Why I Moved To Medium Format :: Phase One IQ140 Review
I’ve recently moved to a digital medium format system and I thought I’d blog about the process of choosing a system and why making this jump was worth every hard earned penny to do so. But first, let’s enter the way back machine. If you are fairly new to photography and DSLRs have been your entrance into this industry then this an important part of the blog post. Bear with me. All of it after the jump. (If you don’t see the video above just hit refresh. Not sure what’s going on with the embed code)
When I started in photography (1995) the industry was still ruled by film. 35mm camera systems were the main stay for amateurs, newspaper, event, and sports photographers. They were fast, nimble, and affordable but they were the smallest format any “pro” would typically use. Much of the professional world shot medium format. If you were shooting weddings, portraits, or editorial work you were pretty much expected to be shooting medium format. The difference in image quality from a 35mm piece of film to medium format was huge. If you were going to be a pro outside of the newspaper/sports world you were going to own a medium format system. It’s as simple as that. Sure there were exceptions to this rule but not many. For many in the industry medium format was the “small” format if you were used to shooting 4×5 or larger.
Back then the price canyon between a 35mm pro kit and a starter medium format kit was three to five thousand dollars. The Hasselblad and Mamyia RZ systems were at the top of the chain and it trickled down to things like Pentax and Bronica. My first “real” medium format system was a Bronica ETRsi system that I got with a student discount for about $4,000. (I could probably get the same system on ebay today for a few hundred dollars.) Dropping well over $10,000 on a basic medium format system wasn’t all that big of a deal back then. I’ve worked in studios with Sinar large format systems that were $75,000 worth of kit and up.
Digital came along and I knew sports photographers getting second mortgages on their houses to buy some of the first Kodak DSLRs. One friend of mine got a “hell of a deal” on a used camera for $16,500. When I was working at JCPenney, they had not one, but two Kodak DSC460′s that retailed in the neighborhood of $35,000 each. Nikon “revolutionized” the industry with the D1 when it was introduced because it was “only” $5,000. Suddenly digital was affordable for the “common” pro photographer. Note – Some of the folks getting the mortgages were shooting for $200 day rates for the wires.
I say all this to say that if a $2,200 camera body to you today is, in your mind, the pinnacle of quality and “really expensive” you should spend some time looking at the recent history of photography and realize how “cheap” that camera actually is comparatively. I’m about to start talking about a $25,000 camera system I just bought into that a few years ago would have been $50,000 or more. Ten years ago it wasn’t even on the map.
My path to a digital back started about four years ago when I met fellow photographer Drew Gardner. I saw some prints of his work and they were breathtaking. He was shooting with a Phase and I talked his ear off about it. Then I saw Joey L’s prints of his work and it was undoubtedly medium format and again, from a Phase. I knew I was heading in that direction but I had not shot with a medium format back. The good folks at the Mac Group let me borrow a Mamiya DM33 system for a week and that was the camera that convinced me I had to move up. The image quality off that chip was unlike anything any DSLR I owned had ever produced. It was the closest thing to medium format film I had seen in the digital world. The tones, dynamic range, color, sharpness, and shallow depth of field the larger sensor produced made my 35mm system feel like I was shooting with a flip phone.
I tried to whet my appetite for medium format by going back to film last year. That was fine but it sucked for anything on a deadline and I was spending a lot of money on film, developing, shipping, and scanning. $100 here. $300 there. It was adding up for nothing more than personal work as my paid work was 95% digital and needed quick turnarounds. Hasselblad let me demo a CFV 39 to mount to my Hasselblad 500 but it just didn’t meet up to the Mamiya I had been loaned. Then I started printing my portfolio again at 11×14. My photos hold up okay at that print size but I printed a few MF images and the difference was night and day. I think the last nail in the coffin was watching Peter Hurley’s “Art of the Headshot” DVD. Watching him rock that Hasselblad was it. I’m pulling out all the stops and going medium format digital. Done and done. (BTW – If you haven’t seen Peter’s DVD I highly suggest it mainly to watch how he interacts with his subjects. He’s a master at that!)
Why Digital Medium Format? ::
Reasons #1, #2, and #3 :: Image Quality :: I can’t properly convey how gorgeous these digital files are. It’s not just the amount of Megapixels that matter. The size of the imaging sensor comes into play in the final quality of the photo. I’d rather have a 20 megapixel medium format camera than a 30 megapixel 35mm based DSLR because the physical sensor is much larger. The larger the sensor the higher the quality. You’re going to see some web sized compressed jpgs in this blog post. They only hint at the quality of the actual file. Don’t start with the “I see noise in the blue channel” and “I see CA on the third eye lash from the left”. When you see these in their full glory on a good monitor or in print they blow the doors off any Nikon or Canon I’ve ever shot. I do want to say that geeking out too much on 100% crops is akin to buying a new lawn mower then getting on your hands and knees to inspect the blades of grass after a fresh cut. Notice that the 100% crop views are but a postage stamp compared to the whole of the image. The native files coming out of the IQ140 (40 MP) are about 18×24 inches at 300 dpi. I do not condone pixel peeping and measurebating but here we go…
So the images straight from the camera are pretty dang sharp. The devil is all up in these details. I hate looking at my 35mm based images at 100% when editing. I can nail the shot but at 100% they just fall short in the details. Not so with this IQ140 back. The larger sensor is both a blessing and a curse. It shows you what you got right and what you did wrong. There are three main things that affect depth of field. Aperture, focal length, and camera to subject distance. There is a fourth aspect and that is film/sensor size. The larger the sensor the shallower the DoF. Jumping from a crop factor to full frame DSLR you’ll see a bit of change in DoF. Going full frame DSLR to MF you see it even more. Focusing is critical with this camera. Super critical. The DoF at 2.8 is sometimes too narrow. If you don’t nail the focus you see it. Check out this shot of Dan sitting in for a test shot on yesterday’s shoot…
This was shot with the 55mm 2.8 lens at f3.2. The 55mm is “about” a 35mm focal length in terms of full frame DSLRs. So it’s a bit on the wide angle side of things. Notice how I got the far eye in focus but the near eye is going soft. I’m at a decent distance from Dan with a wide lens. A DSLR with this set up at f3.2 would have held both eyes. I can’t show the full shot with the client from yesterday but I can show a crop…
You can see that I got close in this shot but not close enough. A magnifier for the viewfinder is suggested and is the next thing on my list to get for this camera. The PhaseOne 645DF is an autofocus camera but it has one focusing point. It’s not like our DSLRs with multiple focusing points. Focusing and recomposing is hard to pull off at these narrow tolerances so I typically just manually focus. The viewfinder image is so large and so bright that it is far easier to manually focus with this camera than it is with a 35mm. That said, it is a basic skill that I’m having to learn again. My first few days with the camera had me wondering if I made the right choice to make this switch. I was blowing focus all over the place. The more I shoot with it the more I’m nailing focus. Hasselblad has a feature called “True Focus” that tracks camera movement as you focus and recompose. I’ll speak more to that when I talk about why I chose the Phase over the Hasselblad.
Reason #4 :: Slowing Down :: I have talked about this before when I started shooting some film again. I want to physically slow things down as I shoot. It’s just so damn easy to fire off frames with a DSLR. I can make myself slow down but it’s like trying to drive a Porsche slowly. You have to really think about it. Putting a heavier and slower camera in your hands gives you no choice but to slow down. I want to be more methodical. This camera does that for me.
Reason #5 :: Sync Speed :: One of the main reasons I wanted to get back to medium format is one of the same reasons medium format was so important in the film days as well. That would be sync speed. When 35mm systems were stuck at 60th to 125th of a second sync speeds medium format systems would sync at 500th of a second or better. Electronic shutters got a lot better and 35mm systems got up to 250th of a second but they still couldn’t touch the leaf shutters in medium format. This PhaseOne camera combined with the IQ140 and the Schneider leaf shutter lenses allow me to sync at 1/1,600th of a second. SIXTEEN HUNDRETH OF A SECOND! Are you kidding me? That’s insane. And that isn’t some sort of hyper syncing trickery. That’s just plain ol’ flash sync. Full power lights at 1/1600th is legit. The Phase One has the fastest sync speed of MF cameras out there and that was a big reason I chose it over Hasselblad. More on my choice in a minute.
Two caveats to the fast sync speed though. 1) You need pretty fast flash duration flashes to get to that speed. I’m finding my Einsteins in “action” mode hold up just fine for this. My standard ol’ Alien Bees do not. The exposure is over before they get to full power. 2) Standard Pocket Wizards can’t handle 1/1600th. My PW’s get me to about 500th and then I lose the flash from there. I got a set of the Profoto Air transceivers and they do the trick. The PW flex and mini’s won’t work as well from my understanding. Profoto rules the roost at these sync speeds. It has something to do with [technical jargon]. There are two reasons to go with this kind of sync speed. One is, of course, to kill ambient light. The second is to freeze motion. I mean really freeze it. I did an editorial shoot a few weeks ago of a musician. He always ends his shows with a big jump so we shot some jumping images. The next photo is of this subject jumping. Again, I can’t show the full image (hasn’t gone to press yet) but I can show some crops. A 100% crop of a 250th of a second image show motion blur even with flash firing. The motion is stopped much better at a faster shutter speed.
Reason #6 :: “That Look” :: There’s this, something. This feel. This “look” to film that digital has never quite nailed. One reason I love the 5d so much is that it’s the first DSLR I’ve used that gets in the neighborhood. This Phase One hits it for me. Part of it is the dynamic range these cameras have. They have far more ability to capture a larger range of tones from highlights to shadows. The highlight retention is astounding as well as the ability to hold on to details in the shadows without falling apart or getting too “loud” in the noise department. Between the gorgeous shallow DoF and the dynamic range, large sensor photography can’t be beat.
Reason #7 :: “Then I spent 400 bucks on this just to be like ***** you ain’t up on this!” – Kanye West. :: Buying a medium format system is not a status symbol for me. I’m not making this post just “because”. “And I can’t even go to the grocery store without some ones thats clean and a shirt with a team.” [Meg's Editor note :: I have no idea what that last sentence is about. It's grammatically awful but Zack says some of you will get it.] BUT… that said… When this camera gets pulled out on a job everyone wants to know what in the hell “that thing” is. I can not tell you how many jobs I’ve shot where my client owned better gear than I had. It’s not vanity or showing off. Not for me it isn’t. Imagine you’ve been trying to fix something around your house. You and your friends all gather around with some hand tools to do this repair. You get frustrated or realize that as much as you like to be a handyman you need a pro to get this task done. The contractor shows up with tools you’ve never seen or have only heard about or are locked up in a cage at Home Depot. That contractor jumps in and knocks out that task and makes whatever was broke better than when it was new. They “could” have done it with your tools but they had some pro ass tools to do some pro ass work. He wasn’t the cheapest contractor in the phone book but he did a great job with tools you, the customer, wouldn’t know how to turn on.
That is sort of what it’s like pulling the Phase out on jobs. No more hanging out with your D700 while the client talks about buying his wife the new D4. It’s a pro camera for pro jobs. I’m not shooting $50 bands anymore. I started there. Doesn’t mean I need to stay there. That sounds “smarmy” and I don’t want it to. I don’t want you to think I’m just rolling deep. YES this camera was as much as a car but… so is my 35mm kit. Take note that making this move was a tough decision and one that I’ve been working toward for at least four years now. Note that I have a new camera but an old car. I have a new camera but some old shoes. I have a new camera but furniture that I pay cash for instead of financing. You can buy a new car and have a decent camera or keep pushing your old one and have a better camera. I remember assisting Joe McNally about five years ago. As I helped Brad Moore unload Joe’s Suburban I was doing photo math in my head. Photo math isn’t figuring out reciprocals. It’s figuring out how much money another photographer has in gear. I quickly figured that Joe had more money in Lightware cases alone then I had in all of my gear combined. That was just his bags. Then I realized Joe had been pushing that button on a camera since I was in diapers. He didn’t start with a Suburban full of Lightware cases. He started with a camera and a lens. Whatever gear you have now, no matter how “measly” it seems, will not be the same gear you have 10, 20, 30 years from now if you continue that long in photography.
Ok. So rambling post to say that when you show up with a medium format rig your clients take notice and know that you aren’t the next hot new AMWAC with a BestBuy camera ready to shoot some awesometastic available light portraits. #sarcasm #toungeincheek #justkidding #donttakeitpersonal #smileyface #movingon [Meg's Note :: Good job for getting out there and even TRYING Mom's! Golly. Stupid boys with their stupid acronyms.]
Why I Went With Phase One ::
Choosing which camera system to go with was no easy task. I figured I wanted to put $20k to $25k into a system a few years ago so that’s what I prepared for. Prices have been coming down a lot since I first started researching these cameras. Once I was ready to go there were a number of other options available to me. The backs I started researching then were now showing up at half the price on the used market. It really got overwhelming. I looked at the four main systems on the market. The Pentax 645D (starting at $10k body only), the Mamyia/Leaf DM series (starting at $10k full kit), The Hasselblad H4D (starting at $14k full kit), The Phase One IQ series (starting at $22k), and then the used market (starting at $6k’ish).
Friend and long time reader of this here blog, Michael Sebastian, and I have had several conversations about film vs. digital in the medium format world. Michael was holding on to film with a cold hard fist. He has some DSLRs but he is very, very, very, particular about image quality for his projects and DSLRs just didn’t cut it. I raised an eyebrow when he told me that he bought into the Pentax 645D system last year and sold me a good bit of his 120 film. If Michael freaking Sebastian is selling film because the Pentax is “there” then the Pentax deserves a look. The Pentax looks to be a very nice system. I think it was designed specifically to draw the attention of DSLR shooters. It has multiple AF points and can shoot JPG. It’s the only MF camera on the market to have those features. Along with a $10k starting price for the body it’s a pretty attractive camera. What killed it for me was the lack of leaf shutter lenses. The work Michael creates doesn’t have a lot of need for flash. My work does and Pentax’s 125th sync was a deal killer for me.
Then I began to research the Hasselblad H4D system. It’s a gorgeous system. Awesome glass. Beautiful body. 800th of a second sync. There is much to like about the Hasselblad system. I think of all the MF bodies out there right now my favorite is the H4D body. I was looking at the H4D-40 that starts around $20k for a kit. By kit I mean body, back, and 80mm lens. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve researched this camera.
Next up is the Mamiya/Leaf series. Basically Mamiya, Leaf, and Phase One are all owned by the same company. The Phase One 645DF body is a rebadged Mamyia 645 body. Leaf backs have been married specifically to the Mamyia brand. Mamyia digital backs are Leaf backs. Phase has rebranded the body and keeps their name on their backs. Mamyia/Leaf backs are very nice. From all the research I’ve done it seems people shooters prefer the Leaf images over the Phase as far as skin tone and so forth. I guess I can’t measurebate on the high level because I know a lot of people shooters with the Phase backs and their work is great as well. It’s probably wrong for me to say this but I think of it as - Leaf is to Toyota as Phase is to Lexus. Both are stellar performers but the fit and finish of the Phase warrants the higher price tag it usually carries. To tell you the truth though, if I was shooting a Mamyia DM40 back right now I’m sure I’d be just as pleased with my decision.
Last but not least (actually more) is the Phase. Drew Gardner told me to “just get a Phase.” I know he’s a spokesperson for them but there’s a reason he is… because he wouldn’t shoot anything else. I knew Phase was at the top of the food chain so I spent a lot of time looking down the chain from there. It really got confusing as I looked into all of these cameras. Kodak vs. Dalsa sensors. Sensor vs. Sensor+ technology. This vs. that. It gets very technical and, unfortunately, many of the people who buy MF backs are ALL ABOUT the technical and talk about it until they’re blue in the face. I like the spec sheets as much as the next guy but I refuse to post 400% crops of 5d vs P65+ backs. Speaking of $30,000 cameras, it’s especially difficult to look at some of the work that some folks are producing with these cameras. Let’s just say… It’d be like watching some fool load lumber and bags of cement onto the top of a Porsche 911 at your local home improvement warehouse. It’s sad. On camera flash of grand kids in the living room shot with a $30,000 camera kind of bad. $30,000 point and shoot. Awesome. Anyway…
I was so confused and overwhelmed I realized I needed some help. Luckily for me there’s a company in Atlanta called Capture Integration. These folks know medium format inside and out. It’s what they do. They have pretty much every camera I was interested in both new and used. I called them in November and made an appointment to check out their cameras. Steve and Will spent a lot of time with me. I shot every back I wanted to except the Pentax. It pretty much came down to a P30+, P45+, or the IQ140. Once I laid eyes on the screen of the IQ back I knew I was done for. My main point of contention with all of these cameras, and I mean all of them… their screens suck. Phase, Leaf, and Hasselblad. My first color cell phone had a better screen than some of these cameras. I don’t understand why they have sucked for so long but they have. The IQ finally addresses the mortal sin of a shitty screen on a $20,000 camera. It’s a great screen. Still nothing like an iPhone 4 but it is light years ahead of what they used to be. Most people with MF backs shoot tethered and the number one reason they shoot tethered is because of how useless the screens have been. When I shot with the DM33 I was surprised by how low in resolution the screen was. It was fine for checking the historgram and that’s about it. Not only does the IQ series have the best screen, it has the most robust build quality out of all of them. This camera has to last for years to come and the lenses need to last for life. The Phase is the most solid of them all.
When it came time to pull the trigger I went with the IQ. I really wanted the IQ160 [Meg's Editor Note :: It's probably the closest to an IQ of 160 that he'll ever get... heh heh] as it would have given me an even larger sensor but it was time to jump and I had saved my money and I’m happy as can be with my decision. If you think of the IQ series like BMW’s then the 140 is a 3 series, the 160 is the 5 series, and the 180 is the 7 series. I have one more lens to eventually add (a portrait lens around 120mm - 150mm) and I’ll be good from that point. I’ll have my wide, a standard, and a telephoto. I don’t need any more than that. I don’t need a zoom. I don’t need a super wide or a super telephoto. Maybe something a bit wider but the 55mm is really nice. It’s like my 35mm lens which is my favorite for the 35mm system. This is my portrait rig and what a rig it is. The good news is since it takes older Mamiya glass, I can pick up a non leaf shutter lens for just a few hundred dollars. The leaf lenses on the other hand…. They run $4 to $5k each. [bites knuckles] Yeah, first phone call after I bought it was to my insurance agent. I think eventually I’d like to have a back-up. That would probably be something like the kick ass deal Capture Integration has on a Leaf 22 kit for $5,700. That’s body, back, and lens. I’d take that over the new Nikon D4. No seriously. I would. David “Strobist” Hobby would too. He recently went medium format as well. Read his thoughts here and his follow up here.
FAQ’s I’m expecting ::
Do you still need DSLRs? – Yes. Absolutely. Even in the film days a pro had a solid 35mm kit on hand. While this camera is amazing at what it does… it’s amazing from ISO 50 to about 200. After that I’m reaching for the 5d for better ISO performance. If a job came up that I needed to move fast and shoot quick then DSLR. No question. But when it comes to portrait work or any kind of job that I can have control over, then it’s Phase One from here on out. I wish every portrait in my book was shot medium format. Moving forward all of my portraiture and commercial work will be shot on the Phase.
Would you shoot this at a wedding? – Hell yes I would. Remember, medium format ruled the land in the wedding world once before. Is it the best camera in the world for the reception? Nope. But I’d have no issues shooting ALL the portraits with it and the details and probably the getting ready shots (depending on the light). In my research I’ve found a few wedding photographers shooting digital MF now at weddings and it shows. Just sayin’. Anything that would give me a better picture, a better print, and shut Uncle Bob the @#$% up about his new Canon Mark X would be a camera I took to a wedding.
What about the x100? Still love that? - Yes! I still say it is my favorite digital camera ever made. Mine has finally caught the sticking aperture disease and is on it’s way to the shop and I can not tell you how excited I am about one day seeing the X-Pro1 in real life. I’m wondering if I’d sell my Canon gear if the X-Pro1 is as good as I hope it will be. OMG. OMG. OMG. Can’t wait for that camera to drop. Anyway…
Why don’t you just rent instead of buying such an expensive camera? – Great question. Rental is an option but the back alone is $500 a day. $75 for the body. Another $150 or so in lenses and you’re at $725 a day for a kit. In ten days of rental you could purchase that used Leaf kit mentioned above and have money left over. Also add in your time or the time of an assistant for driving to the rental house to pick up and return. Buying into medium format is expensive. So is renting.
How big are the files? – Full size jpgs run 25 to 30 megabytes. The RAW files average 45 or so megs each.
How do you like Capture One? - It’s a little buggy from time to time but daaaammmmmnnnnn you can’t argue with the results. It’s a serious piece of software that I don’t yet fully know the ins and outs of. Once I get more comfortable with that workflow I’ll report back on that. Lightroom 3.6 can handle the Phase RAW files and I’ve used that for a few images but Capture One does give the best quality.
Are photographers today only able to pay for this by teaching workshops? – This question came in during my appearance on The Grid. I’m proud to report that it wasn’t workshops that paid for this camera. Photography paid for this camera. Most workshop teachers aren’t shooting medium format, and most medium format shooters aren’t teaching workshops so that sort of kills that question. If you price out a nice 35mm Canon kit with pro bodies, the three main L series zooms, and a nice fast prime you’re sitting on $17,000 worth of gear. Add in a few Profoto lights, pocket wizards, bags, and other misc items and you’re sitting on $40,000 worth of gear before you know it. If you wanted a cheap profession to get into you picked the wrong one.
How forgiving are the files? - VERY. Check this shot out. I was out and about shooting for the last GOYA shootout and totally blew this exposure. I figured it was gone.
I pulled it into Capture One, drug the exposure slider down and presto…
I’ve never been able to recover a shot that simply before. Not that, you know, I’ve ever blown exposure before. I just did this to show you an example.
What about the Leica S2? – What about it? Ok. Yes. That’s another medium format camera on the market, and yes – their glass is unreal and all that, but I have shot with the S2 and I didn’t like it. I just don’t see it having the longevity that the Phase/Mamiya system has nor does it have the support around the world the Phase/Mamiya system has. Look at the workhorses in the rental houses and that will give you a good idea as to what system to invest in yourself. It is a great camera and has a following but after putting it in my hands at an event once I wasn’t sold.
Do you shoot tethered on location? – I have once so far. We have taken an older 15″ MacBook Pro and converted it to a dedicated tethering machine. We replaced the main hard drive with an OWC solid state 60 gig drive. Then we replaced the optical disc drive with another hard drive for storage using another OWC product. The final parts and pieces I’m waiting for are some things from Tether Tools.
Why are you shooting on a tripod more with this camera? - A) The focus has to be spot on and I’m not as comfortable hand holding and focusing just yet. I also like that it slows me down and makes me think through the shot more. B) The camera is big and heavy. Shooting available light slower than 250th of a second on the shutter is not something I suggest with this camera. Remember that it’s an ISO 50 – 200 camera. While it can shoot higher it really sings at the slower ISO’s.
Is this the future? – Meh. I don’t know. I won’t say that it is but as the prices fall we’ll be seeing more and more of them. I met a photographer this week who got started in the 40′s. He shot a 5×7 camera because he couldn’t afford the 8×10 camera. He said, “You shot 4×5 if you were cheap.” The Rollei 6×6 came out and it was very slow to be adopted and quite expensive but also a very small format. He remembers the days when the 35mm was laughed at. If you want to know the future look to our past. Digital was WAY out of the reach of most working photographers for a long time. Now I complain about how much I spend on film. It comes… It goes. But medium format used to be $50k to get into. Now it can be had at a fifth of that price or less.
Is it really that good? - Do bears poop in the woods?
For those of you in the Atlanta area keep an eye out for a medium format night at the studio. I’ve talked with Phase and Capture Integration and they’re all about bringing some cameras and lights to the studio for a night of shooting. We’ll make some sets, ice some beers, and shoot a bunch of pixels.
I’m sure y’all have questions I haven’t thought of. Hit me in the comments with them.