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Phase One: All the camera $55K can buy

Some people balk at spending $300 for a camera. So what does a medium-format camera with the price of a midrange BMW get you? Big, luscious images, for starts.

Phase One's camera gear is substantial. This shows the 645AF with the 75-150mm f4.5 zoom lens attached.
Phase One's camera gear is substantial. This shows the 645AF with the $3,890 75-150mm f4.5 zoom lens attached. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Most folks think carefully before spending $300 on a new camera. I'm more serious about photography, but I still swallowed hard before buying an SLR costing about 10 times that.

But brace yourself for even more sticker shock, because there are some professionals who spend more than an order of magnitude beyond what I did. This is the domain of medium-format digital cameras, whose sensors have roughly twice the surface area of a high-end SLR for maximum image quality.

Medium-format gear is beyond my means but not beyond my curiosity, so I was pleased with an offer to try one out. In this case, it was Phase One's top-of-the line products--the 645AF and newer 645DF cameras, the P65+ image sensor back that can be attached, and a handful of lenses.

Such gear appeals chiefly to fashion and commercial photographers, the types who produce full-page ads of glamorous models and diamond-encrusted watches. Lacking the gaggle of assistants, spacious studio, and forest of flash equipment common in this realm, I'm not equipped to put a modern medium-format camera through its full paces. But I'm not a bad or inexperienced photographer, so for those who've wondered what a medium-format machine is like, here are my impressions.

So what do I think of a camera with this price tag?

Chiefly this: you want to dive into the photos the P65+ can produce. The shots cry out for giant monitors, poster-size prints, or constant zooming to explore the details of a shot. As an example, look at the shot I took of San Francisco below. Click on it for a version 2,000 pixels wide--about 2/9ths of its full resolution, and check the 100 percent crops below it to see how fine the detail is from a few regions of the full image.

Using the gear was eye-opening in many ways. Let's start with the fact that it was worth more than all the cars I've owned in my life. In total, the street value is $54,860--most of that from the $40,000 sensor, and the rest from three lenses and the 645DF camera body. Even the rugged Pelican case in which the products are packaged cost more than a lot of people's cameras.

But, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. The law of diminishing returns applies to photography equipment, and an incremental improvement in quality costs a lot more for a high-end camera than for a point-and-shoot. One data point: DxO Labs, which subjects photographic equipment to a battery of tests, rates the P65+ sensor top among the 102 it's tested.

This slightly cropped view of San Francisco taken with a P65+ sensor measures 8,976 by 6,378 pixels--57.2 of the possible 60.4 megapixels the Phase One sensor can capture.
This slightly cropped view of San Francisco taken with a P65+ sensor measures 8,976 by 6,378 pixels--57.2 of the possible 60.4 megapixels the Phase One sensor can capture. Click the image to see a version 2,000 pixels wide. Stephen Shankland/CNET
The three light rectangles show the regions from which the above three 100-percent crops were taken.
The three light rectangles show the regions from which the above three 100-percent crops were taken. Stephen Shankland/CNET

What is a medium-format camera exactly?
First, a little explanation for those unfamiliar with the technology. Basically, medium-format cameras use film or image sensors larger than that of high-end SLRs. Even high-end "full-frame" SLRs with 36x24mm sensors--the size of frame of 35mm film--are considerably smaller than the 53.9x40.4mm sensor in the P65+. Using larger film or sensors let medium-format cameras capture more detail for larger, higher-quality images, and to record more levels of color brightness for each pixel.

Early medium-format digital camera systems used film backs, so when the digital revolution arrived, the film module was replaced by a sensor module. That's the design the Phase One uses with the 645DF camera body, but Hasselblad and now Pentax have opted to integrate the two, making their models more like large SLRs.

Copenhagen-based Phase One got its start manufacturing medium-format sensor modules, but when Hasselblad decided to integrate the sensor and camera into a single device, Phase One was shut out of that market. It ended up acquiring a controlling stake in Japanese medium-format camera maker Mamiya, whose camera bodies and lenses Phase One now sells under its own name.

Because the Phase One camera and sensor are separate devices, photographers can upgrade the two independently. That complicates the interface, though: there are also are two sets of controls, and even two power buttons.

A quick tour to the camera system: On the front are lenses, of course. Since they're designed to shed light on the large sensor, a given focal length will have a wider field of view than a full-frame SLR and wider yet than a mainstream digital SLR. Next comes the camera body, which handles metering for the right exposure level, autofocus, and controls over camera setting including shutter speed and aperture. Last is the back, with the sensor, the display, and controls for setting ISO or reviewing shots.

In the film days now fading into history, medium-format cameras and film cost more than ordinary 35mm film SLR products, but not an order of magnitude more. Things are different in the digital era. The light-gathering image sensor chips cost a lot of money compared to film, and the cost goes up dramatically the larger the sensor. That makes medium-format digital cameras very expensive, though of course film purchasing, developing, and digitization is no longer an expense. Not all medium-format sensors are as large as the film they replaced, too. The Phase One P65+ sensor, manufactured by Dalsa, is the biggest so far.

The assessment
As you might expect, the Phase One equipment isn't as easy to use as a $300 point-and-shoot or a $3,000 SLR. But it produces lavish pictures.

The Phase One digital sensor back--the part with the screen, four buttons, and room for a Compact Flash memory card--fits onto the back of the camera. It has limited real estate, so controlling the sensor back can be awkward.
The Phase One P65+ digital sensor back--the part with the screen, four buttons, and room for a Compact Flash memory card--fits onto the back of the camera. It has limited real estate, so controlling the sensor back can be awkward. Stephen Shankland/CNET

There's a long-running controversy among camera enthusiasts about whether it's better to make cameras with a smaller number of physically larger pixels that each can gather more information or with a larger number of physically small pixels to capture fine detail. With the Phase One P65+, you get the advantages of both worlds, to a degree, though it can't come close to matching the low-light performance of newer Canon and Nikon SLRs.

The Phase One images are made up of rich, juicy pixels that cry out for fiddling in software. You can go farther in wringing the photo you want out of the shot you got, filling in dim shadows or picking the hues and tones you'd like without degrading the image with a painfully overprocessed look.

The image is gloriously sharp, too, in part because P65+ lacks the anti-aliasing filter--an optical element most cameras use to counteract unpleasant artifacts called moire patterns that can mar photos with surfaces such as fabric with close-spaced parallel lines. Phase One figures that in the situations where moire patterns might show, professional photographers are perfectly competent to deal with it in software.

You have to know what you're doing to get the most from this gear, though. Like higher-end SLRs, the Phase One system lacks automatic modes for portraits or landscapes--features its light-meter-toting intended market would scoff at. You have to know your way around F-stops and depth of field, of course. You want a solid tripod and probably to use mirror lock-up for steady shots--the P65+ resolution shows the little nudges that would go unnoticed on a lesser camera.

Unfortunately, the small and feeble LCD on the P65+ back isn't much help shooting in the field. Zooming in and panning around to check focus is a tedious business involving many button presses (for example, one button changes the behavior of another button to pan horizontally to pan vertically). And you'll have to rely on the histogram and highlight warnings to gauge exposure because of the LCD's shortcomings. It's not quite like shooting film, where you had to wait until the film was developed to see if you got things right, but it's not as easy as the joysticks, zoom buttons, and bigger, higher-resolution LCDs of higher-end SLRs.

Giant images
The raw images take up a lot of hard drive and flash card space--each shot consumed 52MB to 83MB in my tests, usually between 60MB and 70MB. That's dozens of times larger than the JPEG most compact cameras produce, but I tend to be philosophical about file sizes. You're not likely to come back later to shoot a particular subject, so taking the best shot you can when you can is a good idea for important subjects. And years ago, I was appalled by the 20MB file sizes of some digital scans I'd made. Now each shot my SLR takes is closer to 30MB.

The large files from the P65+ impose a burden on the computer used to process them. Importing, editing, and exporting photos taxes even modern computers. You'll have to be patient with the computer elements of your workflow, even with fairly powerful machines.

The camera can produce JPEGs, but virtually everybody using it will shoot raw photos--the data taken from the image sensor without in-camera processing into a JPEG or other more convenient format. For example, shooting raw grants access to the 16 bits of brightness data per pixel compared to just 8 bits for JPEG.

One nice time-saving feature with Phase One's Capture One software is that it will automatically correct some lens defects--distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting--with the company's prime lenses. With zooms or third-party lenses, it does a pretty good job fixing chromatic aberration based on its own calculations.

A look at the top of the Phase One 645AF and the 75-100mm zoom lens, both mounted on a tripod.
A look at the top of the Phase One 645AF and the 75-100mm zoom lens, both mounted on a tripod. Stephen Shankland/CNET

But overall, with the computational burdens, I found myself reverting to more cautious habits dating back to the film days, when each shot cost money. It pays to be careful framing your shot, setting exposure, and focusing carefully before releasing the shutter. It's digital, but the Phase One is not generally the sort of camera you put in burst mode, hold the shutter down, and pick the best of 30 frames. If nothing else, the long image-write times and ponderous shutter movement preclude that approach.

One of Phase One's earlier shortcomings was the lack of a fast shutter speed for synchronizing with a flash. That made photographing action--models in motion, for example--difficult. Through a partnership with German lensmaker Schneider Kreuznach, though, photographers now can buy "leaf-shutter" lenses that move the shutter from the camera body to the lens itself. This approach permits much faster shutter speeds when using a flash--1/1600th of a second on the P65+ and its lower-resolution sibling, the $19,900 P40+. For comparison, Nikon's top-end D3X ad Canon's competing 1Ds Mark III both have a maximum sync speed of 1/250th of a second.

The mainstream advantage
Obviously I'm impressed with the Phase One. But it's clear to me that there are many areas where more mainstream cameras leave it behind.

The SLR giants, Canon and Nikon, have research budgets commensurate with the vastly higher volumes of products they ship. Coming with that volume is a lot of experience in what works and doesn't when it comes to miniaturization, manufacturing, durability, and ergonomics.

Consequently, Canon and Nikon are pushing hard against the medium-format world. Top-end models don't offer as many pixels as the Phase One products, but they're improving pixel count and pixel quality relatively rapidly. And particularly for Canon, it's nice that a number of cinematographers are spending lavishly on expensive professional-grade lenses, too, as they explore the new realm of video SLR.

The SLR makers of the world have another big advantage: they can sell inexpensive models to entry-level shooters, then offer gradual upgrades in lenses and camera bodies as the photographer gets more serious and better funded. There are some lens compatibility issues moving from mainstream digital SLRs to full-frame models, but they pale in comparison to the move into the medium-format world.

Pentax is an interesting hybrid. Long a player in both conventional SLRs and medium-format film cameras, Pentax has entered the medium-format digital world. It's got very modest ambitions, but it also can apply some of its high-volume SLR expertise and technology to the medium-format product line. Perhaps the chasm between SLRs and medium-format needn't be so deep.

The business considerations of the medium-format world have a somewhat different equation for photographers, though. Here, photographers charge a lot more and their clients expect a lot more--not just in the quality of the final images, but also in the setup and shooting of the job. It's like consulting; the camera gear is only part of the package. Photographers who charge a big premium will be able to pay a big premium for their gear.

So for now at least, Phase One seems to have a reasonable business if not a money factory. If Canon manages to re-top its SLR line with a 1Ds Mark IV soon enough, it might well encroach on some of the medium-format advantages while offering some options such as video that medium-format models lack. But for the upper crust of the photography market, Phase One seems generally able to sustain its own investments to keep those who've invested in Phase One gear supplied with new technology.