Now there's a super high-end 151-megapixel camera for landscape photographers

Phase One's $57,000 XT Camera System combines high image quality with a more compact design -- at the cost of a luxury car.

The 151-megapixel Phase One XT Camera System, geared for landscape photographers, is more compact that other medium-format cameras.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Phase One's 151-megapixel medium-format cameras are typically used by studio and commercial photographers who don't mind their hulking size. But the Danish company now has a more compact option, the $57,000 XT Camera System, for landscape photographers who might have to haul their equipment miles in a backpack.

No, it's probably not for you, even if you're sufficiently serious about your photography that you buy a $3,000 camera body from companies like Canon, Nikon or Sony. But for those who want to print huge photos, it's a more portable option than earlier Phase One XF cameras.

"It's all about making big prints -- that feeling of seeing more and more details as you walk up into it," said Lau Nørgaard, Phase One's vice president of research and development.

Read more: Best camera gear and cameras to gift for the holidays 2019

It works. I gave the XT a test drive in San Francisco. Processing the raw photo files in Phase One's Capture One software produces enormous, 150-megabyte JPEGs that are immensely detailed and fun to dive into. It's vastly easier to carry than the earlier Phase One cameras I've used.

The camera shows how digital photography continues to evolve. Smartphones have proved good enough for most people -- and of course you always have yours on hand. But the high end of the camera market, with interchangeable lenses and larger image sensors, keeps on advancing. Photo professionals and enthusiasts have an insatiable appetite for image quality, and a select few are willing to pay a lot of money to get it.

The Phase One XT's 151-megapixel sensor capture a lot of detail. I downsampled this shot from an 14,204 pixels wide to a mere 2,000. You can click to enlarge, but be warned that compression muddies some of the details of the original. The red box shows a portion I've cropped for a closer look below.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Here's the central 2000 pixels of the above image. Click to enlarge, but note that there may be compression artifacts that don't do justice to the very detailed original.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Medium-format cameras employ larger image sensors than those in more mainstream "full-frame" 35mm-format cameras, so named because their image sensor is the 24x36mm size of a frame of film. Phase One's Sony-built sensors are a monster 53.4x40mm, a factor of 2.5 larger in surface area.

That lets Phase One pack in more light-capturing photosites without as many of the usual miniaturization sacrifices like lesser dynamic range, worse color and more noise speckles. It sounds nice, but that mammoth sensor is the main reason medium-format cameras are so expensive. That's why most serious photographers will stick with cameras like Sony's new $3,500, 61-megapixel A7R IV or Nikon's $3,000, 45-megapixel D850.

With 151 megapixels, though, you can print a 4x3-foot poster at a very sharp resolution of 300 pixels per inch. Landscape photographers love that sort of thing when it's time to sell their works in a gallery. And the Sony-built image sensor in Phase One's systems can capture a very wide 15 stops of dynamic range for good shadow and highlight detail, despite that large pixel count.

Customers for Phase One's XF cameras typically use them for photographing fashion models, jewelry, architecture, museum artifacts and expensive cars. Everything about that system is big, though. The Phase One's XT, while still awkward by smartphone standards, is small enough that more photographers will be willing to haul it into the backcountry -- about the size and weight of a conventional full-frame camera from Canon, Nikon or Sony.

It comes in three parts and relies on core components from two other companies:

  • The Phase One digital back, the module that houses the image sensor, image processing hardware, screen, control buttons, Ethernet and Wi-Fi networking, XQD and SD memory card slots, and a USB-C port for data and power. You can choose between the 151-megapixel IQ4 150MP back, the 151-megapixel IQ4 150MP Achromatic for black-and-white shots and the 101-megapixel IQ4 100MP Trichromatic that offers more precise color than the 150MP.
  • A choice of three Rodenstock lenses: the HR Digaron-S 23mm f5.6, HR Digaron-W 32mm f4 and HR Digaron-W 70mm f5.6. Each has Phase One's new X-Shutter, an electromagnetic shutter derived from the company's industrial camera business that's designed for extreme ruggedness.
  • A thin connector between the lens and back, built by Cambo and similar to its WRS products. It has a shutter release button, a rotating cuff that lets you rotate the camera from portrait to landscape orientation, electronic communication connections for the lens, and lens-shift adjusters that let you correct perspective problems like the vertical lines of trees or buildings converging if you point the camera upward.

If you're motivated enough to rent an XT for a few days, or even buy one, you might have to get used to a new style of shooting.

Here's a downsampled shot of Saleforce Tower shot with the Phase One XT. The built-in lens-shift ability lets you get more of San Francisco's tallest skyscraper in view. Click to enlarge, but beware compression artifacts, and check the next photo for a zoomed-in view.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

There's no autofocus, so you have to use the focus peaking abilities of the camera, which highlights the in-focus areas in green on the screen. Tripods are common among landscape photographers, but you'd better make it sturdy since even a little camera motion can mess up the fine detail in a 151-megapixel shot. You can chimp photos on the camera back's screen, but processing the mammoth files is a bear, so it's best to make sure you get the exposure right ahead of time.

Not everyone shooting in the wilderness will want Phase One's XT. It's a lousy choice when you need autofocus to latch onto fast-moving animals or big telephoto lenses to magnify distant birds. But Phase One believes its shooting shortcomings are worth it for those who want the best image quality.

Here's a 2000-pixel crop of the above photo of Saleforce Tower shot with the Phase One XT. Click to enlarge, but beware compression artifacts.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

And maybe that'll be you someday on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, said Drew Altdoerffer, Phase One's head of project management. "If you're in that moment, but not the best image quality possible, you're forever going to regret it," he said.

What's possible depends a lot on your budget, and most mortals will never choose to spend as much on a camera as they do on a luxury car, but he's right.

Originally published 4 a.m. PT.
Update, 6:09 a.m. PT: Adds more details about competing cameras and the Phase One camera's sensor.