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Phase One pushes the limits with 151-megapixel XF IQ4 camera system

Enough people apparently can afford a $51,990 medium-format camera to keep this ultrapremium company in business.

The Phase One 151-megapixel IQ4 back on an XF camera body.
The Phase One 151-megapixel IQ4 back on an XF camera body.
Phase One

If you want a new camera to take your photography to the next level, you could get a 42-megapixel Sony A7R III for $3,200, a 50-megapixel Canon EOS 5DR for $3,900 or a 46-megapixel Nikon Z7 for $3,400.

But if you want to enable some serious pixel peeping, you can go all out and buy the XF IQ4 camera system unveiled Tuesday by Danish camera maker Phase One. The IQ4, the new digital back that attaches to the XF camera body, packs a whopping 151 megapixels.

Perhaps spending $51,990 might put you off -- a price that doesn't include extra lenses that'll add thousands more to the price. But there are customers who spring for this kind of gear. Among them are those who need enormous high-quality prints, who photograph models for fashion magazines, who shoot expensive products like luxury cars and jewelry, and who make high-quality reproductions of museum art and artifacts.

"If you need highest resolution possible, this is the only one providing 151 megapixels," said Lau Norgaard, the camera's architect.

The camera system goes on sale in October.

Most of us prefer a 12-megapixel camera on a pocketable iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy S9 to a bulky, high-end Canon, Nikon or Sony camera. But the continued existence of Phase One -- a 300-person company founded 25 years ago in Copenhagen -- shows there's also a market for the highest possible image quality. 

Here are Phase One's 151-megapixel IQ4 digital back and the XF camera body with three Schneider-Kreuznach lenses.

Phase One

Faster chip means Capture One's inside

Among the IQ4's new features is a new image-processing chip roughly 10 times faster than in the IQ3. That's fast enough to build Phase One's Capture One photo-editing software directly into the camera itself and to permit future features including rapid-succession photos that can be joined into an HDR (high dynamic range) shot with abundant detail in both deep shadows and bright highlights.

It's also got new USB-C, Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections to help you shoot photos while the camera is tethered directly to a computer. There's an SD Card slot if you need the mainstream memory card format as an alternative to the premium XQD, and there's an HDMI port that lets you pipe images directly to a monitor for a quick check. These kinds of workflow-focused features can help expensive photo shoots with lots of personnel and clients who need to approve a photo as soon as possible.

For example, building the Capture One technology into the camera gives you a finished-looking preview immediately so you can ensure a photo shoot is going well. Photographers will initially be able to apply some standard editing presets to check various looks, but "very soon" they'll be able to use their own custom presets too, said Drew Altdoerffer, Phase One product manager.

The 151 megapixels in the IQ4 is an impressive achievement. But more ordinary and vastly cheaper cameras work well enough even for demanding photographers who need high resolution. Phase One can't rest on its laurels.

Modern medium-format photography

Phase One helped lead the digital transition for medium-format photography. In the film era, most people had 35mm-format film, the progenitor to today's "full-frame" cameras such as the Sony A7R III and Nikon Z7. Medium-format photography used larger film formats for higher quality, but the transition to digital medium-format was brutal for camera makers because very large image sensor chips are expensive.

Phase One's 151-megapixel IQ4 digital back and XF camera.

Phase One's 151-megapixel IQ4 digital back attaches the XF camera body.

Phase One

Image sensors on full-frame measure 36x24mm. But the Phase One's Sony-built sensor measure 53.4x40mm -- two-and-a-half times the surface area. That more spacious size means individual pixels can be larger, which in turn offers higher image quality.

A few competitors including Leica, Fujifilm and Pentax offer medium-format cameras with somewhat smaller sensors, but only Hasselblad offers a sensor matching Phase One's size. Hasselblad is still at 100 megapixels, but the Hasselblad H6D-400C MS comes with a multishot mode that can combine six images into one gargantuan 400-megapixel photo. That approach only works with stationary subjects.

Megapixel count is an easy gauge of camera prowess, but it's not the only one. Larger pixels also permit richer, more accurate colors and higher dynamic range -- the span between dark and bright areas in the image. Sensor design is a tradeoff between higher resolution, with more pixels, and better pixel-level image quality, with each of those pixels capturing better data.

Phase One uses Sony sensor

Phase One is still conducting detailed measurements, but Norgaard lavished praise on Sony's sensor.

"After spending quite a bit of time with sensor, we are not just satisfied. We are overwhelmed," he said. "The colors are as good as any we see," and noise levels are lower despite the smaller pixel size.

Sony's newest sensor for Phase One cameras uses a technology called backside illumination (BSI), now relatively common in phones and other cameras, that increases a sensor's light sensitivity by putting obstructing electronic circuitry on the far side of the chip that light doesn't hit.

The IQ4 digital back tucks under the viewfinder and behind the grip.

Phase One

Phase One's IQ4 removable digital back houses the image sensor and processing brains. Phase One also has a 150-megapixel achromatic model that captures only black and white images. It costs $54,990 for the camera system but is more sensitive to light since it's not burdened with the color filter the ordinary IQ4 uses.

The digital back connects to Phase One's own XF camera body but also to other products. One change that's come with the present generation is that the digital back can now control the XF camera body. Just to be clear, the IQ4 itelf is new. The XF itself came out in 2015.

Megapixel limits

The 151 megapixels won't be the last stop on Phase One's resolution trip. To prepare for the future, the company touts premium "blue-ring" lenses from partner Schneider Kreuznach. It's got a full family of lenses, but Phase One expects that an updated ultrawide 28mm model would meet the high-resolution demands.

Still, you can't keep increasing resolution forever because physics gets in the way. A pesky problem called the diffraction limit fuzzes photography's fine details. Diffraction limits are eased with larger image sensors, which gives medium-format cameras an advantage, and wider apertures that let in more light. (You can explore the constraints with online diffraction limit calculators.)

"Our lenses in the past few years [got] bigger and heavier," Altdoerffer said. "We're trying to ensure that lens wide open will perform so we can avoid diffraction."

So eventually, the megapixel race will come to an end even for Phase One's rarefied market.

"We'll hit that limit," Norgaard said, but not yet. "It's a bit out in the future."

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