On location with the Phase One IQ180

Introduction

The Phase One 645DF and the IQ180 medium format system is a serious camera system for a serious photographer.  A full frame 80 megapixel digital back offers unparalleled image quality.  The 645DF and the IQ180 combine to make a beast of a camera, and currently is the top of the line in single-capture resolution.  The camera is based on an open architecture, meaning that the camera can accept a variety of digital backs and lenses.  It is a system that can grow and expand with your needs, not rendering itself obsolete when the “next big thing” gets released.  It’s a camera for studio and location work that brings the focus back to photography.  This is not a dSLR with some video options thrown in.  This is a real photographic camera, not a videography afterthought.

Why should you care?  You should care because this may be the best studio camera I’ve ever used.  And if you care about your images, and need to deliver high-resolution files, and have art directors that care about the final product more than the bottom line, then Phase One may be the digital camera system for you.

 

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 front view.

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 front view.

 

What I used, as provided by Phase One: (pricing info sourced from Calumet Photographic)

Price as tested $47,990.00  for the 645DF, IQ180, and an 80mm lens

Just the 645df  $5,990.00

And the 1Q180 $43,990.00

 

Phase One also graciously provided a few lens with the demo kit:

Schneider LS 55mm f/2.8

Schneider LS 80mm f/2.8

Schneider LS 110mm f/2.8

Schneider TS 120mm f/5.6

Mamiya MACRO 120mm f/4.0 D

 

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 left side.

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 left side.

Controls and functions (first impressions)

The IQ180 got most of my attention, as this touch screen digital back was a new concept for me.  The DF645 is a great camera, and I know I’ll be talking about it a ton during this review, but I was super fascinated by the IQ180.  The digital back consists of a touch screen and four physical buttons on the bevel.  The left side buttons can be used to zoom in and out (to 100% and 6% with one touch) and the buttons on the right are used to scroll though your images.  The touch screen has many contextual menus, allowing you to customize the display (with grid overlays, focus masks, highlight warnings, etc).

When powering on the IQ180, you are greeted with a summary of your settings and buttons for changing your ISO and White Balance, as well as image playback selection.  The MENU buttons gives you options for file formats, image viewing orientation, and power management.

The nested menu items are reached by holding your finger on a menu button and waiting a second for the new menu to pop up.  I was able to figure out 90% of the digital back features without reading the instruction manual.  It is a very intuitive system, and lets you focus on the information that you want (histograms, focus masks, etc).  I loved the digital touch screen.  The scale slider on the left lets you zoom in and out with one finger.  The bottom lists frames remaining on your CF card, battery charge, and the frame number.  Sometimes I wanted the screen to be bigger because I wanted to see more.  But of course, at that point I should have been shooting tethered to Phase One’s Capture One software.

The controls on the 645DF are intuitive and will feel familiar to 35mm DSLR and medium format shooters alike.  It’s a breeze to change shutter speed and f/stop.  If you have used a camera outside of P mode, there is nothing in the 645DF buttons and knobs you haven’t encountered before.  It’s familiar, comfortable, and great.  The camera has a comfortable, firm grip, and feels solid.  Compared to a 35mm body, the added weight and handle-on-box design is unwieldy at first, but considering the sensor size and processing power, the IQ180 is a remarkably sporty camera (especially considering it’s packing 6 AA batteries for the camera and a lithium pack for the digital back).

While I am always the first to advocate a neck strap or some other safety harness on a camera, the camera never felt awkward or in danger of slipping out of my hand.  It is solid.  It wasn’t too heavy and even after hand holding for twenty minutes, my hand was not tired.  It helps that system lenses from Mamiya, Phase One, and Schneider Krueznach tend to be compact and relatively light weight.

The camera feels a bit bulkier than its closest rival, the Hasselblad H4D (read our most recent review here).  Compared to that camera, the 645DF loses the interchangeable viewfinder (the H camera has a unique waist-level option) but gains a more connected-feeling grip (the H camera’s grip is actually a detachable battery) as well as an accessory vertical grip that gives the 645DF a tremendous boost in comfort at the cost of added weight.  The IQ, compared to the Hasselblad, and many other contemporary cameras for that matter, has a streamlined, all-business feel.  It is quick and utterly straight-forward and the new touch interface makes the Phase One easier and more enjoyable than ever.

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 top view.

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 top view.

On the job – The camera in action

I took the camera to the San Francisco International Airport Museum to put the system through its paces in a professional setting.  Thirteen aircraft models from the museums Edward Chavez collection needed to be moved from their current display location to a temporary storage facility due to airport maintenance.  This provided the perfect opportunity to give the Phase One 645 DF and the IQ180 a week of intense shooting under tight working conditions.

The camera is certainly heavier than a Canon 5D Mark 3, but after using it for a few hours it felt like an extension of my hands.  The included quick start guide made getting up and running.  If you are like me, you want to make images, not spend all day reading tech manuals (although you definitely should read the included technical manual to learn the ins and outs of custom functions and some of the hidden features of the IQ180).  Practice makes perfect, as with any technology, and despite jumping in head first with a head full of confidence, there were times when I pushed the wrong button on the IQ180.  Mark it up to newbie errors, because as the week went on, my ability to make the IQ180 do want I wished became easier and easier.

About the custom settings:  it’s best to take a few minutes and work through the custom features and tweak the camera to operate the way you want it.  The custom settings are available through the 645 settings on the IQ180.  The 645 offers different options, including EV step (1/2, 1/3, or 1), a last lens setting that can set the newest lens to the same aperture as the old one so you don’t have to worry about resetting each new lens, light metering mode (center, spot, or average), currently installed battery type (to give you an accurate battery charge reading on the LCD), sleep and display timers, and flash sync.  There are many others, and while the camera is excellent straight out of the box, the wealth of options that can tailor the camera to your shooting needs is impressive.  Using the C1, C2, and C3 top dial settings, you can store three sets of settings, and quickly switch between them as the situation merits.  This requires some work before shooting, but having three sets of custom functions readily available is helpful.  Phase One has created a photographic camera that is easy to program, easy to use, and delivers stunning results.  I did not do this, and in hindsight, I really should have.

Phase One 645 DF and IQ180 back view.

Phase One 645 DF and IQ180 back view.

At the SFO Airport

The first six airplane models were photographed in a tiny storage room with a low ceiling overhead, with the remaining seven photographed in their display cases in the airport terminal after their plexiglass tops had been removed.  I did not have a lot of room to move around for the first batch of planes, but I wanted to try tripod shooting and hand holding the camera.  For this project, a tripod was an absolute must.  I set the lights and then anchored the tripod with sandbags.  I used a simple screw-in cable release to trigger the shutter.  I love that Phase One maintains the old school system for those of us that happened to have a cable release nearby.  There is an electronic shutter release connector as well.

Because I was flying solo for this project, I found myself holding a reflector with the IQ set for timer mode.  As with other very high resolution cameras, stability and focus are critical with the IQ180.  I could trigger the camera, get into position, and the camera captured a frame.  Repeat as necessary…  As photographers, we have to be creative to solve problems, and the 645DF and the IQ180 make the experience of being a photographer much more enjoyable.  I wasn’t doing anything that many other camera could do, but this camera is made for one thing; making images.  And it was always a pleasure to use it.

I should mention the batteries.  I had three, and I needed every single one.  If you make heavy use of the IQ180 view screen (which I did, as I had it on almost constantly), each battery tends to last about four hours.  You will get much more life from your batteries if you make lesser use of the touch screen, but having the touch screen available made me want to use it.  I don’t like extensive reviewing of images on the back of my DSLR, but the IQ180 made me want to slow down, reviewing each and every image.  I wanted to zoom them, study the composition (the selection of grids and overlays available on the IQ180 is staggering), and study the histograms.  Maybe because it was new technology for me, but maybe it’s because Phase One has made the review process easy and painless and provided so much information and control over what is displayed.  I’m sure that if I were hand holding the camera and making people images, I’d be paying less attention to the tech, and more to the subject.

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 4.

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 4

Speaking of the screen on the digital back, and as a medium format first, the image view on the IQ180 is BEAUTIFUL.  The DSLR manufacturers should look to Phase One and their “Retina Display” for inspiration.  Short of putting an iPad-sized display on the back of your camera, the IQ180 is the next best thing (though the iPad integrates very nicely with Capture One for those who really do want a review screen that big).  Forget the thumb sticks and the the scroll wheels and the press-hold-release finger acrobatics we are all used too with our dSLRs; Phase One has created the most enjoyable interactive photo display I have seen.  They have set the bar very high.  Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, and all the others have some improvements to check into before the release of their next D9000000000 Mark 4 mirrorless lensless super camera of the future that also does video shot in absolute darkness with the lens cap still attached.

The camera is made to tether, and the kit includes the longest firewire 800 cord I have ever seen, but I did not get the chance to try out this feature, as I did not have a computer available to me at the museum.  And my G4 laptop wasn’t going to cut it on location with this technological masterpiece.  It is definitely time to upgrade the computer side of the equation.

Editor’s Note: previous tests with the IQ180 tethered to Capture One have been very positive.  Especially considering the file size and complexity of controls, the IQ is responsive and fully controllable from within Capture One and also works well with Phase’s iPad/iPhone app.  Uniquely, the IQ series offer both USB 3.0 and Firewire 800.

I was amazed at how quickly my paltry 8GB CF cards filled up.  I do not have the super fastest read/write cards, but only once did I find myself annoyed by and read/write delays, and that was when I was hand holding the camera outside photographing a plane flying over the airport.  The IQ180 has a better write time than any card I researched, so read/write with the camera will only be limited by your choice of CF cards.  Next time, I will take a 16GB or 32GB card or three with me.

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 3

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 3.

Lenses:

I used the 55 the most often.  It’s a nice versatile lens that covers many situations.  Focusing was easy, and all of the lens offered a smooth focus glide with just enough resistance.

The 120mm macro brought out the dust, scratches, and hairs on the airplane models that I missed during my very quick (if at all) cleaning of the models.  In hindsight I wish I would have spend some time outside with some mushrooms, flowers, insects, and other subjects, but the lens did a remarkable job.  It’s clean and crisp and tack sharp.

Every lens was razor sharp, top-notch, and I’d be proud to have any of them in my personal photographic arsenal.

Schneider TS 120mm f/5.6 (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

Schneider TS 120mm f/5.6 (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

Image Processing with Adobe Bridge

I tried Adobe Bridge first because I was most familiar with this program.  It was a slow and painful wait to load the thumbnailsMaybe I should have turned off iTunes, but listening to “Black Tape for a Blue Girl” helped to make the process more bearable.  I have noticed that Bridge CS4 handles thumbnails differently (and better) than CS5 (which wants to re-generate a thumbnail every time I switch to the directory).  Ugh.  Waiting for 84 files to be ready took over 6 minutes.   Using the space bar to view a 100% also hiccuped.  On a 2GB system, Adobe was never ever able to give me 100% preview in Bridge.  I could get one in ACR, but not in Bridge.  I am waiting for my copy of CS6 to give it a try with the new Adobe ACR2012.  If you really want to make the best of your Phase One IQ180 experience, please do yourself a favor and download a copy of Capture One Pro 6.  Your hair will thank you for taking the extra step necessary to ward off the early stress induced grey streaks.    

Image Processing with Capture One Pro 6

I will publish a full review of Capture One Pro 6 in a future article, but suffice it to say that Capture One Pro 6 is fairly easy to use, especially if you have used Adobe Lightroom.  But to give you a quick overview, when you first start the program a welcome screen greets you with a quick video overview of the program.  It’s definitely worth watching your first time with the program.  Then you can choose between the default or the simplified workspace.  A third option connects you online to watch some tutorial videos.  Again, I was glad I spent the extra time up front to watch the videos.

I went to my image directories, and switching to the same directory as Bridge, Capture One was able to generate fast thumbnails in about 20 seconds, then it went back for a second pass to generate the fast preview images.  I waited three seconds for the image to resolve on the first pass, but after the second, my image preview was resolved in less than a second.  Very simple, very sweet.

The loupe tool was my favorite default tool.  Click and hold the mouse button to use the loupe circle to see a 100% magnification detail.  If you keep the mouse button down and drag the loupe, you’ll be able to inspect key areas of your image.  This is a great feature, especially for someone like me who is not working on a very big screen.  I could (and probably should) talk for hours about Capture One, but I’ll have to save that for a separate article.

Cockpit detail (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

Cockpit detail (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

Image Quality

First, these files are huge.  These files averaged at 69 megabytes.  My Mac Pro (2 x 2.66 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon w/ 16 GB memory) chugs away on the files in a slow and steady pace.  Layering a few full sized images together in Photoshop (if you are a compositor) starts to tax my system quickly.  I’ve started to work on files at the max resolution I need, and this helps.  These large files cry to be displayed at full size, but compromises have to be made sometimes.  If your system can handle it, go for the largest file you can use.  The detail and the beauty of each image has to be seen to really be appreciated.  I have tried to open these files on a similar system, but with only 2 GB of memory, and the computer wasn’t having any part of it.  Photoshop became so slow and unresponsive, that I gave up long before I was able to get a single image loaded and displayed.

The quality of the images is amazing.  I was able to see details crisply on my monitor.  At 100% a well crafted photograph becomes a Rembrandt to cherish and enjoy.  (A tiny Rembrandt on my monitor that is way undersized to show all of the IQ180 image at 100%).

The image colors out of camera are very accurate.  In fact, I had to do little or nothing to the files to match the colors I was after.  The engineers and programmers at Phase One have done an amazing job.  The files have just the right amount of saturation and pop right out of the camera.  Viewing a properly exposed photograph from the IQ180 shows off many of its great features.  Everything just looks right.  Even my wife, who could care less about cameras and photography, said “Wow!  I can see why you want one of these cameras!  Those images look amazing.”.  You’ll see.  When you compare an IQ180 file with a dSLR rendition of the same scene, you’ll get it.  I feel like I am part of some secret society of photographers that have been able to experience the truth, and I’m ready to pull the curtain back and shout to the uninitiated, that this is it.  This is what you’ve been searching for.  You just didn’t know it.  Until now.

Contrast and sharpness at their default settings are beautiful.  This camera is really awesome straight out the box.  Any problems that I had with the files were caused by me (bad lighting, improper exposure settings, out of focus).  The Phase One is a high quality tool, well designed to do the simple job of helping photographers create beautiful imagery.  My shadows have great detail and little noise.  Highlights are harder to control, but again, that is mostly a user problem.  The sensor captures a wide latitude of tonality, and gives the photographer plenty of information to work with.

Opening the file in Photoshop CS5 or CS6 lets you do all the Photoshoppy things that photographers love to do to their images.  I definitely felt the difference when using a low end Mac Pro with 2GB of memory vs. a higher spec Mac Pro running Photoshop in 64 bit mode with 16GB of memory.  These files are big and need some serious computer power behind them.  Rendering a 100% preview in Bridge took a few seconds (and sometimes more).  Heck, just opening the file into Adobe ACR took 10 seconds.  And composting these files together makes your files size increase rapidly.  Saving a flattened file into JPEG format gave me about a 39MB file.  That is better than the 1.11 GB composite I’m currently working with.  But you know what?  The results are worth it.  Buy a Phase One IQ180 and buy a new Mac Pro.  Whatever it takes to get the job done.  You’ll thank yourself later.

The only drawback (and I hesitate to even use that word) that I found in the files was the ISO range.  I shot most everything at ISO 100, and it all looks spectacular.  I did crank up the ISO to 3200 for a few quick snaps, and there was (as is to be expected) some noise.  Not a lot, and not overly bad.  Certainly nothing to really complain about, but we’ve gotten so used to expecting perfectly noise-less images (does anyone even remember film grain anymore???) that it’s worth mentioning.  I’ve yet to see a noiseless higher ISO image from any camera manufacturer, so the IQ180 files are standing in good company.  If you shoot high ISO in near absolute darkness, this probably isn’t the camera for you.

 

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 1

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 1.

Selling Points

The image quality is top notch

The touch screen is pure genius

Menus are easy to navigate

The focus overlay is brilliant

On camera rating system is useful on the IQ180

The large viewfinder makes it easy to manually focus

It is easy to switch from auto to manual focus

The auto focus works well in low light thanks to a built in laser assist beam

The system is expandable.  Buy what you need, replace and upgrade the digital back as necessary.

 

Phase One 645DF batteries.

Phase One 645DF batteries.IQ180 sensor.

Considerations

Some people will consider it heavy

Very large files, CF cards fill up fast – writing can be slow without the fastest of the fast CF cards

The battery only lasts about 4 hours under heavy use

The system is very pricey.

The motor drive can be slow.

The auto focus is limited to center area (and two points slightly off center).

Higher ISO settings might be considered too noise for some people.

 

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 2

Phase One 645DF & IQ180 at SFO Airport 2

Closing thoughts

The Phase One IQ 180 is a solid piece of professional machinery.  It is a real camera for a real photographer.  The file size will push the limits of your hard drives and your computer, but the image quality is better than anything I have seen out of any other camera.  When you capture that perfect image, you really have a perfect image.  But when you miss, you will know.  I found it best to review and make some edits on the digital back before downloading my CF card to the computer.  In the end, for this test, I kept most of the misses, just to get a sense of what a camera like this does to a storage system.  I now have a 123 GB of Phase One files from several shoots, which is way more than anyone needs, or would probably generate at any one time, but those files are great test for Capture One Pro from Phase One.  More on the software in a later review.

As a final thought, let it be known, that I still dream about this camera.  At night, when I sleep, it is the Phase One I see dancing around.  I often find myself craving its meaty weight in my hand.  It is the IQ180 that taunts me like the One Ring taunts Sméagol.  I haven’t started referring to it as My Precious just yet, but that day may be tomorrow.

 

Dusty wing detail (image taken with the Phase One 645 DF & IQ180)

Dusty wing detail (image taken with the Phase One 645 DF & IQ180)

 

IQ180 Technical Summary (provided by Phase One)

 

Imaging technology

CCD: Full frame CCD

Lens Factor: 1.0 / Full frame

Resolution: 80 megapixel

Active pixels: 10320 x 7752 pixels

CCD size effective: 53.7 mm x 40.4 mm

Pixel size: 5.2 x 5.2 micron

Image ratio: 4:3

Dynamic range: 12.5 f-stops

IQ180 full resolution capture mode

Resolution: 80 megapixel

Pixel size: 5.2 x 5.2 micron

RAW file compression: IIQ large: 80 MB
IIQ small: 54 MB

ISO: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800

Sensor + capture mode

Resolution: 20 megapixel

Pixel size: 10.4 x 10.4 micron

RAW file compression: IIQ large: 20 MB
IIQ small: 13.5 MB

ISO: 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200

Output files

Color depth: 16 bit per color

Image file formats: All output formats of Capture One are possible: TIFF-RGB, TIFF-CMYK, JPEG

Color management: RGB, Embedded ICC profile, CMYK

LCD screen

Size: 3.2″

Resolution: 1.15 megapixel
retina type multi touch screen

Viewing angle: 170º

Lighting

Supports all photographic lights:
Flash, tungsten, daylight, fluorescent, HMI

Operating conditions

Temperature: 0º to 40ºC (32º to 122ºF)

Humidity: 15 to 80% RH (non-condensing)

Computer minimum requirements

Mac: Fast Intel Core 2 Duo or later CPU, 4 GB RAM, Fast HDD: RAID 0 configured systems for max per-formance, Nvidia 8800 series graphics card or newer

PC: Intel Pentium 4, 4 GB RAM, 64bit,10 GB free hard disk space, IEEE 1394 interface, Windows XP, Service Pack 3 or Windows Vista, Service Pack 1

Storage files

Phase Ones IIQ RAW file format speeds up the image capture and file transfer. It increases the storage capacity by turning the full 16 bit image data into a compact RAW file format.The default IIQ RAW-large format is completely lossless.

Software

Capture One 6.1 or later

Engine detail (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

Engine detail (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

645DF Technical Summary (provided by Phase One)

Tripod socket

  • 3/8 inch

Lenses

  • Phase One Digital focal plane lenses
  • Schneider Kreuznach leaf shutter lenses
  • Mamiya 645 AFD lenses
  • Compatible with Hasselblad V and Pentacon 6 (via multimount adaptor)

Flash

  • Focal plane shutter: Up to 1/125s
  • Leaf shutter lenses: Up to 1/1600s*
  • 1st and 2nd curtain flash synchronization
  • X sync terminal and support for TTL flash

Auto focus

  • TTL phase-difference AF with 3 focus points
  • Focus confirmation in manual mode
  • Infrared AF assists for unfailing focus
  • Auto focus lock for swift AF/ M shift

Light Metering

  • TTL metering (average, spot and auto)
  • Programmable AEL button
  • Exposure compensation: +/- 5EV

Shutter

  • 1/4000s to 60 minutes
  • Up to 120 frames per minute

Viewfinder

  • Fixed prism viewfinder
  • Exchangeable diopter from -5 to +3
  • LCD panel with full exposure information

Focusing Screen

  • Interchangeable focus screens
  • Laser engraved mask for digital back

Remote

  • Screw-in cable release on shutter button
  • Terminal for electronic triggering devices

User configuration

  • 3 custom dial modes for capture settings
  • 36 custom settings
  • Customizable dials and buttons

Power Requirements

  • 6 AA batteries standard or rechargeable

Size: 153x128x184 mm

Weight: 1030 g without batteries (35 ounces)

 

Airplane over Tanforan (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

Airplane over Tanforan (image taken with the Phase One 645DF & IQ180)

 

Image Gallery
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by Chris Bjuland, photography by Chris Bjuland, copyright 2012 .  See more at www.bjuland.com

 

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