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Phase One Takes the High Ground

One Company's View of
The Future of Medium Format Digital

Update

When this article first appeared it showed U.S. pricing.
But because of fluctuating international exchange rates these prices can be misleading
for people living in other countries. I have therefore removed exact price information to avoid any confusion.
You should therrefore contact you local dealer to find out specific pricing information at the time that you are interested in buying.

In any battle, a strategist will tell you that victory often goes to the combatant that takes the high ground. This is both practical advice as well as a metaphor. Now, in late July, 2005, Phase One has – in a not altogether surprising move – not only announced three major new new products for the coming two quarters but has also laid out a product road map for the next 18 months. In the highly secretive world of digital camera technology this is almost unheard of, especially when a company has existing products to defend.

Announcing what you're going to be bringing out six and twelve months into the future is fine when you have no existing turf to defend (such as Mamiya with its ZD camera and back), but for a company like Phase One, a leader in its market segment, it's not the way the game is usually played.

I was made aware though of what a different company Phase One is when I visited their head office in Copenhagen in June, 2005, just 6 weeks prior to when this article is being first published. What I found was a very open organization. One which was not afraid to show the public its behind-the-scenes activities, and thoughts. ( Issue #13 of the Video Journal, scheduled for publication in September will feature this visit and extensive interviews with Phase One executives).

In part this openness may come from confidence, since they are the market leader in their segment of the industry. But it also appears to be part of the company's culture, and the product announcements which I'll be writing about here make this combination of confidence, aggressiveness and innovativeness apparent.

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New Products

Phase One has announced not one, but three new medium format digital backs, the P45, P30 and P21. These join the existing P25, P20 and H25, so that by early next year the company will have 6 different backs in its line-up. (Whether they all stay current further into 2006 is an open question). Let's look at each of the new backs in turn...

Please note that all prices quoted are in US dollars.
Also, these may vary somewhat in different countries depending on current exhange rates.

Phase One P45

No, it doesn't have a 45 Megapixel chip, just like the current P25 doesn't have a 25 Megapixel chip, rather being 22MP. The P45 does though have a 39 Megapixel (usable) chip, making it the highest resolution single-shot imaging device ever made. This produces a 112 Megabyte file in 8 bit mode, and a 224 Megabyte file in 16 bit mode. Yes – almost a quarter Gigabyte file from a single one-shot frame. Using Phase One's IIQ Large lossless file format each image will occupy approximately 47MB in the CF card. (Don't even think of opening a quarter gig file in Photoshop unless you have at least 2GB of RAM in your computer).

What else is known about this remarkable device? The chip size is the same as that in the previous P25 and other "full-frame" 645 backs. It's almost full-frame. A magnification factor of 1.1X over film is seen. Image size is 7216 x 5412 pixels.

The individual pixel size is 6.8 microns. This compares to 9 microns on the current P25 back. (Most current DSLRs are in the 5 – 8 micron range). The available ISO range is 50-400, while the current P25 is 50-800; though at ISO 800 image size is reduced by half through the use of binning. Capture speed of the P45 is the same as that of the current P25, at 35 frames per minute, or about one frame every 1.7 seconds.

Price? Remarkably, it's the same as the current price of the P25. Apparently the deal is as follows..

Buy a P25 today at the price that the P25 has been for the past year, and then when the P45 comes out in Q4 of this year (probably November), you will be able to swap it for a P45 at no additional charge.

The P25 in the meantime will drop in price by about $5,000, but at this price is ineligible for the trade-up offer. So basically for $5,000 you get the use of a P25 for the next 5 months or so.

For photographers that currently own a P25, the upgrade price to a P45 will be a bit more than $10,000.

It needs to be noted that Phase One dealers offer all of these backs under two pricing plans. The Classic plan provides a 1 year parts and labour warranty and a copy of Capture One DB, which only works with Phase One backs. The Value Added offer, for an additional US $3,000 provides..

– a 3 years warranty
– 24 hour replacement service
Capture One Pro software (also supports a wide range of DSLRs)
– A 1GB CF card
– Free exchange of the back for another of the same type, but for a different camera model, within the first year

The unanswered question, and this is one of the things that Phase One is keeping close to their kimono at the moment, is who makes the chip for the P45? Is it Kodak, or is it Dalsa? No one is saying, but my guess is that it's Dalsa. Call it intuition, but I'll bet that this is the case.

UPDATE: I was wrong. Several days after this first appeared I was authoritatively informed that all of the chips used in the new Phase One backs are from Kodak.

Who needs it?

Before going on to talk about the other three new backs, and other items that are coming, it's worth spending a moment to consider the question – who needs a 39 Megapixel back? Phase One sees the market as being the high-end commercial photographer. The shooter who needs the highest imaginable image quality. The photographer who probably charges $5 - $10,000 per day or more for a studio or location shoot.

I'm sure that this is likely the case. For photographers like these, shooting a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, the cost of a P45 is simply not a significant issue, and when amortized over a couple of years worth of such assignments pays for itself in quick order. The competitive edge that such a tool provides is also not to be discounted.

But I think that a P45 will also appeal to a wider range of photographers. Assuming that the tab can be absorbed, this back will become a object of desire for any photographer looking for what will likely be almost 8X10" sheet film quality. I'm just guessing at this point, but the current 22MP model P25 gives scanned 4X5" film a run for the money, and so it's not hard to imagine that the P45 will challenge the next format level.

Having written this, or course it remains to be seen if this conjecture is anywhere near accurate. Hopefully before the year is out I'll have an opportunity to go shooting with a P45 while accompanied by a friend who regularly shoots 8X10", and we'll see if this is indeed the case.

The bottom line is that the P45 on a medium format camera will likely provide the photographer in search of the highest possible image quality in a field-friendly package something close to nirvana. I can't wait to test one.

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Phase One P30

The second new back from Phase One is the P30, which will retail for a bit more than half the price of a P45. (+$3,000 for the Value Added program). This is a 31 Megapixel back, but it is reduced frame, featuring a 33mm X 44mm format that provides a 3:4 aspect ratio. The cropping factor over full 645 format is 1.3X.

This is a curious format – one not seen before in this medium. But though it's smaller than full-frame 645 it is still 169% larger than full-frame 35mm.

It's advantage over the P25 and P45 is shooting speed – 45 frames / minute vs. 35. While this isn't going to set the world on fire, it is very fast for such a large chip.

Like the P45 availability is promised for Q4 2005, and if you purchase a P30 now you will receive a P20 immediately, and can swap it without charge for the P30 when it becomes available later in the year. An upgrade from a P20 to a P30 will otherwise cost $10,000 or so . The $3,000 premium for the Value Added program costs the same as for all Phase One backs.

Who is it for? My guess is that it will appeal to fashion shooters primarily, where a faster shooting rate combined with a very large high-quality image will be of appeal.

In the meantime the P20 drops in price to something just over $10,000.

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Phase One P21

The P21 features an 18 Megapixel chip, and like the P30 has a 3:4 aspect ratio and 1.3X cropping factor. It's claim to fame is a 1 frame /second shooting speed, untethered. The P21 will start to ship in February, 2006, and Phase One is offering a P20 today to anyone that orders one, and then a no-charge swap for a P21 when it becomes available. The Classic program price is about the same as that for the P30, and the upgrade price for current P20 owners is about $10,000.

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Other Developments

Though somewhat overshadowed by these new product announcements, there is the new P Series back firmware that was made available just last week, in mid-July. Featured are enhanced LCD brightness, and something dubbed 3S Technology, which allows more confident in-back CF formatting, and Disk Check, which does a complete CF card validation upon insertion. Of special note is that when used specifically with Sandisk Extreme III cards write speeds of up to 20 mb/s are now claimed to be possible.

Details

Please note that I am just touching on some of the features of these new backs, and also just a few of the sales program details. If you're interested in finding out all of the details regarding price, available, trade-ins and upgrades you'll need to contact one of Phase One's dealers in your country or region. Note that these products are not sold through mass merchandisers or online. You'll need to contact an authorized dealer in your area and arrange for a demo and presentation.

One additional comment: The anticipated release dates for the new camera backs, according to Phase One, are expected to hold pretty firm. We have all seen release dates slip by many months on similar anticipated products. The Mamiya ZD is a current case in point. But these new Phase One backs are for the most part simply sensor chip updates, not new designs. The company has now been shipping its P Series all-in-one back for nearly a year, while some competitors are just starting to ship theirs, and yet others have still to join the party. For this reason I would expect Phase to hold reasonably close to their anticipated release dates, though component supply and other factors can always throw a spanner in the works.

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Wireless

Looking further down the road Phase One is saying that in Q3 of 2006, a year from now, they will offer as a retrofit option a very high speed wireless transmission capability to PCs as well as other devices. This is not of just the thumbnail, as some competitive backs currently provide, but of the full high-resolution file.

Phase one is claiming "instant" preview and focus capability along with a range of 25 meters (75 feet). This will allow a new level of shooting flexibility, with no Firewire cords to trip over in the studio, and the ability to have a computer in another room, or even in a nearby vehicle, receiving the shot images as they are produced, just as a tethered computer does today. An upgrade cost of $6,000 has been announced for any existing P series back once this new capability becomes available.

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Faster CF Card Performance

On the schedule for the 3rd Quarter of 2006 as well is faster CF card write speeds; 40 MB/sec is the target. This is twice as fast as anything currently available. This is a function of the in-back circuitry, not the card itself, but of course the card will form part of the equation. Phase One seems to be very partial to Sandisk's Extreeme III cards at the moment, as announced in mid-July.

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Software

The company's Capture One software has earned a deserved reputation as among the finest raw conversion software out there, whether for a Phase One back or for just about any of the DSLRs on the market. What fans of this software have to look forward to is an automatic moire removal tool on C1 V 3.7.2 in the next couple of months (Mac only), and a whole new version, Version 4 of the software, in the second quarter of next year. Version 4 is promised to offer a broad range of improvements, including a processing speed increase of up to 3X. It will also offer support for Intel based Macs, which will start to ship at around the same time as these new computers become available.

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DNG

When I was in Copenhagen in June I lobbied hard for DNG. I pointed out that as a P25 owner I was very concerned that their proprietary file format and raw software could be a real threat to my image archives if something ever happened to the company – regretably something that seems to be happening all to often these days. I found Phase One's management and engineering team to be favourably disposed, but with concerns about how best to implement an open raw strategy.

I'm pleased to learn that Phase One has now officially stated that they intend to support DNG later next year in Capture One. This is excellent news, and I hope that other camera makers are paying attention. This needs to become the industry norm, not the exception.

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Observations

So, what does all this mean?

Beyond it being one company's product plans for the coming 18 months, what do these announcements tell us about the future of medium format digital marketplace, and professional digital equipment in general?

Firstly, it seems to me, as Mark Twain once quipped, that the rumours of the death of medium format are highly exaggerated. Yes, the transition to digital has caused the medium format market to contract. Several companies have gone out of business, and others are in financial difficulty. Sales are definitely in decline.

Why? Simple – in the days of film MF had clear advantages over 35mm. But with cameras like the Canon 1Ds MKII and Nikon D2x now producing image quality superior to medium format film, many pros have simply moved away from MF. This is due, in large measure, to the high cost of medium format digital backs. Of course an MF camera combined with one of these backs produces higher image quality, but many ask themselves – when is enough, enough? Apparently the answer is seen in declining sales of MF cameras.

But not declining sales of medium format digital backs. These are on the increase. How then does one explain this dichotomy?

Based on my discussion with a number of working pros, and also manufacturers, the explanation seems to be that while sales of new MF cameras are in sharp decline, and lots of used equipment is showing up on eBay, pros who are seeking an edge are buying medium format backs in increasing numbers. They want the best image quality that technology can provide, and they and their clients are willing to pay for it. And while these numbers aren't huge, they are big enough for relatively small specialty companies like Phase One to survive, and even prosper.

That's why we are not going to see the price of medium format backs decline to any great extent. Big imaging chips still remain very expensive to produce, and volumes will simply not grow to allow increased yields and thus lower prices. Also, because these back makers are small, and sell in small volumes, their prices need to remain high so that they have the resources for R&D and support to their demanding professional customers.

Finally, there are the wealthy amateurs and fine-art photographers. Those that are after the highest image quality possible, and who have the funds to satisfy their needs and desires, will continue to purchase these devices in reasonable numbers, for as long as they remain available.

So for this reason companies like Phase One, which develop leading edge products offering very high image quality combined along with great dealer service will continue to thrive, even in a declining market. More power to them!

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What's Next?

I hope to obtain a P45 for field testing in October, ideally to coincide with my workshop trip to China scheduled for that month. Of course I'll have my comments and observations online as soon as possible thereafter.

Will I be buying one? Possibly, though I am as eager as anyone to see how big a difference the increased resolution makes in the real world.

These are exciting times in medium format.

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Me and Phase One

Regular readers know that I have no commercial relationships with any company. I accept no freebies, and buy all of the hardware products that I use. This site and The Video Journal accept no advertising.

I do have relationships with several companies though that go beyond the usual. This simply comes about because over time I become friendly with some of the key people involved. Such is human nature.

In the case of Phase One I have a personal relationship with Kevin Raber, Phase One's US VP Sales and Marketing. He's an avid landscape photographer, he's been on a couple of my workshops, and we've gone on shooting trips together several times.

Does this make me biased toward Phase One? No, not really, because this relationship largely came about after I did a review of all of the available medium format backs a couple of years ago. At the time I purchased a Kodak DCS Proback 645, but then when the P25 came along upgraded to it.

I want to stress though, that while Phase One has been very cooperative in providing me with equipment for testing, this is not the case with many other companies. Surprisingly, getting review samples of new medium format backs can be like pulling teeth. I do my best, but after asking for review samples and not having them show up, or even not having my phone calls returned, I move on to more productive tasks and more pleasurable relationships. So, if there seems to be a bias here toward Phase One when it comes to medium format backs, it's simply because they are easy to work with.

If other medium format backs makers would like to have me write-up their product announcements and review their new wares, all they have to do is make it a bit easier for me to do so. It's simple really. No conspiracy. Just good business practices.

Just thought you'd like to know.

Michael – July, 16, 2005


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Concepts: Digital camera, Digital camera back, Medium format, Large format, Photography, Phase One, Format, Digital photography

Entities: Copenhagen, all Phase One, Kodak, Sandisk, Mamiya, Intel, eBay, Canon, Nikon, The Value Added offer, innovativeness, China, ISO, Photoshop, advertising campaign, wireless transmission, advertising, confusion, nirvana, Michael Reichmann, Mark Twain, Michael, Kevin Raber, D2x, Macs, DSLRs, 3S Technology, RAM

Tags: phase one, medium format, image quality, chips, format digital backs, cameras, Phase One backs, medium format backs, current p25, new backs, company, Megapixel chip, new medium format, Phase One executives, Value Added, Phase One dealers, CF card, mf cameras, new phase, release dates, anticipated release dates, Value Added program, new product, Capture One DB, market, different company phase, Capture One software, format backs makers, upgrade price, new camera backs, aspect ratio, sales, different backs, Video Journal, medium format camera, image size, III cards, bit mode, photographer, Megabyte file