A Viewfinder Darkly

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Phase One 80 Megapixel Digital Camera

November 16 2011

by Philip Northeast

Phase One sets new standards in digital photography resolution with their new IQ180 medium format digital sensor

The IQ180 is not a camera as Phase One follow the normal medium format practice of making modular camera systems with an interchangeable rear section for the digital sensor or film.

DxOMark lab tests suggest when the new Phase One IQ180 digital back containing an 80 megapixel digital sensor is used with their 645DF body is the best digital camera of the moment. This contradicts the popular wisdom that Nikon and Canon are the best cameras because sports and news photographers use their DSLRs.





Phase One IQ180 digital back mounted on a Phase One 645DF camera






The big advantage of the modular approach is as digital sensor technology advances it is not necessary to replace the whole camera.  The Phase One IQ180 digital back fits on a wide range of medium format cameras that used the standard modular approach, even older Hasselblad bodies.  Owners of these cameras only need to buy the IQ810 back to upgrade their cameras.

Comparing the performance of medium format digital cameras to DSLRs must take into account to how and when the cameras are used. They are not direct competitors, although there is some overlap, each type of camera is for a different purpose.

DSLRs are descendants of the compact 35mm film cameras popularised by photojournalists such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. War zones and candid street photography favour compact, easy to carry, and unobtrusive cameras.  Ultimate picture quality was never the aim.

Modern DSLRs are versatile marvels of versatility making them ideally suited to situations where the photographer has little or no control over the conditions. DSLRs are smaller and more suited to fast action.

Conversely the larger medium format cameras are more at home in studios, for high quality fashion and product shots or for landscape photography. Anywhere where photographers are striving  for quality as the most important factor.

As medium format cameras are optimised for studio operation only their performance in this narrow area should be considered.  DSLRS score well in the DxOMark comparison because of their  wide ISO range and outstanding noise performance in low light with  high ISO settings. Look at the difference in scores for the DxOMark sports and low light metric.

DxOMark sensor test score summary for Phase One IQ180, Hassleblad H3DII 50 and Nikon D3X

Medium format cameras have a limited ISO range and relatively poor noise performance at the top end of their ISO ranges. In the studio where photographers have tot al control over the lighting the usually the lowest ISO setting is used.

The detailed results in the DxOMark noise test graph look at the low ISO area. The Phase One IQ180 goes down to ISO of 35 and the Hasselblad medium format is not far behind at just under 50.  Both medium format cameras produce significantly less image noise than the top line DSLR, the Nikon D3x. Overall the Nikon scores well for noise due to its wider range of ISO settings, giving it very good low light performance.  In a controlled studio environment with perfect lighting it is much noisier than the medium format cameras, particularly the Phase One IQ180


DxOMark noise test results

DxOMark tests showing the ability of the cameras to reproduce delicate colour differences produce similar results. At their lowest ISO settings the IQ180 leads the way from the Hasselblad with the Nikon DSLR trailing.

DxOMark sensor colour sensitivity test results

Dynamic range is a different with DSLRs just as good, or in the case of the Pentax K-5 with a DxOMark score of over 14, a better dynamic range than the medium formats.  This conforms to the DSLR design aim getting the best shot whatever the conditions. In the studio photographers adjust the lighting set up to match the dynamic range of their medium format cameras, while photojournalists just have to get the shot whatever the conditions.

DxOMark sensor test results for dynamic range

The overall verdict when considering the cameras performance in a photographic studio show the Phase One IQ180 digital back produces the best images from a technical viewpoint.  Considering the $40,000 plus price tag for the Phase One IQ180, a professional photographer  would have at least one DSLR system as well for those occasions where the DSLR is the more suitable tool.



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