to use live view on my technical camera.
Editing RAW files has to be done in Phase One’s Capture One. Its layout is similar to Lightroom and the program is quite powerful. A number of edits can be made to files before exporting. I found myself lost on more than one occasion in using it at first but eventually I became familiar with the basic controls. A big thanks goes to Brian Muntz of Phase One for helping me through some of the finer points of the program. The nice thing about Capture One is that any number of files form other camera brands can also be edited in Capture One. The end results were very good. I found the resulting files to look just as good if not better than those produced in Lightroom.
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