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Just how good is digital medium format?


Just how good is digital medium format anyway? This is the question I’ve asked myself since medium format backs were offering megapixel numbers 5 to 10 times that of typical consumer grade, even professional grade digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. While, digital medium format will likely always be outside of my reach, both due to cost and due to practicality. Let’s get serious here, VERY FEW people actually NEED to capture images from 30 to 80 megapixels large. Add in the fact that the cost of entry into a system like this is roughly the cost of a new Land Rover (and up).

However, I recently had the chance to try out the best of the best, though that may be disputable to some. But regardless of how you see it, the Phase One IQ180 IS CURRENTLY the megapixel and image quality winner, hands down. The IQ180 is just part of the “kit” that makes up the amazing camera that I had the luxury of using hands on. Phase One formally only made the digital backs for “other” camera manufacturers, thus you would use their digital back on a Hasselblad or Mamiya camera body. However, since Hasselblad began making their own digital systems, Phase One was left with Mamiya. So, they joined forces (technically, Phase One bought a controlling interest in Mamiya) and are now offering what is the highest megapixel count medium format digital system in the world.

And then I woke up…

Combine the Phase One IQ180 digital back and the Mamiya (now Phase One) 645DF along with a dash of high-quality medium format lens (such as the Schneider-Kreuznach 55mm LS f2.8 lens) and you get one unbelievably fantastic digital capture in one unbelievably expensive package. I was actually told that the setup I was using was roughly $47,000 which is probably 10x the value of my current Nikon setup. But when held, rather than looking like a tourist with a fancy camera, instead I had the feeling that I should hold it above my head He-Man style and yell “I have the power!” but refrained from doing so considering all things.

While the Phase One setup IS a digital camera, that’s nearly where the comparisons stop with a “standard” DSLR. Ok, ok, I exaggerate a bit… The controls are actually very similar, the grip feels much the same, and although it’s no featherweight, I was quite surprised at how light it really was, thus making hand-held shooting quite possible in the right light. However, to really open this baby up and take advantage of the best parts, you really need a sturdy tripod, remote release and even better yet, switch it to mirror-up mode to get that out of the way before the capture starts to eliminate any possibility of even the slightest shake. As the megapixels climb, even the slightest of movements can cause the most tiny blur, thus a horribly out of focus image. (It’s not THAT bad, but it makes a huge difference when taking longer exposures.) I’m somewhat amused after reading so complaints from Nikon fans about the rumored 36 megapixel Nikon D800 that “oh that’s too many megapixels (referring to the D800), give me this and that instead.” But after using the IQ180, I must disagree… More IS better, as long as you can put them to proper use! However, I do wonder how many Nikon lenses can actually take full advantage of a 36mp sensor.

100% Crop on Full Image

Being somewhat limited on where and what I could do while I had access to this megapixel monster, I set myself up for what *to me* is a critical test of the system… A scene with a great deal of dynamic range, contrast and bucketfuls of detail to be had. Needless to say, a unique variety of buildings down a busy, downtown Denver street yielded the test parameters I desired. Thus, the test image with 100% crop sample to the right (click the image at the top of this post to see the photo without the crop sample). Sure, it’s not artistically appealing (actually I kinda like it to be honest), but it gave me everything I needed to put this thing through it’s paces. And it captured everything, and then some, with dead accurate, flying colors. Despite the strong contrast of the setting sun reflecting off the glass building windows to the dark shadows between buildings and on the darkest of objects, nearly every bit of the image has detail to spare. And it should considering the 16bit RAW captures, 13.6 EV dynamic range and unbeatable color depth (based on DxOMark test results). While several Nikon and one Pentax camera have a greater dynamic range, I feel that the Phase One gives a better “unmodified” RAW file.

With the below sample, I took these shots minutes apart using a similar focal length, position and equivalent exposure. The IQ180 sample is from a 100% crop, the Nikon sample is from the same crop, scaled up to match. Detail anyone? This is only a tiny fraction of the full image. The full size file is a jaw dropping 10328×7760 pixels! That’s more pixels HIGH than many of my multi-shot panoramic composites are WIDE, and that’s just ONE shot! For comparison sake, that would be a nearly 35″ x 26″ print at a full 300ppi. (Or roughly a 70″ x 53″ print at almost 150ppi still!) Click thumbnail for full size sample.

Is this even a fair comparison? Not really...

IQ180 at 100% crop, D300 scaled to match.

As with any super-high performance product, it has some drawbacks other than the cost. (Hey, a Ferrari is a terrific car for going around a track or to get a drink at the overpriced bar down the street, but it’s not exactly something I’d drive to the hardware store.) With that said, the drawback list is short, in my opinion. The ISO performance, compared to modern DSLR cameras, is considerably lacking. Then again, this isn’t your typical “chase brides around in a dimly lit church” type of camera. Odds are, you won’t be taking it to photograph from the sideline of a sporting event either. (If you are, more power to you!) However, they do offer several features to help when you do need to push the ISO. The first is “pixel binning” which combines the information of several neighboring pixels into a lower resolution, but lower noise final image. It also has the usual “dark frame” (frequently known as High-ISO noise reduction) which “captures” another dark-frame shot to allow the camera to calculate and remove excess noise. The last “drawback” is the fact that the RAW files are easily 50+ megabytes EACH! Process that with Capture One (Phase One’s version of Lightroom or Aperture) and export a 16bit TIFF at a full 80 megapixels and you get a computer seizing 480 megabyte file! Even my fairly up-to-date Mac Pro tower with power to spare had an issue once I took these into Photoshop, making editing quite a slow process. Don’t even think about loading these on your laptop to edit. In fact, I wouldn’t even begin to edit these without a dual processor system with at least 16GB of memory or more. (Even then you’d probably still be waiting on the Photoshop swap disk frequently.)

Phase One IQ180 on 645DF, processed in Capture One 6 Pro

What I DO really like about this system is the fact that as a photographer, it *SLOWS YOU DOWN* to think about your capture two or three times before you even reach for the shutter release. At which point, you inspect the file on the touch screen after capture to be sure it is sharp, in focus and their are no other artifacts. Their is absolutely no point in going rapid fire with this, it’s about careful planning before the shot and inspection after the shot. Honestly, I almost wish I could find the reason to do that with my DSLR, but it’s to easy to simply over-shoot and cull them later. (Even my modest 8MB CF cards hold 300+ 12mp 14bit RAW captures from my Nikon.)

My final thoughts… Well, I wish I had $100,000 or so to invest in a setup like this plus a nice array of lenses, a considerably faster computer and some travel money so I could come back with a handful of images worthy of Peter Lik. (Then wake up from the dream.) It’s far from being necessary for *MOST* photographers. In fact, unless your clients are paying you handsomely, chances are this isn’t for you. But if I had money burning a hole in my pocket, you bet I’d get one!

  1. Ray Soares
    Ray Soares11-01-2011

    Nice article!
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. hunk

    “In fact, I wouldn’t even begin to edit these without a dual processor system with at least 16 megabytes of memory or more.”

    I remember asking my boss for a 16 megabyte upgrade for my MacIIci. Didn’t get it. Too expensive at about $16.000,- When was it? 1990 or so. Of course a whopping 16MB needed OS7.

    • JasonG

      I remember those days. We did an 8mb upgrade on the 486 DX2 that was easily $2000 in the mid-later 90′s still.

  3. rick

    Thanks for the review. I’m like you and don’t really have the “need” for such a mega-pixel monster, however, I may be looking for a used one on craigslist in a year or so if the D800 and D4 aren’t as expected. As a person who creates well portraits, I can use all the resolution that I can get. Plus my clients will appreciate the fact the my digital medium format is a huge jump from their Canon EOS666MkX.

  4. john

    I have a question thats been burning me and maybe you can help me answer it. I’m a big fan of peter lik and also Trey Ratcliff who specializes in HDR photography. now because the phase one can do a large dynamic range, theres like no need to do HDR with a $47k camera. But trey shoots 7 to 9 bracketed shots with his d3x. and he takes great pictures but he recently mentioned how he broke down and bought a RED camera. so why would someone who wishes to push the envelope buy a RED for $50k when you can buy a phaseone for same price that clearly outperforms the RED camera, granted it does 4k video so maybe its for video.
    if the phaseone takes such good images and pictures of this quality like peter liks they can benefit from a 300pp image of an amazing landscape shot especially if they are traveling non spot. pictures can always be resized for upload. but they are guys that sell their pictures so more is better imo.

    I want to throw down the money for a phaseone but hate the fact i got to buy new lenses for it which seems extravagant, like $5k per lens. Why not offer an adaptor to use nikkor lenses,

    so is the quality of a $5k lenses for a phaseone that much better than a $2k nikkor lens?

    i understand the camera and digital back being expensive and rightly so but why the lens?

    i saw your comparisons pics but i wonder if you had taken a nikkor lens, put it on a phaseone, if you could….would there be a big difference at all?

    Thanks for reading this. I’m a avid photographer and i want to get something that offers the lowest ISO possible. the phaseone goes as low as ISO 35, i chase the notion of less noise and with a 16bit i get alot more tonal ranges than 14bit.

    when choosing about a RED camera or a phase one, hands down a phase one. i’m not into the video thing.

    • JasonG

      Well, the RED and Phase One cameras are two different beasts. The RED is more for video production, but their are people using it for photography. One advantage is the fact that you can take so many captures at one time, such as 12 frames per second burst at a full 5k video. That would make shooting HDR’s very easy, even with moving subjects which can otherwise ruin the processing. The RED also has the automatic “HDR” ability to capture up to 18 or 19 stops of dynamic range, while even the best digital SLR’s and even the Phase One are only in the 13 stops range. (Six more stops is considerably better!)

      Being an avid HDR shooter myself, even with the Phase One, the dynamic range of a single capture is still not enough to capture extremely high dynamic range scenes, such as shooting into the sunset and still capturing shadow details on the dark side of objects. While it comes closer, shooting 3+ frames with 0.7 to 1 or more EV between them would still result in better HDR’s. I typically shoot 5 to 7 frames for each HDR, depending on how dynamic the scene is but may only use 3-4 frames from that bracket. I also find that SOME people shoot HDR brackets, but don’t push the limits of a single capture well enough. I’ve found that you can pull out considerable detail from a single 14bit file with a little effort.

      The Phase One is a superb system and the advantage is the whole thing is modular enough that you can upgrade just the digital back later. (Something I wish DSLR’s would start doing.) As for the lenses, medium format lenses are typically very high quality and also tend to be quite large. Although they make “zoom” lenses, most are fixed focal lengths so framing does become a little bit of a challenge. The focal lengths as you know them are also very different. (The Schneider 55mm lens on the Phase One was roughly equivalent to about 24mm on my D300, or probably about 35mm on a FX body.) Of course, if you are buying into such a system, one expects lenses and other add-ons to be that expensive, thus the market allows for such prices.

      Would their be a difference? Well besides the focal length being very different, assuming the focal length didn’t change, I suspect my 14-24 F2.8 would have performed very well, but still the overall performance of the Schneider lens was fantastic at the center of the frame. Their were still some distortions and some edge softness, but that is pretty much unavoidable with any lens and camera combination, especially in the “wide angle” lens range.

      I agree, super-low ISO would be nice. I believe the D800 will have a lower ISO rating than previous Nikon’s which might help when it can be utilized. One thing I did notice about the 16bit files from the Phase One is the fact that very subtle gradations held up very well which tells me that the 16bit files do help.

      The advantage of the RED is the fact that it CAN do video (pretty much what it’s designed for) and you can utilize a wide variety of lenses from different manufacturers with appropriate adapters. Clearly this works for them since they do not make or sell their own lenses, and it helps others get into the system at a lower price point overall because they can use what they already have with it. Obviously this would be nice to do with a Phase One, but since the lens isn’t designed to fit the sensor size, the imaging area wouldn’t be fully covered by the lenses. (I suppose some sort of adapter might make it work, but that would kill image quality and it would still have considerable falloff.)

    • JasonG

      Oh yea, for what it’s worth, Peter Lik (also a huge fan of his work, I’d love to pick his brain sometime) supposedly also uses the Phase One IQ180. I can’t blame him, the files from it were nothing short of outstanding, even without “working them” with the editor.

  5. john

    thanks for the info jason. good details. I think now i realize why trey ratcliff chose a red over a phaseone.
    just looking at some of peter liks images truly amazes me cuz they look hdr like yet he claims they are as shot. yet for me to come close to that i have to do 5 or more, tone map it, then use noiseware pro, then finally tweak the mood, colors and the feel in topaz adjust or phototools. it seems i put so much effort and work into the end creation of the picture via manipulation whereas peter simply takes the picture. granted his camera can do 12 dynamic stops and perhaps the scene his aims for manages it.
    but agreed bracketing will let me gain more detail especially sunset shots. I find myself bewildered by ppl who carry all these nd filters, and such, where i simply do hdr, bypasses all that stuff and is not needed. so again i’m baffled why dont they just bracket the shot, maybe its cuz they purists or dont know how to use photoshop.

    i too wish nikon would have a modular option, sucks to have to buy a new camera every 3 to 4 years. i look at those with medium format and they have same camera but simply upgrade the digital back over the years.

    i now have a better understanding of why some thing r so.

    i think i’m still tempted to get the phaseone simply because theres a challenge in trying to get the most out of one capture as opposed to “cheating” with bracketed shots. cuz it can do more dynamic range than my nikon i feel i’m more likely to get better images with 16bit and 12 stop dynamic range. there are times when hdr is overkill and it seems too many ppl overdo it and i look at perter liks work and even though it does not have that HDR magic his images rival some of the best hdr pics i’ve seen. its like he is defining a true skill in using that phaseone which few know of.

    when thinking about it, what i really need to do is get a red and a phase one into my hands, its very possible doing the auto HDR with the red may seal the deal for me as that does sound like candy to me, then on the flipside the pahseone would proably be simpler to setup, carry with and use. The red is huge and does not fit well in the hand from what i can tell. like u said its for video, but at same time its one hellueva camera and i wish nikon would have something in this league.

    i tell ya i’m excited about the future 5 to 10 years from now, when maybe consumers will have access to this stuff are more reasonable prices. that being said rumor is d800 will be $3k which to me seems reasonable but i’m worried it may not offer iso 50. the canon eos5d i think it is, does iso 50, so i’m hoping nikon really comes on par with lower iso.

  6. Dave Felton
    Dave Felton01-13-2012

    Thank you for a genuinely informative post. I loved the crops comparing detail available from differing formats.

    “My final thoughts… Well, I wish I had $100,000 or so to invest in a setup like this plus a nice array of lenses, a considerably faster computer and some travel money so I could come back with a handful of images worthy of Peter Lik.”

    Had to laugh at this. I wish this too and perhaps if our lottery numbers come up we can go out and fulfill the wish. :)

  7. Murray

    The key difference between Nikkor / Canon lens and those designed for the PhaseOne 645 camera is the coverage of the lens. A Nikon lens is designed to produce optimum results over the size of the sensor in the camera. Although it would probably work, if you could couple it to the PhaseOne, the image produced would be very poor outside the area of a Nikon D body. Large format lenses are specifically designed to cover the larger sensor area.

    With regard to shooting brides in dimly lit churches, the first choice for weddings was always Vericolor negative film, ISO160 in 120 format plus a little flash to fill in. Its probably worth considering that you can pull detail out of a larger format that would be lost on a ’35MM’ DSLR.

    Rather than having to make a huge investment hire the kit if the job justifies it.

  8. jim

    don’t need no stink’in med. format tanks,

    for $799 the Sigma DP3 Merril, just as good !!, if not better

    you first heard it hear folks.

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