Forum Login

A Phase One P65+ Field Report

Moving Medium Format Digital to the Next Level


Zion Sunrise. March, 2009
Phase One 645AF with P65+ back and 75-150mm lens @ ISO 50

______________________________________________________________

It's become all too easy these days to wax rhapsodic over the latest digital cameras. We are at a point in time where the technology is improving at an almost exponential rate, and each new generation seems to outperform the last, sometimes by a significant margin.

The Phase One P65+ medium format back is the world's first 60 Megapixel back and also the first to qualify as full 645 format. There is no cropping factor over 645 format film. The back produces a 350 Megabytes file in 16 bit mode and can fire at 1 frame / second (actually, a bit less).

After testing a pre-production unit briefly in November, shooting with a sample full production unit in January on my Antarctic Workshop Expedition, and then working with my own unit in early March in Zion National Park, I now feel like I have a pretty good idea of what the P65+ is about, and what its capabilities are.

This field report is in two sections. Following an initial discussion and look at the Phase One 645 AF camera and lens system, is my report on the P65+ back itself. If you'd like to skip directly to the P65+ report found below click here.

______________________________________________________________

Presentation and Packaging

In all the years that I've been reporting on cameras, and the literally hundreds of reviews that I've written, I don't think that I've ever done more than give a passing mention to packaging. In the case of the P65+ and Phase One 645 AF I think it's worth discussing though.

The kit arrives in a fitted, rolling Pelican case. Looking tough enough to survive reentry from orbit, this case contains the camera body, an 80mm lens, and the digital back. A wide range of accessories are also included. In the case are found...

– a two battery charger, able to charge both batteries simultaniously, with an LCD showing actual percentage of charge

– two 2500 mAh batteries for the P65+ back

– a set of 6 alkaline batteries for the camera

– a second battery holder and set of 6 batteries for the camera

– a 4GB Sandisk Extreme IV CF card

– a 1GB memory stick containing camera and back manuals in PDF format

– a folding heavy plastic quickstart guide

– a selection of cables for tethered shooting as well as for connecting to a technical camera

– Capture One 4.6 software for both Mac and Windows (Be sure to register and visit the Phase One site for the most recent software update.)

– a lens adaptor allowing Hasselblad V series focal plane shutter lenses to be mounted on the camera

In other words, everything that you need to start shooting, store and protect your gear, and process your images. Really nicely done and appropriate when one is spending this sort of money – north of $40,000 in the U.S. Some companies are selling their high-end gear in recycled cardboard boxes, which is quite ecologically PC, but frankly I'll take the Pelican case.

______________________________________________________________

The Phase One 645 AF Camera

The camera is labeled as the Phase One 645 AF. It is, as many will realize, an OEM version of the latest Mamiya 645AFDIII. Mamiya is one of the oldest names in the medium format industry. Many of the grand names of the medium format camera industry have gone by the wayside during recent years, including Bronica, Contax, and most recently Rolleiflex / Hy6.

Update Sidebar:

I mentioned the Hy6 camera above as being among those that is no more. Well, it appears that word of its demise may be a bit premature. At the request of Leaf I am including immediately below the most current situation update.

Franke & Heidecke, Jenoptik's main subcontractor for manufacturing our Leaf AFi camera body, lenses and accessories, filed for insolvency in German court.

Leaf management is in constant communication and working closely with Jenoptik and F&H management. They are updating us frequently as the story unfolds. The following is the information that we have today, as we work toward securing the continuity of Leaf AFi supply, service and support.

Regardless of any rumours in the industry, the F&H manufacturing plant is operating normally and will continue to operate while F&H works with their creditors to reach agreement on the best way forward. While this process advances, production of Leaf AFi parts and components continues. To further ensure that F&H continues operating efficiently, an interim administrator has been appointed to evaluate the F&H business. What this means is that we will continue delivering Leaf AFi-II camera systems, lenses and accessories.

F&H investors have recently made a lot of progress in modernizing the production facilities and processes. We have recently seen great improvements made in a very short time. These improvements add to the real value of F&H and contribute to the likelihood of creating a solution that will support the factory’s future.

In parallel to the actions being taken by F&H, Leaf is investigating all possible opportunities to ensure that Leaf can achieve its goals. This effort includes urgent work with Jenoptik, F&H, our sales managers and dealers worldwide.

Our customers, reviewers and even some of our critics all agree that with the AFi-II, Leaf has created the best medium format camera system in the world. Leaf is committed to the continuing development and improvement of this product line. As far as other Leaf products are concerned, keep in mind that Leaf digital backs are manufactured and assembled by Leaf with components from various vendors. These products, comprising the core technology of Leaf, are not in any way affected by this announcement. The Leaf AFi and Aptus digital backs fit more than 80 different cameras in addition to the Leaf AFi body and continue to be valuable tools for Leaf photographers all over the world.

The Mamiya company changed hands in 2005 and is now known as Mamiya Digital Imaging Co. Ltd. At Photokina in 2006 Phase One and Mamiya announced a joint venture which has subsequently resulted in the Phase One camera and also a line of new D series lenses, all branded as Phase One. These bodies and lenses are 100% compatible with previous Mamiya mount lenses, both AF and manual focus, and the back is an open platform design able to take digital backs from Mamiya, Phase One and other manufacturers. Phase One is more than just a Mamiya OEM though, being, I am told, very much involved in the design of the camera's firmware as well as specifying the new lens designs. These lenses are also highly integrated into Phase One's Capture One software, which I'll have more to write about further in this report.

Anyone who has attended any of Phase One's presentations in recent months will also know that they are very committed to the further development of this camera system; not just new bodies but also an extensive range of additional new lenses, including several Tilt Shift and Leaf Shutter lenses.

The original Mamiya 645 camera dates back to 1975, making it the oldest continuing 645 format camera with interchangeable backs (film and digital) on the market. Hasselblad goes back further, but not of course their H series cameras, which are of a completely different lineage.

The reason that this is significant is twofold. Firstly, there is a vast universe of used bodies, lenses and accessories available. While the new generation of autofocus D series, digital optimized lenses are to be preferred, there are a huge number of older lenses to be had an very attractive prices, not to mention some focal lengths that are no longer in production, such as the 500mm f/5.6 which I was able to purchase new in March, 2009 from B&H, for under $1,000. More on this lens further on.

______________________________________________________________

The Body

Some fifteen years ago, in 1994, I shot in Zion National Park with a Mamiya 645 Pro, and so it was somewhat synchronistic that less than a week after receiving my Phase One 645 AF I was back in Zion to do some landscape photography with my friend Mark Dubovoy, also a Phase back owner. This time though instead of Fuji Provia 100 film I was shooting with the 60 Megapixel Phase One P65+.

Though fifteen years is a long time, and I haven't really worked with a Mamiya 645 system since then, I found that the Phase 645 body felt very familiar. In the intervening years I've been shooting with first a Contax 645 and then a Hasselblad H system (both with Phase backs). I found the new body easy to come to terms with though, in large measure because of its simplicity of design.

The grip has a rubberized surface that is equally comfortable in cold as well as hot weather. The controls are for the most part very simple and straightforward to operate, very much the way that Phase backs are simple to use, yet not lacking in features.

The prism is not removable. This is no hardship on a 645 format camera because a waIst-level finder doesn't make much sense on a camera that will spend half its life shooting verticals. On a square format camera though I regard the availability of a WLF to be a must.

The shutter button is threaded for a standard cable release, while there is also an electronic release socket on the left side of the body. My only beef with this is that the rubber plug which protects it from the elements isn't tethered, and is all too easily lost. Strangely the plug that protects the PC flash socket right above it is tethered. And speaking of flash, the camera has a flash hot shoe able to take any of the Metz flash units when used in conjunction with the Metz SCA396 adaptor.

I won't provide a laundry list of knobs and buttons, but briefly, the top panel has a mode dial with the usual Program, Shutter priority and Aperture priority settings as well as a setting for programming Custom functions. What is particularly appealing, to me at least, is that this control locks in position and can not be moved unless one presses a button in the center of the dial. This makes it impossible for the camera to be accidentally set to the wrong mode. I applaud this design because more and more cameras in my experience have mode dials which are all to easy to mis-set.

The mode dial also features a mirror lock-up position. The first press of the shutter release (or remote) locks up the mirror and the second releases the shutter. Next to it is a self timer button which can be programmed from 2 seconds to 60 seconds. All-in-all just about a perfect design for the careful worker seeking optimum image quality, especially when exposures in the critical 1/15 second zone are used, or when long lenses are attached.

There are then two control wheels, one just behind the shutter release and the second under ones thumb. These can be programmed through custom functions as to which settings they affect and which direction increases or decreases settings.

There is also a programmable focus lock button on the front of the camera and an AEL button on the rear. There is a focus assist light on the front panel as well as a depth of field stop-down button.

Autofocus mode is controlled with a secure three position switch at the bottom left of the body, but Mamiya AF lenses can also be instantly switched to manual focus by a rotating or push-pull ring on the lens. Clearly this camera was designed by and for photographers, something which can not always be said for some recent DSLR designs.


Sunset Bay. Antarctica, January, 2009
Phase One 645 with 75-150mm lens and P65+ back at ISO 100

______________________________________________________________

Cards, Batteries and Performance

The back takes a CF card, and because of the size of the files, the faster the better. It is supplied with a 4GB Sandisk Extreme IV and I would recommend a couple of  16GB versions of this card for field use. Each one will hold about 225 frames.

Phase One claims that the P65+ can shoot at 1 FPS. My testing, with 16GB Sandisk Extreme IV cards (UDMA at 45 MB/s) produced a speed of 15 frames in 20 seconds (0.75 FPS) , somewhat slower than speced, but still acceptable for most shooting conditions except sports and wildlife – not subjects which this cameras is likely to be used for.

According to Phase One the claimed 1 FPS shooting rate is when the P65+ is attached to a Hasselblad V series camera, not the Phase camera.

Of course this speed is nowhere near what most DSLRs can do, but let's put it in perspective. A 25 Megapixel Nikon D3x shoots in 14 bit mode at 1.8 FPS. The P65+ is 60.5 Megapixels and shoots in 16 bit mode. All things considered, this is comparable throughput performance. If you need higher frame rates than you'll have to consider shooting in Sensor+ mode, which will reduce file size to 15 Megapixels, or just switch to your 12 bit DSLR.

The camera uses 6 AA sized batteries in a holder that inserts into the base of the grip. These can be either Alkaline or NiMH rechargeables. I found that in moderately cool weather (between 35 and 55 degrees F, I got about 100 frames on a set of Alkaline's and about 200 frames on a set of 2500 mAh Sony NimH rechargeables. The rechargeables are obviously the way to go, offering more shooting between battery swaps and better long-term economy.

Since rechargeable batteries usually come in sets of four, with a small charger, the best approach is to buy three sets or these, providing a total of twelve batteries (two battery inserts worth). This will provide more than 400 frames on a day's shooting and then in a pinch Alkaline batteries can be bought locally.

______________________________________________________________

Lenses

Since the Phase One 645 AF and Mamiya 645 camera are genetic twins this means that any Mamiya lens will also fit on the Phase. That's an awful lot of lenses. But since this lens line is now more than 35 years old, as with the Nikon platform it means that older lenses may not provide various degrees of automation, such as auto-diaphragm and coupling with the camera's built-in metering system. If the lens has electronic contacts it will likely provide these, but if it has an old-fashioned external maximum aperture coupling fork, forget it. Any lens will function though, it just means that you'll have to use its A and M diaphragm control ring as a pre-set. Slow, but do-able, especially with specialized long lenses such as the Mamiya 500mm f/5.6.

Of course for autofocus you'll need one of the Mamiya or Phase One autofocus lenses. Since becoming involved with Mamiya in late 2007 Phase one has participated in the redesign of seven new lenses, optimized for digital shooting, which are now sold under the Phase One brand by Phase One dealers. These include the 28mm f4.5, 45mm f/2.8, 45mm f/3.5 T/S, 80mm f/2.8, 120mm f/4 macro, 150mm f/2.8 and 75-150mm f/4.5 zoom.

The lenses have more than a different label on them. They have in some cases been reformulated and re-coated for digital use, and also have been mechanically improved. I haven't done any rigorous lab comparisons, but based on my own field use of the 28mm f4.5, 45mm f/2.8, and 75-150mm f/4.5 zoom, I can say that these lenses are as good if not better than any medium format lenses from other houses. I know several high-end landscape and nature photographers, including highly acclaimed and commercialy successful landscape photographers Charlie Cramer and Tim Wolcott, who are both using Mamiya / Phase systems, and I have heard nothing but praise from them for Mamiya glass.

And speaking of glass, Mamiya is one of the few camera companies in Japan that not only designs and manufacturers their own lenses but which also makes their own optical glass.

______________________________________________________________

Phase One Lens System Field Experience

As every photographer knows, it's the lenses in a camera system that truly make the difference when it comes to image quality. Poor lenses just don't hack it when it comes not just to professional quality results, but also under the demands of very high resolution sensors.

Between my shooting with a loaned system in Antarctica, and now with my own camera and back in Zion NP, I have enough initial field experience (several thousand frames) with four Phase One lenses to offer some general comments.

Phase One Digital 28mm f4.5


Virgin River Dawn - Zion National Park. March, 2009
Phase One 645 AF with P65+ back and 28mm f/4.5 @ ISO 50

This lens is only one of a handful of ultra-wide lenses available for 645 systems at this focal length, equivalent to 17mm in full-frame 35mm terms. There is a 23mm HR from Rodenstock (14mm equiv) for use on technical cameras with digital backs, but SLR designs have limitations on spacing between the rear element and the focal plane and thus harder to implement retrofocus designs are required.

At 886g this is not a light weight lens, but on the other hand it isn't as bulky as one might think. It's also quite expensive. Quality of construction appears very high, and AF / MF switching is with a forward and back slide of the nicely rubberized focusing ring, a design that I'm learning to really like because it makes switching back and forth quick, simple, and something that one can do with ones eye to the viewfinder and no fumbling.

Image quality, as with all of these new lenses, is very high. I had been concerned that a retrofocus lens design this wide would lead to fall-off, vignetting and soft corners, but that it not the case. At least it isn't when Capture One 4.6 and higher are used, because this software contains sophisticated routines that "profile" this lens and correct for certain aberrations that can not be eliminated solely through lens design. This is a new era of lens optimization that digital technology allows, and it's quite impressive.

Phase One Digital 45mm f2.8


Checkerboard Mesa. Zion National Park. March 2009
Phase One 645 AF with P65+ back and 45mm f/2.8 lens @ ISO 100

I knew nothing about this 45mm when I acquired the system other than having been told that it was a brand new design and a "killer". Well, that in fact is what it's turned out to be. The focal length is as wide as I normally shoot (28mm equivalent) and the lens is both fast and amazingly sharp. When run though the optimization routines on Capture One there simply isn't an optical characteristic that I can find to criticize. In a word, a lovely lens that meets the high demands of the P65+.

Phase One Digital 75-150mm f/4.5 Zoom


Footprints. Antarctica, January, 2009
Phase One 645 AF with P65+ back and 75-150mm lens @ ISO 100 (150mm)

This zoom is my favourite lens, and it appears to be so regarded by just about anyone else that I have spoken with that has used it. It is relatively small and light, and exceptionally sharp. Whereas on my Hasselblad the 50-110mm f/3.5 was my most used lens, its weight and bulk were a major impediment to using it in the field. It also was never quite long enough for my style of shooting.

The Phase 75-150mm is a Goldilocks of a lens, seeming to be just right in terms of size and weight, and a definite keeper in terms of image quality.

Mamiya 300mm f/4.5 AF APO


Cliffs. Zion National Park. March, 2009
Phase One 645 AF with P65+ back and 300mm f/4.5 APO lens @ ISO 50

I tend to shoot long most of the time rather than wide. That's just the way that I see the world. The longest lens currently in the Mamiya 645 line-up is their 300mm f4.5 APO. Phase One does not OEM this lens under their own brand at the moment.

Relatively small and light weight, this is a very sharp lens. In fact it's light enough that I've taken off its provided rotating tripod collar, since the lens doesn't appear to require it, balancing nicely when tripod mounted without one.

This is a true Apochromatic lens, and CA and fringing are either nonexistent or very slight.

Mamiya Sekor 500mm f/5.6


Highway Cactus, Nevada. March, 2009
Phase One 645 AF with P65+ back and Mamiya 500mm f/5.6


The longest autofocus lens currently in the Mamiya / Phase One line-up is the 300mm f/4.5 APO discussed above. This is a terrific lens, but for the type of landscape and nature shooting that I like to do sometimes 300mm is not long enough.

I was bemoaning this just prior to heading to Zion, and noting that there is a Mamiya 500mm f4.5 APO for the princely sum of about $12,500, when I saw that there used to be a 500mm f/5.6 lens in the Mamiya line up. The lens is not AF, and it has no electronic contacts, so there isn't any exposure automation either, but for landscape work neither would be an issue.

Ebay showed there to be a couple of used one at under a thousand dollars, and an online search showed new ones to be available for $2,500 from Calumet Photo. That's more like it. But then I saw that B&H Photo had the lens listed, new, for $995. I immediately ordered one, and it arrived just the day before I left for Zion. A 500mm medium 645 format lens for under a thousand dollars. How bad could it be?

I started shooting with it as soon as we reached Zion, and some quick inspection of files on the laptop showed that while I had to use the absolutely most rigorous shooting technique to avoid quality-killing vibration, when used properly this lens could deliver.

No, it's nowhere near as good as the 300mm APO. It suffers from quite a bit of chromatic aberration, but fortunately Capture One 4.6's CA Analyze tool can automatically remove it, almost completely. For anyone who decides to purchase one of these lenses, and use it on a current model Phase or Mamiya 645 camera, here is what you need to do.

The lens does not autofocus, of course, and so you have to focus manually. My sample of the lens had a stiff but very smooth focusing ring (probably stiff from sitting on the shelf for several years with the lubricants thickening), but the stiffness proved to allow for very accurate setting of the focus point, a must with a lens this long and no AF.

But while there's no autofocus per-se the camera's focus detection works, and the green focus light and focus direction arrows in the viewfinder are available. The trick is that these only light up when a fully manual lens like this is attached, while the shutter is being half-pressed.

Focusing needs to be done with the lens wide open, and this is achieved by setting the lens' pre-set to to "A". When you're done focusing and composing turn this ring to the M position and the aperture will stop down to whatever F stop you've previously set.

As for setting exposure, well, you're on your own. The camera's TTL metering system simply doesn't work at all, displaying nonsense readings. But, a bit of common sense and a test shot or two combined with looking at the back's histogram produces the f stop and shutter speed needed in the camera's M(anual) position, using the front and rear setting wheels.

I would caution anyone considering this lens to appreciate that it isn't one that lends itself to fast use, and is most appropriate for landscape work, and the most careful shooting technique. But, when all of this is factored in it is capable of producing some pretty good images, especially for the money.

I don't know how long B&H (and possibly others) will have this lens available, especially at this attractive price. So, if you think you might want one I wouldn't hesitate, especially now that this article is online.


Abandoned. Antarctica, January, 2009
Phase One 645 with 75-150mm lens and P65+ back @ ISO 50

______________________________________________________________

Leaf Shutter Lenses

In medium format photographers are faced with the choice between camera systems which use focal plane shutters and those which utilize lenses having built-in leaf shutters. Why is this, and what are the pros and cons of each type of system?

A focal plain shutter is the familiar kind that is built into all DSLRs. The Phase One 645 AF and its identical twin the Mamiya 645 AFDIII use focal plane shutters.  Leaf shutters, on the other hand, are built into the lens itself rather than the camera body. This is the type of shutter in the Hasselblad's H system, for example.

The advantage of the focal plain shutter are high shutter speeds, in the case of the Phase One 645 up to 1/4,000 second. The disadvantage is a slow flash sync speed of 1/125sec in the case of the Phase One AF and Mamiya. Conversely a leaf shutter is limited in its top speed, usually to about 1/750 sec, but it can sync with electronic flash right up to its top speed.

Which to prefer really depends on the type of shooting that one does. For photographers working in the studio with flash, or doing weddings outdoors with flash, a high sync speed is desirable. For someone that never or rarely uses flash, and who doesn't care about daylight fill-flash, it's not a big deal one way or the other.

If having high shutter speeds so that wide apertures can be used outdoors for selective depth of field is important then those extra few stops at the top end with a focal plane shutter can be important.

Finally, leaf shutters add to the cost of a camera system because each lens needs one rather than there just being a single shutter in the camera body. Leaf shutter lenses are also typically larger and heavier as well as more costly than lenses without shutter mechanisms, and usually have lower maximum apertures at any comparable focal length.

The Phase One camera is fundamentally a focal plane shutter camera, and this has meant that it and its sibling the AFDIII are less popular with some studio pros than cameras like the H series Hasselblads.

With this in mind Phase One and Mamiya designed the 645 AF and AFDIII with the ability to use leaf shutter as well as regular lenses. Phase has a family of three leaf shutter lenses coming out. These are reported to require no mode switching or other machinations. Just mount it and shoot. I'll be reporting on these when they become available for testing.

______________________________________________________________

Camera System Conclusion

I've been shooting with just about every major medium format camera system to come to market since the mid-1960's. Hasselblad V and H, Mamiya, Bronica, Contax and Rollei, not to mention technical cameras such as those from Linhof, Cambo, and others.

I won't write that the Phase 645 camera is the best that I've ever used, because it isn't. I've had a few real love affairs with some cameras, such as the Contax 645 and the Rollei 6008. The Hasselblad H2 was also a camera that I used with some great pleasure, producing some of my best work in recent years.

But the Phase 645 is a simple yoemanlike system that has a lot of appeal, and in today's diminished medium format market it appears, along with Phase One backs, to offer a forward migration path that few if any other companies offer, especially in these treacherous economic times. Their lenses are as good as anything available for reflex systems, exceeded only by specialized digital lenses from Rodenstock and Schneider, for use on technical cameras.

The Phase One 645 AF builds on the long history of Mamiya 645 cameras, and Phase One is now more than simply an OEM of Mamiya's. In fact they are now specifying camera features and lens designs that go beyond what Mamiya themselves had in process before their strategic relationship was implemented two years ago. While I can't be specific, Phase One has broadly hinted that there are new cameras under development (note the plural) as well as quite a number of new lenses.

Whether the Mamiya and Phase One product lines remain in parallel or diverge is anyone's guess, but in the meantime we have a world leader in digital technology working together with one of Japan's great medium format camera and lens builders, and what could be wrong with that?

______________________________________________________________

The P65+ – What It Is

The Phase One P65+ is a 60.5 Megapixel full-frame 645 format digital back designed to work with a range of medium format cameras, including Phase One and Mamiya 645 models, Mamiya RZ, Hasselblad H1 and H2, Hasselblad V, and Contax 645. The back can also be used on a wide range of technical and view cameras including those from Alpa, Arca Swiss, Sinar, Linhof, Horseman, Cambo and Silvestri, including just about any 4"X5" camera via an appropriate adaptor.

The back can "talk" to most current 645 format cameras without the need for any external cabling. Exceptions are older models such as Hasselblad V series which require a sync cable be run from the lens's flash terminal to the back to signal when the camera is firing. Similarly a sync cable set-up is needed when attaching to a technical camera that lacks electronic connections between the body and whatever back is being attached. These connections are present in current 645 model cameras and signal back and forth such information as triggering, ISO setting, power status and so forth.

The P65+ is not just the first back with a resolution of over 60 Megapixels, but also the first that is truly 645 full-frame. This means that there is no reduction factor when lenses are used. Another manufacturer made this claim a couple of years ago, but all they had done is mask down their prism viewfinder by a factor of 1.2X, no different than the cardboard mask that other makers were providing for their identically sized sensor backs. The irony is that this company (yes, it's Hasselblad) has also recently announced their own "really" full-frame 645 back. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the masked-down viewfinder issue among users who have previous H3 bodies and prisms.

______________________________________________________________

Fit and Features

I've reviewed Phase One P backs before, so I won't spend too much time on their basic design and feature set. Among the things that have always appealed to me are the simplicity of design. There are just four soft button on the back's rear panel, which through an easily learned and intuitive interface provide access to all features and settings.

Build quality is simply outstanding. Phase has produced a series of video commercials over the past couple of years showing P backs being dropped from balloons, frozen in dry ice, nuked in a microwave oven, and stood on by elephants, (wait till you see that one).

While I've never subjected any of my backs to such torture, I have used them in +40C to -30C temperatures, from the cold of the Canadian Arctic in winter to the Namibian Desert in summer, and never had a failure. I've even dropped one on a concrete floor (with metal sensor cover attached, fortunately), and had it survive unscathed.

These back's greatest vulnerability is the exposed sensor when removed from the camera body for cleaning, which is the only time they usually are removed and the sensor exposed. A 645 format sensor right out in the open is a large piece of expensive and vulnerable real estate, and in 2008 I scratched the sensor (I'm not sure how) on my P45+ and it cost me $1,500 to have the cover glass replaced. Ouch!

The good news though is that because the sensor on a medium format back is so accessible, it's extremely easy to clean. No brushes on long handles and spatulas - just a Pec Pad and some cleaning fluid, and of course a bit of care.

When the first P series self-powered backs came out some five years ago I criticized that the Firewire and connector sockets for connecting to computers for tethered shooting, and to technical cameras, didn't come with rubber plugs. It took Phase some years to address this issue but finally the new backs have a flip-up door on the Firewire port and the other ports are sealed with rubber plugs. Finally! (Owners of previous Phase backs can contact their dealers for retrofit plugs at a small charge).

Speaking of Firewire, P backs have always used Firewire 400 ports for tethered shooting. It's interesting to note that Apple has now discontinued Firewire 400 on all of its new laptops. But, the back's 400 port is fully compatible with Firewire 800, so all that's needed is a connector adaptor, which is currently included with each back.

The LCD screen is just "OK", nothing more. There are screens on $400 pocket cameras that are superior, but I'm told that heat and battery issues have dictated they type of screen used. Maybe so, but don't figure on chimping the P65+'s screen the way you do the one on your DSLR.

Previous P back owners will note at least one useful new feature, the artificial horizon. Whether horizontal or vertical the back can be set to display a virtual horizon or level, which if you've left your bubble level at home, or it just fell off a cliff (as they are wont to do) your bacon is saved. This is very similar in execution on the rear LCD level indicator found on current high-end Nikon DSLRs. We'll have to wait though for a higher level of back and body integration though before this becomes visible in the viewfinder as well, the way it does on the Nikons.

Two other new features on the P65+ are a B&W display mode, and ranking. Setting playback to monochrome does not affect the final image, but for photographers working in B&W, doing portraits for example, this can help with visualization. The other new features is ranking, which allows setting the number of stars that you wish for each image during on-screen review. This ranking is automatically transferred to Capture One.

The back's battery is a standard sized Canon video battery, but what is provided is a version that puts out 2500 mAh. Depending on the battery saving settings and ambient temperature this will allow between 100 and 200 frames. The back ships with two batteries and a dual battery charger, but my recommendation is that users pick up at least two more batteries for a full day's worth of field use, especially in low temperatures.


Roosting. Antarctica, January, 2009
Phase One 645 with 75-150mm lens and P65+ back @ ISO 100

Finally, on the topic of features, apparently the P65+ has what is being called a Zero Latency mode which eliminates the need for a shutter pre-release when the back is mounted on a technical or view camera. This was previously required on Phase One backs to signal the back that an exposure was coming and wake it from power-saving dormancy. I have not had an opportunity to test this myself, as I just learned about it prior to publication, but I'll update here if this proves otherwise.

______________________________________________________________

Image Quality and Resolution

The Phase One P65+ currently has bragging rights as the world's highest resolution digital back for medium format cameras. As we'll see though there's more to the back's goodness than just high resolution.

A well shot 16 bit 60 Megapixel frame is quite something to work with. The level of detail is astonishing – beyond anything most people have seen, except maybe from a large format scanning back. Prints that are 22" X 30" are easily made, and even larger ones are quite possible. (This is my standard sized gallery print).

When printing 22"X30" is the native size of a full P65+ frame at 300ppi. But, if you allow resolution to drop to 180ppi (which many printing experts do rather than res-up) then a 38"X50" print is possible from a native P65+ file. Of course ressing-up lets one go even larger without much strain, especially since prints that large tend to be viewed from a greater distance – except by other photographers who pixel peep and who then tend to get nose grease on the glass.

A high-res drum scan from 4"X5" film is likely comparable in resolution, but definitely not in terms of image clarity and cleanness. Drum scans always show grain and the inevitable schmutz that scans invariably capture, that sometimes can take hours to remove.  No, there really is no comparison, and given that a 645 camera with a back like this can be hand-held, can be shot at up to 1/4,000 second, and at up to ISO 800, it's no contest. This is about as good as it gets for most types of photography, now, in 2009.

Dynamic range should also be prominently mentioned. While 60MP is great for making very large prints, and cropping, one of the advantages of such a large CCD producing 16 bit files is a very large dynamic range, and also one in which the shadows are extremely clean, at least at ISOs 50, 100 and 200. Problem files can be stretched like Silly Putty and still produce stunning images.

______________________________________________________________

High ISO

Medium format backs have never had as good high ISO capability as DSLRs. I've never heard a good explanation of why, but there you are.

The P65+ changes this equation. I've owned and extensively used the Kodak DCS Proback, the Phase P25, P45 and P45+, and have also tested just about every other MF back available during the past six years, and none have the high ISO performance of the P65+. And, it should be noted, this is without the pixel binning of Phase's Sensor+ technology.

Kolob Canyon, Utah. March, 2009
Phase One 645 with 75-150mm lens and P65+ back at 150mm
ISO 50
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
NA
ISO 800
NA

Immediately above are 100% crops from image files taken in Zion NP in early March. What I see here as well as in hundreds of images shot at all ISOs in Antarctica in January and Zion in March is that any noise differences between ISO 50, 100 and 200 are a quibble. The only thing that changes is dynamic range, and then not by all that much. Using the lower speeds is therefore about maximizing DR not controlling noise.

ISO 400 starts to show just the slightest bit of texture, but nothing to get fussed about except maybe in the most critical applications. ISO 800 does show some noise (exclusively luminance) that cleans up easily and allows 800 to actually be a usable speed in many situations.

So, while 60.5 Megapixels is definitely nice to have, and represents a moderate increase over the P45+'s 39 Megapixels, it's the low noise at higher ISO's that really will make the step up to a P65+ a worthwhile proposition for many medium format shooters who need higher ISOs than other medium format backs currently provide them. This is, in my experience, the first medium format back that meets the high ISO capabilities of the best DSLRs up to its usual full-resolution speed limit of ISO 800.

______________________________________________________________

Long Exposures

The P45+ allowed essentially noise free images to be shot with exposures as long as one hour. The P65+ makes no such claim. In a discussion with Phase One's chief technologist I was told that having ultra-long exposure and Sensor+ technology in the same device was not possible at this time and that the company felt that high ISO capability and Sensor+ pixel binning was likely to be preferred by most photographers.

At one minute, the P65+'s claimed maximum, I found results to be fine, but not at exposures much beyond this.


Zion Moon. March, 2009
Phase One 645 with 75-150mm lens and P65+ back @ ISO 50

______________________________________________________________

Beyond Resolution

I ran into a friend at PMA in Las Vegas, and over a coffee he commented that he found that even on the web he thought that he could see a difference between my P65+ shots from Antarctica and those from the 25 Megapixel Sony A900.

I didn't disagree, and this raises an interesting point which a number of us who were testing the P65+ on the Antarctic trip in January had seen and discussed.

Many of us have shot large format film in the past, and had noted that even in an 8"X10" (A4) print one could always tell a large format image from one shot on medium format, and certainly from 35mm.

From a technical point of view this was hard to explain because the resolution was certainly there on the smaller format images, and their lenses were up to the job. Yet, small prints from large format could always be differentiated.

This is the case with medium format digital images today. Even though a 21-25MP DSLR can produce exceptional prints, one can clearly see the difference that medium format makes, sometimes even at the web's low resolution.

Even some very savvy technical types in the industry don't have a firm explanation for what it is we're seeing. The best explanation that I've been able to come up with is what I like to call micro-contrast. What we appear to be seeing in large format film and medium format digital (especially from 39MP and up) is the ability for the system to differentiate tiny differences in luminance values, tonality and colour.

Is this because MF backs are 16 bit rather than 14 or 12 bit which DSLRs use? Maybe. But there's something more than this because that wouldn't explain why large format film exhibits the same sense of clarity in small prints. This micro-contrast may simply be the cumulative effect of a  number of factors which enable the viewer to discern what appears to be greater detail.


Zion Cliff. Utah. March, 2009
Phase One 645AF with P65+ back and 75-150mm lens @ ISO 50

______________________________________________________________

Capture One Pro 4.6.3

The world of raw converters has changed rapidly over the past few years, with Aperture and Lightroom leading the way toward much more sophisticated programs, with added features such as database capabilities, web gallery creation, and more.

Capture One has long been regarded as one of the best raw converters available, at least as far as image quality was concerned. But the user interface often left a lot to be desired. After a very lengthy gestation period Phase One released Capture One Pro 4.5 late last year. This is a much improved program in many ways. Though it lacks the DAM (Digital Asset Management) features of Aperture and Lightroom, and some of the niceties such as Lightroom's gradient tool, and sharpening masks, Capture One is now back in the ranks of the top raw converters.

Though it is capable of working with files from most top DSLRs, its greatest strength lies in working with Phase One medium format back files. There is a synergy between them because they spring from the same R&D lab. Phase One knows the secret sauce that's in their files and handles them much better than any third party software can. This is especially true when it comes to lens corrections, such as for the 28mm. Capture One has routines built in that are able to apply optical corrections in software that simply aren't otherwise possible (at least not without hours of work).

As regular readers know though I am a huge fan of Lightroom, and use it for a broad range of tasks including cataloging, indexing and keywording my library of files. I also have become addicted to the program's exceptional parametric image editing tools.

My solution then is that I do my initial work on P65+ files in Capture One, including lens corrections, colour balancing, and setting white point and black point. I then export the files out of Capture One as 16 bit TIFFs, without sharpening, and do the rest of my raw processing in Lightroom.

I have set up an automation path using LightRoom's "Watched Folder" feature so that all I need do is click on one or more files in Capture One and they are automatically exported and then imported into Lightroom.

Capture One 4.6 is a very powerful raw processor, and along with that power comes a bit of a steep learning curve. Regrettably there isn't much in the way of learning tools available, with no books yet on Version 4.5 and above.

Capture-U does have an online course though which I can highly recommend.


After Dinner. Lamar Channel. Antarctica, January, 2009
Phase One 645AF with P65+ back and 75-150mm lens @ ISO 100

______________________________________________________________

A Question of Value

At a MSLP of US $40,000, or $45,000 with camera and lens in the Value Added kit, one has to ask – is the P65+ worth the money? This question is particularly relevant in a digital camera industry, such as we have now, when 21 to 25 Megapixel DSLRs can be purchased for under $3,000. Of course the fact that we are in the worst economic times for 70 years makes the issue even more pressing.

To my mind this comes down to appreciating the difference between price and value. Price is simple to understand. It's simply the monetary value placed on an item. There is no value judgment attached. It's simply a fact.

Value is a completely subjective concept. A discounted vacation package to The Bahamas may seem like a good value to one person, while to another it represents 3 months mortgage payments. Value therefore is relative to an individual's needs and abilities, while price is simply an objective reality.

To place this in context, regular readers know that I have criticized the Nikon D3x for being priced at $8,000 and therefore in not representing (in my opinion) a good value. This judgment is based on the availability of the similar performing Sony A900 and Canon 5D MKII. In other words, I don't see the D3x as representing good value, not because I think its a bad camera, but because compared to what else is available (including the D3) it seems to me to be overpriced. Incidentally I now see the Canon 1Ds MKIII as similarly overpriced and therefore not a good value any longer either. Value is a relative and personal measure.

So where does that leave us with the P65+ back? Is it overpriced, and does it represent good value?

The answer to the first question can probably be answered as "no", while I'll get to the second question in a moment.

For about the past 10 years the OEM price of state-of-the-art large sized imaging sensors has been around $5,000. This was the case when a 21MP sub-645 sensor was the pinnacle and is likely the case now with the 60 Megapixel sensor in the P65+. In other words, that's what companies like Phase One pay to Dalsa and Kodak for these sensors in quantity. This is the case because of the limited size of the market and the low yields of these huge chips. Just taking this component cost alone and marking it up through the manufacturing and distribution chain typically triples the cost.

Now add the R&D, engineering, assembly, testing, packaging, distribution, marketing costs and dealer margins, and all of a sudden the price doesn't seem so high. Consider as well that unlike a company such as Nikon or Canon, which make millions of sensors and cameras a year, companies like Phase One are dealing in just a few thousand, which means fixed overheads are shared over a much smaller number of unit sales.

But, you might ask, what's that to me? All I care about is the final price. Yes, exactly! That's where the question of value comes in, and that's were it becomes completely subjective. Is a Mercedes E300 a good value at $75,000? For some it most definitely is, but for another who finds buying a low-end Toyota a financial stretch it's not even on the radar. There's no value in a Mercedes at all for that person though there will be for another.

For someone that has a large investment in Nikon glass, and who has the resources, a D3x will represent good value, and similarly for someone that needs or wants the ultimate image quality of a P65+. There simply is nothing currently on the market that I'm aware of that can touch it. It's as simple as that.

One makes ones own personal decisions in these areas, and it's only pundits like me that are entitled to piss people off with their biased opinions. (Humour alert!)

______________________________________________________________

Sensor+

As this report is being completed I have been sent a P65+ back by Phase One that is the first to contain full production capability Sensor+ technology. Since it is going to take me a bit of time to test it out and come to terms with its capabilities I have decided not to delay this review any longer. I will be producing a separate write-up on Sensor + within a week or so of this review's first publication and will add it here when completed.

As a brief backgrounder, what Sensor+ is designed to do is produce a 15MP image, rather than a 60MP one, but to increase the sensitivity and shooting speed accordingly. More here in a week or less.

UPDATE:

Sensor+ report now available.

______________________________________________________________

Biased! Who Me?

If you've read this far you'll likely have come to one of two conclusions. The first is that I really like the P65+ and Phase One 645 AF camera system. The second is that I'm a biased hack that has somehow been co-opted by Phase One into doing a puff-piece review.

Well, no actually. Even though some people see black helicopters hovering over my head the truth of the matter is that I've paid my own money for all of this equipment, not just the new P65+ but also the P45+, P45 and P25 before it. It's the business that I'm in. I sold my Hasselblad camera gear early in 2009, not because anyone twisted my arm but because what I had feared more than two years ago when that company closed their camera and lens platform to third party backs had come to pass. If I stayed with a Phase One back along with a Hasselblad body in the years ahead there would be no future migration path for me, and short of switching to a Hasselblad back and upgrading to an H3 body I was in an upgrade dead-end.

Frankly, Phase One's attractive upgrade promotions when new backs come out, and the ability to  switch camera back platforms without cost, allowed me to move to a Phase One camera, and so I now have a system-wide upgrade path available to me as new Phase cameras, lenses, and back technologies become available.

I should add parenthetically that I was very sad to say goodbye to my H1, H2 and set of lenses. Since writing the web's first online review of the H1 following its press launch in New York back in 2002. I have been a huge fan of the system, if not sometimes of the company's management decisions. And even though I have owned Phase One backs for some years, I have regularly reviewed (fairly, I am told by those companies) medium format backs and cameras from Kodak, Sinar and Leaf as well.

So, just for the record, if Hasselblad or any of its dealers wants to bury the hatchet and would be interested in providing me with one of their latest backs for testing, I'd be pleased to do so at any time. Really.


Zion Dusk. March, 2009
Phase One 645AF with P65+ back and 75-150mm lens @ ISO 50

______________________________________________________________

Ultra-High Resolution and Camera Stability

Most serious photographers know that one of the secrets of obtaining the highest possible image quality is to minimize shake and vibration. This is best accomplished when hand-holding DSLRs by using a high shutter speed along with some form of image stabilization.

For more controlled shooting a tripod is the answer, and the bigger and more massive the better. Similarly with the tripod head. This needs to be combined with proper technique, such as the use of mirror lock up and a cable release, or the use of a self timer.

But, use a long focal length lens, add a little wind, be less the rigorous in locking down all the knobs, and less than ideal stability can be the result. This is the case with all camera systems, but on my shoot in Zion NP with the P65+ I discovered that simply using proper techniques sometimes wasn't enough. The ultra-high resolution of the P65+, combined with the use of a long lens, such as a 300mm or 500mm, and shutter speeds in the 1/15 second range, produced less than perfect results on several occasions. Since I thought that I was doing everything properly, and using both a heavy duty tripod and head, I couldn't understand why when looking at the back's LCD review screen at maximum magnification, and again in the evenings at our motel on my laptop screen, critical sharpness wasn't being achieved.

On the second day in Zion I decided to track down the source of the problem. What I found was that my normal practice of using a cable release to set mirror lock-up, wait about 3 seconds, and then fire the shutter, wasn't long enough, especially when using the 500mm, and when shutter speeds were in the critical 1/4 sec to 1/30 sec range. I did an experiment, looking through the viewfinder, tapping the camera lightly, and then watching critically for when vibration ended. My usual three seconds seemed to be about right, but some tests using the self timer showed that waiting at least six seconds was what was needed for all vibration to completely disappear.

No, this wasn't because my tripod and head aren't sturdy enough, because my tools and technique are ones honed over many years of doing critical landscape shooting in the field. The only variable that I could find was the fact that at 60 Megapixels resolution the P65+ was simply able to resolve and reproduce micro-detail to such a degree that minute vibrations which would have have otherwise not been noticeable now are. Once I started waiting six seconds or more before releasing the shutter after the mirror had been locked up, or has used the self timer set at at least 6 seconds, this issue mostly went away. Fascinating.

______________________________________________________________

A Glitch

One small glitch occurred with the Phase camera body while in Zion. On the third morning, while doing a dawn shoot before heading back to Las Vegas to catch our flights home to San Francisco and Toronto, I found that the camera's autofocus wasn't working. Indeed the green AF confirmation light was permanently on.

With some amazing light evolving rapidly around us I couldn't and wouldn't take time to troubleshoot the issue. I simply cursed and proceeded to shoot with four different lenses over the next 30 minutes using manual focus on the ground glass.

Later that morning, waiting for my flight at Las Vegas airport, I tried to see what the problem might be, but no amount of rebooting the camera by popping the batteries or removing the back did the trick. It was only when I went into the camera's custom function settings to see if there was a setting amiss (there wasn't) that when I went back to shooting mode the AF started to work properly again, and has since.

At this point I don't know if the problem I encountered was a one-time glitch caused by the phase of the moon (no pun intended) or is something that others have encountered with the Phase One 645 AF or the Mamiya AFDIII. If you've encountered this issue please drop me a line and let me know. Otherwise, and unless it happens again, I'm treating it as a one time occurrence.

Update Sidebar:

After first publication I heard from regular reader Jack Flesher that what I had described as a glitch is in fact a feature of this camera model (tongue firmly in cheek). Here's his description of what happened.

On the 645 body AF glitch with AF deactivated and green AF confirm light always on: Note that with the newer body and firmware when you depress the AF-lock button, AF is deactivated, the focus confirm light lights up and stays on permanently -- even after cycling the camera on and off or battery removal(!) You must depress the AF-lock button a second time to deactivate it. And it's an easy button to push inadvertently. Frustrating yes indeed, but you learn to deal with it ;-)

______________________________________________________________

Comment by Mark Dubovoy

My friend Mark Dubovoy is a large format photographer of many years, and one of the few people in the world that has done colour carbon pigment printing. He is a very fine photographer whose work is widely collected. Oh yes, he's also a PhD nuclear physicist (so he understands the scientific method), and is a retired venture capitalist, so he knows a thing or two about money and value. All of which makes him a knowledgeable observer of the current photographic scene. He is as well a contributing editor to Photo Techniques magazine and writes for this site from time to time.

Mark also shot with a loaned P65+ on my January Antarctic trip and was with me in Zion shooting with his P45+ (his P65+ is on backorder). When I showed him a draft of this article he ask that I add the following observation, which I totally agree with.

To my eyes, even though the P65+ images obviously capture more detail than the P45+, the most noticeable visual difference is that they have a "liquid smoothness" and a richness of color nuances that make the P45+ which is already a killer back, look almost rough and unrefined by comparison. It kind of reminds me of the difference between a print from an 8x10 versus 4x5. A print from 4x5 always had plenty of everything, but side-by-side with a print from an 8x10, the 8x10 always looked smoother, richer in tonal and color gradations, more liquid, more refined and yet sharper with more detail.

______________________________________________________________

Where Next?

Phase One has made no secret of the fact that they have new cameras under development. This is important for them and for us because while the Phase One 645 AF is a very decent camera, it is based on technology from the film era when cameras and backs needed to communicate very little. Now, much more is required and a fresh design is in order. Having two separate batteries, for the body and for the back, is a pain, as is the fact that they are of different types and require different chargers. So much more can be accomplished by creating a more complete communication path between the back and the body, as Phase One did when they worked with Hasselblad some years ago in designing the original interface between the H1 and their backs. (Yes, this is before Imacon came on the scene and merged with Hasselblad).

For the time being I am very pleased with the Phase One camera system and its lenses. More of both are on the way. As for the P65+ back, even without Sensor+ technology (which as you'll soon see is pretty amazing) this is the back to have for anyone with aspirations to the highest possible image quality, and the budget to support that aspiration. In fact I will go on record as saying that this is the finest photographic device that I have ever seen or used. It produces images that are superior to professionally drum scanned 4X5" film and second only to a high resolution scanning back, but without that device's practical field limitations.

What a great time to be a photographer!

March, 2009


Filed Under:  

show page metadata

Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Hasselblad, Mamiya, Digital camera, Medium format, Large format

Entities: Las Vegas, New York, Linhof, a Phase One, the Mamiya or Phase, Hasselblad, Nikon, F&H, Sony, Sandisk, Kodak, Mamiya Digital Imaging Co. Ltd, Bronica, Canon, B&H, Contax, Jenoptik, Ebay, Apple, Alpa, Antarctica, a MSLP, Japan, PMA, Zion National Park, ISO, LCD screen, DSLRs, open platform, Firewire 800, real estate, ISOs, Mercedes, Virgin River, Windows, AF, Michael Reichmann, Leaf, Jenoptik, Franke, Lightroom, Jack Flesher, Charlie Cramer, Silly Putty, schmutz, DSLRs, Arctic, Antarctic, CA, PC, DSLRs

Tags: phase one, camera, medium format, Mamiya, image, camera systems, leaf, digital, format cameras, mamiya 645 cameras, Phase One P65+, Hasselblad, medium format cameras, leaf shutter, megapixels, Phase One camera, camera body, focal plane shutter, sensor, technical cameras, design, Zion National Park, 16 bit, shutter speeds, good value, mode, focal length, phase camera, Phase One backs, shutter lenses, image quality, leaf shutter lenses, Phase backs, large, large format, new lenses, high shutter speed, Phase 645 camera, Phase One Lens, button