Phase One P45 Plus
A Hands-On Review
Improvements in image quality at the very high end of digital imaging (medium format backs) improves by small increments. As pros and advanced amateurs who are fortunate enough to own a current MF back know, image quality from these devices is nothing short of superb; better than anything that we've had before, and I include drum scanned 4X5".
The challenge for back makers like Phase One is to continue to introduce new models. No high-tech capitalist will ever say – That's it. This is as good as it gets. The end of history. No. They must have something new to sell us. But what do you do for an encore when you have already produced a product that is state-of-the-art, cost-is-almost-no-object? You produce its Plus version, and that's what Phase One did in the spring of 2007 with its P+ series backs. The question then is – how well has Phase One fulfilled its – it's new, therefore it must be better – mandate?
A Bit of Background
I have written exhaustively about medium format backs on these pages over the past 5 years, and so I'll leave it to you to use the site's Index and Search functions to find previous reviews and articles. But, for those that haven't been paying attention to the high end of digital imaging, here are a few words about the Phase One P series backs.
These backs are designed to fit just about every medium format and large format camera currently on the market, as well as some (such as Contax) that have sadly passed on to that big camera store in the sky. In medium format these backs fit Hasselblad V and H series cameras, Mamiya 645 and.... (that's it). There are a number of technical and large format cameras that will take these backs via adaptor plates for Hasselblad, Contax or Mamiya fittings.
P series backs are self contained. In other words, like all MF backs made during the past few years they can be used tethered, but otherwise have LCD screens, batteries and cards that allow them to work with a camera only. No computer required.
Hasselblad H2 with 35mm lens and P45+ back @ ISO 50
The Phase P Back Gestalt
I have no intention here in doing a comparison with other back maker's models. The last time I did that I found that the overall differences in image quality were so small as to not be worth quibbling over. What the differences between backs really comes down to are controls, ergonomics, user interface, and of course company related matters such as warranty, service, support, reliability and the like.
Looking at the P backs what one sees is a minimalist design. The design gestalt is one of simplicity. Some maker's backs are designed with touch screens, sophisticated user interfaces, and extensive user configurability. Phase One eschews this approach, offering instead four modal touch buttons surrounding the screen. These control a short series of menus which provide the basic controls necessary for the photographer to control the back appropriately.
The logic behind this approach is that medium format backs are designed to shoot raw, and only raw. This means that the only image control back setting that affects the final picture is ISO. Everything else is done in the raw processing software on the computer. Yes, white balance is also settable, and has one of the four buttons dedicated to it, as does ISO. But ultimately only the ISO setting is not re-configurable after the fact. And, since many medium format back users shoot tethered in the studio, complex back controls are largely redundant for them. For those of us that shoot outdoors, simplicity is a bonus, and therein lies a lot of the appeal of the Phase design approach.
The Plus backs continue this design gestalt. Externally a Plus back looks almost identical to a previous generation P series back, with the exception of the screen – which I'll have more to say about momentarily. It seems to me that Phase One took the approach here that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I applaud them for this, as in a professional product such as this, change simply for the sake of cosmetic change is unnecessary and even undesirable. The fact that thousands of professional photographers who have been using P backs over the past few years have not through their feedback to the company been able to come up with much in the way of suggested improvements to the physical design speaks volumes about the rightness of the original design.
The Test Shoot
I shoot primarily outdoors. Landscape and nature are my main beat, therefore when I'm testing a new camera (or back) it's always my preference to do so on a real location shoot rather than in a studio or a more mundane location. There's something about the pressure of a shoot that gets ones juices going and provides insights into real-world usage issues. These interest me much more than spec and tables and the kind of dry test results one gets in the lab.
In the case of the Phase One P45+, the back I had ordered arrived just 24 hours before I was to leave on a shoot in Washington state with some friends in early June, '07. I packed it together with my previous P45, and a Hasselblad H2 and 4 lenses, a 35mm, 55-100mm, 210mm and 300mm. There literally was no time for anything other than a half dozen shots in my office the day before departure, just to make sure that it was working, which it was, and off I went.
Over the space of 5 days in Washington I shoot roughly 600 frames with the P45+. My plan had been to do some side-by-side shooting with the P45, but the rush of the shoot (Literally and figuratively) meant that such field comparisons didn't happen, and instead I spent several days afterward doing careful side by side comparisons of major image quality characteristics.
While in the field, and in the evenings in my motel rooms reviewing files on my laptop, I was taken with several things about the P45+, almost all of them positive, and some of them quite surprising. Below are the results of those empirical evaluations as well as the results of the more controlled tests performed after my return.
Hasselblad H2 with 210mm lens and P45+ @ ISO 100
Let's be frank. The P back's original screen sucked. It worse than sucked, it actually was unusable in many lighting situations. It was of such low brightness and contrast that it was only in extremely bright sunlight or very dim light that it had any purpose, and then not for much more than judging the histogram.
The screen on the P45+ (and all new + series backs) is a radical improvement. This screen is as good as that on the current generation of DSLRs. It offers 230K pixel resolution, and is bright, contrasty and visible in direct sunlight.
The bad news is that it uses more battery juice. When I visited the Phase One factory in Copenhagen in 2005 I was told that the explanation for the poor screen at the time was that the company's main design goal for their P backs was low power consumption and low heat. Bigger, brighter screens would draw more power and generate more heat, which is the enemy of image quality.
They were right. The P45+ appears to be able to produce something like 50% less shots on a battery than did the P45. This is anecdotal, not measured, but on my June 2007 shoot in The Palouse, I was averaging 50-80 frames on a 2500mH battery, while on the P45 I have regularly averaged 100+ exposures. (Temperatures were in the mid-70's (mid 20's C) and auto-turnoff was set to 5 minutes.
I have six 2500 mH batteries and therefore feel comfortable shooting on location for a day or two without concern. I would advise anyone shooting untethered to consider buying several additional batteries so as not to be caught short.
In additional to being vastly brighter and more readable, the P45+'s screen display has had some minor though welcome enhancements. These include the addition of basic exposure data on the histogram display screen. This is possible because of the screen's higher resolution.
Noise, Dynamic Range and Resolution
I lump these important factors together because they are related in many ways. I have numerous test files which I could share, but in the interest of conciseness, here are just a few. In some cases (given the limitations of the web and the unknowns of your particular display) you're simply going to have to accept what I describe, if it proves to be at odds with what you see on screen. (Or don't. The choice is yours).
Incidentally, the samples images and crops below are taken from screen grabs off my calibrated and profiled monitor. They are the raw files as I see them in Capture One, not the results of post-processing. In all cases no sharpening has been applied.
Phase One has upped the highest ISO on the P45+ to ISO 800. In my opinion this is usable, but only just. I see little to no difference between the old and the new back at ISO 50 and 100. At ISO 200 and 400 I would judge the Plus back to be a half stop to a full stop better than its predecessor. Most pros, either for commercial assignments or for fine art work, will find ISO 200 to be the limit, especially for high quality magazine work.
This is the toughest thing to measure and compare. A dozen experts will have 18 different ways of suggesting how such comparisons should be done. My approach is to normalize the two backs by setting highlight exposure to a common point and then looking into the shadows.
In the samples below (100% crops in each case) I easily see possibly one stop greater detail in the shadows when the highlights read identically. This is an improvement in dynamic range which clearly is visible in real world images.
This is going to get me into trouble, I know it. But, when has that ever stopped me?
During the five days of my Washington state shoot I noticed immediately, even on the screen of my 13" Macbook Pro, that the P45+ files appeared to have an additional "crispness". Possibly it's just greater accutance (though I always work in raw with sharpening turned off) but seemingly greater resolution. I chalked this up at first to wishful thinking, and simply kept shooting.
When I returned to my studio and started making prints I was immediately taken with their extreme resolution. I've been shooting with the P45 for two years, have done many thousands of exposures and hundreds of prints, and believe that I am very familiar with the "look" of P45 files. Those from the P45+ taken on the Palouse shoot definitely seemed to have an edge in either sharpness or resolution (not sure which) and so I was eager to do some side by side testing with the older P45.
Below are two examples. Both are at 100%. Both have had no sharpening applied. The second set is a repeat of the ISO 50 noise samples above, but separated so you can see (hopefully) what I am seeing.
Though its not huge, there is no doubt to my eyes that the P45+ seems sharper. Is this the result of some sort of additional in-camera processing by Phase One? Or maybe it's in Capture One. I'm not sure. But until I can get some answers from Phase One as to what they may be doing, I can only say that the P45+ definitely seems to produce a "sharper" image than does the P45.
BTW – I know that my original P45 was and is in perfect order because I have shot side by side with at least 4 other P45s doing various tests, and the backs have always been equivalent.
Chargers and Grommets
There's good news, and there's bad news. The good news is that the P45+, (as with all Plus backs) ships with a new style battery charger. This is one elegant device.
As cheesy as the original P series charger was, the new one is slick. It is a clamshell design which seals when not in use, but opens up into a free-standing device which accepts two batteries. Both batteries can be loaded at once and can charge at the same time. There is an illuminated LCD display under each charger slot which displays the battery's state of charge.
Best of all, even when not plugged into AC power, when a battery is placed in one of the slots the LCD will light up and show the battery's current charge status, both on a bar graph and as a percentage. There is also a car charger plug provided, another thoughtful addition.
Note that if you are upgrading from a previous model P back Phase One may not send you a new charger, as the only item that will likely be replaced is the back itself. If this is the case I would urge you to request that your VAR obtain one of the new chargers for you regardless. It really is worthwhile. Similarly if you're simply a current P back owner with no intention of upgrading at the moment.
The bad news is that there are still no rubber grommets to fill the various holes in the P45+'s chassis. These include the flash sync socket, the remote socket and the firewire socket. Each of these is a place susceptable to moisture and water intrusion during outdoor use. These plugs have been promised by Phase One for some two years now, and are still not available. Though a minor item (black electrical tape over the holes has been most people's stop-gap solution), that this should have been such an easy and inexpensive addition to implement, and yet has been ignored for so long, is disappointing.
H Series Camera Interface
As is well known, Phase One were involved with Hasselblad in the design of the H series camera's digital interface. What was always curious though was that the P backs always seemed to have a fight with the cameras wherever they were not turned on or off in the correct sequence.
That issue now appears to be solved with the Plus series, and one can now turn the camera or back on or off in any sequence without difficulty.
It seems to me that sometimes features are added to products because the marketing folks feel that they need to be on the checklist. I'm afraid that on the new Phase One Plus backs Live Preview falls into that category.
Firstly, it does not work on the back's LCD screen, only on the computer's screen when shooting tethered. More and more DSLRs are now offering live preview and so I suppose that Phase as well as other back makers regard this as a competitive necessity. But for pros shooting tethered in the studio – I wonder. Regardless, here's how it works.
The back is attached to the computer using a Firewire cable. The camera needs to be set to "T" mode, and the appropriate shooting aperture set. The shutter is released from the camera and then back at the computer Capture One is run and its Capture Tool tab invoked. Then, the Live Preview button is pressed in Capture One and a window opens on screen.
There are two controls for adjusting the brightness and appropriate visibility of the preview window. Top left is ISO Gain and to the right of it a slider for exposure duration. Note that these are not controls that affect your actual exposure. Rather, they are used to get appropriate brightness for the preview. There is a so-called Light Meter at the bottom of the window that is used in judging this effort.
Other controls that are available include a White Point setting tool and a Focus Tool. Below you also see the secondary focus window, which of course allows you to manually focus the camera on screen. The only problem with this is that it presumes that the computer screen and the camera are adjacent to each other, which they rarely will be in a studio setting, where usually the client or art director and such are across the room at the work station.
So, I can imagine that the way this will usually be handled is for the assistant to be at the camera, being told by the photographer who's at the computer... a bit in...no a bit out...no the other way...%^$#^...
It needs to be noted that every 30 seconds the back will go into a Pause Mode from which it needs to be reactivated from the keyboard. This, presumably, is to keep the back from overheating.
Finally, when everything is ready, Live Preview is turned off, and over on the camera the shutter is closed. Then, the camera needs to be reset from Manual / T mode to whatever exposure mode and shutter speed setting the photographer has determined is best for the actual shot. (Not the fastest process).
Frankly, this is all a total hassle, and I doubt that there are many situations where photographers will find it preferable to work this way rather than the way tethered shooting has been done until now. Which is – set Capture One to Composition mode, in which the shot appears on screen but isn't saved to disk. Take a shot from the keyboard. 1.5 seconds later it appears on screen, appropriate changes to composition or exposure are made, and then the actual exposure is made, again from the keyboard. No fussing back and forth with camera settings, no streaking from hot highlights and other on-screen anomalies.
I was told by one Phase One VAR that they were glad that Live Preview had been added to the Plus backs because there were some customers who actually insisted on seeing it as part of the competitive specs. But, who when asked if they actually would use it, just shrugged their shoulders.
That's how I feel about it. At this point Phase One's attempt at Live Preview simply deserves a shoulder shrug.
Phase One claims that the P45+ is quite a bit faster than the P45, and my tests show this to indeed be the case. Using a Sandisk Extreme IV 8GB card in a Hasselblad H2, I was able to capture 36 frames in 60 seconds with the P45+, but only 24 frames with the P45.
Hasselblad H2 with 55-110mm lens and P45+ @ ISO 50
The company also claims greater long exposure capability, up to one hour without appreciable noise. I tested the P45 with long exposures in 2006 and found that it did an exemplary job. But in several weeks of testing the P45+ I have not yet had an opportunity to do any real-world ultra-long exposures (I'm waiting for a clear and starry night at my place in the country). When I do I'll add it as an addendum here. In the meantime I have no doubt that the P45+ will be as good if not better than its predecessor – which is to say, excellent.
Capture One and Raw Processing
Capture One has been one of the preeminent raw processing programs available for the past few years. It has also long been the premium priced program for those that wanted to use it with their Nikons, Canons, and other popular DSLRs. Most people found the user interface a bit confusing (with the Mac and PC versions being quite different), but few would argue that C1 produced some of the finest raw conversions around, at least from an image quality perspective. (One highly knowledgable P45 and now P45+ user claims that CR and Lightroom indeed do a better job on basic raw processing of Phase One files, but that's an argument for another time).
Phase One back owners have had little to complain about, as C1 had always been considered one of the best of the major back maker's support programs, with availability for both PCs and Macs, which not every back maker could claim until recently.
But, that was then and this is now. Apple's Aperture and Adobe's Lightroom have dramatically changed the competitive landscape in raw processing and image processing workflow during the the past year or so, and Capture One is in my view simply no longer a competitive product. And Phase One knows this. They have been promising V4.0, a complete re-write, for more than a year, but it has yet to show, and to my knowledge is still some ways off, though I am told that an aggressive development program has been underway for some time.
Frankly, on my inaugural shoot with the P45+ in Washington state I was more than frustrated by being denied the use of Lightroom or Camera Raw, neither of which yet support the Plus backs. I've been working with Lightroom on my P45 for about a year now, and having to go back to Capture One for anything except tethered shooting has been a real frustration.
Lightroom V1.1 and Camera Raw 4.1 now have such advanced image processing tools available that the simple tools in C1 seem very restrictive by comparison. Also, my entire workflow is now centered around Lightroom, and having to do my initial raw processing in C1 is a hindrance.
Apparently Phase One and Adobe are working together (all P series backs previous to the Plus series are now supported in Lightroom and CR) and I expect that the next iteration of LR and CR will offer support for my P45+. In the meantime my workflow with the P45+ is to do my image review on C1 along with white balance, and general setting of white point and black point (though slightly wider than usual). I then export the files as unsharpened 16 bit TIFFs in ProPhoto, and import them into Lightroom for further processing.
Until such time as Adobe supports Plus series backs, I would strongly urge Phase One to add DNG export to Capture One. That way those of us who have adopted other raw processing and workflow solutions will be free to do so. This too has been promised by Phase One for more than half a year, and really can't be that hard to implement in a timely manner. Since Phase One has taken a public stance in favour of open standards, and has announced their intention of support for DNG, it's about time that this was implemented.
The Quibble Conclusion
Is the new Phase One P45+ the highest quality digital imaging device yet made? Maybe. A definite maybe. But, there's a but. That but is that there are excellent backs which are highly competitive from Leaf, Hasselblad, and Sinar. Is the P45+ better then these?
At this point in time I am comfortable saying that in my opinion the P45+ is the finest image capture device that I've ever used, and as regular readers know, I've used a great many over several decades. Its image quality is absolutely exemplary; as good if not better than drum scanned 4X5" film. If you haven't read Measuring Megabytes and purchased the supporting data DVD, please do so before crying foul.
But is overall image quality better than that of backs from Leaf, Hasselblad, and Sinar? In my opinion any answer one way or another is a quibble. Here's why.
It seems to me that we have reached a plateau when it comes to medium format back image quality. Manufacturer's claims aside for the moment, with the exception of more megapixels (between 21MP and 39MP at the high end currently) the past few years have seen only small incremental improvements in image quality.
Yes, high ISO noise performance is getting better; slowly. Colour accuracy and fidelity have made small improvements, and with the P45+, at least, dynamic range has also gone up a bit. But frankly, seeing these differences is sometimes an act of faith rather than one of observation, and measuring them rigorously is a tough, and usually thankless task.
Hasselblad H2 with 55-110mm lens and P45+ @ ISO 50
No, the differences in image quality between backs is small. Very small. Measurable and visible? Sure, maybe. But are they significant to the point that one should choose one maker's back over another based solely on overall image quality? I don't believe so. While one may have a small edge in one performance characteristic, there's always something that squeaks past in another.
I believe that the real differences, and the ones that should primarily inform a photographer's buying decision, relate to a back's features, user interface, overall ergonomics, compatibility with one's preferred camera system, manufacturer's reputation and financial stability, warranty, customer support, dealer service, and so on. In other words, work on the assumption that all of the backs from the big four medium format back makers will perform admirably. But when you're making a $20 – $30,000 buying decision, instead of agonizing over minutia consider the much more tangible aspects. The ones that can rear up and bite you in the ass if you're not careful. You and your clients will likely never see the minor differences in image quality between the backs except in direct side-by-side comparisons. But if your dealer or back maker lets you down on service and support, or the back's ergonomics and user interface are such that you can't get comfortable with its handling either in the studio or the field, your investment will be in jeopardy.
With my comparison testing now complete, I am selling
my previous P45 back.
Pricing and details on the offer can be found on the site's Forum For Sale section.
Update: The P45 has now been sold.