Phase One Unveils First Medium-Format Camera With CMOS Sensor: Hands-On Test

January 24, 2014

By Dan Havlik

“Game changer” is a phrase I seldom use in any product review—because it’s cliched and because it’s often not true—but that’s how I’d describe Phase One’s brand new 50-megapixel IQ250 medium-format digital camera back. The IQ250 uses a groundbreaking CMOS sensor (designed by Sony) that allows it to capture relatively low-noise images in low light at ISOs of up to 6400, just like many pro digital SLRs using smaller 35mm-size sensors.

How do I know this? PDN was one of the few media outlets in the world to gets its hands on the new IQ250 ahead of this morning’s official launch of the medium-format back by Phase One. For the past week I’ve been trying out the IQ250 with my frequent co-tester, photographer Jordan Matter, and we’ve both come away extremely impressed with what this back can do.

While medium-format cameras have been widely praised for their ability to capture gorgeous, detail-rich images with massive amounts of resolution and exceptional dynamic range, they’ve never fared particularly well when shooting at high ISOs in low light. (In fact, many digital camera backs can’t even shoot past ISO 800.) Previous digital backs and their CCD sensors have traditionally produced extremely noisy images at higher ISOs that are damn near impossible to clean up in image-editing software.

The result has been that most photographers restrict their medium-format use to studio photography situations with controllable, artificial light; or to outdoor shoots with portable lighting, or on sunny days. That’s all changed with the IQ250, which we shot with on the streets of New York City in the dead of winter in downright horrible lighting conditions with excellent results, from ISO 100 to ISO 6400. Game changer? Yes indeed-y!

IQ250 Specs & Details
But before I get ahead of myself with our hands-on test results, here’s a rundown of key specs and details of the just announced Phase One IQ250 back.

* Sony-built 50-megapixel CMOS sensor sized at 44 x 33mm, that’s slightly smaller than what’s in Phase One’s current 80-megapixel IQ280 (53.7 x 40.4mm) and 60-megapixel (53.9 x 40.4mm) IQ260 backs, but with 68 percent more image capture area than sensors in full-frame DSLRs.

* ISO range of 100 to 6400

* 14 stops of dynamic range (as rated by Phase One)

* Exposure time options of 1/10000 of a second to one hour

* Maximum 2 frames-per-second (fps) shooting speed

* Improved Live View with faster frame refresh rate (less jittery effect)

* Built-in Wi-Fi for displaying images or live view wirelessly on computers, iPads or iPhones

* 3.2-inch touchscreen display

* USB 3.0

*  IQ250 price: $34,990 (you didn’t really think it would be cheap, did you?)

*  On sale now

Hands-On Test
While the Phase One IQ250 is the first medium-format digital camera back to use a CMOS sensor, it won’t be the last. Earlier this week, Hasselblad announced it will launch its own digital medium-format camera that uses a CMOS sensor in March 2014. That system, called the H5D-50c, will also employ a 50-megapixel CMOS chip, and it seems likely it’s the same Sony-produced sensor as the one in the Phase One IQ250.

Based on our image results—you can see some of our test photos included with this story—Sony’s 50-megapixel medium-format sensor is excellent. The IQ250 digital back loaned to us was an early production model with updated firmware and we used it connected to a Phase One/Mamiya 645DF+ ($5,990) camera body.

As part of our IQ250 test, we shot images in Matter’s ongoing “Dancers Among Us” series, which features professional dancers performing in everyday situations. (Matter’s series was made into a best-selling book in 2012.) For the test shoot, Matter photographed the dancers in a variety of challenging situations and I’m not just referring to their difficult poses.

Take, for example, the test photo of the dancer squeezing precariously out of the serving window at the restaurant (see end of article). It was shot at ISO 3200 in rather dim conditions and, while you can see some noise on her skin and her red tights, the image holds up remarkably well. This result would have not been possible with any other digital medium-format back currently on the market. (It should be noted that this photo was brightened slightly in post-production but, otherwise, is unaltered. The rest of the test images in this story are uncorrected.)

High-ISO Performance
Prior to testing the IQ250, I interviewed adventure photographer Tim Kemple, who is another one of the lucky few to get his hands on this Phase One back prior to launch. Kemple, who shoots kayakers, climbers, hikers, bikers and other adventurers outdoors in mixed lighting, says he liked the results of the IQ250 better than the 36.3-megapixel full-frame Nikon D800.

“At ISO 6400 with the IQ250, there’s noise [in the images] but rather than that blotchy, weird look I’ve seen [that is] pretty common with other cameras at high ISOs, the new Phase One back produced a pretty clean look,” he tells me. “In the past, with digital backs, I couldn’t push the high ISO as high as I needed so I wasn’t able to stop the action [in my photos] and I wasn’t able to shoot after the sun went down. This new back is not a baby step improvement. It’s a big step improvement.”

At the time I interviewed Kemple, I wasn’t sure if I believed him but during our testing we came to the same conclusion. Matter, who shoots with a D800, said he also preferred the IQ250’s high-ISO results to the Nikon DSLR.

Even when we pushed the IQ250 to ISO 6400, which you can see in the shot of the dancer wedged in mid-air beneath the fluorescent light in the white brick passageway, results were quite good. There’s very little noise in that shot, even in her black top or the shadows in the background.

Things get even better, as expected, at lower ISOs. The ISO 1600 shot of the dancer dangling from the fence in the dark alleyway was similar to one we attempted a few months ago with a Hasselblad H5D camera. The H5D image was filled with so much noise it was practically unusable. This IQ250 shot, on the other hand, is quite clean with excellent dynamic range.

Image Quality
Speaking of dynamic range, I’m not sure I can verify that the IQ250 produces the reported 14 stops of DR that Phase One is claiming, but there is an impressive amount of detail in our test shots, both in the shadow areas and the highlights. This is one big advantage of medium-format cameras and their large sensors over full-frame DSLRs and the IQ250 exemplified it during our time with the camera system.

Another medium-format advantage is the incredible detail and sharpness you can capture with these backs’ larger sensors. The ISO 400 image of the dancer leaping at the playground has so much detail it appears to be three-dimensional, while the shot of the dancers performing in the snow, which was captured at ISO 100, looks positively luminous despite the stormy weather.

We shot with Schneider Kreuznach leaf shutter lenses on the Phase One system, primarily using the 55mm LS f/2.8 and 80mm LS f/2.8 optics. These were great lenses for the IQ250, with good speed and excellent resolving power, helping us get the most out of our IQ250 photos. At f/2.8 though, depth of field is extremely shallow because of the jumbo-sized sensor and it’s tricky to get the sweet spot of sharpness in just the right place.

Through trial and error—and timing—Matter was able to nail down the focus and capture crisp photos. If you’re considering moving up from a full-frame DSLR to a medium-format system like the IQ250, this sort of adjustment is something to take into consideration. Despite many improvements on this back and with Phase One’s 645DF+ camera body, shooting medium format is still more challenging than using a DSLR.

Even with the faster speed of the IQ250, it’s not nearly on par with a DSLR. The 2 fps burst mode was certainly appreciated though, especially when you consider that many medium-format cameras have difficultly even achieving 1 fps.

At 2 fps, the IQ250 had just enough of a burst to keep up with a leaping dancer, giving us one shot (the initial one we timed out) and a second on in case we flubbed the first. Again, this is not like the 10 to 12 fps “spray and pray” burst mode of a pro DSLR, but it’s a marked improvement.

More important, for us, was the IQ250 system’s fast shutter speed capability when paired with the 645DF+ camera body and the Schneider Kreuznach leaf shutter lenses. The maximum 1/10000 of a second exposure time was more than we needed, though it was nice to know if was available. We were satisfied with hitting a 1/4000 of a second shutter speed with the system, which was plenty fast to freeze a dancer leaping in mid-air and why this camera should also appeal to sports and action photographers, like Kemple.

Extra Features
Just a few years ago, LCD screens on medium-format cameras were something of a joke. Oftentimes, you’d find a $35,000 camera system fitted with a tiny, low-resolution screen that was no help in letting you know the quality of a captured image. While things have improved significantly, as evidenced by the IQ250’s nice 3.2-inch touchscreen, this new display won’t make you forget the high-resolution screen on your DSLR.

We used the IQ250’s display to give us a sense if the timing was right on a shot but, despite its better than average resolution, it didn’t give us a good indication of sharpness when we zoomed in. And while the touchscreen features won’t make you forget your iPad (or your iPhone for that matter), they are improved as well, and more intuitive than previous versions.

Using a CMOS sensor—which requires less power than a CCD—also allows the IQ250 to offer a better Live View feature on the back. We were able to achieve a pretty smooth live feed of what we were shooting, which can help with composition and focus, but it’s not comparable to the silky live view on most DSLRs.

It’s not bad in a pinch though and a vast improvement over erratic live feeds in the past. (Most photographers, however, will likely stick to using the IQ250’s Live Feed feature while tethered via USB 3.0 to a computer running Phase One’s Capture One software, or wirelessly to an iPad or iPhone running the Capture Pilot app.)

Build & Battery
And finally, while the build of the IQ250 back and the 645DF+ camera body is more rugged and weatherproof than most medium-format systems we’ve tried, the extreme cold we shot the system in did a number on the battery life.

Even with the camera’s Wi-Fi features turned off, we found ourselves plowing through fully charged batteries while testing the camera during a below-freezing cold snap in the city. Hopefully this is something that can be improved with a firmware update (or two) in the IQ250 since adventure and landscape photographers, who often work in adverse conditions, will likely want to take this low-light shooting medium-format system for a spin.


I was, admittedly, quite skeptical when I heard about this new medium-format back from Phase One and its Sony-built CMOS sensor. I had pretty much given up thinking I’d ever be able to shoot decent high-ISO images in low light with a medium-format back, but in the short week we tested the IQ250, I’ve completely changed my mind. Not only does this bode well for prospective Phase One customers, but with Hasselblad introducing a similar system in March and other CMOS models likely on the way, the medium-format landscape is now wide open. At $35,000, the IQ250 is incredibly expensive but what Phase One and Sony have achieved with this first-out-of-the-gate, medium-format CMOS shooter, is absolutely priceless.

Test Shots (click on the images or the links to see the full hi-res shots)

ISO 100; photo ©Jordan Matter (click here to view hi-res version)

ISO 400; photo © Jordan Matter (click here to view hi-res version)

ISO 800; photo © Jordan Matter (click here to view hi-res version)

ISO 1600; photo © Jordan Matter (click here to view hi-res version)

ISO 3200; photo © Jordan Matter (click here to view hi-res version)

ISO 6400; photo © Jordan Matter (click here to view hi-res version)