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Phase One XF Camera System

The new Phase One XF camera is the heart of a beefed up medium format system.

It must be exciting to build a camera from scratch and the medium format Phase One XF is just that.

Phase One began making digital backs that fitted onto many other cameras, but changes in the market saw them buying into Mamiya to ensure they had at least one camera to work with (Hasselblad had effectively prevented users from putting a Phase One back onto its newer cameras, and other manufacturers had gone out of business).

The biggest challenge Phase One appeared to have was the Mamiya camera itself. While it was a workhorse in some ways, it really wasn’t designed for digital photography or the fine tolerances demanded by captures up to 80-megapixels. The autofocus system was not as accurate as it should have been and the camera regularly froze due to a change in battery voltage or, maybe, even the weather. However, photographers put up with the idiosyncrasies because of the amazing image quality.

All that, says Phase One, has changed with the introduction of the XF camera and its accompanying system. I spent a day with four other photography journalists in Copenhagen, talking to Lau Nørgaard, Phase One's Technical Project Officer and the driving force behind the new XF camera. Lau would be the first to acknowledge he is just one of a team of researchers and technicians that made the new camera possible.

While built in Japan, the camera is definitely Scandinavian in design. The boxy appearance was not to my taste at first glance, but once you learn that the operation of the camera revolves around the boxy, touch-sensitive top screen, you more easily understand both the camera’s shape and design. It’s growing on me.

Most impressive is the new autofocus system. As I understand it, Phase One was not able to purchase an existing AF system, so it designed its own from the ground up. Called the Honeybee Autofocus Platform (HAP-1), I found it incredibly quick and, importantly, accurate. While these observations are based on just one day of testing, I had a very decisive comparison. I had always struggled to find focus with the Schneider 240mm on the old Phase One camera, but with the new XF, one touch was all I needed to nail focus every time. It was very impressive. Mind you, other people might comment that it is really just to be expected - surely autofocus should just work on a camera system like this! I agree and finally it does.

Also boasting one touch is the new OneTouch User Interface (although you might touch it a few times). While some retro designed cameras are returning to knobs and dials, Phase One has very few physical controls. Explained Lau, photographers normally have to deal with shutter speeds, apertures and ISO, so there are three main operational dials, plus five keys or buttons. However, the 1.6-inch touch screen on the top of the grip means you can operate most aspects of the camera with a few finger touches. The user interface is very, very cool plus it is easy to personalise all the buttons and many of the features. Even better, it has been designed so extra features can be added or changed based on customer needs and feedback.

One of the most interesting ‘geeky’ features of the new touch screen is a seismograph which shows you graphically how much the camera is vibrating while sitting on your tripod. Obviously, if you have a good tripod, there should be zero vibaration. However, vibration was one of the biggest problems with the old camera and to a large extent seems to have been completely resolved. Whether this feature was something the technicians inserted for testing purposes and decided to keep I’m not sure, but when it comes to trouble shooting your own technique or set up, it will be actually very useful. More on that in a future article.

The older medium format film SLR cameras used to have a range of different interchangeable viewfinders and the XF has returned to this approach with both a solid glass prism finder (the standard one) as well as an old-fashioined (classic) waist-level viewfinder.

Given the XF camera’s many new features, the digital backs have also been upgraded with additional connections to facilitate the larger range of functions. The new IQ3 range includes 50 and 60 megapixel backs based on the IQ250 and IQ260 models, but the new 80-megapixel IQ3 uses a brand new sensor which is capable of 60-minute exposures (the IQ180/280 struggled much past 30 seconds).

Interestingly, Phase One has announced two new lenses which are claimed to be ready for 100-megapixel sensors and beyond, but there has been no announcement just yet of a 100-megapixel back. You’d have to say it is on the cards, however.

The two new leaf-shutter lenses are a Schneider Kreuznach 120mm macro and a 35mm wide-angle. They are large and heavy, so not ideal for backpacking, but perfect for studio work. Of course, this doesn’t mean you won’t backpack them – the image quality on the test lenses I saw was quite breathtaking.

To drive the new system, Capture One Pro 8.3 raw processing software has been released, but it also supports more than 300 different models of 35mm DSLRs.

The introduction of the XF system by Phase One is great to see. It’s not a camera system everyone can afford or justify (the 80-megapixel camera is expected to set you back around US $50k), but whether or not you’re in the market, it’s fascinating to watch the development of a brand new camera system.

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Peter Eastway Uses

Peter Uses

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