​How a $47,000 camera learned to go mirrorless

The A-series cameras marry Phase One's digital sensors with Alpa's lenses. It's a new-era approach to an old-school photography technique.

The A-series cameras are a relatively compact but still pricey combination of Phase One digital sensors and Alpa camera and lens products. Phase One

High-end camera company Phase One has revealed the fruits of a partnership that marries its rarefied medium-format camera technology with the mirrorless movement that's sweeping the industry.

Through the partnership with Swiss camera maker Alpa, Phase One is selling its new A-series cameras, which are much more compact than its traditional hulking cameras but require a more old-school manual approach to photography.

Though plenty of photo enthusiasts may aspire to A-series ownership, nobody but the wealthiest and committed photographers will buy the A-series cameras. Their prices range from $47,000 for a 50MP model to $55,000 for an 80MP model. But the cameras show that the digital photography revolution isn't done reshaping even this conservative, high-end segment.

The A-series products marry Phase One's digital image sensor package to Alpa's lenses -- with no camera in between. Optionally, an app running on a wirelessly connected iPhone or iPad allows photographers to review their photos from their handheld devices.

The partnership could help Alpa's business prospects in a medium-format market that is tough enough to have weeded out several competitors in recent years. The company sells separate mechanical components that enable photo enthusiasts to assemble the kind of camera they want. The Phase One partnership is a way to bring that modular approach into the digital era.

Medium-format mirrorless

The Phase One-Alpa cameras include mounts to attach an iPhone or iPad so photographers can review photos over a wireless link. Phase One

In the medium-format market, some professionals are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an edge over more mainstream SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras from Nikon and Canon. High-end Nikon and Canon SLRs have image sensors the size of a frame of 35mm film, 36mmx24mm, but Phase One's medium-format sensors have 2.5 times the surface area at 53.7x40.4mm in an attempt to capture the best detail, color and brightness range.

The price difference between medium-format and 35mm-format cameras has increased with the arrival of digital photography because large sensors are prohibitively expensive. But medium-format cameras are still used in some camera markets, like fashion, architecture, automotive, jewelry, fine art, landscape and reproduction of historic artifacts.

Danish Phase One got its start selling image-sensor packages called digital backs, which substituted for the film backs medium-format photographers used before. These backs mount onto one end of a camera body that handles matters like shutter speed and focus. Lenses mount to the other side.

Phase One initially sold only the digital backs, but it took control of Japanese medium-format manufacturer Mamiya to start selling camera bodies and lenses too. Those camera bodies are larger versions of more mainstream SLR cameras. SLRs employ a mirror that directs light from the lenses into a viewfinder so a photographer can compose a shot. This reflex mirror flips out of the way when the photo is taken, letting the light reach the digital image sensor -- or in olden days, a frame of film.

A new trend in digital photography forsakes this mirror altogether. Instead, photographers compose their shots based on the light that reaches the image sensor. This "mirrorless" trend is sweeping the industry, with Olympus, Panasonic, Fujifilm, Samsung and Sony aggressively embracing it to get an edge on SLR powers Canon and Nikon.

Prior to the partnership, Alpa products could accept Phase One's backs, but the new agreement formalizes the technical tie-up with joint engineering and calibration, and it gives Alpa access to Phase One's global sales channel.

How A-series line works

The A-series from Phase One and Alpa comes with a rosewood grip and leather strap for handheld use. On-the-go photographers will have to set focus and metering manually, though. (Click to enlarge.) Phase One

So, how do these A-series models work? Alpa supplies an elaborate lens that features elaborate manual controls for shutter speed and aperture. It's also got a built-in mechanical shutter. The lens and the digital back clamp to either side of an Alpa 12 TC camera body, an inert rectangle of metal that can be fitted with a rosewood grip for easier handling.

It's a very manual approach to photography, with no autofocus and no automatic metering to set exposure for the right brightness. But this is digital photography, so photographers can check their shots on the Phase One back or on Phase One's iOS app, Capture Pilot, which links wirelessly to the backs. In addition, the A250's sensor, though smaller, is built with newer manufacturing technology that can send a live view to the iOS device. The A-series models include a mount that lets photographers clamp their iOS devices on top of the camera for easier use.

The A-series comes with Alpa's wide-angle HR Alpar 5.6/35mm lens, which has the equivalent focal length of 22mm on a traditional 35mm-format SLR. Two other Alpa lenses are available, though: the ultrawide Alpagon 5.6/23mm, with an equivalent focal length of 15mm, and the Alpagon 5.6/70mm, with an equivalent focal length of 45mm. There's no telephoto option, but this camera is more likely to be used for architecture and landscape shots than for distant subjects.

Those lenses don't come cheap, either: The 23mm model is $9,070, and the 70mm is $4,520.