On Trial – Phase One XF 100 MP

Phase One XF 100 MP

ProPhoto - - CONTENTS - Re­port by paul bur­rows

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’).

Look­ing Lively

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.

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