Preview: The Phase One IQ180 80MP Digital Back, and the new IQ line

Introduction

With the introduction of the new Phase One IQ180 80 MP digital back, Phase One has unleashed an impressive new tool for professional photographers.

The Phase One IQ line is scheduled to include three digital camera backs by this summer, the 80 MP IQ180, the 60.5 MP IQ160, and the 40MP IQ140.  The top two are both full-frame 645, the 40 MP version is a familiar crop (32.9×43.9 mm).  All three offer Phase One’s unique Sensor+ system, that cuts resolution by 1/4 and multiples ISO by four.  In Sensor+ mode, the three backs capture at 20 MP, 15 MP, and 10 MP and can all reach an impressive ISO 3200.  The IQ160 and IQ140 retain the familiar and highly regarded sensors from their predecessors, respectively the Phase One P 65+ and P 40+.

While 80 MP capture is still cause for raised eyebrows, the big news with the new IQ line is not about sensors, but about user interface.  The digital backs include a new 3.2 inch touchscreen offering a multi-touch interface advertised to be instantly familiar to users of the Apple iPhone.  And, not unlike the Apple MacBook Pro, Phase One tells us the housing of the digital back is machined from a single block of anodized aluminum and can – according to speculation from one sales team member – handle the weight of two elephants (as opposed to only one elephant for the P+ product line).

Other noteworthy improvements from the P+ line include medium format’s first on-screen live view, the addition of the industry’s first USB 3.0 connection (besides a familiar Firewire plug), a new fully enclosed battery compartment with on-board charging, the ability to set a customizable splash screen for studio logos, faster processing, faster writing to CF or computer tether, and a new five-year option warranty.

Curtsey of Palo Alto, CA’s Bear Images (the hands in the opening image belong to Bear’s Ken Clickenger) and Phase One’s North American sales team headed up by Murray Elliott, I was able to spend an hour or so with a pre-production model in San Francisco and present a few observations on this newest Danish Mega Camera.  While I look forward to more extensive image quality and location shooting tests, it was an interesting experience to explore the camera’s new user interface.  Read on for our hands-on preview…

Hands On Preview

Our demo IQ180 was a pre-production model, lacking its final firmware and feature set.  From what I was able to gather from a brief shoot, though, I’d say Phase One is about to introduce the photography world to a new way of working.  The interface is clean and thoroughly intuitive.  The familiar 4-button array is still present, but has receded to make room for the stunning new touch screen.  The old buttons are available to operate the digital back in a familiar Phase way and have a nice, high-end feel.

Menus and image previews move with fluid grace with only drastic zooms into monster 80 MP files visibly delaying the tiny computer.  Photographers can flip through images, viewing histograms, highlight warnings, and adding star ratings for Capture One more quickly than on most actual computers.  The IQ digital back, with 1 GB of RAM, is finely tuned to its specific job and delivers a whole new degree of lively and responsive interaction with images (and while working with darn big files).

The responsive touch screen really does work just like an iPhone.  A double tap zooms to 100% with up to 400% available with a slide control.  Pinch and zoom gesturing was not available on our pre-production copy, even without, though, the back makes it easier than ever to drill into and zip around images.  The screen brings Capture One’s beautiful histogram display to the field.  It can be viewed beside the image and expanded to full screen with a tap.  Also, perhaps inspired by Hasselblad’s Red/Yellow/Green button, the IQ goes a step further by allowing quick input of 5-star ratings for eventual Capture One editing.  The IQ buries other digital goodies for C1, including roll and tilt information from an internal level for auto corrections on the big screen.

The responsive touch screen really does work just like an iPhone… the new Phase One digital interface has set a new standard for photography

Inspiration credit goes to Apple, but the new Phase One digital interface has set a new standard for photography.  I look forward to the waves of imitation we’ll soon see.

Coincidentally, and speaking of products that inspire imitation, I had a chance to compare the interface to an iPad.  I had the ‘Pad logged on to Capture One’s server to preview images using Phase’s excellent (and free) Capture Pilot app (which seems to have been lifted directly from partner company Leaf).  The latest version of Capture pilot allows smooth zooming, 5-star rating, and histogram viewing, for anyone with an Apple device within range of a studio’s wireless network (access can be pass-worded).  Have your art director bring her iPad to your next studio shoot and be done proofing before shooting wraps.  I used the iPad and iPhone versions of Capture Pilot with our demo Mamiya RZ33 (reviewed here) and can confirm that it is stable, acceptably quick, and very useful.  The camera has to be tethered to a real computer, however, which has to be on a wireless network.  Provided all the parts are in place, though, it adds both conveniently interactive proofing and a memorable selling point for clients.  Editor’s Note: I look forward to comparing Hasselblad’s new iPad/iPhone app once it clears Apple’s screening.

Both physically and digitally, the IQ back feels very sturdy and is sculpted for uncomplicated cleanliness and ease of use.

As the Phase back’s most likely ride, the Mamiya-made 645DF camera body is comfortable, relatively compact, and offers a straight-forward interface for aperture and shutter speed settings.  It offers quick and accurate three-point autofocus and accepts, among others, the relatively new line of Scheider-Kruznach leaf shutter lenses for theoretical strobe sync speeds as fast as 1/1600 s (“Theoretical” until we test a strobe pack and sync device in the Photo Arts Monthly studio that can deliver that kind of speed).  By my observations, the pre-production IQ back was limited to between 1/400 and 1/800 s sync speed.

It’s worth noting that the 645DF camera is of nothing like the same build quality as the Phase One back.  While it gets the job done and keeps things simple, and also accept a killer lens selection, it is simply outclassed by a number of sturdier, more ergonomically-smart cameras.  After numerous generations and steady refining, it still feels like an OK Canon knock off.  Integration between camera body and medium format back, also, has been steadily progressed by other companies and Phase One is falling behind.  It’s becoming increasingly odd in medium format photography, for example, to require separate batteries for camera and back.  I was happy to hear that the IQ back is programed to turn on and off with the camera, but hope for even more integration and a more Phase-Worthy camera body in the future.  The IQ digital backs, like their most recent predecessors, can program the 645DF’s custom functions, an encouraging sign of progress.

The upshot of Phase’s pieced-together system is the ability to piece it together in a number of interesting ways.  The back can be used on a range of technical and view cameras.  With the right adapter, for example, it will mount to the Mamiya RZ camera we reviewed last month (here).  With a relatively open-system digital back, the camera possibilities are interesting and wide-ranging.  It’s handy, also, to have the option to rent higher resolution backs, exotic lenses, and bizarre accessories for the occasional abnormal shoot.  Bear Images of Palo Alto, CA, who assembled yesterday’s demo, had two tables spread with various camera options for Phase Backs, including a beautiful old Contax.

One accessory to note: I enjoyed using the V-Grip Air, a vertical grip that allows the camera body to use a familiar lithium battery instead of 6 AA batteries, and offers an internal Pocket Wizard transmitter.  The grip is light weight and keeps the whole system to a manageable weight, but it flexes a bit and feels a little under-luxurious for the price point and sophistication of the overall capture system.  It’s certainly an accessory to consider for photographers who typically shoot tripod-free.

Market Position

The IQ line is a user interface game changer, to be sure, but the post-film-era medium format market is slowly repopulating.  According to Bear Images, the Phase One IQ line will be priced something like this: IQ180: $44,000, IQ160: $37,000, IQ140: $22,000, and an upgrade plan includes generous discounts (up to 65% off) for current digital back owners.

Considered in turn, the market breaks down like this:

80 MP cameras?  Currently (as of March 2011) only the Phase One IQ180 and Leaf Aptus-2 12, which, under the expanding Phase One umbrella, are collaborators.  When compared, the Leaf Aptus-2 line feels geared toward studio shooters who will benefit by a wide range of color profiling options, the option of a sensor that can be rotated between vertical and horizontal, and a generally more methodical and precise workflow.  The Aptus-2 is fan-cooled and well ventilated.  it uses a stylus for input, and is especially at home tethered to the biggest computer you can find.  Leaf has a long-standing reputation for excellent color reproduction and is a common choice for product photography.

60 MP cameras?  This is a much more interesting place in the market.  In the IQ literature, Phase One even refers to the IQ160 as “the optimal solution”, apparently intending for this formerly very high-end resolution to be the new mid-range sweet spot.  The Phase One IQ160 makes a compelling argument, it packs a tested and universally admired, full-frame 645, 40.4×53.9 mm sensor and, via Sensor+, can turn out useable 15 MP images up to 3200 ISO.  Others to consider?  The most obvious rival is the Hasselblad H4D-60, packing similar stats into a nicely unified and all-leaf shutter camera system.  The Hassy lacks the killer new touch screen and is somewhat tied to less compelling proprietary software, but adds the novel True Focus autofocus system, the ability to switch between a prism and waist-level finder, a useful tilt-shift adapter, and a few other system refinements born from an intentionally closed and uncompromising system.

40 MP cameras?  When compared to the first two brackets, the 40 MP field is a free-for-all.  In addition to stable mates from Mamiya and Leaf, Leica offers the new S2 and corresponding new S-mount lens line.  Like Hasselblad, Leica is marked as an official competitor with the honor of making numerous appearances in Phase One literature.  The Leica S2 (reviewed here) is in roughly the same price range as the Phase One IQ140, but offers a 30×45 mm sensor in the 2:3 35mm ratio compared to the IQ140’s 32.9×43.9 mm in 645’s more square format.  It is also the first medium format camera to throw off any resemblance to film-era hardware, adopting instead a more familiar 35mm DSLR shape and function.  Besides the smooth finger-candy interface, the IQ140 offers the flexibility of traditional 645 photography, including interchangeable backs, lenses available used and from third parties, and the option to mount the digital back to technical and view cameras.  The IQ140 also offers Phase’s handy Sensor+ option, though to output somewhat small 10 MP files.  The Leica offers a substantially more robust, comfortable, and straight-forward camera body (when compared to the 645DF) better battery life, and the option to shoot to CF or SD, DNG or JPG.  Unlike those two cameras, the all-leaf shutter Hasselblad H4D-40 (reviewed here) as well as the higher-resolving H4D-50, don’t offer the choice of focal plane or leaf shutter, but are certainly competitive in other ways, including the addition of True Focus, an available GPS geo-tagging accessory, and other features discussed with the H4D-60 above.

Also, if 40 MP is enough to get the job done, photographers have the comparably bargain-priced Pentax 645D to consider.  At under $10,000, it’s less than half the price of the IQ140 and modern Pentax lenses are very slowly becoming available (like this brand new 25mm f4).  Hasselblad and Mamiya also offer more affordable cameras resolving in the neighborhood of 30 MP (see my H3DII-31 review here, a camera that has donated its sensor to the new Hasselblad H4D-31).

lens rental

Selling Points

Phase One is the first camera maker to bring an Apple-iPhone-inspired interface to the market and has done so very well.  The IQ interface is attractive, fast, informative, and the new LCD standard for the photo industry.  Combined with a basket full of useful updates to the highly regarded P+ product line, as well as the option for up to 80 MP of resolution, the new IQ line is a compelling family of products for professional photographers.

Considerations

The innovation, market-topping resolution, and impressive capabilities of the IQ back are saddled with a camera body that is showing its age.  The smart integration of camera body and back is one area where competing companies have made more meaningful advances.  Phase One’s dedication to an open system is admirable and advantageous in a number of ways, but a modern DSLR body to match the IQ’s Wow-factor would be a compelling addition to the system.  Also, Phase One is maintaining a narrow market with a product line that starts at $22,000.

Conclusion

The digital medium format market is undergoing a flurry of innovation.  With the S2, Leica raised the bar for design quality and ergonomics in a camera body, and now Phase One has done the same for the digital interface.  The new IQ180 is a smooth operator, delivering on its promise to revolutionize the familiar digital camera LCD screen.  I look forward to more extensive testing once production IQs begin to arrive later this spring.

Useful Links

Purchases made via links to our sponsors help support us financially by paying a small commission.  The Phase One IQ series is available through California’s Samy’s Camera:

The Phase One IQ180, with 645DF Camera Body and 80mm Lens

The Phase One IQ160, with 645DF Camera Body and 80mm Lens

The Phase One IQ140, with 645DF Camera Body and 80mm Lens

Image Slideshow
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by Matt Beardsley – all photography by Matt Beardsley (online portfolio here).

 

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