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Phase One IQ Series Backs Announced

24 January, 2011
80 Megapixels and The Beginning of a New Era in Medium Format

Top pros who work with exacting clients, and wealthy amateurs who demand nothing but the best possible image quality have always turned to medium format backs and cameras. Over the years resolution has grown from 16MP, to 21MP, to 39MP, and a couple of years ago to 60MP. Now, with the just announced Phase One IQ180, the company's new flagship, that ceiling has been raised to 80 Megapixels.

Indeed, the IQ180 isn't the first 80MP back to be announced. Leaf (now owned by Phase One) announced their 80MP back in September, 2010. These backs are now starting to ship, and indeed I will have my hands-on review of the Leaf Aptus II 12 online here within the next few days.


A New and Higher IQ

The big news isn't just that there is a new 80 Megapixel back from Phase One. Just as fascinating is the completely new design of the IQ backs. There are three new IQ backs, the Phase One IQ180, IQ160 and IQ140 with maximum resolutions of 80, 60.5 and 40MP respectively.

Other than maximum resolution the backs are almost identical, so we'll concentrate on describing the flagship IQ180, which will be the first to ship. The industrial design is brand new in every respect, and at this point, based on the photographs at least, it's quite a beautiful design.

Kevin Raber, a Phase One Vice President, is bringing a pre-production IQ180 to San Miguel, Mexico for me to test later this week. Mark Dubovoy will also be testing the IQ180 this week and we will both have reports here in the days ahead. Watch for them.

Large Hi-Res Touch Screen

The most obvious new feature is the large (3.2") 1.15 Megapixel retina style touch screen (similar to that on the iPhone 4). It has 290 ppi, 16 million colors, and a 170º viewing angle.

The screen with advanced touch controls, including zooming, swiping, and similar touch screen controls. For those that don't care to use a touch screen the IQ backs retain Phase One's intuitive four button controls.

Focus Mask

Of particular interest is that the new backs provide a Focus Mask confirmation tool, similar to that found in Capture One 6. This means that exact focus confirmation as well as depth of field can be reviewed on-screen. If this was all that was offered the new backs would be exciting enough, but we have been told that when the backs ship beginning in April they will feature a form of Live View.

A Form of Live View

Because the IQ backs use CCD sensors, as do the current P+ series, they are not capable of fast-refresh Live View. But, Phase One's engineers look like they will be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and provide Live View with a slow refresh rate. It remains to be seen how effective this is, but if it works as promised it will be the holy grail for MF shooters, especially those that use technical cameras, since ground glass focusing and framing will no longer be necessary.

Battery and Weather Sealing

Along with the new industrial design and large high-resolution touch screen the IQ backs now enclose the battery within the back. (The same battery as in P backs is used). This enclosure along with tighter weather sealing and port covers will likely mean that location and outdoor photographers will benefit.

Firewire 800 / USB3, and Sensor Plus

In addition to the familiar Firewire 800 connector the IQ backs are the first cameras that I'm aware of to feature USB 3 as well.

The back has a built-in charger that charges the battery continuously whenever the back is connected to a computer via either FireWire 800 or USB (including USB 3). Folks who do long shoots in tethered mode, such as fashion and product photographers, no longer have to worry about battery replacement during a shoot. 

And like the P+ series backs all IQ backs feature Sensor Plus technology, which means that they can shoot at a reduced pixel count with increased sensitivity and faster frame rates. In the case of the IQ180 resolution is reduced to 20 Megapixels while write speed is increased. At 80MP it is 1 frame every 1.4 seconds, while at 20MP it's 1 frame every 1.1 seconds.

The IQ180 has a 1 Gigabyte buffer of high speed RAM.

ISO & Dynamic Range

Phase One is claiming a dynamic range of 12.5 stops, between a third and a half stop better than the P65+, their best previous back. They also are claiming that the IQ180 is the lowest noise back yet, even though the pixel pitch has been reduced to 5.2 microns to achieve 80MP.

The ISO range on the sensor is between 50 and 800, while in Sensor+ mode sensitivity goes up to ISO 3200.

Camera Interface

Current owners will be pleased to learn that the back interface remains the same, so the new IQ backs will work on any previous compatible camera. But the interface has been enhanced so that with Phase One 645DF bodies the camera can turn the back on and off, rather than one having to do so separately. An independent power switch remains on the camera for when the back is used on a technical camera.

Maximum Exposure Time

Maximum exposure time on the IQ backs remains at 1 minute. It's been explained to me that the Dalsa chips that Phase now uses are limited in this way, with the trade-off being their Sensor+ capability. Previous non-Plus series backs used Kodak chips that allowed very long exposure times. I once did a noiseless 45 minutes exposure with a P45.

Auto Alignment

The new back has sensors that can tell whether the back is level from side to side and from front to back. The user can use this capability to level the camera while shooting, or select a preference in the latest version of CaptureOne so that the software automatically levels the image in either direction or both. 


Pricing, Availability and Other News

The IQ180 back will start to ship in late April, 2011.  The IQ160 and IQ140 will become available over the following couple of months.

The IQ180 will be priced at US $43,990. Phase One says that they will be offering an attractive upgrade program for previous P series backs, and also a trade-in program for owners of other brands. Details are now available from Phase One authorized dealers in each country.

P+ series backs will continue to be produced and sold. The IQ backs are not a replacement for P series backs, but rather are intended as a premium offering due to their enhanced features and capabilities.


What's Next?

The above information is based on a telephone interview last week with Phase One's President of Engineering, and the company's CEO. Usually there is a gap between when a product is announced and when it becomes available for testing. In this case we are fortunate (and Phase One is doing it the right way) because review sample backs are being made available for testing immediately.

As I mentioned, Phase One's VP, Kevin Raber, is coming to Mexico with a back for me to test for a few days, and he'll be visiting with Mark Dubovoy in the Bay Area this week as well. Other reviewers will similarly be getting backs for testing, I'm sure.

I expect that Mark and I will have our reports online here by the end of this coming week. We have been cautioned that not all features are fully implanted yet, such as Live View, but the back's performance is otherwise apparently ready for prime time testing.

Check back here on What's New regularly this week for more about the Phase One IQ180.

24 January, 2011

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Concepts: Exposure, Digital camera, Camera, Exposure value, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Photography, Frame rate, Shutter speed

Entities: San Miguel, Phase One, Kodak, The IQ180, Mexico, touch screen, FireWire, ISO, Michael Reichmann, Kevin Raber, Mark Dubovoy, Leaf, Mark, Bay Area, iPhone, RAM

Tags: Phase One, IQ backs, camera, Phase One IQ180, Live View, series backs, touch screen, new iq backs, P+ series, firewire 800, new backs, sensors, Phase One Vice, format backs, P+ series backs, non-Plus series backs, review sample backs, backs ship, maximum resolution, Mark Dubovoy, Kevin Raber, megapixels, maximum exposure, technical camera, industrial design, Firewire 800 connector, Higher IQ, new 80 megapixel, Leaf Aptus II, touch screen controls, 16 million colors, slow refresh rate, large high-resolution touch, best possible image, style touch screen, previous compatible camera, obvious new feature, fast-refresh live view, Mask confirmation tool, reduced pixel count