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Phase One XF IQ3 review: Phase One XF camera and IQ3 sensor make you want to dive into every pixel

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MSRP: $48,990.00
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The Good Photos have top-notch color, detail and sharpness. XF camera body has better controls and integration with the IQ3 image sensors.

The Bad It doesn't match conventional SLRs for easy handling, low-light shooting and autofocus. It costs more than a really nice car.

The Bottom Line The Phase One XF-IQ3 offers superb image quality for those with the budget to afford it and the patience to set up shots carefully.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 9

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If you're spending more than $60,000 on a camera and a couple of lenses, the technology better be good. And with its XF camera body and accompanying 80-megapixel IQ3 digital image sensor back, Copenhagen-based Phase One delivers top-notch results. Although the camera system is cumbersome compared to the marvels of miniaturized mechanization from Canon and Nikon, its images possess stellar sharpness and rich color. With this much detail, you want to dive into the pixels on your screen, then print huge posters.

These products are from the medium-format photography domain, where equipment is geared for professionals whose exceptionally large budgets can pay for the cameras' exceptionally large image sensors. Most high-end photographers are satisfied with the full-frame sensors found in the premium Nikon, Canon and Sony cameras that generally cost between $2,000 and $5,000. Those sensors measure 36x24mm -- the size of a full frame of 35mm-format film from the old days. But Phase One's IQ3 sensor is 2.5 times larger at 53.7x40.4mm. That's enough pixels to print a large poster measuring 34x26 inches at a sharp 300 dots-per-inch setting.

Phase One's extraordinarily high prices rule out these cameras out for the vast majority photographers, although you can rent them for fees that are more attainable. Despite the premium price, Phase One plugs away against more conventional competitors like Canon's $3,700 50-megapixel EOS 5DS and Nikon's $3,000 36-megapixel D810 . Cheaper medium-format options, notably Pentax's five-year-old, 40-megapixel 645D at $3,700 and the 2014 51-megapixel Pentax 645Z at $7,800, have some appeal to those with film-era Pentax medium-format lenses. The Pentax sensors, though larger than those in Nikon and Canon full-frame cameras, are only somewhat larger at 44x33mm, and they have only 14-bit color depth compared to Phase One's 16 bits. Phase One, dedicated exclusively to medium-format photography, also has a better selection of digital-era lenses, in particular with its partnership with Schneider Kreuznach.

Phase One caters to customers working on fashion, product photography and fine-art reproduction. It's geared for the best still-photo quality, and although video is in principle easier with the 50-megapixel IQ3 sensor, with its switch to the newer, cooler CMOS-technology sensor could do video, it's not the company's focus at present. I tested the Phase One system camera mostly with New Mexico landscape and macro nature shots you can scrutinize in full resolution in our gallery.

The Phase One XF camera and IQ3 back produce great color and detail.
The Phase One XF camera and IQ3 back produce great color and detail. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The XF and IQ3 products have been overhauled for better convenience, flexibility and performance. I found them significantly easier to use than earlier Phase One models, but most folks used to conventional SLRs will have to make adjustments in shooting style and technology. Like Canon, Nikon and Sony SLRs, Phase One has detachable lenses. But the Phase One also has a detachable image sensor module -- the "digital back" -- that lets those renting or buying the products upgrade just the camera body or image sensor as new models arrive. For example, the 80-megapixel back offers higher resolution and a larger sensor, but on another occasion you might prefer the smaller and lower-resolution IQ3 50-megapixel back with newer circuitry that offers a 14-stop dynamic range and vastly better low-light performance. The body handles things like autofocus and metering while the digital back captures and records the image.

The characteristics of the IQ3 80-megapixel sensor itself haven't changed much from the earlier IQ280. The sensor still has excellent color, high resolution unmuddied by an optical low-pass filter (OLPF, aka antialiasing filter) and a 13-stop dynamic range to simultaneously capture bright and shadow details. And it's still got the Sensor+ mode that reduces the pixel count by four but quadruples the maximum ISO from 800 to 3,200. Now, though, photographers can take one-hour exposures, up from just 2 minutes with the previous-generation sensor. A bigger difference: the sensor back and the camera body now each use the same battery -- and as important, each can run off the other's battery. That's convenient, especially since the Phase One gear chews through batteries, even when you have the back screen shut off most of the time. (To help keep up, the camera comes with four batteries, a charger that handles two at a time and a car adapter for charging while on the road.)

The XF-IQ3 combination costs $48,990 (€38,990, which converts to about £28,600 or AU$61,900). I tried the camera system with four Schneider Kreuznach lenses: the LS 80mm f/2.8, the 75-150mm LS f/4.0-5.6 Zoom, and two new ones, the 120mm LS f/4.0 Macro and the 35mm LS f/3.5. These two new lenses are geared for future sensors with 100-megapixel resolutions, but they're priced high, too: $6,490 for the two new ones (€5,490 / £4,000 / AUS$8,700). They're all leaf shutter models, which means the camera uses a shutter built into the lens instead of the camera body. That helps cut down on vibrations and lets you shoot with flash speeds up to 1/1,600 of a second -- which by the way is easier now with the Profoto wireless flash controller built into the XF camera body. The XF camera body also is available with two somewhat more affordable digital backs: $41,990 or €33,990 (£24,800, AU$53,300) with the 60-megapixel IQ3 digital back, and $40,990 or €31,990 (£23,300, AU$535,200) with the 50-megapixel IQ3 digital back.

Why the large sensor?

Large sensors offer a number of advantages. Obviously, they've got room for more pixels for when you need to make high-quality or very large prints. Engineers can cram lots of pixels onto a sensor by making each one small, but that approach generally saddles photos with more noise speckles and a narrower dynamic range -- the spread between the brightest and darkest regions in a photo. A camera with good dynamic range will do better handling high-contrast scenes, like those with both sunlight and shadows, and in preserving details that otherwise would be lost, like subtle tones of white in a wedding dress.

The red box in the image at left is shown at 100 percent magnification at right. The 10,328x7,760 resolution of the IQ3 captures an immense amount of detail, enough to crop in on photos when necessary with plenty of pixels still available for many publishing situations. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Beyond that, though, larger sensors also make it easier to shoot with a shallow depth of field, in which backgrounds blur away to direct attention to the in-focus subject. Portrait photographers love shallow depth of field, but product photographers taking close-up "macro" shots of subjects like watches and jewelry like the opposite. There, medium-format image sensors let you shoot with your lens set at a smaller aperture before the photo suffers from the blurring effects of what's called diffraction limiting. This depth-of-field benefit is also useful for landscape and architecture photographers.

A large sensor requires a large camera body and large lenses. The Phase One XF and IQ3 is a hulking combination, especially with larger lenses like the Schneider Kreuznach 75-150mm. It feels more ordinary with the 80mm lens, but to make avoid blurry shots, it's best to use a tripod and to use the convenient mirror lockup option, which flips the reflex mirror out of the way ahead of time so the motion won't vibrate the camera during image capture. I also set the shutter release with a four-second delay so pressing it wouldn't disturb the camera.

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