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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!