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New Phase One 645 Camera

Once Upon A Time

By Way of Introduction

One upon a time there was a vibrant medium format camera business. Numerous companies, some of them making weird and wonderful devices, vied for our business. Who were we? For the most part working pros who required higher image quality than 35mm film could provide, primarily for commercial applications and print reproduction. There was also a healthy smattering of serious amateurs who similarly wanted higher image quality for our fine art prints and other purposes.

Then along came digital. Between 2000 and 2006 the digital steamroller decimated medium format. Film was disappearing rapidly and while a small and vibrant business was developing for medium format digital backs, prices were very high. Many pros and not a few amateurs couldn't resist the 11 then 16 then 21MP DSLR, along with their ever-higher image quality, zoom lenses, long lenses, perspective control lenses, fast lenses, smaller size, lower weight and lower price.

With the ever-hastening demise of film, medium format camera makers started having a hard time, and many of them went out of the medium format business, including Contax, Bronica and to a large extent Fuji. Pentax soldered on, but without the ability to accept digital backs was doomed from the start, and though they kept showing a digital body at trade shows for years, this eventually was abandoned.

Left in the end, in late summer 2006, were just Hasselblad and Mamiya. (Rolleiflex was a very marginal player in limited markets).

With film in its final days there were four and a half companies making medium format digital backs. These included Hasselblad, Phase One, Leaf, Sinar (Jenoptic / Eyelike), and the half company, Mamiya, who had a back for its own camera and also a hybrid called the ZD. More on these soon.

Each of these companies had carved out a niche for themselves; Hasselblad making backs for their own cameras (V and H series), and Phase One, Leaf and Sinar making backs to fit on Hasselblads as well as Mamiya's, Contaxes and a variety of technical cameras and converted view cameras.

The marketplace for these products was (and still is) small, though healthy. There was competition, to be sure, but also cooperation, as so often happens in specialized markets. For example the Hasselblad H camera's digital interface was designed with the assistance of Phase One, (this was before Hasselblad merged with Imacon and designed their own digital backs).

Then came Photokina 2006, in October of that year. Several seminal events happened at that show that are still reverberating throughout the industry some eighteen months later. The first of these is that Hasselblad used that biennial show to announce that the H2 was being discontinued, and a new H3D was introduced with a dedicated, though removable digital back. No other company's backs would be able or be allowed to attach to a Hasselblad H3D.

There was an overnight furor, and Hasselblad quickly back-stepped and said that no, they hadn't really meant that the H2 was discontinued, and in the worlds of the company's CEO at a public press conference, it would continue to be made as long as there was demand. Well, as no one doubted, it was subsequently discontinued within the next 12 months.

Why did Hasselblad do this? One can only conjecture. But what many observers believe is that Hasselblad did not want to lose high margin digital back sales to its competitors, and believed that by closing the platform photographers would be forced to buy the company's new H3D body and back package.

Of course this was combined with a full court press media blitz about how only though a higher level of integration between the body and the back could the best interests of photographers and technology be served. Well, only the naive fell for that one.

Why Discuss This?

This move by Hasselblad was, of course, a real issue for Phase One, Leaf and Sinar. What were they going to put their digital backs on? There needed to be cameras – new camera bodies, and not just existing inventory and what photographers already owned. With Hasselblad no longer an available platform that really only left Mamiya, or coming up with a brand new platform.

The world works in strange ways, and things never quite work out the way one thinks they well. A company called Franke & Heideke (the makers of Rollei MF cameras) , working together with Jenoptic and some others, also used Photokina 2006 for an announcement – its brand new Hy6 camera, and both Leaf and Sinar simultaneously announced that they were going to OEM this camera for use with their own backs.

And, at a dealer conference just before Photokina Phase One announced that it was going to be forming a strategic alliance with Mamiya.

Since partnering between companies is not an overnight process as anyone whose been involved in such negotiations knows, and designing a new camera system takes a great many months, even years, the timing of these various announcements was fascinating to observe in its synchronicity.

Coincidence? I think not. While we'll never know how much Phase, Leaf and Sinar knew beforehand, it was appropriate business strategy for them to plan on a world without the availability of Hasselblad bodies. So whether they stepped into Hasselblad's trap, or vice versa, is fascinating to ponder but now largely irrelevant.

As I've written on this subject before, – be careful what you wish for – it might just happen. Hasselblad wanted a world where they didn't have to compete with other companies to put digital backs on their cameras. Now, a year or so later, their wish has come true. Instead, Leaf and Sinar are selling their backs on the Hy6 system, based on the Rollei platform, and don't need Hasselblad any longer. And, as of today, Phase One now has its own camera system available based on the Mamiya platform. Now, therefore, if Hasselblad wants to sell a camera or a lens to a new customer they pretty much have to also sell them an expensive digital back as well. Whether or not this was a sensible strategy only time will tell, but the competition aren't waiting to find out.

I've already briefly reviewed the Hy6 platform from Sinar, with the Leaf version being very similar, except, of course, for the back attached. So – with all of this navel gazing and verbiage as preamble, let's see what Phase One is now up to.

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Phase One 645

Let's be frank. This first-generation body is a Mamiya 645 AFD III with a Phase One badge. (Mamiya is releasing it as an AFDIII under their own brand name, simultaneous with this announcement). This is no bad thing. Mamiya 645 cameras are ubiquitous, in use by tens of thousands of pros and advanced amateurs around the world for a good many years. There is no shortage of used equipment, bodies, film backs and especially lenses, often at very attractive prices.

The Phase One 645 AF body will accept any Mamiya 645 standard accessory, including lenses and backs. This means that you could even put a Leaf back with a Mamiya mounting plate on it if you wished. According to Phase One they are committed to open systems, and it's their intention to keep this model as well as future models of their camera open to third party backs, lenses, and other accessories.

And what about Mamiya itself? I am told that Mamiya will continue to sell a parallel camera body under its own brand name as well as their own ZD digital backs and the ZD camera body. Phase One and Mamiya will be collaborating on new bodies from now on, but will go their own ways when it comes to digital backs, marketing and distribution.

As for the Phase One 645 (and Mamiya AFD III), the camera has seen a lot of updates and revisions from the current AFDII, many of them internal. Immediately obvious is that the top prism-mounted Metering and Exposure Compensation dials are no longer there, replaced by programmable electronic controls on the LCD panel. The intention here is to create a more fluid and integrated user interface.

There is a new integrated, more ergonomic hand grip made of molded silicone, apparently with an easier to grip surface. The autofocus system is also updated, and is claimed to be more accurate than before and noticeably faster.

A new mirror damping mechanism has been added that is claimed to eliminate the need for mirror lock up. But to Phase One and Mamiya's credit they have also added a new mirror lock up / release capability on the grip, so user like me will likely be satisfied, regardless.

Apparently there is a new 80mm lens being made available that has a better "feel", and the level of integration between the lenses, the body and digital backs has been enhanced considerably.

Phase has announced that it plans to develop on its own, and with other manufacturers, additional lenses for the platform, and this is to include some leaf shutter lenses, which pros shooting studio flash really need. These leaf shutter lenses will not be replacements for the existing lens line, but rather, in addition to.

And finally, in the lens department, there will be a Hasselblad V lens adaptor so that any Hasselblad V lens will be able to be used. There will be no autodiaphram or autofocus, and stop-down metering will be required, but for anyone with legacy Hassy V lenses it's a way to marry them with a new system and digital back. This adaptor will be included at no charge with all sales of the Phase One 645 body and a back under the company's "Value Added" program, which include their up-time service designed for working pros who can't be without a camera or back due to service requirements. A Pentacon lens adaptor will also be available (there are still a lot of these around, especially in the UK and Europe).

As for the future – the word is that Phase One and Mamiya are working together on a next-generation camera body that, (and I'm guessing here) might still be 12 – 18 months away. The reasoning behind introducing the Phase One camera based on a rebadged Mamiya 645 now is to establish the brand association with camera bodies; ensure that there is a committed body for current and future digital back sales, and establish distribution of cameras and lenses through existing Phase One dealers and VARs. Then, when the next-generation advanced body comes along in (likely) Q1 2009, everything will be in place. The impression that I got from interviewing Phase One executives is that they are taking this system and its ongoing and long-term evolution very seriously indeed.

As for the wisdom of someone buying a Phase One camera body now rather than waiting for some future anticipated model, my comment would be – don't hesitate. Compared to the cost of a digital back and set of lenses, a 645 camera body is a very modest expenditure. Then, when the next generation body does become available you'll be able to use your first generation body as a back-up.

For those who are already invested in Mamiya 645 systems, this all is good news, because it expands the market base and assures longevity for the system, being supported and marketed now by one of the major players in the pro back market as well. Those who already are invested in another MF system don't really have any need to considering switching, unless there's something in the current Mamiya / Phase One system that particularly attracts your attention.

For anyone ready to jump into MF digital, being able to buy a branded camera and lenses from the same maker as your digital back makes a lot of sense, since the Hasselblad system is now closed unless you want to also purchase a Hasselblad digital back. If a Leaf or Sinar back is what turns you on, then of course you have the option of a Hy6 camera body with one of their backs, or you can put one on a Mamiya body – or a Phase One body for the matter, since it's uses a standard Mamiya back mount.

Choice is good, and after a rather dismal year or so in the choice department for MF photographers things are now looking up again, with open platforms from several companies and more choices than we've had for a while.

As Martha used to say – It's a good thing.

March 19, 2008

I expect to field review the Phase One 645 camera as soon as a test sample becomes available in early Q2.

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Pricing And Availability

The following are US suggested list prices. In other countries readers should contact their local reps and get appropriate quotes.

The Phase One 645 camera kit (camera and 80mm lens) will sell for $4,990. As a so-called Value Added system with 3 year extended warranty, 300,000 shutter actuation guarantee, and Hasselblad V lens adaptor, the price will be $7,990.

There will be bundles with Phase One backs. At the starter end there will be a bundle of a P20+ digital back and camera + 80mm lens for $12,490, and at the high end a P45+ with camera and lens for $35,990. Other Phase One backs and camera bundles will also be available.

All Phase One dealers will be able to supply any Mamiya 645 lens to customers, which will be available to them through local in-country Mamiya sources.

Capture One 4.1 Preview

Along with the announcement today of the Phase One 645 camera, the company also announced a preview of Capture One 4.1. This version will include also support for the Mamiya ZD back and camera.

C1 V4.1 is also said to include something that Phase calls Lens+ technology. It is designed to remove lens artifacts in images. "Not only will lens artifacts like chromatic aberration and fringing be heavily reduced, but at the same time image texture and color fidelity are expected to achieve a previously unseen level – resulting in amazing sharp and vibrant images," – or at least, so says the Phase One press release.

Focus+ is another feature which is claimed to "enhance performance of the full Mamiya 645AFD lens range, enabling a new level of sharpness and resolution. Perfect pixel definition will optimize the basis for high quality image rendering and extreme scaling".

Interesting marketing-speak, but how this translates into real-world results remains to be seen. Clearly though these are intended to counter Hasselblad's H3D system lens correction, which is described as being done in firmware (or, more than likely in the raw processing software). Whether in firmware or the raw processor is immaterial, it's the results that count, and for that analysis we'll have to wait for C1 4.1 to ship.

This lens correction capability could show up in future versions of Capture One for Canon, Nikon and other supported systems as well, in a manner not dissimilar to what DxO does. This is just speculation on my part, but I have to assume that what's technically possible is then just a matter of marketing intent and development scheduling.

I expect to have some sample files demonstrating both Focus+ and Lens+
in the next day or so, and will post them here at that time.

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This report is based on information provided by Phase One and on telephone interviews with Phase One executives. I have no hands-on experience with the camera at this time, and so readers should take my comments for what they are – based on manufacturer provided information, not first-hand experience.

Any editorial comments made in this article though are my own, and not those of Phase One.

 

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Concepts: Hasselblad, Camera, Mamiya, Single-lens reflex camera, Medium format, Sinar, Large format, Phase One

Entities: Hasselblad, a rebadged Mamiya 645, Hasselblad, Bronica, Pentax, Mamiya., Canon, Franke & Heideke, Nikon, Europe, Pricing And Availability, UK, AFDIII, Michael Reichmann, Leaf, Martha, Focus+, Jenoptic, Lens+, Hy6 camera

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