When we hear the term “Big Data,” we’re used to thinking about web services and social networks vacuuming up our personal information for profitable insights. But digital photography is also an arena for Big Data. As photographers have long appreciated, the more data you can generate with your camera, the better your image can be.
Phase One is no stranger to generating and artfully processing immense amounts of photographic data. With the new IQ3 100MP medium-format back, they’ve upped the ante, delivering the industry’s first 16-bit, 100-megapixel medium-format CMOS sensor. The sensor was developed by Sony with significant input from Phase One. While it’s not exclusive to Phase One, the Danish company put its stamp on it and has the first crack at commercializing it.
We tested the IQ3 100MP back, XF camera body plus the new Schneider Kreuznach 120mm LS f/4 Macro and Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS f/2.8 lens in conjunction with New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño.
The IQ3 100MP is very much the flagship, boasting the best resolution, dynamic range and low-light sensitivity of any IQ back. Despite having twice as many pixels as the 50-megapixel CMOS back (IQ3 50MP), it nonetheless delivers a more generous ISO range of 50-12,800 compared to the 50MP’s 100-6400. The dynamic range is also rated better at 15 stops.
While you have the opportunity to siphon up immense amounts of color information with the IQ3 100MP, you’re not locked into 16-bit shooting. You can opt for a losslessly compressed 14-bit file (IIQ L) and a “near lossless” compressed 14-bit file (IIQ s) for speedier workflows.
Not quite as new, but still of recent vintage, is the XF camera body. The XF is a substantial overhaul of Phase One’s older 645DF body—and we mean substantial in every sense of the word. The back is physically heavier and sturdier outside with significantly upgraded electronics inside. It can measure and save a hyperfocal point for each lens you use for quicker access in the future. There’s also a new autofocus system dubbed HAP-1 (for Honeybee Autofocus Platform). HAP-1 can be updated and improved via software updates. Just as this review was going to press, Phase One announced new firmware that added new features to the XF camera and improvements to the autofocus system.
Given the incredible amount of detail the camera can resolve, even the most minute tremors can inject unwanted blur. To defend against this, the camera system has an electronic first curtain shutter, which is activated automatically when the camera is in mirror-up or vibration delay mode. If you’re still worried about unintended vibration, the XF camera body has a built in seismometer which gives you a visual representation of seismic activity in your area so you can wait to press the shutter when the very Earth itself is still and accommodating.
Ergonomically, the XF camera’s pronounced grip makes this large, 3-pound body easy to handhold. During his portrait sessions, which lasted roughly 30 minutes at a clip, Patiño tells us he had no trouble shooting handheld the whole time.
“It’s big, but it’s comfortable,” Patiño says. “It felt really well balanced, even with the 120mm on it.”
Every last dial and button on the exterior of the XF camera is programmable and also unmarked. It’s highly customizable, which is excellent, but can also be a bit disorientating at first and we imagine anyone renting the system may get tripped up initially.
One of the nice new touches on the XF camera is a top touch screen which fully duplicates all the camera settings accessible on the camera back. This top display isn’t fully touch-driven, so as you start to drill into the menu some functions can only be set using the external buttons. “Here and there I found myself trying to swipe at the touch screen and it didn’t work,” Patino says, but generally the touch interface made getting at the needed settings much more intuitive.
Unlike the XF camera body, the design of the IQ3 100MP camera back isn’t a radical revision from older models. It carries over the 3.2-inch touch screen and four exterior buttons that aid in menu navigation. It has Wi-Fi like the older models but adds an HDMI output for live view. Both the camera body and digital back accept the same battery and hot-swapping is supported.
We had just two weeks with the camera and Patiño used it extensively for studio portraits, including a personal project focused on beards, and some product photography. He shot using the 16-bit setting with RAW files that weighed in at roughly 123MB.
We weren’t surprised to see that the results were unbelievably sharp, but it was still a bit breathtaking to zoom in so aggressively and not see the image break apart. We zoomed deep into bearded faces, into darkened crevices which would be lost to cameras without the dynamic range of the IQ3 100MP. We literally split hairs—and the camera shone.
Both the skin tones and color reproduction were breathtaking. We compared the files both to images Patiño had captured for our earlier review of the 50-megapixel Leaf Credo back and even a few taken with Canon’s 50-megapixel 5DS. The difference between the Leaf Credo and the Phase One were evident, especially when it came to crisply resolving small details, but subtler. The contrast with the 5DS was starker—not simply in the sharpness and detail, but in the color reproduction. The IQ3 100MP’s colors were richer, warmer and more natural looking.
Switching from DSLR shooting, with its plentiful AF points, to the XF takes some getting used to. The XF Camera body has an AF surface area in the center of the image plane. This can be changed to cover a general area (the entire AF sensor) or a smaller center section of the AF sensor. Patiño tells us that even with the new Honeybee system in place, he had his share of AF misses, but on balance the system performed solidly.
Patiño shot tethered using Capture One and said he experienced less latency pushing through 100-megapixel images into Capture One over USB 3 than he did pushing his 50-megapixel Canon 5DS files into Lightroom. The live view experience on the back itself is still rather sluggish, but looking through the 90-degree prism viewfinder was startling, in a good way. It’s incredibly bright and covers just about the entire frame. (The system also accommodates a waist-level finder, which we didn’t test.)
The XF camera has a built-in trigger for Profoto Air-enabled flashes. It’s a neat feature for those, like Patiño, who shoot with Profoto strobes. However, you can only select a channel and trigger the strobes from the camera body—you can’t adjust the flash power. If you don’t use Profoto strobes, you’ll need an external trigger.
The IQ3 100MP is not the only CMOS-based system capable of creating huge files. Hasselblad’s (modestly) less expensive H5D-200c MS system shifts its 50-megapixel CMOS sensor by tiny increments to gather more color information to create the equivalent of a 200-megapixel image with huge, 400MB RAW files. While we haven’t tested the H5D-200c MS, similar sensor-shifting approaches employed by Pentax and Olympus have indeed produced images with more detail and less noise. But they also required completely still subjects (i.e. lifeless) and completely stable cameras, limiting their utility outside of shooting products in a studio setting.
If we had to sum up our experience with the IQ3 100MP and XF camera with a single phrase it would be this: attention to detail.
From the feature set and design choices to the quality manufacturing, this is a camera that doesn’t take its (steep) price tag for granted. The attention to detail extends to the quality of the images it produces—no detail or color nuance escapes its capture.
There’s unquestionably a lot of pressure on medium-format camera makers now that full-frame DSLRs and mirrorless systems have bumped up their resolutions and dumped their optical low pass filters. On the resolution front at least, the gap between DSLRs/mirrorless and medium format has been narrowing. With the IQ3 100MP, it’s been blown back open again. The camera is a new benchmark, pushing the resolution, dynamic range and overall image quality of the medium-format category to the next level.
PROS: Unsurpassed image quality and sharpness; 16-bit files for demanding color accuracy; comfortable ergonomics; customizable design.
CONS: Pricey; only Profoto flash triggering.
PRICE: $48,990 (IQ3 100MP, XF camera, 80mm LS lens, accessories and case)
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