Phase One IQ180: 80 megapixels of lavish color

At nearly $48,000 just to get started, this medium-format camera system better be good. It is--if you take care before snapping the shot.

Phase One's IQ180 sensor mounted to the 645DF camera body and Schneider-Kreuznach's 120mm tilt-shift lens.
Phase One's IQ180 sensor mounted to the 645DF camera body and Schneider-Kreuznach's 120mm tilt-shift lens. (Click to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET

When describing Phase One's IQ180-based camera system, there are plenty of superlatives you could pick.

High resolution is one choice: the sensor captures 80-megapixel photos measuring 10,328 by 7,760 pixels.

Expensive is another obvious candidate: the IQ180 image sensor costs $43,990. Adding in the 645DF camera body and Schneider-Kreuznach's 80mm LS lens bumps the price to $47,990.

But the one that intrigued me the most was outstanding color.

Over two weeks shooting with the IQ180 and 645DF medium-format camera body, I was consistently impressed with the depth and subtlety of its images' color. As often as not it was the color, not the high resolution, that made me want to dive into the photos (having a high-gamut display helps a lot) and print posters. Skin tones look more alive and natural, and I found myself shooting to capture color much more than I usually do.

I spent an afternoon at Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France, with blazing orange nasturtiums and his house's shutters painted bright green. Just as rewarding, though, were more subdued colors--the purply-green nymphaea Monet liked so much, the warm hues of a building at sunset, and the fallen leaves fading from yellow to brown.

Of course, for this price, the color better be good.

Photography pros
It probably goes without saying, but the IQ180 is for professionals. Medium-format cameras' image sensors are considerably larger even than top-end cameras of the 35mm lineage, whose "full-frame" sensors measure 24x36mm. Phase One's IQ180 is 53.7x40.4mm.

A close-up of a flower shot with the Phase One IQ180 digital back and 645DF camera body with the Phase One/Mamiya 120mm Macro f/4.0D lens. 1/250 sec at F7.1, ISO 200.
A close-up of a flower shot with the Phase One IQ180 digital back and 645DF camera body with the Phase One/Mamiya 120mm Macro f/4.0D lens. 1/250 sec at F7.1, ISO 200. (Click to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET

Eighty megapixels is more than even most professional photographers need today. Indeed, too many pixels can cause problems: squeezing in so many makes for physically small pixel sizes and correspondingly high noise that degrades the image. But the IQ180's spacious chip permits pixels to be relatively large, which satisfies professionals' needs for high resolution without introducing too much in noise.

Which professionals? Chiefly those who work in a studio for big-budget shoots. The IQ180 is the sort of camera that's used for big, finely detailed ads of fashion models, luxury hotels, fancy cars, Swiss watches, and diamond jewelry. These are premium shoots for premium clients, where it's more likely investments in expensive gear can be justified.

The high resolution is good for posters, top-quality reproductions, editing flexibility, and more. It's darned impressive, too. I've included a couple of images in this story that you can zoom into, but this iris photo below shows the uncropped frame above and, below, a 100-percent zoom of the area marked with a green rectangle.

A close-up of an iris at Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France. The area in the green rectangle is shown at 100 percent zoom below. This was shot at 1/125 sec. at f/10 and ISO 200, with no extra noise reduction applied.
A close-up of an iris at Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France. The area in the green rectangle is shown at 100 percent zoom below. This was shot with Phase One's IQ180 and 120mm macro lens at 1/125 sec. at f/10 and ISO 200, with no extra noise reduction applied. (Click to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET

And if you zoom into this portrait I posted on Microsoft's service (it's also in this story, a few paragraphs down), you can see reflected in the boy's eye the following: me, holding the camera and silhouetted against the window; the railing, sky, and trees outdoors; and colored paper and two plates on the table. Also worth a deep dive is this photo of the side of Claude Monet's house.

Still, a tough competitive challenge faces Phase One and its Japanese subsidiary, Mamiya, which builds medium-format lenses and camera bodies. Even as several medium-format rivals faded away in recent years, Nikon and Canon full-frame SLRs are much cheaper and steadily improving in resolution, too. Those manufacturers have a wide selection of high-quality lenses and accessories such as wireless flash controllers. Plenty of professionals cut their teeth on SLRs and stay there. And their sensors are tied to the consumer market, benefiting from rapid technology advances and manufacturing efficiencies.

So Phase One must stay a step ahead with its premium products. Here, the IQ180 is more compelling than its predecessor, the Phase One P65+ digital back I tried last year.

Usability improvements
One very big improvement is usability. The IQ180 has a touch screen that's vastly easier to use than the four-button interface of the the P65+. Quick taps on the screen let you zoom in all the way to 100 percent so you can check focus. Other taps let you more easily delete photos, give them star ratings, and change camera settings.

The screen is responsive, unlike some touch screens I've used, and when you're looking at zoomed-in images, you can flick to pan around more easily. That's a huge improvement over the unintuitive controls of the P65+.

The screen itself is much nicer to look at, too--brighter, more detailed, with colors that aren't so washed-out. The IQ180 has live view, great for close-up macro focusing while the camera is on a tripod; otherwise you can stick with the nice viewfinder.

Other refinements over the predecessor was faster autofocus (though it only works with the center point of the lens) and vastly improved automatic white balance.

Overall, the IQ180 was more alive than the P65+, farther removed from the inert film packs that digital backs replace. That made it much more useful as a tool to get the right shot when you're taking the photos.

Improved usability doesn't mean the camera system is a dream to use, though. It's a hulking piece of machinery, with heavy lenses. Passersby will notice the loud "ka-chizzer-flop" noise from the shutter and mirror. The camera system is at home on a sturdy tripod--close-up shots with an 80-megapixel sensor reveal even tiny camera movements. It's best to arrange shots in advance rather than burn 20 or 30 frames on a subject and then pick the best later on your computer. This medium-format system is not well-suited to improvisation and fast-changing scenes.

Also, because the sensor is independent from the camera, it can be awkward for the average SLR photographer to get used to some controls such as shutter speed being on the camera body and others such as ISO being on the sensor module. An integrated design is convenient--that's the approach top rivals Hasselblad and Pentax have taken--but it also means some extra expense for those who want to upgrade sensors more often than camera bodies, and it means the sensor back can be used with exotic cameras from companies such as Arca Swiss.

As with any camera, the more care you put into using it, the more you get out of it. It reminded me of a high-performance sports car: capable of amazing achievements, but rough around the edges. You won't get the cupholders and ergonomic refinements of a mainstream sedan, but you're buying the machine for its performance. (Unless you're just flaunting your wealth.)

And like some sports cars, the hardware can be finicky. I had some issues with autofocus hunting, the CompactFlash memory card could be hard to extract sometimes, and the digital back can really drain its battery fast if you use the screen a lot. Fortunately, you can shoot while the camera is plugged into power, and for that matter while tethered to a computer with its USB 3 or Firewire connection. It's got a built-in charger, too, so when it's plugged in the digital back will charge its battery.

Stressed-out software
Another good reason not to shoot dozens and dozens of photos of a subject is that the photos themselves are taxing. Raw files for me were generally 60MB to 90MB in Phase One's IIQ format and 90MB to 120MB when converted to Adobe's DNG format. Adobe Lightroom groaned under the load: rendering 1:1 previews (in which you can zoom in 100 percent so each pixel in the photo matches a pixel on your display) took about 20 seconds on my quad-core laptops. Adobe's software can handle IIQ files and many Phase One/Mamiya and Schneider-Kreuznach lenses, but of course Phase One would prefer you use its own Capture One software.

Happily, the photos that came out of the camera were generally good enough that I didn't feel a compulsion for lots of post-processing.

A close-up of a strawberry shot with the Phase One IQ180 digital back and 645DF camera body with the Phase One/Mamiya 120mm Macro f/4.0D lens. 1/10 sec at F9, ISO 35.
A close-up of a strawberry shot with the Phase One IQ180 digital back and 645DF camera body with the Phase One/Mamiya 120mm Macro f/4.0D lens. 1/10 sec at F9, ISO 35. (Click to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET

The IQ180's low noise and high color is best when set to its impressively low ISO 35, but it worked well at ISO 100 and 200, too. ISO 800 is the highest the camera goes at full resolution, and I don't recommend it. Phase One's Sensor+ technology, which bins pixels together, runs from ISO 140 to 3,200 but only shoots 20-megapixel images. It's great that you can push to higher ISOs, but the noise is an issue. This is where you'll see the performance of relatively mainstream SLRs such as Canon's 21-megapixel 5D Mark II come out ahead, even though that's a 3-year-old model now.

People shooting in studio environments with controlled lighting don't have to worry so much about dynamic range, the ability of the camera to capture a full range of bright and dark tones. But even then it's important--pulling out details in dark hair or dimly lit tire treads, for example. I was pleased with how much information the camera captured. The 16-bit-per-channel data likely helps here. (That means that there are 65,536 gradations between the maximum and minimum brightness each sensor pixel can capture. For comparison, higher-end SLRs offer 14 bits, which is pretty good, and JPEG can handle only a pathetic 8 bits, which is why you have to shoot with raw image formats to take full advantage of these cameras.)

The three Schneider-Kreuznach lenses I tried--55mm, 80mm, and 110mm models--were all impressive, as befits their prices: $2,490, $3,990, and $4,490, respectively. Chromatic aberration wasn't worrisome, and their sharpness matched the high-resolution sensor's abilities. They're leaf-shutter designs, which means they have a built-in shutter that permits higher shutter speeds than the camera body itself, which is nice for fashion photographers shooting moving models.

I also spent a lot of time with Phase One's $3,390 120mm macro lens. It wolfed down impressive amounts of detail at close range. Remember when the HD video industry realized the higher-resolution TV cameras meant they had to apply makeup more carefully? I had the same problem, discovering flecks of dust I wouldn't have worried about before. It seems optimized for macro use, though. I wasn't as happy with the lens when shooting subjects that were, say, 15 or 20 feet away, when the Schneider-Kreuznach's 110mm fared better.

Sadly, I only had time for a taste of another lens, Schneider-Kreuznach's $4,990 120mm tilt-shift. I can't comment on its abilities, but I will say it's probably the most beautifully machined object I've handled. (Tilt-shift lenses can be oriented at unusual angles and alignments compared with ordinary camera lenses, which lets photographers dramatically alter the focusing depth of field and correct perspective issues such as converging parallel lines of a building photographed from street level.)

Getting your hands dirty
Shooting with a camera of this caliber is a different experience from much of what you'll get from today's digital photography.

Gone is much of the hurry, because you can't just whip the camera out and snap that candid portrait that lasts only a fleeting moment. Back is much of the patience and deliberation that's become hard to find since the camera industry hitched itself to Moore's Law. Gone, too, is much of the automation of today's photography that I believe offers a lot of help for most folks' pictures.

But there's a place in the world for a more painstaking approach. For those who can afford it, Phase One's equipment fits the bill.

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