On Trial – Phase One XF 100 MP
Phase One XF 100 MP
It’s a very big investment, but if you want unsurpassed image quality – and are prepared to be very disciplined with your shooting – Phase One’s 100 megapixels IQ3 capture back (in concert with the XF camera body) delivers sheer brilliance.
Phase One turbocharges its XF camera platform with the 100 megapixels IQ3 and IQ1 capture backs. Both leverage the performance benefits of a CMOS sensor too, but there are challenges when working at this resolution.
one hundred! It’S the score celebrated in cricket and, as a megapixel count, has to be celebrated as the pinnacle of digital medium format imaging. Yet, just as with Canon’s move to 50 megapixels in full-35mm size sensors, it comes with caveats. And this is all to do with pixel size. On the Phase One 100 megapixels ‘645’ format sensor – a CMOS device co-developed with Sony which, of course, performed the fabrication – the pixel size is 4.6x4.6 microns. On the full-35mm CMOS sensor used in the Canon EOS 5Ds and 5Ds R, the pixel size is 4.14x4.14 microns so the pixel pitch – or density – on both sensors is nearly the same. It’s this density which, ironically, poses challenges when it comes to obtaining optimum image sharpness. Public enemy number one here is vibrations; any movement created externally or internally which will result in camera shake. And at these ultra-high resolutions, the very, very tiniest of movements will manifest itself as some degree of blur-induced softness which is why, like Canon on the EOS 5Ds twins, Phase One has gone to considerable lengths to deal with the issue. In fact, probably further.
One hundred megapixels capture has presumably been in mind for a while as it’s nearly a year since Phase One began offering the highperformance ‘blue line’ SchneiderKreuznach lenses capable of resolving “100 megapixels and beyond”. More recently, the all-new XF camera platform has also been equipped to handle the extra demands via its extensive suite of anti-vibration measures, including a shutter release delay with a nifty ‘seismograph’ display which shows just how much wobbling is going on even when you think that everything is securely locked down. The 50 MP Canons have the delayed release function too, but a recent firmware upgrade for the XF supplements the manual timings with an auto setting so the camera won’t trigger the shutter until the seismographic sensor determines there’s no movement happening at all… a more desirable arrangement than setting a manual delay and then hoping for the best.
Obviously, the 100 MP sensor is packaged up in Phase One’s IQ3 Series capture back – there’s also a ‘budget’
IQ1 version – so you could, if so desired, use it on another camera platform, but Phase One is emphasising a system approach here, not just in terms of the enhanced anti-vibration measures, but for the other conveniences derived from the XF’s ‘High Bandwidth’ interface which include power sharing and the replication of the camera body’s info display in the back’s LCD monitor screen.
Another important development for dealing with vibrations – this time those created by the camera itself – is the adoption of an electronic first curtain ‘shutter’. This is activated automatically when using the vibration delay function or manually engaging mirror lockup and it by-passes the mechanical actuation of the physical shutter’s first ‘curtain’ (a set of metal blades these days)… potentially a source of pretty minor – but still significant at this resolution – vibrations. Of course, the so-called electronic shutter isn’t an actual shutter at all, but a process of switching on the sensor’s pixels, rowby-row, to commence the exposure. It’s a feature now quite common in smaller sensor format cameras, both reflex and mirrorless, not so much to deal with vibration concerns, but to enable silent shutter operation.
For the record, the Phase One 100 MP sensor has precisely 101,082,464 active pixels which deliver a maximum image size of 11608x8706 pixels. Of course, there’s no anti-aliasing (AA) filter so all those pixels are gloriously unadulterated. It’s the company’s second collaboration with Sony which is also the source of the 50 MP CMOS device in the IQ3 50 and IQ1 50 capture backs, but here Phase One has had more input in order to create what it calls an “analogue feel”… in other words, a more photographic look. Partially, this comes from 16-bit depth RGB capture – for the first time with a CMOS – which delivers a smoother tonality and a more film-like textural quality.
Additionally, the dynamic range extends out to 15 stops, giving more detailing in both the brighter highlights and the darker shadows… and, incidentally, exceeding the best that was ever offered by film. It also provides the sort of exposure latitude that was available with colour negative film (i.e. at least three stops of ‘push’ or ‘pull’).
Given the pixel size, 15 stops of DR is no mean feat and; combined with the resolution, colour depth and native sensitivity (an also-exceptional equivalent of ISO 50 to 12,800); mean Phase One and Sony have raised the bar in technical terms to the point then where tuning the ‘look’ actually means something in visual terms.
A new ‘IIQ L 16bit’ file format has been created to more efficiently manage the 16-bit colour data, although 14-bit RGB capture is also available with lossless compression on IIQ L (large) or lossy compression on IIQ S (small) RAW files, giving a number of options in terms of balancing image quality and workflow speed.
This is our second run with the Phase One XF, following our earlier testing with the IQ3 50 and 60 megapixels backs, and all our positive first impressions are merely reconfirmed.
For the record, the Phase One 100 MP sensor has precisely 101,082,464 active pixels which deliver a maximum image size of 11608x8706 pixels.
It’s worth noting here that this sensor is full ‘645’ size – another first for a CMOS device – giving an imaging area of 40.4x53.7 mm and eliminating any focal length magnification factor when using 6x4.5cm format lenses. As an aside, Sony’s more direct rivals in the full-35mm sensor arena should probably be afraid – very afraid – at what it may be capable of in future… the exceptional A7R II is probably only just the start.
A key benefit of the CMOS-type sensor is, of course, live view and Phase One further leverages this on the IQ3 100 with a 30 fps feed and, interestingly, the addition of an HDMI output to supplement the existing USB and WiFi options. The key benefit of the HDMI connection (a micro Type D port, to be precise) is when using an external monitor. As with Phase One’s 50 MP backs, an image can be captured when using live view by simply pressing the shutter release.
Get The Point
It goes without saying that a key aspect of image sharpness is accurate focusing and the 100 megapixels resolution creates extra demands here too. The XF has a new TTL phase-difference detection autofocusing system based on a dedicated one-megapixel CMOS sensor designated the ‘HAP-1’. The initials are short for ‘HoneyBee Autofocus Platform’ and the system employs 1000 ‘floating’ measuring points within a centralised zone, giving the choice of Spot or Average AF area modes.
It’s not a multi-point AF system as such because it only works within a centralised zone, but it’s designed to be rather more ‘intelligent’ than the simple three-point system used in the previous Mamiya-based Phase One bodies.
Added via the last firmware upgrade is the ability to set and save (via the Capture One Pro software) a lens’s hyperfocal point which can subsequently be selected in-camera to optimise depth-of-field. Additionally, a ‘Focus Trim’ facility (a.k.a. focus micro-adjustment) allows for a lens to be corrected for any front- or backfocusing characteristics… and this can be done on the capture back itself in the field (which is where using an external monitor can have obvious benefits). In a nutshell, all lenses possess some variations here (even between the same model used on the same camera body), but it’s not generally an issue with lower resolution sensors. It’s a very different story at both 50 MP on a full-35mm sensor or 100 MP on full-645. Some fine-tuning will inevitably be required. Peter Eastway, editor of Better
Photography magazine and a longtime Phase One user, tested a preproduction 100 MP system, and found that even temperature variations made a difference to image sharpness as conditions became colder while on an expedition to Antarctica.
Staying In Touch
In addition to having more sophisticated autofocusing facilities, the XF body benefits in other areas from being a new-from-the-ground-up design rather than derived from an older, film-era platform. Consequently, there’s multizone metering, customisable controls, a trio of input wheels (which cover most selecting-and-setting operations in one way or another), a top shutter speed of 1/4000 second and, best of all, a large camera info display panel – located atop the handgrip – which also boasts touch controls. This works brilliantly in the field, enabling incredibly fast adjustments to all the major capture-related functions without having to go near a menu. Phase One calls it the “One Touch UI” and the display itself can be switched between ‘Simple’ and ‘Classic’ layouts – the latter being more comprehensive – or customised more specifically. There’s adjustable backlighting to vary the brightness
Apart from the image sharpness, the other key performance aspect of the 100 MP back is the dynamic range which provides unparalleled flexibility when it comes to exposure control.
and multi-coloured elements so, for example, out-of-range indicators are shown in red and any auto settings (i.e. apertures, shutter speeds, etc) are shown in blue. Incidentally, the auto setting ranges for apertures, shutter speed and ISO can be limited to a preset maximum and/or minimum so, for example, a lens’s largest or smallest apertures can be locked out, or very slow speeds avoided when shooting hand-held (although obviously this is less of an option when using the 100 MP back). The first firmware upgrade has subsequently added the option of a brightness histogram display to the One Touch UI as well as a ‘Bull’s Eye’ target display which works just like a digital bubble-type level and uses the camera body’s three-axis accelerometer.
As noted earlier, the level of integration possible between the XF and the IQ3 backs allows for the camera info panel to be replicated in the latter’s monitor screens, again with touchscreen controllability which even includes shutter release. This works particularly well if the camera is positioned at close to eye-level on a tripod, while the on-grip panel comes in to its own when shooting from a lower position.
Still on displays, the 100 MP back has the same feedback options as the other IQ3 models, including the ‘Exposure Zone’ tool which overlays a captured image with a range of colours to indicate zones of under- and overexposure in specific values. It’s essentially the same idea as highlight/ shadow warnings, but much more sophisticated and allows exposures to be then more precisely fine-tuned as per the area indicated by a specifically coloured zone. Also handy is the ‘Temperature Graph’ which maps the temperature of the sensor over time so it can be allowed to stabilise prior to commencing an exposure. This is especially important now that exposure times of up to 60 minutes are possible. There’s an ‘Exposure Calculator’ tool which is mainly designed for use with low light or night photography. After a preview is captured at a high ISO with a large aperture – so you can actually see what’s going on – the calculator then determines the exposure times required at lower sensitivity settings and/or smaller apertures.
Although it’s quite contemporary in many areas, the XF is ‘old school’ in some others, including allowing for interchangeable viewfinders so the standard prism type can be replaced by the good old waistlevel hood. However, in this configuration, the HAP-1 sensor provides not only autofocusing, but also spot metering so auto exposure control is retained… a first, as far as we can determine, in any medium format camera system, film or digital. Additionally, a focus confirmation indicator is newly added to the camera display panel for use with waistlevel finder.
This is our second run with the Phase One XF system, following our earlier testing with the IQ3 50 and 60 backs, and all our positive first impressions are merely reconfirmed. The handling comfort and operational efficiencies are undoubtedly the best in this class, the latter hugely assisted by the touchscreen info panel and the provision of a third input wheel (allowing, for example, one each to be allocated to apertures, shutter speeds and ISO settings). Is it a coincidence that the Sony Alpha 7 cameras also work so well thanks to their three-wheel configuration?
Also contributing significantly to a user experience that’s as enjoyable as it is efficient, is the high level of integration between body and back, making the XF+IQ3 combination no more demanding to use than any prolevel full-35mm D-SLR. Additionally, the various feedback features of the IQ3 Series backs – most notably the ‘Exposure Zone’ overlay – are very helpful and any subsequent finetuning can be applied easily and quickly.
However, the 100 MP camera is a slightly different proposition to its lower resolution siblings, even the 80 MP version, in that it requires an even more disciplined approach, particularly in terms of the physical set-up. This means, in most situations, using a
suitable tripod or, at the very least, some means of additional support because otherwise the menace of camera shake will surely undo all the good work of the sensor’s designers. As with the Canon 50 MP D-SLRs, it’s easy to underestimate the problem – because previously it rarely required a second thought unless you were really shooting on the edge – but now it needs to be at the forefront in your mind, along with the need to make sure the autofocusing is working optimally. The good news is that Phase One provides the tools to do all this, you just need to be more intimately involved with what the camera is doing on a technical level.
So, shooting at 100 megapixels demands more thought and more effort, but the rewards are undoubtedly great. Right now, the Phase One XF 100 MP is the ultimate digital image capture system for mainstream photography applications, not just because of the resolution, but because of the other key performance elements – 16-bit colour, 15 stops of dynamic range, a wide ISO range with effective management of noise and, importantly, lenses capable of delivering the requisite optical resolution. That said, it still isn’t for everybody. You need to have quite specific needs to fully exploit this potential for superlative image quality… like making 100-centimetre-wide prints at 300 dpi.
Opening our test images in Capture One Pro 10 was a bit of revelation… both good and bad. Quite a few of the earlier shots betrayed ruinous softness caused by camera shake, and it was only when we became more diligent with tripod set-up and locking-off – and began using the mirror lock-up delay facility – did things start to improve in terms of overall sharpness.
Get it right though, and the resolving power of 100 megapixels is a joy to behold. The other key performance aspect of the 100 MP back is the dynamic range which provides unparalleled flexibility when it comes to exposure control. It also provides much greater scope for retaining more detailing in the highlights or shadows. Phase One has also done an excellent job balancing noise suppression and image sharpness, making the higher ISO settings quite useable without unduly compromising the image quality. This isn’t just useful when shooting in low light situations, but also in allowing for the use of smaller apertures – for greater depth-of-field – and/or faster shutter speeds – to further avoid camera shake issues – which both can make a contribution when chasing optimum sharpness. Shooting at ISO 400 or, it has to be said, even ISO 800 looks no different in terms of visible noise, and only at ISO 1600 or above does there appear to be some slight softening starting to appear. But even then, this is all relative… we’re talking very big magnifications here. The longexposure capability is a welcome one, but the challenges in terms of avoiding any camera movement are potentially magnified as the exposure durations get longer. Noise, though, still isn’t an issue, at least not at ISO settings below 800. And then, of course, there is simply the digital medium format ‘look’… the product of the sensor size (specifically its relationship to depth-of-field) and the lenses needed to cover it.
Inevitably, of course, we now have to talk money. There’s no getting around it that the Phase One XF 100 MP represents a significant investment, especially given the advisability of adopting the whole system. You’re looking at close to $65,000 before even contemplating a set of lenses beyond the standard 80mm included in this package. The brilliant Schneider Kreuznach 35mm f3.5 LS wide-angle (equivalent to 22mm) that we mostly used for this evaluation sells for around $9200 while, at the other end of the focal range scale, the 240mm LS f4.5 AF (equivalent to 149mm) is worth $9515.
It wouldn’t be too hard, then, to end up looking at the thick end of $100,000 for a working kit. The IQ1 100 route is marginally cheaper, but frankly, after you’ve come this far, the many IQ3-based conveniences are really worth having.
So, is it worth it? Well, no… and yes. No… obviously… because it’s sheer overkill for many applications, but yes because if you really do need such exceptional sharpness, colour depth and dynamic range, no other DMF camera system currently offers the same level of capabilities, flexibility and operational efficiency. The Verdict Simply the best.
Launched in 2015, Phase One’s XF platform is new from the ground up, enabling a whole range of improvements over the previous Mamiya-based camera bodies.
The 100 megapixels IQ3 capture back is designed to integrate with the XF camera platform to provide, among other things, enhanced anti-vibration measures.