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Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.
17 June 2015
We spent an afternoon this week with the new Phase One XF medium format system at Bear Images in San Francisco. And we took notes, too. But it wasn't so much the information we picked up that impressed us as it was the feeling we had days after of having held the future in our hands.
Starting at $21,000 and ranging up to $49,000, the XF itself isn't everybody's future. But what Phase One has done in designing, engineering and building the XF system just may inspire other camera companies wondering how to reinvent the camera.
Which would be wonderful because Phase One really did it right.
The company's question to photographers is simple. Everybody takes photos these days. How are you going to stand out?
Great images is the right answer.
And to get great images, you want equipment that can go places and do things the gear everybody else uses can't. Those Canon guys may be salivating over a 50.2-megapixel sensor, but that's where Phase One's IQ backs start before going up to 60-Mp and 80-Mp.
Phase One President Henrik O. Håkonsson explains the company's goal this way:
Our key objective is to help the world's best photographers capture more epic images, stand out as an artist and have fun in the process. Our new XF Camera System is designed to be like a Stradivarius in the hands of an expert.
That certainly has a nice sound to it.
There's always been more to a great camera than megapixels. As Phase One Senior Engineer Lau Nørgaard, the principle designer of the XF, went through the camera dial by dial it was clear no corner had been cut in the design and materials used in the XF.
The signature example of this for us is the interface built into the grip.
Look at any modern dSLR and you'll find a cockpit worth of labeled buttons, at least two LCDs, switches, arrow keys, an OK button and more.
On the XF, in contrast, the grip sports a touch screen on top with two long user-definable buttons along its right side and three dials at the corners (referred to as the Front, Rear and Side dials), whose functions can be also be set by the user.
Note that none of the controls has a label.
That doesn't sound like much but we thought about it a moment. The combination of a touchscreen and dial/button interface works whether you are in the studio where a tap on the screen works or in the Arctic wearing gloves where it doesn't. When the touchscreen ignores your gloved finger, you've got the dials.
And while the default configuration makes a lot of sense, nothing is labeled because Phase One isn't the photographer. You are. You can set up the controls in any way that makes sense to you.
In the default Classic layout, the corners of the touchscreen, starting in the top left and going clockwise, show the Mode, Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. There are dials below the screen for Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. You can also tap the corner of the screen to set any of those options (which are, by the way, displayed in nice large type).
A Simple layout, in contrast, shows just Battery status, Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO with nothing but the exposure metering in the middle. Again the dials are linked to Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO.
This dual interface makes so much sense, we can't believe we haven't seen it before.
THE DRIVER'S SEAT
Taking this a step further, Nørgaard showed the simple Mode options of Manual (the default), Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Program. But, he pointed out, they become quite a few more when you add in the digital option of Auto ISO.
Rather than stuff a menu with confusing choices, the XF lets you set any of those three parameters to Auto, including a range of acceptable ISO settings (setting both low and high limits). How? Just tap the setting in the corner and change it to Auto from Manual.
And, guess what, the Mode changes to reflect what you've done.
We thought about that one for a moment, too. Rather than memorize some table of related settings, you just set the parameter to what you want and the Mode value reflects it. Again, it's photographer driven.
You know if you want to vary aperture or shutter speed. You know what ISO sensitivities are acceptable for your output.
So when you set those parameters, the XF reflects them rather than making you pick a mode so you can adjust what you want. It may seem trivial in practice but we're not going to use a Mode dial again without feeling like we're being treated like a child.
Nørgaard eyes sparkled as he continued the tour. We'd never seen anything like the next trick he had up his sleeve.
He showed us the seismograph built into the XF. Handy in Tokyo and San Francisco, he joked.
A sensor measures vibration at the camera body and graphs it. That information is also stored in the Exif header of the image file. Which makes it handy for diagnostics.
He displayed the graph, which runs in real-time in the background as long as power is on, and stomped his foot. The line peaked. He tapped his foot. It jumped. He drummed on one leg of the tripod, it danced.
Someone asked if it wasn't possible for Phase One's Capture One software to read that data and make an automatic blur correction. Nørgaard smiled. "It's possible."
The point is that with the XF body operating system and sensors built into the camera, the company can do a lot of things that have been out of reach before. They become possibilities.
Here are a few more examples of the power of the new platform:
- Bear Images Jim Taskett told us he asked Nørgaard about four possible features the day before. That night Nørgaard implemented three of them (and did the fourth by the next morning). And the cameras we were shooting with that day had just been updated with new beta software from Copenhagen that morning.
- The body and the back each have their own battery. The XF body uses a bit more power than its predecessor but it can tap into the back's battery to provide the same capacity. And either the back or the body Power button can power up both units, a development that took a year to accomplish. Backs, remember, can be switched at will, so that wasn't trivial. Nørgaard showed us how removing either battery did not disable the camera except when one was spent.
- The mirror control is separate from the shutter. Vibration is such a problem with large mirrors that Phase One provides a Vibration Reduction feature that locks the mirror up and waits four seconds before opening the shutter. It also lets you adjust the delay between 0.5 to 8.0 seconds. Then firing just the shutter on a leaf lens to yet reduce vibration even more.
- The preview's clipping display reads the 16-bit Raw data not just the 8-bit JPEG data so it can distinguish between highlights that can be recovered and those that can not. That's a function that can also be used to set an expose-to-the-right automatic exposure, Nørgaard acknowledged when asked. "It's possible," he said again, smiling.
This programmability reaches everywhere in the system, including its unique hyperfocal assist feature (which Nørgaard said was not automated because humans are better and is thus only a beginning to what the feature may become) and unusually precise HAP-1 high-resolution autofocus system.
But it also derives much of its power from data provided by the sensors and other hardware of the XF system. Like the sensors with one-hour exposure capability that simply knock off a bit and half of the 16-bit channel capture to reduce noise, in what seems to us a simple but ingenious use of clipping.
We were amused to learn that Phase One's engineering extended to airplane luggage and a special insert that can be taken from the hard shell to be inserted into a backpack on arrival.
Amused, but not surprised.
The XF is a modular system. The body mates with 50-Mp, 60-Mp or 80-Mp back or one of the previous generation IQ backs with a firmware update, like the 40-Mp IQ140. You also add a viewfinder, which can be waist-level or the standard prism (which we shot with). And, of course, a lens.
The purchase price, incidentally, varies based on the back and includes an XF camera body, IQ3 digital back, PrismViewfinder and Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS lens. You can choose between a five-year High Priority warranty of the one-year Classic warranty.
With everything attached, it's a big camera. But as we watched Nørgaard and Taskett handle it, they seemed perfectly comfortable.
In the studio downstairs, Bear Images had set up a Broncolor PARA 222 reflector to light a stage with a female model playing guitar. An XF was tethered to a new Mac Pro (stock configuration Tasker told us) running Capture One displayed on a ColorEdge CG277 27-inch monitor with output to a Canon 12-ink, large format, 24-inch printer.
No compromises there.
There were a couple of unusual things about the setup that we noticed.
- There was no remote flash trigger device mounted on the XF. The strobe in the umbrella had a receiver, of course, but the XF has a Profoto trigger built in. No need for an accessory trigger.
- The tether wasn't your usual USB tether. Not for 80-Mp files. It was fiber optic with an adapter. And plugged right into the left side of the XF body. The XF can use USB 3 or FireWire to tether. Taskett told us the fiber optic setup is new and Bear Images is working with the manufacturer on its development.
We watched as several people took shots of the model and Taskett printed the 24x32-inch images on the Canon. No problems. A few questions but each shot was gorgeous, the 17-inch prints museum quality.
We grabbed the grip with our right hand and brought the XF up so we could see the grip LCD menu. It felt comfortable in our hand, actually. Easy to move around and perfectly stable with just one hand. We almost wondered what to do with our left hand since we didn't have to focus either.
We took a few shots and saw them come up quickly on the screen. We changed settings to see how the menu system worked. We felt like we'd been shooting with this camera for years, not minutes.
We left the shutter speed at 1/60 second (although sync speed can go as fast as 1/125 for focal plane shutters and 1/1,600 second with leaf shutters). But we experimented with aperture changes. All we had to do was use the back thumb dial in the Aperture corner.
The camera disappeared in our hands and suddenly, even though we were shooting a guitar player, we were hearing violin music. From a Stradivarius. It was a blast.
At the other end of the tether was Capture One, as we mentioned. We took a look at the layout and watched it handle the incoming files.
Capture One can also control the XF directly using a panel that mimicks the layout of the top LCD on the XF. But with multiple shooters and no tripod it wasn't the right situation to explore that feature.
Bear Images Ted Pedersen walked us through Capture One to end the day, showing off its import scheme and various editing functions. Because it's multitasking, you can edit during the import process.
Version 8 is about 50 percent faster than version 7, he said, even on older equipment. In fact, he demonstrated it on a MacBook Pro that was more than five years old.
He praised the HDR tool for protecting midtones as you manipulate shadows and highlights separately. And he pointed out the single pixel noise reduction to hit any hot pixels.
Because Phase One engineered both the XF and Capture One, "it's possible" to further enhance the XF's captures in post by reading the various sensor data in the XF's Exif headers.
Which really gave us something to think about.
We wish we could tell you this is the start of a beautiful relationship. But it may not be too much to hope that Phase One has raised the bar for all professional camera systems. It at least should give them something to think about.
Phase One has conceived of an elegant and modular physical design enhanced with gyroscopic sensors and accelerometers under the control of a new camera operating system that promises a sophistication we just haven't seen before in any photographic tool.
At the beginning of his presentation, Nørgaard told us he moved his family to Tokyo to coordinate the development of the XF with the team in Copenhagen.
Now that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. One we look forward to following.