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Phase One P65+ Preview

The First Full Frame 645 Medium Format Back
(The real thing this time)

And 60 Megapixels With Variable Resolution


Phase One P65+
Back illustration Courtesy Phase One. Model Image by Drew Gardner

The medium format digital back market is small, probably less than 6,000 units a year world-wide. Canon makes more DSLRs than this each day. But, for several reasons, it's a vibrant and important industry because these are often the tools used by leading pros.

Firstly, these devices are for photographers needing to shoot at the extremes of image quality performance, where only the highest resolution, lowest noise, widest dynamic range and most accurate colour will do. Secondly, in the car industry no one buys Car and Driver magazine to lust over the latest Ford Focus. They would rather read about the next-generation Ferrari. In the photographic industry it's the same; the high-end exotic gear creates the biggest interest, not to mention want bumps.

July 14th will see the announcement of the Phase One P65+, arguably the most desirable medium format digital back yet. What makes it so?

Here's the story...

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Full Frame

At the last Photokina, in September, 2006, Hasselblad announced the H3D camera and back, and made a splash saying that it was Full Frame. I was there, and remember being excited at the news, along with many others. No more crop factor; and therefore the ability to use wide angle lenses at their full coverage capability.

But our excitement quickly turned to annoyance when we discover that the sensor was still 36X48mm, just like every other medium format digital back on the market. The only thing that had changed was that Hasselblad had a new smaller meter prism that was reduced down to this frame size, no longer requiring a cardboard mask to be laid on the camera's ground glass. In other words, this was a marketing not a technology achievement.

So it's with not a small ironic chuckle that I note that the new Phase One P65+ is the world's first real full-frame 645 format format back, with a sensor measuring 40.4 X 53.9mm, offering some 20% greater coverage than any other back yet. Oh yes, and you can now throw away that cardboard mask. (Please note that this still isn't 645 film format "full frame", which in the case of the Mamiya 645, for example, is 41.5 x 56 mm. Each camera maker originally had slightly different film gate dimensions. But, close enough in this case so that the difference is but a quibble).

Irony aside, this new and larger sensor size offers photographers two things; 20% higher resolution for the same pixel density, and the ability to utilize existing and future 645 format wide angle lenses at their intended coverage. In other words, a 35mm focal length lens is no longer a 40mm lens in practice. It needs to be noted that this isn't as big a difference as we see in the 35mm format world, where a reduced frame sensor has a 1.5X to 1.6X factor. But, it's still meaningful and worthwhile.

One final thought, for the time-being, on medium format sensor size. Full frame 645 isn't necessarily the end of the line. Remember, the Hy6 camera is based on the Rollei 6000 series camera and lenses, and these are nominally 60X60mm, though in practice somewhat less. This means that it is possible for someone to design, build, and market a full 2.25" square sensor back, though the cost would likely be horrendous at this point. For this reason alone I think it will be unlikely that we'll see sensors larger than full frame 645 at any time soon.

But, I also think this unlikely for another more practical reason. The 645 format was originally designed to create a roughly 4:3 format rectangle that was the equivalent of taking one full side of a 6X6 frame and cropping a rectangle from it. The reasoning was that most images would eventually be cropped to a rectangular format in any event, and by doing it in camera we would get more shots on a roll, and more importantly, smaller and lighter cameras and lenses. The only real downside was the loss of ability by the photographer to decide on that crop after the fact, or, of course, to shoot and print square – something that I and other photographers often did with our C series Hasselblads and other square format cameras.

So, moving back to today's digital reality, with a real full-frame 645 camera we once again have what we had in the days of film; a rectangular crop from the full 6X6 image area that 120/220 film format cameras offered us. I therefore doubt that anyone is going to go to the expense of making a 6X6 sensor, since it would only address the interests and needs of a very small segment of an already very small marketplace, those that want square images.

Now, back to the P65+.

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60 Megapixels

Yes, folks, you read that right, – 60 Megapixels (with 1 FPS frame rate claimed – a result of using four simultaneous sensor data readouts). For the past few years the highest sensor resolution available was 39 Megapixels, and for many this was regarded as more than enough. Certainly for commercial and advertising photographers this allowed billboard size blowups, and double page magazine spreads of the highest quality were routinely produced.

For fine art photographers, at least those with deep pockets and a desire for very large prints, 30X40" gallery quality prints were easily possible, and even larger with a bit of ressing up. Who needs more?

Well, that's now become a rhetorical question, because at 60.5 MP the P65+ will test the needs (and wallets) of pros around the world. I suppose the phrase, build it and they will come, applies here.

Do we need cars that do 240 km/hour? Likely not, because there's hardly a place in the world where one can legally drive that fast. But we have countless exotic and not-so-exotic cars that can do this as a matter of course. The argument goes that if the car can go that fast competently, then at more mundane speeds its performance will be stellar, also offering a safety margin. Interesting analogy.

Just a week prior to Phase One's announcement of the P65+, on July 14, 2008, Hasselblad announced its 50 Megapixel H3DII-50 back / camera combo. At the time it was the highest resolution sensor ever, with delivery anticipated in Q4. Its time at the pinnacle appears to have been short lived though, because the 60 Megapixel P65+ is said by Phase One to be ready to ship in Q4, 2008 as well. Interesting corporate gamesmanship.

Hasselblad and Kodak were able to get more megapixels into the same real estate (39 MP to 50 MP) by reducing the size of each photo site from 6.8 microns to 6 microns, but apparently with no reduction in image quality. Phase One and its design partner and chip fabricator Dalsa have also gone to a 6 micron pixel size, but are able to up the ante to 60MP due to the 20% increase in the sensor's physical size.

Phase One is claiming equal, if not enhanced image quality, with a dynamic range of 12.5 stops for the P65+, up from 11.75 stops on the P45+. This three quarter stop improvement may not seem like a lot, but if actual, will be worthwhile in real world shooting situations.

One area where the P65+ and its new Dalsa chip may not equal the P45+ is when it comes to long exposures. Phase One's current backs are almost uncanny in their ability to do noise-free long exposures, claimed at up to one hour. (I've exposed to about 20 minutes and then got bored with the test , since I never need exposures longer than this). According to Phase One's VP of Technology, Claus Molgaard, at the moment P65+ development units are capable of doing something over a minute with very good results, and he expects this to extend significantly once product development is complete.

My sense is that if high quality exposures in the 5 minute range are achieved this will satisfy most photographers, especially architectural photographers, who frequently need multi-minute exposures when balancing interiors with late day ambient light.

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Variable Resolution – The Big News

Possibly even more exciting than the larger sensor and the higher resolution of the P65+ over anything that's come before from Phase One, or any other MF back maker for that matter, is this backs ability to provide variable resolution. At this time, still nearly three months from introduction at Photokina, and maybe as much as 5 months from first shipments, Phase One is being reserved on this subject.

In its press announcement Phase mentions "Scaleable pixel and file size". This is a coy way of describing what may be the P65+'s most compelling feature. Imagine making a menu selection and instead of a 60 MP sensor that can shoot 1 frame per second, it allows you to take a 30MP frame at 2 FPS. Or, instead of a maximum ISO of 800 at 60 MP, how about ISO 1600 at 30 MP with comparable noise characteristics?

Now, please note that I am just making these numbers up. No one at Phase One has indicated yet what we can actually expect from the P65+'s nascent variable resolution capability. But, assuming that it works somewhat the way that I have described, this patented technology promises to be a very exciting capability which many photographers will find appealing. I would also guess that while there are current medium format photographers who might pass on an upgrade to 60MP just for its own sake, when this is combined with an instantly available faster shooting or higher sensitivity capability, the temptation for many will be irresistible.

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New Technology

There's a lot of additional new technology hidden within the P65+. In addition to the new proprietary sensor it appears that much of the back's internal circuitry has been redesigned as well. This includes Phase One's IIQ chip, their image processing ASIC, providing increases in both speed and precision.

The back also now includes 1.3GB of internal ram to aid data transfer speed.

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Pricing and Promotions

New state-of-the-art technology doesn't come cheap. The P65+ digital back starts at US $39,990 and can also be had with a Phase One camera system starting at $41,990.

Phase One has announced that anyone wanting to order a P65+ now can do so and immediately receive a P45+ to use until the new P65+ back is available at the end of the year. And, if you then decide not to take delivery of the P65+ for whatever reason, you'll receive a refund, and only have to pay $3,000 for the time that you've used the P45+. Sound like a deal to me.

I have no information yet on any upgrade or trade-in programs.

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Analysis

I think that we're going to see two responses from photographers to the P65+. The first will be from armchair quarterbacks who will find the resolution too high for their tastes or needs, not to mention the price. The second will be from professional photographers who are being asked to pony-up some considerable coin for what might at first seem to be only an incremental increase in resolution and image quality. Also, 360MB 16 bit files are non-trivial to work with, to be sure. Workflow will definitely be affected.

I would agree with some of these concerns if it weren't for the variable resolution capabilities. If things end up working along the lines that I have conjectured, variable resolution could be the feature that makes the P65+ a compelling buy for those that need its multiple capabilities. Those that don't – don't. It's as simple as that. And, if the camera's claimed improvement in dynamic range also pans out, there will be few that won't find this another potential reason to consider robbing the piggy bank or mugging the bank manager.

Beyond what's been stated here, we don't know much more as of today (July 14, '08). It's my guess that Hasselblad's announcement of the H3DII-50 a week before is what catalyzed Phase One to make this announcement when it did. Otherwise, allowed to run its normal course, the P65+ development process would likely not have lead to an announcement until late September at Photokina, and at that time with much more comprehensive and firmer specifications than we have now. It's only human nature (not to mention sensible business practice) to want to head off a competitor at the pass when it comes to mind-share for new products, even if these are still six months away from shipping. Thus, this somewhat premature announcement.

Since the P65+ incorporates a proprietary sensor co-developed between Phase One and Dalsa, this chip and technology will be exclusive to Phase One. This is an interesting development, because up until now generally all backs from the major manufacturers use sensors that are generally available on the open market.

Which begs the question – how will Hasselblad and others respond? It's already rumoured in the industry that there's another chip supplier waiting in the wings (no, not Kodak) that will be offering some advanced MF sized sensor technology, but that's likely a year or more away.

In the meantime, we'll all just have to sit back and wait and see how these latest backs meet their promises. I hope and expect to test all of these as and when they become shipping products.

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Historical Note

Though Phase One has been using Kodak sensors for some time now they have also used Dalsa sensors in the past, back when the technology belonged to Philips. The famous Phase One Lightphase, and the H10 model, for example, used Dalsa sensors.

July, 2008

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Concepts: Medium format, Frame rate, Film format, Camera, Digital camera back, 120 film, Hasselblad, Full-frame digital SLR

Entities: Focus, Phase One, Hasselblad, Dalsa, Kodak, Canon, Ford, Philips, frame rate, image processing, Michael Reichmann, Claus Molgaard, ram

Tags: Phase One, sensors, camera, medium format, Phase One P65+, variable resolution, image quality, technology, Hasselblad, dynamic range, wide angle lenses, larger sensor, proprietary sensor, sensor size, Phase One camera, full frame, Phase One Lightphase, Dalsa, megapixels, highest resolution, higher resolution, medium format sensor, highest sensor resolution, larger sensor size, film format, reduced frame sensor, highest resolution sensor, Dalsa sensors, P65+ development, exposures, digital back, cardboard mask, future 645 format, format cameras, chip, full-frame 645 camera, long exposures, simultaneous sensor data, new proprietary sensor, desirable medium format