PhaseOne_4f_whiteBack in the film days we have always been told that medium format, on the whole, gives a better quality image than a 35mm film (which seemed like good logic seeing that it’s exactly the same film… Just bigger) but does this hold true for digital where every camera model and brand has a different sensor, and effectively it’s its own “film” if I may call it that?

There are a few things to remember in modern digital photography though. Today, more than ever, digital SLR’s have started to develop towards a specific use-case as opposed to a do-it-all camera (even though this statement seems counter intuitive, with the bundling of more general features and functions like video capabilities etc, it is true)

If you want to short fast moving sport or wildlife, pick up a Nikon D3s or Canon 1DmkIV or 7D with high frame rates and dedicated AF systems. Do you want more slower, general purpose or studio work, run to the Canon 5DmkII or the Nikon D3X with 20+ megapixels, but much slower frame rates (2fps on the D3x when shooting 14bit) Does this mean the D3x can’t shoot wildlife or motorsport? Absolutely not, it just means you need to adapt your shooting style, but the faster frame rates of the D3s just makes it easier. Just like the D3s can shoot perfect studio shots, albeit at a much smaller size. The crop factors of the faster cameras also lends itself to longer lenses, so a 500mm becomes a 600mm, 750mm or even an 800mm in a smaller lighter unit, without requiring extenders. Flipside being that you lose the wide angles that landscape photographers might prefer.

So enter the antiquated Medium Format camera… Do we really need it? Sensor technology is starting to edge its way to 30mp on 35mm sensors and better than ever concerning noise and resolving power, taking the maximum out of what a lens can currently give us. So why does the Medium Format camera still exist? Is it a macho thing? My camera is bigger than your camera? I have more megapixels? Or is there a real distinguishable difference, and therefor benefit?

Now, I will start this off by saying that I was both excited and hesitant at the start of this review. I have believed forever that medium format is the realm of “real” studio and commercial photographers and thus, must be better… What if I am right? Will I ever be able to shoot my 5DmkII again? Or will I forever look back at these review shots and despair about the inadequacies of my Canon?

What is the P40+

Some background should be added here….

PhaseOne is a digital back manufacturer. That means they make digital sensor backs that fit most modern Medium and some Large format cameras. What I like about the company is that they really take a no fuss attitude to photography, and listen to their clients about what they want, so a few years ago they bought Mamiya and rebranded the cameras and lenses and set out to develop the cameras further. Phase One and Mamiya collaborated on a new generation open platform based medium format cameras. The 645AF and DF bodies is the result which are today sold under both brand names. They also bought Leaf and again expanded and improved their products.

But, and this is the big but… Even though they are developing their own bodies and lenses, the backs can still fit your old/other medium format cameras. So right now, when you buy a back, you are not locked in. It’s almost modular, and you can change your back to fit a Hasselblad or Sinar or whatever you may have.

100% CropThe sensors itself has also developed quite a bit and is now available in a range from 30mp to 60mp. The P40+ and P65+ also feature, what they call, “SensorPlus” technology.

PhaseOne Digital Backs is a single sensor, not stitched (two or four sensor side by side) and two of the bodies (P40+ & P65+) can give you a smaller images but at higher ISO (The SensorPlus technology). For example the P40+ is a 40mp back that can go up to ISO800 but if the need arises you can push it to ISO3200 at a reduced 15mp 10mp (The P65+ back has the same function resulting in a cropped/reduced 15mp size image). I am not sure what is the magic behind that, but I assume it takes a fairly noisy 40mp image, and simply sizes it down, discarding discoloured/chroma noise pixels as it does so, giving you a better, cleaner image. (Note: PhaseOne has come back to us with more information on how the sensor is employed in the “Sensor+” mode. Essentially it seems that it combines connecting pixels to give you a single “larger” effective pixel. For more information on how the sensor works, see here )

The P45+ in turn doesn’t have this function though. It, in turn, is targeted at the landscape and especially architectural photographers, and has the ability to shoot long exposures without increasing noise through heat buildup. As a standard, you can shoot 2-hour 1-hour exposures on it (as opposed to 2minutes on a P40+ or P65+)

The biggest features on these backs is the exposure latitude you get from a real and true 16bit sensor and image. The best 35mm sensor currently gives you only 14bit images and that equates to roughly 2 to two and a half stops of extra latitude on the bottom and top end of your image, in the highlights and shadow areas, as well as a massive improvement in accurate colour rendition, especially over tricky areas like skin tones. This does come at a price though.

The maximum framerate is 1.2fps and the files coming out of the P40+ is about 120mb. So you are not only buying a new camera system, you are also buying a new computer and definitely a Drobo or two… or three… Joking aside, I actually seemed to save space by shooting on the P40+ simply because it forces you to slow down. You look twice before you shoot and invariably, shoot less total frames than what I would have done on my 5DmkII.

Instudio2In use:

The system we had at our disposal was a P40+ back, the 645DF body and a 80mm lens.

Earlier I mentioned this is a no-fuss camera. Well, the back only has 4 buttons. You are here to take photographs after all, not surf the Internet! The body is just as straight forward. Full manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and three custom buttons that you can pre-program to your settings. It also has a neat trick. If you attach a lens with an iris shutter, the internal curtain/leaf shutter just lifts and gives you benefits of the lens based shutter (I.e. Up to 1/1600th of a second sync speed with your studio lights!)

The screen is no good. It’s there to be functional. Quick check of histogram or composition. Definitely NOT for pixel peeping… That is done on your notebook, as the camera is at it’s happiest when you tether it with the firewire400 cable to a workstation… You can pixel peep to your hearts content on the 30″ Apple Cinema Display!

The viewfinder is small and seems small when you look through it. There is only one focus point. Again,we are there to shoot… Nothing else! The camera is quite a bit heavier than than a typical high end DSLR, but that is largely due to the fact that you now have a lens in front of the camera that has a LOT more glass in it. The body itself is light, but because of the interchangeable back system, you power the body and sensor separately. So a set of batteries for the sensor, another set for the body. May seem ridiculous, but there are two good reasons for this.

The first is that you can keep the heat in the sensor down by not pulling tons of power the whole time for camera functions, giving you cleaner images, and secondly, if you switch the sensor to one of your older full manual bodies, you can still shoot.

In practice, I wish they didn’t use different types of batteries for the two systems (the sensor uses lithium batteries, the body uses AA, penlights)… Now it just means an extra charger and cable to carry around, and I already have too many of those!

Actual shooting:

We asked Luba of Shoots Imaging to use the camera as a beauty tool, one of the definite target markets this bad boy is aimed at. Her weapon of choice is a Canon 5DmkII, where the 21mp files gives her enough to work with for a 47.5cm x 31.7cm publication file @300dpi (42cm x 29.7cm is basic A3 size, or a DPS, double page spread) the basic requirement for a glossy magazine. The 20mp sensors are ideal for this environment because the extra bit of space gives you enough to work with for a publication’s bleed and crop.


That said, you have to be spot on with your composition because there is no leeway to recut the image if it needs to be moved around. The 40mp sensor of the PhaseOne P40+ gives you a bit less than double the size in resolution, so you win on two fronts, large format, close view enlargements, and high-end glossy fashion magazines (which generally require 600dpi files to work with)

The second advantage the P40+ has for her is the true 16bit files coming out of the sensor. That extra latitude and colour rendition is perfect for work on the range of colours produced by the cosmetics. Merging from natural skin tones to metallic colour particles in eyeshadows in the space of 10cm, also having to accurately represent the highlights and shadows captured in textured hair.

InStudio3Using the camera is not difficult, but it does force you to slow down. The single focusing point is a guess at best. Maybe, with extended use, you will figure out how to manipulate it,  but for the most part, getting sharp eyes on a moving model at close range with dark contrasty hair moving in front of the face was hit-and-miss all the way. Unfortunately the viewfinder doesn’t lend itself to manual focussing. The AF system is a lot more responsive than the previously tested Hasselblad H3D. Although “snappy” is not a word that will feature in the P40+ owner’s language, it feels fast enough not to frustrate you, or slow down your workflow.

Here is Luba’s take on the camera:

“When I heard that a Phase One is available for a test run – the timing could not have been more perfect. We had a shoot planned for that weekend, most gorgeous Celeste as a model and super diverse make-up/hairstylist – Tamaryn. Styling: Nosizwe Mji. Special thanx to Hendre Louw and ODP for the studio space.

GlovesI am not a techno junkie and do not easily give in to the newest photographic trends. As a stock photographer my equipment is selected for its reliability, consistency of output, longevity and the above requirements have to to fit into the “cost effective” category as well, alongside with maximum megapixel requirement, which made Canon 5D MkII the “love of my life” for the past 2 years. My feelings have been seriously tested by the performance of the Phase One. I shoot mainly “boring”, correctly exposed, safe compositions with lots of sharp details that has to be in the original shot and cannot be introduced by post-production. My files have to have quite a bit of skin texture and clean histograms to be accepted for sale. These and many other criteria, that are simply to lengthy to list, are on what I base my review of the usability of the PhaseOne camera. This is a great camera, no doubt, however my question would always be: can I make money with it in my industry? Will it save me time and money? Will it be enjoyable to use and can I learn to use it fast enough to maximize its potential?

in studio by Hendre Louw“You are holding it like a point-and-shoot”: well, that was a remark I got from my lighting assistant. Excuse me, did I have to check on the Internet beforehand what is the right/fancy way of holding? There was a concern that the Phase One will be too heavy for me. Working with a  monopod is somewhat restricting as I like to move and swap image orientation. To my surprise by the end of the shoot my wrists felt no more tired than after working with a  Canon joined with a vertical grip and a trigger. I did not even miss my vertical grip, somehow the shape of the camera was more balanced in my hand.

Where are the buttons…
at some stage I simply could not find the “off” switch. Who would have thought that it was the small button that actually looks like an “off” switch… I enjoyed the uncluttered back panel – it just felt manageable psychologically.

What is this black line…
To be honest, I struggled a bit with the composition of the images. I am used to “what-I-see-that-I-get” of my Canon. To check whether the whole intended composition was fitting inside the black line (crop lines) was hard at first, I simply did not see the black line! As a result I have quite a few feet cut-offs as well as too much space all around. It normally would not be a problem, but for stock every pixel counts – I am used to shooting correctly composed images as scaling or cropping results in an images downgrading to a lower selling category. Well, I did end up with about 500 usable images after the shoot, where usually it would be at least 800, which means I could train to see the “black line” in a short period of time after all.

parisSize does matter or why I love Pixels… Can there ever be enough? Not in stock. One of the reasons I always wanted to go medium format is because of the amount of work invested into the shots.

My reasoning: medium format would allow to recover the time by selling the images in the larger file category. Over the years I also trained myself not to waste pixels: you shoot the exact composition, no space for tilting, cropping or sizing up – vertical or horizontal. It was a hard school at first, but now I find it to be a great asset and cannot imagine working otherwise. It was indulging, though, to see that even after cropping half of the medium format’s file’s size, I still got quite a large file for submission. There are always files that get thrown away, not because of the content, but based on slight “unsharpness”, movement or shallow depth of field. With medium format those files can be quite recoverable, which is a big bonus: now I can have 90% of images generated going into production, where my usual rate is about 70-80%.

At some stage I remember asking Sean: “does CaptureOne display the files from PhaseOne better simply because they are related?” I was shocked by the density of the skintone. Skintone-skintone-skintone – yes, I am obsessed. Density is one of the bigger issues and there are a few tricks in Photoshop to achieve it, but once again, it means time and raised post-production cost of the image. And it is esthetically enjoyable to start one’s retouching work with the RAW files that can simply offer more. I remember asking  a very famous retoucher once (still cringing as I think of it): does she use selective sharpening masked to various channels on the skin. Her answer was: “No.” She said that working with large and medium format cameras gave her all the sharpness and detail and sometimes too much of it, that from time to time she had to get rid of it. This was a few months ago. I just simply could never imagine that a file can look like this, with so much detail. Don’t get me wrong, when I first opened up Canon 5D MKII and ran the first batch of images for a client, I was exhausted and so was my work station. I loved the detail. And so I heart the medium format’s detail even more… (I sneaked some extra shots of hair for the future productions!)

Can I ever get it sharp…redlips
There are a ton of shots from this shoot that are out of focus. The arty ones, that will become B&W, iPod size “abstracts”. Not really the camera’s fault. I am short sighted. And the inside of the viewfinder is too dark for me to see well. This was a massive problem with film cameras and my first digital Canon. I really need those bright red squares to run inside the viewfinder to show me what will be more or less in focus. Well, I had a very good focusing rate, or so I thought. It took me a while to see when the PhaseOne was focusing – I physically had to look for the crispness in the viewfinder, which is very tiring at first, but became sort of a habit after first 100 shots. The studio was very well lit, I don’t know if I would be able to shoot like this on location. Maybe one gets used to it. The “focus-recompose” technique was also  a problem, I usually never work with the central focusing point, which resulted in a lot of movement and way too arty shots. Once again, the wrist motion is something I can re-adjust based on the new weight and shape.

Lets shoot some “uneven lighting”…
One for the worst rejection reasons in stock industry is the “uneven lighting”. That is basically any experiment in lighting. If one wants to shoot funky lighting set-ups for stock (actually, for anything) there are a few skills that need to be perfected:  balancing the highlights, opening the shadow areas, all the while keeping in mind that shadows contain too much red in skintones and need noise removal. Canon 5D MKII is really good with handling noise in the dark areas as well as with the dark gradients, we tested this when my African beauty shots were used for Epson and Rolland for their large format printing promotions. However, in certain contrast lighting scenarios I find a thin strip of skintone that needs additional attention in blending with the rest of the skin. For the reason of increased post production time I prefer to stay away from contrast lighting set-ups. There was a  moment in the shoot, where Celeste just looked so seductive, that I could not stop my hand reaching to switch off one of the lights: no even beauty light for this beauty! I was just going to keep the images for my own archive, and maybe do some grainy B&W to hide the usual “bugs”, when I noticed how well the gradients ran between the light and dark areas, that the shadow areas were quite “open” and there was enough detail without blocking in case there was a need for exposure recovery. Maybe I got lucky, but hey, I went and shot series of single light shots, and playing with them in Photoshop was just as delightful. Although I must admit, most of the work on skintone/shadow/red removal can be done in CaptureOne.”

All the benefits aside, we did have some niggling problems during Luba’s shoot. Luckily we could confirm that it’s a battery issue (we had one older battery and one new one) Swapping the battery to the new one solved the problems. No problems further.

The second shoot was a much more straight forward setup. Natural light with one or two reflectors, dark space, highlights on white with specular highlights on chrome. In all fairness, this is the scenario in which the PhaseOne P40+ should really come out on top of the pile. No moving models, with a much larger sensor, controlling the noise,mandate the 16bit sensor giving about 2stops extra exposure latitude over the 14bit sensor of the 5DmkIIISO100-LightingSmall

The PhaseOne shows details you will not believe! the 5DmkII shots do not come close in relation. Also, we found that the 5DmkII seemed to be ever so slightly under exposed if shot exactly on the light meter (handheld Sekonic )

In the end of the day, this is a tool. The right tool for so many jobs, but not the right tool for all. Somebody like Luba will get the best out of it. I can see myself shooting it on more occasions than not. It requires that you shoot according to the light available to you. pushing the ISO up is not really an option. Sure, you can push it, but then you might be much better off with a high spec Canon or Nikon in those scenarios.

PhaseOne-NOISE-ISO100 PhaseOne-NOISE-ISO200
ISO100 ISO200
PhaseOne-NOISE-ISO400 PhaseOne-NOISE-ISO800
ISO400 ISO800

ISO100 is a dream though… with tons of detail, lots of dynamic range and extremely acurate colour!


All model Images Copyright Luba Nel
All studio Images Copyright Hendre Louw
All other Images & Video Copyright Sean Nel

Model: Celeste Gabrielle
Stylist (Clothing): Nosizwe Mji
MUA: Tamaryn Pretorius

Strikethrough corrections by PhaseOne

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