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

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.

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Stephen Shankland
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Stephen Shankland

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Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, microprocessors, digital photography, quantum computing, supercomputers, drone delivery, and other new technology. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.

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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.

Phase One XF, IQ3, 35mm lens
8.0

Phase One XF IQ3

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.

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.

Phase One goes big with XF and IQ3 medium-format camera system (pictures)

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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.
Enlarge Image
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.
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.

Photos from the Phase One XF and IQ3 (pictures)

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Not for spontaneous shooting

These methodical procedures mean the Phase One XF is best for those who like to carefully plan and frame their shots ahead of time rather than shoot from the hip. The careful style works for landscape and product photography, but I struggled to take shots of my sons in motion. I was delighted to find a millipede sipping water, but it skittered off by the time I'd changed lenses, arranged the tripod and framed the shot. Sometimes I struggled to keep up with fast-changing changing clouds, mist and sunlight. Just booting the camera up takes several seconds.

Phase One's IQ3 image sensor has 13 stops of dynamic range, which means it can capture quite a lot of shadow and highlight detail. This shows an unedited and edited comparison of a shot with silhouetted rocks photographed at dawn.
Enlarge Image
Phase One's IQ3 image sensor has 13 stops of dynamic range, which means it can capture quite a lot of shadow and highlight detail. This shows an unedited and edited comparison of a shot with silhouetted rocks photographed at dawn.
Phase One's IQ3 image sensor has 13 stops of dynamic range, which means it can capture quite a lot of shadow and highlight detail. This shows an unedited and edited comparison of a shot with silhouetted rocks photographed at dawn. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Sunrises and sunsets are notoriously hard to photograph because of extremes of shadow and brightness. The IQ3 provides a good foundation for editing photos so they look more like the scenes you remember rather than the high-contrast photos most cameras actually take.
Enlarge Image
Sunrises and sunsets are notoriously hard to photograph because of extremes of shadow and brightness. The IQ3 provides a good foundation for editing photos so they look more like the scenes you remember rather than the high-contrast photos most cameras actually take.
Sunrises and sunsets are notoriously hard to photograph because of extremes of shadow and brightness. The IQ3 provides a good foundation for editing photos so they look more like the scenes you remember rather than the high-contrast photos most cameras actually take. Stephen Shankland/CNET

But once you've got a shot, the image is terrific. The landscape shots seemed to bring new depth and spaciousness. Architecture photos were crisp. Zooming into photos, I discovered details I hadn't noticed in the real world even in the most familiar vistas. Colors are vivid. The dynamic range is wide enough that I could clamp down on highlights and brighten shadows in software to handle sunrises, sunsets and other tricky exposures. The back display's sophisticated and customizable controls for gauging exposure help avoid blocked-up shadows or blown-out highlights. It's good to be judicious about setting up your shots, because a dozen of them will gobble up a gigabyte on your flash card or hard drive if you're shooting with the camera tethered to your computer.

With healthy dynamic range and 16-bit color depth in Phase One's IIQ raw image format, there's plenty of room for tweaking. For me, the camera's exposure was generally good, though the camera underexposed a few times. Compared to more mainstream cameras, editing takes longer because the IQ3's large images really give processors a workout.

The lenses are designed so you don't squander any of those 80 million pixels. The 35mm lens is superb for wide scenes and architectural shots, with excellent sharpness and no pesky pink-fringing problems caused by chromatic aberration. I enjoyed the 120mm macro -- except that autofocus struggled with close-up subjects and the blurred backgrounds were spangled with old-school pentagonal highlights when I stopped the lens down to narrow apertures. The 75-150mm telephoto zoom is good enough that I ended up leaving the 80mm lens at home most of the time -- though if I'd been shooting more portraits, its shallower depth of field would have been desirable.

Camera improvements

The new XF camera body is a significant change from the earlier 645DF, and I liked it much better. Three big improvements stood out for me. First, Phase One added a second touchscreen on the top of the camera body, replacing a status LCD with something more useful for controlling the camera. When shooting with the camera on a tripod, it's hard to see the screen, and brushing it would often change it from my preferred aperture priority to manual exposure, but it's easy to lock out the screen to stop that from happening. One nice mode shows camera vibration so you can tell when the camera is still enough that you can release the shutter.

This 100-percent crop shows how much detail the Phase One IQ3 can capture when used with Schneider Kreuznach's 120mm f4 macro lens. Click here to see the full-resolution version of the photo (warning: it's a very large download). This shot was taken at 1/50 sec. at f9.
This 100-percent crop shows how much detail the Phase One IQ3 can capture when used with Schneider Kreuznach's 120mm f4 macro lens. Click the image to see the full-resolution version of the photo (warning: it's a very large download). This shot was taken at 1/50 sec. at f9. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Second, Phase One swapped out the autofocus system with one that I found faster and accurate enough to keep up with the high-resolution sensors and sharp lenses. Unfortunately, though, focus points are only at the center of the frame; I missed some shots with mountains at the bottom of the frame. The traditional method of focusing on the subject then reframing to get the composition you want is awkward when you're shooting with a tripod, and you'll likely want a tripod since 80 megapixels are quick to show when you didn't hold steady. And some shots of clouds also came out blurry, despite having some defined features in the clouds that the camera thought it had locked into. Phase One promises firmware updates that will improve autofocus in the future, too.

The third improvement: the camera now has now three control dials to select settings. When combined with one button on the back and three buttons on the front, it's a very customizable design you can tweak for your own needs. The settings I picked were aperture control for the front dial; exposure compensation for the back dial; ISO adjustment for the side dial; shutter release for the big front button; mirror lockup for the small front button inside the grip; and depth-of-field preview for the button by the bottom near the lens. I disabled the back button because I found my thumb hit it frequently when I was positioning or holding the camera.

Some niceties from mainstream SLRs would be welcome: sensor-based image stabilization or better coatings that keep dust flecks off the image sensor. I'd also like to see a version of the remote-control Capture Pilot app for Android smartphones, too; right now it only works on Apple iPhone and iPad devices.

Conclusion

It's not a camera system for the impatient or budget-constrained. But for those who care about top-notch quality, the Phase One XF comes through.

Phase One XF, IQ3, 35mm lens
8.0

Phase One XF IQ3

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7Image quality 9