Ask photographers why they shoot film and you’ll inevitably hear some version of, “it forces me to slow down.” With demands on our time growing exponentially (that Instagram feed isn’t going to populate itself, you know), slowing down is undoubtedly a virtue.
The Phase One A-series is staking its claim to photography that is slow and deliberate. This isn’t a new product line so much as a new merger of two existing product families from Phase One and Switzerland’s Alpa. Phase One contributes three slightly modified IQ-series medium-format digital backs, including the CCD-based IQ260 and IQ280 and the CMOS-based IQ250. Alpa’s contribution is three lenses, including the Alpagon 23mm f/5.6, the Alpar 35mm f/4 and the Alpagon 70mm f/5.6, plus the TC12 Travel Compact body that connects the lens to the back. The result is a “mirrorless” medium-format camera system that’s quite compact.
The 35mm lens is included with any of the A-series backs, as is a rosewood grip, leather hand strap, sync cord, lens shade and several other extras. The 23mm lens will set you back $9,070 while the 70mm costs $4,520. Together with New Jersey-based director and photographer David Patiño we tested the A250 to see what life is like in the slow lane.
Phase One’s IQ250 back hasn’t changed dramatically in its transformation into the A250. You’ll still enjoy the groundbreaking 50-megapixel CMOS sensor with its 13 stops of dynamic range, native sensitivity range of ISO 100–6400, Wi-Fi and live-view.
What has changed is the firmware. It’s been updated with factory-calibrated lens cast calibration (LCC) profiles for each of the three A-series lenses. Calibrating and creating LCC profiles manually using Capture One can be a laborious process, involving shooting test images with the same shutter setting as the images you’ll want to correct for—meaning you may need to shoot several LCC test shots just to build the requisite bank of profiles. With the A250, applying a LCC profile is as simple as selecting your lens from the back’s menu or, if you prefer, from the updated Capture Pilot iOS mobile app.
Medium-format cameras aren’t necessarily photography’s pinup product, but the A250 series cuts a sharper figure than most. Without the bulky camera body, the A250 is comparatively compact and light. The build quality is, in Patiño’s words, “first rate.”
An included smartphone holder screws firmly into the top of the TC12 camera body and serves as a rotating viewfinder when using Phase One’s Capture Pilot app. It’s useful for framing even if live view isn’t terribly smooth when moving the camera.
While the wood handle and leather hand strap provide a nice grip, it’s not really a camera you’d shoot handheld much. That’s because the Alpa lens is completely mechanical—from focus to manually opening and closing the shutter. You’re usually better off with the camera on the tripod.
The imaging virtues of the IQ250 digital back are well documented, including in our own hands-on review (January 2014). The core engine is unchanged in the A250, though it becomes an even more potent tool when paired with the Alpa lens, which does an extraordinary job resolving even minute details.
Patiño used the camera to shoot several building interiors and landscapes and loved the massive dynamic range, which helped him pull details from scenes that would otherwise have been lost shooting with his DSLR.
As for optical imperfections, we found none. For fine art, landscape and architectural photographers, it’s the kind of exacting precision they’ll appreciate.
(© David Patiño)
As noted above, the A-series isn’t really about capturing that fleeting moment. By the time you’ve opened the shutter, rotated the knob for shutter speed, the dial for aperture, the ring for focus, confirmed your focus on a smartphone (or the 3.2-inch display), then closed your shutter, then and only then can you finally depress the shutter button and record your image. Working with the A250 is a study in deliberative composition, which narrows the range of applications it’s ideal for.
Fortunately, you can use the A250 back with any DF+ or new XF camera bodies and Phase One-compatible lenses when you want to speed things up.
When the news of the A-series first leaked online, many photographers saw the word “mirrorless” and undoubtedly thought, “inexpensive!” That’s decidedly not the case. At $47,000, the A250 is a bit more expensive than the sum of its parts, as you’re paying for the integration of the back and lens. Still, for those shooters who want the exacting quality afforded by the Alpa lenses with Phase One’s IQ back, there’s no substitute.
PROS: Factory calibrated lens profiles; excellent dynamic range; stellar image quality from IQ250 back; flawless optics.
CONS: Expensive; working with mechanical lens can be tedious; live-view on back slow to refresh.
(© David Patiño)
(© David Patiño)