The New ALPA 12 FPS
by Mark Dubovoy
"Things are simple at the top"
Or are they? This used to be the ALPA motto, but as time goes by, things change.
It is no secret that I love ALPA gear. To me, it is the pinnacle of precision, exquisite quality and finish and design that permits the photographer to do everything he/she needs without the equipment getting in the way. Like all other photographic equipment, it is not meant for every conceivable situation, but when a technical camera is appropriate for the task, I believe it is the finest equipment available today.
As the old motto implied, things used to be deceptively simple for a company like ALPA. Combine clever well thought out and thorougly tested design and ergonomics with the best machining, the best materials, the best finish and the tightest tolerances to produce a body, adapters for backs and lens mounts. Then source the best view camera lenses from companies such as Schneider and Rodenstock.
But things changed....Things are no longer simple at the top.
This 13 minute long video is a look at the Alpa 12 FPS
by Mark Dubovoy of The Luminous Landscape and
Jim Taskett of Bear Images.
A New Adventure
It is an open "secret" that Copal (the factory that makes the vast majority of leaf shutters for view camera lenses) has wanted to get out of that business for several years. They have steadily raised prices, and it appears that after they fulfill the next set of orders they will quit making shutters. I would expect that we will see several new kinds of leaf shutters from various brands as the supply of Copal shutters dries up.
In view of this and other changes in the photographic industry, ALPA decided to embark on a new adventure. An adventure that some might have considered reckless and impossible to achieve, but the result is simply stunning.
Before I describe this new adventure, a little bit of background is in order. Traditionally, the biggest advantages of leaf shutters have been much less vibration and flash sync at higher speeds versus focal plane shutters. If one thinks about it briefly, it seems rather obvious that a few ultra light small blades built into the lens can open and close causing a lot less vibration than moving big curtains or much bigger blades in the back of the camera. Many tests performed in the past clearly show that photographs taken with leaf shutters are sharper than photographs taken with focal plane shutters. As the format gets bigger, the focal plane vibration increases quite significantly. Thus, Medium Format users often prefer leaf shutters for sharper images as well as faster flash sync.
There are some negatives to leaf shutters. The obvious one is that it increases the price of the lens. For view camera lenses however, the other negatives are that the shutter speeds of the typical mechanical shutters are not very accurate and the range of shutter speeds is rather limited by today's standards. The range of shutter speeds for a typical Copal shutter is 1 second to 1/500 of a second (Plus B and T) and particularly at the fast end of the scale it is not unusual to measure real shutter speeds that are slower by about 30% versus the markings on the shutter.
So ALPA decided to launch a project to produce a medium Format focal plane shutter system that would produce so little vibration that the images would be as sharp or even sharper than those produced by leaf shutters. Unfortunately, designing and manufacturing a shutter in-house from scratch requires a large investment and resources that far exceed those of a specialty company like ALPA. Therefore, the company decided to use a focal plane shutter made by Mamiya/Copal which they have heavily modified in terms of the suspension and all the auxiliary elements. As a result of using an already existing Mamiya/Copal shutter, the FPS system is deeper than a standard ALPA camera (more on this later).
ALPA for the first time had to delve deeply into electronics and software by putting enough gold pins, software and electronics in the optional mounts and the FPS system to be able to use and fully control lenses from most major manufacturers such as Hasselblad, PhaseOne, Mamiya, Zeiss, Nikon, Canon, etc.
In other words, they set up to build a device that could use any modern Medium Format (film or digital) back in the rear and lenses available from almost any major brand in the front. One must admit that this is a very tall order, particularly for a small specialty company like ALPA, but the result is an exceptional device. Due to currency fluctuations, ALPA has been pricing all their equipment in Swiss Francs. The price of the FPS system is expected to be approximately 8,000 Swiss Francs.
I should mention that Hartblei has been producing a similar "universal" Medium Format camera for the past three years. You can find Michael's review of the Hartblei Cam here.
Description and Initial Tests
My local ALPA dealer and one of my favorite dealers on the planet is Bear Images Photographic. The owner is Jim Taskett. ALPA was kind enough to part with one of their current prototypes in order to allow Jim and myself to evaluate it and to run some tests. I would like to caution the reader that the unit we tested was a prototype, so there may be some changes before final units go into production.
The ALPA 12 FPS (as in Focal Plane Shutter) has extremely accurate shutter speeds from 128 seconds down to 1/4000 of a second. As you will see from our tests, it has incredibly low levels of vibration. We were able to test it with a PhaseOne IQ 180 back, Olympus, Canon, Nikon, Zeiss and ALPA lenses and it worked flawlessly.
The device is a rectangular finely machined piece that is slightly deeper than an ALPA STC camera. The images below show the FPS with an Olympus shift lens and a Canon Tilt Shift lens mounted on it. Even though these lenses are meant for 35 mm, because they offer shift and/or tilt, they actually cover the full Medium Format size image, even with some movements.
FPS with Olympus lens
FPS with Canon Tilt/Shift lens
The major controls for the FPS are contained in the rear of the unit as shown in the next image:
Rear of the FPS
First, you can see the FPS main display, in this case showing the shutter speed only because a view camera lens is mounted on it. With SLR lenses it also shows the aperture. It also displays other functions as selected using the arrow buttons. You can also see the Live View image in the IQ 180 back and the FPS battery on the lower right.
To the right of the IQ 180 back there are a series of connectors meant for synchronizing a digital back with the FPS unit, for remote triggering via wireless devices, for flash sync with external strobes, etc. The connectors seem to be aerospace grade Lemo connectors. The rest of the controls are quite simple, the button with the circle opens and closes the shutter (for things such as Live View or if one wants to shoot using the shutter built into the lens instead of the FPS), the gold button is the power up button as well as the shutter release, the black square button is the power off button and the arrows circle through the various functions of the device.
There is a provision for a cable release on the top of the grip although for my landscape photography I prefer to set the unit to self timer. Removing the grip exposes a USB and an Ethernet/RJ45 connectors. The USB connector allows you to program the unit to suit your needs. ALPA supplies a memory stick with a number of possible configurations. The USB port is also used for firmware updates.
To me, one of the most brilliant ideas in the design of the FPS is the knurled dial on the top right. Let's assume that you mount a DSLR lens on the FPS. Rotate the dial and it changes the shutter speed. Now, press the dial down. It's function has changed; if you now rotate the dial the lens aperture changes. Press it one more time and when you rotate it both, aperture and shutter speed change in synchrony preserving the same exposure. Press it a third time and you are back to changing the shutter speed when you rotate it. Whatever function the dial changes is highlighted on the display. This is absolutely brilliant! The idea of using one dial for multiple functions is one of the most useful ergonomic changes I have seen in a camera in decades. It is so simple, yet so brilliant....Lots of Kudos to ALPA for coming up with this idea.
Trust me, once you have worked with a dial like this, the multiple dials and function buttons of all other cameras simply feel so last century!
Initial tests at the factory indicate that one battery will last for over 30,000 exposures! I am truly surprised by how large this number is. I am also told that the first FPS unti that was tested for durability was placed looking down (worst possible case for blade friction) was tortured with constant rapid firing and exceeded 300,000 exposures before failing.
The two images below show the FPS without a lens and without a back with the shutter in the open and closed positions.
Where the rubber meets the road
Jim and I tested all the functions in the FPS and took a number of pictures with a variety of lenses from ALPA, Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and Olympus. The unit worked flawlessly and it is a delight to use. In principle, it makes for an outstanding camera on its own. For those who require extensive movements, the FPS unit can be mounted on any of the ALPA 12 cameras. As you would imagine, this gives tremendous versatility although the camera/FPS combination is bigger and heavier and due to the increased distance from the lens mount to the sensor short barrel mounts are required (more on this later).
In most images we shot using an ALPA/Rodenstock HR lens there was no discernible difference between using the built-in leaf shutter in the lens versus using the FPS. The real surprise for Jim and me was that in some cases using the FPS shutter actually yielded a sharper image versus using the built-in leaf shutter in the lens. Frankly, we were astonished. We could not believe our eyes, so we repeated the test several times and the results were consistent. To have a focal plane shutter system that can produce sharper images versus using the same view camera lens with a copal shutter is an amazing accomplishment.
The following two images of a car were taken with the new ALPA/Rodenstock HR 90 mm lens at F/16 and 1/4 second. The image on the top was shot using the Copal mechanical leaf shutter built into the lens; the one on the bottom was shot using the electronically controlled focal plane shutter of the FPS. Both images shown were processed in CaptureOne 6 with no adjustments. I then brought the TIFF files into Photoshop, took them up to 100% and cropped the section of the license plate you see below.
You will need a good monitor to look at these two images, particularly because things are not quite as clear with a JPEG, but if you look carefully at the edges of the numbers, at the fine textures and at the fine "pebble like" finish of the background in the license plate I trust you will agree that the image on the bottom is sharper and shows finer detail.
Is there anything not to like?
Well, yes, there always is.
First of all, there are lenses that cannot be used with the FPS. One of my all time favorites, the 23 mm Rodenstock HR is an example. The rear element simply protrudes too far back and would hit the blades.
Second and more important for some ALPA users is the fact that the FPS is slightly deeper than the other ALPA cameras, As mentioned above, ALPA could not make the FPS thinner because of the dimensions of the standard Mamiya/Copal focal plane shutter. What this means is that lenses mounted in standard barrels simply will not work because the distance between the lens and the sensor is too large (unfortunately all my personal lenses fall into this category). For some period of time, ALPA will offer its current customers with lenses in standard barrels a re-mounting service (to short barrels) for a cost around $500 US dollars plus shipping per lens.
The FPS requires short barrel lenses with a corresponding spacer or a tilt adapter. I had the opportunity to test ALPA's latest tilt adapter which is a major improvement over the prior ones. I would personally recommend getting the tilt adapter as opposed to the spacer: One might as well have the additional capability.
In terms of view camera lenses, it appears that for now the shortest view camera type ALPA lens compatible with the FPS will be a 32 mm and the longest will be a 210 mm. The company has also announced that they are working on adapters for other camera brands. My guess is that at some point Leica S lenses and perhaps Contax Medium Format lenses will be compatible with the FPS.
Jim Taskett and I tested the Canon 24 mm T/S lens with the FPS and obtained extremely sharp results with no vignetting except near the limit of the allowable shift. This indicates that there are very good alternatives for lenses shorter than 32 mm. The same obviously holds true for lenses longer than 210 mm.
I will be really curious to see if eventually ALPA will start supplying lenses in barrel mounts without shutters. The FPS makes the leaf shutter in the lens basically obsolete.
The FPS is an extraordinary device. If I were in the market for a Medium Format Technical camera it would be my instant first choice. I am not aware of anything else that even comes close to the construction quality, the potential image quality and the versatility of the FPS.
ALPA has done an outstanding job of producing the closest thing we have to a truly universal Medium Format Technical camera, with quality, functionality and ergonomics that should be the envy of all other camera manufacturers.