What does a $35, 000 digital back get you? A personal review of the Phase One IQ250

October 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve wanted to know the answer to this for a while. You can read online reviews to get the general consensus, but nothing beats testing it for yourself. After all, we all have our different workflows, techniques and subject matter.

I fully admit I’m obsessed by sharpness. I currently use a Canon 5DMk3. When switching from medium/large format film to 35mm digital a decade ago and I was disappointed by quality. It seems the newer the camera is, the stronger the anti-aliasing filter becomes. This means I have to compensate by sharpening my images more and more during postproduction each time I upgrade to a new camera. I was looking forward to testing a camera and digital back combination that did not have an anti-alias filter and hopefully see some sharper images.

On a slightly foggy San Francisco July morning I got to see for myself. The weather was just about good enough for a test, with a little wispy fog but still had good overall visibility.

I had only used the Phase One camera with the IQ250 CMOS back once before for about 5 minutes, so I was a little apprehensive about using a new camera in the air. Even though this medium format camera is quite a bit larger than my 35mm Canon DSLR, once the gyrostabilizer was attached it was all nicely balanced. I checked the focus of each lens, taped them down at infinity, and was good to go. 

Phase One camera, IQ250 CMOS digital back and a 55mm f/2.8 Schneider Kreuznach Lens on a Kenlabs KS-6 Gyro Settings:

  • As usual, I placed the camera in manual mode for full control.
  • I set the ISO at 100 because it was quite bright and I wanted to come away with as much detail as possible.
  • I kept the aperture around f5 or f5.6 to keep the shutter speed high.
  • For exposure, I usually rely on the meter in the camera and usually keep it 1/3-stop underexposed. So why not check the histogram on the camera back and preview the shots? A helicopter costs around $10-$20 per minute, so every second counts and you can miss a good shot by looking away for a second. The shots that weren’t exposed properly could probably be brought back in Capture One.

The photos below don’t have any sharpness applied. 

1a. This is the Oakland Arena and Coliseum.

 Aerial photo of the Oakland Coliseum and Oakland Arena Click to see a larger image

1b. Zoomed in at 100% is a detail of the Oakland A’s mound. You can see the groundskeepers mowing and read the overstock.com banner clearly. 

Click to see a larger image

2a. This is Fort Point, which is a civil war era fort on the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Aerial view of Fort Point in San Francisco, a civil war fort next to the Golden Gate BridgeClick to see a larger image

2b. At 100% you can make out the brick detail and even see an orange cone on the roof.

Aerial photo of Fort Point in San FranciscoClick to see a larger image

3a. I had one shot, however, that really demonstrated how good this new Phase One IQ250 back and Schneider lens combination is. This is an aerial view of downtown San Francisco shot from near Golden Gate Park. It’s shot on a 55mm lens so it’s a wide-angle shot. I really like how you can see the fog layer and haze and the tops of the tallest building are darker because they are above the fog.

Click to see a larger image

3b. Now check it out at 100%. You can see the Transamerica building, the Bay Bridge and cranes across the bay at the Port of Oakland. But if I you look closely you can see something on the hill in the distance. It might be hard to see in a screenshot online, but on my screen it’s obvious.

Click to see a larger image

3c. At 200%, you can see the antennas on Mount Diablo, which is 31 miles away from where I was shooting over San Francisco. All while shooting handheld from a moving helicopter at f5. Now that is detail.

Click to see a larger image

What I learned from shooting with the Phase One camera.

  • I hadn’t realized until this shoot quite how much I relied on a zoom lens to compose my shots. Because I couldn’t use a zoom lens, I had to give far more instructions to the pilot and adjust our altitude a lot more.
  • When flying an orbit around a subject, I depend partly on a fast frame rate to help capture the right composition. The Phase One shoots slower, so I needed to do few more orbits to try and get the composition lined up. My old Canon 1ds was even slower than this and had buffer issues. Shooting with the Phase One will take a bit of practice to get used to a slower frame rate again.

What does a $35,000 digital back get you? Amazing sharpness and detail. If you need the detail in your shots so they can be blown up very large then nothing else comes close. I was so impressed with the results I picked out a couple of favorites to print. They look great printed as a 30" x 45" digital c-print and could go larger still.

A special thanks to Ken at Phase One for letting me test the camera at such short notice :)


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