Leaf Aptus 75
A Brief Field Report
Black River. Iceland. August, 2006
Hasselblad H1 with 210mm lens and Aptus 75 back @ ISO 50
Once More With Feeling
In June, 2006, two months prior to this report, I had an opportunity to test and shoot with an Aptus 75 back alongside my Phase One P45. My report was fairly comprehensive, though limited by the fact that I could not shoot with the same camera body and lens, so doing meaningful direct comparison's wasn't possible.
My conclusion was that both backs were capable of roughly similar image quality and that they differed primarily in their user interface and screen technology. Nevertheless, I really wanted an opportunity to shoot with both backs side by side, and to be able to conduct a few more thorough image comparisons.
Leaf was very accommodating to this request, and just prior to my participation in the Adobe Lightroom Iceland Adventure, loaned me an Aptus 75 for the trip. I have a spare Hasselblad H1 to work with, alongside my H2, and so I was able to have both backs on a body at all times, switching between my 35mm, 55-100mm and 210mm lenses.
I shot for several days with both backs, though mostly with the P45, for reason's which I'll elaborate shortly. My plan was that on the last day of the trip, in Reykjavik, Bill Atkinson (my driving and shooting partner on this trip) and I would spend half a day running a full suite of comparison tests between the two backs. As luck would have it, this was not to be.
As we approached the city mid-day I was suddenly affected by a medical condition called Labyrinthitis. This causes dizziness and nausea, and it laid me low, putting me in the hospital for a day, and also delaying my return home. Consequently, and though Leaf kindly extended my loan for another week, I never was able to run the extensive series of tests that I had intended, and not with the scientific rigour that Bill's contribution would have added.
What you have below then are some of my impressions from working with both backs in the field, observations about the most telling differences, and a few small comparison tests that I was able to get in between my return home, recovery, and the necessity of returning the loaner back.
If you have not already read my initial review and comparison I urge you to do so before reader further here. Most of the observations and conclusions made there remain unchanged, with this page simply offering some additional anecdotal experience.
Iceland in mid-summer has about 20+ hours of daylight. That's the good news and the bad. Great shooting light last a long time, but it also can be exhausting, especially when driving hundreds of kilometers a day over dirt roads to get to some of the better locations.
The light is also ever changing, with weather systems and cloud cover sweeping in and out. One is always on the run and on the prowl. This can mean having to work very quickly in changing light, and working quickly means both rapid access to menu selections, as well as screen visibility for histogram review. For this reason, even though it had been my intention to try and use the backs equally during the week, I found that I used my P45 more frequently.
The reason for this is the Aptus' screen and navigation system. As will be examined further below, I find that as gorgeous as the back's screen is, it can be almost impossible to see in bright sunlight. Also, I found that even in subdued light the menu system slowed me down, with multiple clicks needed for many frequent operations, and the need to "OK" menu choices and then wait for the spinning Leaf till the next menu becomes available.
For these reasons I found myself gravitating towards the use of the P45 more than the Aptus 75. I suppose as well that in stressful situations it's human nature to use the tool that one is most familiar with. Nevertheless I was able to do some extensive work with the Aptus 75 and enjoyed using it a great deal.
When all is said and done, I find the two screens to be among the greatest differentiators between these two backs. Not only is one a touch screen and the other controlled by external soft keys, but visibility in differing light conditions plays a big factor in their usability.
The above photographs attempt to illustrate the differences, but I'm afraid don't do justice to either screen. Simply put though the Aptus 75 excels indoors and in the shade, while the P45 is at its best in direct sunlight.
Of course the shear size of the Aptus' screen makes it a pleasure to use for reviewing image files. But that pleasure quickly turns to frustration when working outdoors. The P45 screen never pretends to be anything other than what it is – a means for making settings and for checking histograms. One quickly learns that it isn't the most appropriate tool for actual image evaluation.
The topic of each back's function control itself is also influenced by the screen design. While the always visible P45 screen (neither really great nor really poor in any light) is quick and simple to navigate using the four metallic soft keys surrounding the screen, the Aptus's screen makes menu settings highly problematic in direct sunlight. It's one thing not to be able to clearly see an image review, but quite another when one is squinting, trying to change ISO, or some other setting.
For many photographers the choice between these backs, when seen solely in the light of their screens and user interface, will come down to anticipated venue. If working tethered, there isn't an issue since most settings will be done directly from the computer screen. Working untethered in the studio or other indoors environments I would be happiest from a visibility point of view with the Aptus' screen, if not its menu and navigation system. For working outdoors though the P45's more universal screen is the clear winner for me, as is its simpler and quicker user interface.
Given the constraints placed upon me by time, of all the comparisons that I had wanted to do, dynamic range and noise were near the top of the list.
The shots below help uncover what there is to know, though they are not without their problems. The least of these is that though it was a clear sunny day, there was a wind. This didn't bother me because I wasn't testing resolution, but rather highlight and shadow detail, and regardless, the shutter speeds in most cases were high enough. But the wind caused branches to waft, and this lead to alternating areas of shadow and light. Nevertheless, I pressed on.
I tried setting the cameras so that their exposures were identical. This was a fool's errand, because each of the backs responds differently to light at different ISO's. Also, each back has a different idea of what level constitutes a blown highlight and a different degree of precision in displaying its histogram.
After spending quite some time shooting tethered, untethered, biasing toward highlight retention and then shadow block up (at each ISO I might add) I simply abandoned the exercise as one of futility. The test shown are therefore ones that one would take in the real world. The camera was set to autoexposure, the backs were set to each separate ISO, and the shots were taken. (Same body, same lens. Only the backs were changed).
The first thing we see is that the P45 and the Aptus 75 (at least the two units that I was comparing) have slightly different ideas of ISO level. Compared to the P45 the Aptus 75 seems to be exposing about a third stop lower. ie; ISO 50 is actually about ISO 35. Or, another way of putting it is that the P45 is exposing about a third stop higher than the Aptus 75, ISO 65 rather than ISO 50. Lacking the sophisticated equipment needed to determine which is correct I'm happy to simply write that these two particular backs disagree about ISO by a small, though visible amount.
This helps explain the differences seen below. What I see is that at ISO 50 to 200 there is little to choose between them. Both backs are essentially noise free at ISO 50 and 100, though an extremely critical eye will occasionally see a slight bit of additional smoothness in flat dark areas at ISO 50. I wouldn't hesitate to use either ISO on either back for the most critical applications though.
At ISO 200 both backs show a bit of luminance noise in smooth shadow areas. Nothing to get stressed about, and unlikely to be visible in prints smaller than 16X20", but there.
At ISO 400 the Aptus appears to have a slight advantage in low noise, though this may simply be that its actual ISO is somewhat lower (or, by comparison) that the P45's actual ISO is somewhat higher. In any event it's a bit of a quibble, though I would use a bit of post production noise reduction for any critical work when using either back.
ISO 800 on the Aptus shows quite a bit of luminance as well as the beginnings of chroma noise, and I don't regard it as terribly useful except for record purposes. When cleaned up with a high quality post processing noise reduction program, too much fine detail will simply be lost. Not something that anyone using a high-end back will care for.
P45 – ISO 50
P45 – ISO 100
P45 – ISO 200
P45 – ISO 400
Aptus 75 – ISO 50
Aptus 75 – ISO 100
Aptus 75 – ISO 200
Aptus 75 – ISO 400
Aptus 75 – ISO 800
The Bottom Line
I've now been fortunate enough to shoot twice with both the Aptus 75 and the Phase One P45 – May, 2006 in British Columbia, and August, 2006 in Iceland. On both occasions events were to conspire to prevent me and my companions from doing the sort of rigorous comparison testing that we, and I know my readers were looking for.
But, as I've written in the past, such tests are always extremely difficult to do, even when Murphy isn't in the driver's seat.
So what we're left with instead is the subjective. My subjective evaluation. Over the decades I've used just about every medium format camera on the market (and owned many of them), and during the past 5 years have used or tested many of the available medium format backs. (Now if Hasselblad would reply to my emails and lend me one of their latest H39 backs we'd also know something of how they fit into the equation.)
I have owned and done many thousands of images with a Kodak DCS ProBack, a Phase One P25 and a P45, on Contax as well as Hasselblad H cameras, so I have some small experience with both operation and image evaluation. Here then are my highly subjective conclusions, following both the previous comparison report and this one.
Hasselblad H1 with 210mm lens and Aptus 75 back @ ISO 50
From an image quality point of view the backs are so close as to represent a draw. There are minor differences to be seen, but they are indeed minor. Both backs have available various shooting profiles, so there isn't much that can be said about colour rendition. Both are capable of a high degree of accuracy, and both can be bent to ones taste with appropriate profile use and raw file post production processing.
Noise, as seen above, isn't a factor below ISO 400, and even at that speed, though the Aptus shows a slight advantage, it's likely to be a non-issue. Most photographers will simply set their backs to ISO 100 and shoot that way 90% of the time.
Both backs are capable of producing stunning large prints. The difference between the Aptus' 33MP chip, producing a 20X28" print at 240 ppi, and the P45's 22X30" prints from its 39MP back is also a quibble, and not something to sway anyone one way or the other.
The real differences come down to user interface and screen technology. The analogy that I have in mind for the interface is that the Aptus is a bit like a BMW, with a very sophisticated control panel, offering the driver lots of control and choices, but also occasionally getting in the way of rapid input and control. The Phase One, on the other hand, is more like a Ferrari. Less knobs and controls available, but the few that there are are obvious in their use and instant in their responsiveness.
Which one suites your taste and needs? Are you a BMW I-Drive or a Ferrari mechanical control kind of guy?
The screens, controlling both user interface and image review, are the other major difference. Without repeating what was written above, again it will come down to a matter of personal preference and specific shooting need. Anyone purchasing a US $30,000 medium format back is likely be an experienced photographer with very specific shooting requirements. It will likely not take long in a hands-on session with either back to determine which is most suitable for your particular needs.
In the final analysis, for my type of shooting (field location work), the Phase One P45 turns out to be the preferable choice, so I have no buyers remorse when comparing it to the Aptus 75. But I should add that if the P45 didn't exist I could be quite happy living with the Aptus.
There will of course be brand partisans who bridle at the thought that these two kings of the hill are so close in capability. But, think about it. Could either company remain in business if its products were markedly inferior to those of the other. No. Of course not.
Ones final purchase decision should therefore be made on the basis of hands-on experience. Both companies sell their products through VARs, and one of them will be happy to send a rep to your studio, office or home to demonstrate the backs that they sell. (If you live remotely, it'll be worth flying to a major city for a day of testing and comparison. The cost of this, compared to the product cost, will be trivial).
Factors like dealer accessibility, extended warranties, trade-in and upgrade policies should all be factored into the equation. Trying to choose one of these backs based on image quality factors is an exercise in pixel peeping. Instead, prospective buyers should consider a broad range of factors. Regardless of the choice made you'll have what is likely one of the finest devices for recording images ever made. For now. (Photokina is just around the corner, isn't it?)