PDN Product Review: Phase One’s 80MP IQ180 Digital Back

July 1, 2011

By Dan Havlik

Phase One’s 80MP IQ180 has several key new features worthy of a high-end back, including a 3.2-inch touchscreen display with significantly higher resolution than the previous model.

The part of my job I like best is to see how a product evolves and, often, improves over time. It’s even more satisfying when a complaint or criticism I lodged in a review of a product gets rectified in the next version. Occasionally, manufacturers will even tell me a change in the follow-up to their device was in direct response to something I’d written. (Or maybe they’re just trying to butter me up.)

Other times, I might catch flak for what a company thinks is a “negative” review of mine only to find out they addressed my critiques in an improved update to their product. And then, of course, there are times where I might have been completely off base in a review and my words are, appropriately, ignored. (It happens.)

I’m not sure whether my 2009 review of Phase One’s 60.5-megapixel P65+ digital medium-format camera back had any influence on the Danish company’s new IQ180 but I’d like to think it may have played a role. This 80-megapixel digital back takes the promise of the P65+ and improves upon it, making the IQ180 one of the best imaging products I’ve ever shot with, bar none.

While my review of the P65+ was largely positive—we ended up naming it medium-format back of the year in my annual PDN Gear of the Year report—I had some nits to pick, particularly with the system’s clunky operability and its less than luxurious feature set including a measly 2.2-inch low resolution LCD screen that would have looked skimpy on a point-and-shoot camera. Considering the P65+ back was selling for just a hair under $40,000—even without a camera attached—this was disappointing.

With the IQ180, Phase One has done an across the board upgrade on the back (also available in 60.5-megapixel IQ160 and 40-megapixel IQ140 version), offering a sweet new 3.2-inch touch screen; a revamped menu system with a more intuitive interface; and a host of small but noticeable improvements. I shot with the IQ180 attached to a Phase One 645DF camera body and a trio of Schneider Kreuznach lenses with photographer Jason Groupp <> in his studio and later in the field on my own.

Even more noteworthy than the luxe extras on the IQ180 system is its extraordinary image quality, which of course, is what owning a medium-format camera back is all about. We’ve never been particularly impressed with pregnant pixel counts alone—and probably, for most photographers, the lower-priced 40-megapixel IQ140 offers more than enough resolution—but the IQ180 produces images with such luscious detail; rich color; and appealing dynamic range, there’s almost a 3D quality to the photos.

But of course, all these top-of-the-line qualities come with a jaw-dropping price tag of. . .drum roll please. . .$43,990 for the IQ180 back alone. The price for an IQ180 kit, which includes the 645DF camera body, an 80mm f/2.8 LF lens and the back, is $47,990.

That’s certainly a lot of clams to drop in a still questionable economy. Whether you think it’s worth it depends on whether you need the very best camera system, in terms of image quality, on the market right now. And for our money, the IQ180 system is just that.

Pick up the Phase One 645DF and IQ180 combination—or heck, just look at a picture of it—and you’ll know you’re dealing with a serious camera system. This is not always a good thing. Sometimes a product’s “presence” can only carry it so far (think of the DeLorean car) but in this case, Phase One has designed a superior back to house the IQ180’s 80-megapixel, 53.9mm x 43.4mm size, Dalsa-built CCD sensor.

Phase One’s posted some provocative videos on the Web in the past touting the durability of its backs—including one where a back survives being stepped on by an African elephant. While I wouldn’t want to drop the IQ180, it feels solid. Among the small but important improvements between the IQ180 and the P65+ is the more rugged rubber cover over the flash sync and multi-connector ports on the left side of the new back. The P65+ had a cheap cover over those ports, which we easily mangled during our 2009 test.

Though Phase One doesn’t offer any specs on the IQ180’s water/weather resistance, the back seems better equipped to withstand the elements than the P65+. And while the IQ180 may not be affected by a few sprinkles, it’s not fully rubberized or gasketed and sealed like some professional DSLRs. In other words, the IQ180’s more than safe for shooting out in the field but don’t go too crazy.

The new back offers a dynamite pair of ports: a USB 3.0 connection (a first for a medium format back), and FireWire 800. This is a significant upgrade, allowing photographers to shoot with the IQ180 system while tethered to a computer without being slowed down by the huge RAW (.IIQ) files the 80-megapixel sensor produces.

Phase One has also revamped the IQ180’s memory card interface to help with storage speed when working untethered. While shooting with a SanDisk Extreme IV CompactFlash card, we experienced little to no buffer delay, letting us fire at will while photographing a model in the studio. In fact, we waited longer for our strobes to recycle than for the IQ180’s buffer to clear.

On the other hand, the actual CF card slot needs some work. The flimsy plastic ejector on the unit we tested could never fully push out our card, forcing us to dig at it with our fingernails.

Later, the plastic ejector top popped off and went skittering across the floor. (It’s worth noting that this was the only area where Phase One seemed to skimp on the details with the IQ180.)

The IQ180 system is not a particularly “fast” camera back to shoot with. We clocked the capture rate at less than one frame per second and just a bit faster when shooting in Sensor+ mode, which is Phase One’s high ISO/lower resolution shooting feature. (More about Sensor+ later.)

But this is not unique to this model of camera back. Though the IQ180 might be a half a step slower than some competing models, it’s also capturing huge, 80-megapixel, 16-bit images. Yes, DSLRs are much speedier than medium-format systems but look through the massive viewfinder of a camera like the Phase One 645DF and listen to the mighty “thwop” of its giant mirror box, and you’ll know why. Or more significantly, compare images shot by the IQ180 vs. even the very best DSLR and you’ll understand why it’s an apples to oranges comparison.

One nice speed improvement in the Phase One 645DF system is the ability to use leaf shutter lenses such as the three Schneider Kreuznachs we tested the IQ180 with. Not only did the leaf shutter lenses let us shoot at shutter speeds of up to 1/4000th of second, we were able to achieve flash sync speeds of up to 1/1600th of a second. Switching between the leaf shutter lenses and the camera’s focal plane shutter was a seamless and fully automated process with the Phase One 645DF, which saved tons of hassle.

The partnership between Phase One, Mamiya, and Schneider Kreuznach has really borne fruit for all three companies, though with all the mergers, alliances and acquisitions, it’s hard to tell who’s who any more in medium format.  

Autofocus speed also seemed improved on the 645DF compared to the 645AF camera we tested the P65+ with back in 2009. The previous model had a tendency to hunt for the focus in mixed lighting but the 645DF did a fairly good job of locking on its target.

Because of the incredibly shallow depth of field the IQ180’s giant Dalsa sensor produced when paired with the Schneider f/2.8 lenses, hitting the target was sometimes harder than it looked. Photographer Jason Groupp preferred using the lens’ manual focus to ensure the model’s eyes were tack sharp and not, say, her rear shoulder.

One new IQ180 feature that helped with locking in sharpness is called Focus Mask, which lays a colored, semi-transparent mask over your image to show you the parts that are in focus. Of course, you can zoom in on your shots in playback to check sharpness but Focus Mask eliminates the need.

As I mentioned, the biggest upgrade on the IQ180 is its new 3.2-inch touchscreen LCD. I was pretty hard on the low-res 2.2-inch screen on the previous back, but it was damn near impossible to get any sort of bead on the sharpness or quality of your images and was confusing to navigate. Tethering to a computer was really the only way to go with that model.

Phase One says the new screen has 1.15 megapixels of resolution and is a retina display, much like the touchscreen on Apple’s iPhone. Though the touch functionality is similar to an iPhone, the similarity ends there. Touch swiping through images during playback was smooth but not as responsive as on an iPhone. And while the new screen was worlds better than the previous version in terms of size and resolution, most DSLRs have crisper and clearer (if slightly smaller) LCDs. We also felt the IQ180’s screen tended to wash out when shooting outdoors, making image review tough in bright sunshine.

Still, the Phase One back’s new touchscreen is a vast improvement over what’s come before it and the best LCD we’ve used on a medium-format camera yet. For touch functionality, there’s no need to use a stylus as on some older generation backs. Features are also well thought out. Double tapping the screen during image playback will zoom in to 100 percent. Then swipe through the image with your finger to inspect detail.

If you don’t want to use the touch functions, the IQ180 keeps the four buttons on four sides of the back as on the previous model. Menus are also more logical and the ramp up in resolution made functions and modes easier to read.

All in all, it’s a fitting feature for an imaging product of its rarefied status.

Overall, the Mamiya-styled Phase One 654DF and IQ180 back was one of the most pleasing medium-format systems we’ve shot with yet. It doesn’t look like a DSLR nor does it behave like one (for that, you may want to try the Leica S2), but it’s a powerful camera to graduate to. The rubberized handgrip is comfy and while the system feels big and heavy, it’s evenly balanced and handled well both in the studio in the field. (Tripod highly recommended, however).

In a review from a few years ago, I remarked that shooting with an awkward medium-format camera is a little like kissing your sister. With the new Phase One system, it’s more like kissing the prom queen.

In terms of pure imaging power, the IQ180 is an inspired capture device. The system produced some of the best image quality we’ve ever seen. We’d be surprised if it can get much better than this in terms of detail and tone.

In fact there was so much detail in our shots of a model in Jason’s studio, it pulled out imperfections in her skin we didn’t even know she had. I remember when digital imaging first started becoming a serious, viable option for professional photographers more than a decade ago and someone I knew remarked we would need to retrain make-up artists to deal with the increased detail.

That may have been a bit of an overreaction at the time: I think we were talking about a new 6-megapixel camera that had just been introduced. With 80-megapixel systems like the IQ180 and Leaf Aptus-II 12, not to mention Hasselblad’s new multi-shot H4D-200MS, which can purportedly produce a 200-megapixel image, make-up artist, art directors, and photographers all need to take a step back and figure out how to get the most out of this new technology.

With 80 megapixels, you can comfortably blow an image up to the size of a billboard and not have to worry about a drop in quality. All that resolution also allows judicious cropping, which can be the difference between a usable commercial image and a throwaway. Indeed we were able to comfortably crop out just the lips our model in one shot, blow it up to 100 percent, and not lose detail. For beauty and product photography, the IQ180 is a dream come true.

It’s not just about resolution, though. The color depth in our 16-bit RAW files, sharpness, natural skin tones, and superior dynamic range—Phase One rates it at 12.5 stops—were off the charts. We only had a about a week to test the IQ180 but in that short span, we were blown away with what it could produce when everything was locked in. On the downside, all that detail means the back is less forgiving of mistakes. Miss the mark on one of your shots even just a bit and it’s hard to hide.

The Achilles’ heel of this system and other medium-format backs is that they’re traditionally poor performers when shooting at high ISOs in low light. Phase One is one of the few companies to address this problem with its Sensor+ technology, first introduced in the P65+ era backs. Sensor+ employs pixel scaling, also known as binning, which combines the data of four pixels into one to increase the light sensitivity while decreasing noise.

The immediate effect of this is that it allows you to shoot at ISO settings higher than most competing medium-format cameras offer. In particular, the IQ180 and its brethren are able to capture images at ISO 1600 and 3200, which are levels more common on DSLRs than 645 camera systems. The downside is that because it’s combining pixels, image resolution dips precipitously to 20 megapixels.

To a certain extent, Sensor+ worked in keeping noise down in high ISO shots from the IQ180 as it did before with the P65+. Indeed, these were some of the best images I’ve seen from a medium-format camera at ISO 800 and 1600 even though they were at reduced resolution. The news was not so good at ISO 3200, with heaps of chroma and luminance noise turning up in the shadow areas of my shots. It’s definitely progress though and I hope Phase One continues to improve this low-light technology.

Okay, so here’s the dilemma. You’ve read the review—or parts of it, I hope—and now want to know what it all boils down to. Is the IQ180 really worth $43,990? (Just writing that number stops the heart a little.) All I can tell you is what I’ve said already in the nearly 3,000 words above: This new medium-format back is not only a major upgrade from the previous model, it’s a giant leap forward in digital imaging technology. All bells and whistles aside—and the IQ180 has many of them, not the least of which is its nice new 3.2-inch touchscreen—this is the best image capture device for studio photography we’ve ever tried. It’s also an excellent field camera and I can think of few other systems I’d prefer to use for landscape photography (as long as its not in extremely wet shooting conditions). So yes, it’s worth the price but you have to decide whether it’s worth it to you.

Phase One IQ180

Pros: Offers the best image quality of any medium-format system we’ve tested; massive amounts of resolution brings out exquisite detail, making system ideal for shooting large, billboard-size ad campaigns; 3.2-inch touchscreen is a vast improvement over previous model; logical, easy-to-use interface; barely any shooting buffer delay; USB 3.0 and Firewire 800 ports are a big help for tethered shooting.

LCD washes out in bright sunlight, not as crisp as screens on pro DSLRs; less than a frame per second shooting speed; CF card can get stuck in slot.

Price: $43,990 (for back alone).