We love them, but sometimes it seems like all we talk about around here are little cameras. We weigh and juggle and argue about ounces, pixels, centimeters, and increments of cost. What about down at the daydream end, where cost—and size—is no object? Just for fun, we thought we'd appraise which cameras people just seem to want the most. Regardless of cost or size.
Our first camera on the list isn't. That is, it isn't first—it's last, because this is a countdown. And it isn't a camera. It's a digital back, from the Danish company Phase One. Any top ten or ten best list automatically implies a number 11. What just missed the cut? In this one, I couldn't decide which higher-placed item to cut to fit this in, so I just tacked on an extra place. So it's a 10 + 1 list.
And in this case, the number 11 is highly apropos, because it invokes the old "turn it up to eleven" meme from "Spinal Tap." In the current product universe, this is digital dialed to 11, for sure.
I wouldn't even know about this product if it weren't for The Luminous Landscape, long the best online source for info about medium-format backs and frames that are larger than full, which the other day published an article by Markus Zuber comparing the resolution of the Phase One IQ180—the flagship in Phase One's new lineup—to 8x10" film.
This will pretty well put paid to any haggling about sensor size and how many megapixels you need, though. True, it costs as much as a German car—a pretty good one—and it will depreciate faster. Forty-four thousand dollars American, and that's just for the back. Tack on a camera and lens and it's like choosing sat nav or the luxury package with the leather seats and lighted doorsills, adding an afterthought-like four grand to the price of the package. At that point, who's counting?
But does it come with a client base?
For that rather exalted price, you get a CCD sensor fabricated by Dalsa that's 40.4 by 53.7 millimeters in size (kicking sand in the face of "full-frame"), and has eighty million pixels. Boo wah. Of course, working with medium format backs does have a few disadvantages compared to top DSLRs—top frame rate is a little slower than one per second (.7–.9 fps, if you absolutely must know), and the viewing screen is allegedly not as good as the best, although it's said to be improved from Phase One's previous series of backs. And don't count on working on the files in Photoshop on your six-year-old laptop. But as the name says, what this back is all about is image quality. And as for what that's like...well, we wouldn't know. We don't live in that neighborhood. But people who do know seem impressed.
So if you want to have an irreproachable status symbol for the next year or two (until the next latest and bestest comes along), and your business can repay a basic equipment depreciation of ten grand a year for the next five years (the joke in the header comes from Jon Snyder's Wired review), well—you still might be able to do a little better than this; there are ten higher spots on our list, and one of them in particular is probably a little higher status than the Phase One. But this is currently the megapixel king.
(Although I have to say—not to be at all snarky towards our friends at Luminous Landscape, long one of our favorite photo websites, I hasten to add—I've been searching my brain for an exception for a whole twenty-four hours now, and I don't think I have ever once looked at a picture from 8x10 film and thought, "You know, what that picture really needs is a little more resolution." Just sayin'.)
TOP's Most Desirable Cameras countdown will continue one camera at a time but not necessarily on successive days, strictly, so don't hold us to that standard. Yr. Hmbl. Author tends to get busy, and also has been known to procrastinate. We will do our best to eventually get to Number One, though.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Mike [not Mike J.]: "I'd rather have the camera and ride a bike than the car."
Featured Comment by Chuck Kimmerle: "That's more than 1800 pixels for a dollar. Where can you get 1800 of anything for a dollar?"
Mike replies [Mike J. this time]: I've got some sand I'd like to sell you, by the grain. :-)
Featured Comment by MM: "As a dedicated 8x10-film shooter, I have to admit that I actually felt relieved when I read on Luminous Landscape that the resolution of a digital camera has (apparently) bested that of the largest widely supported film format (8x10). I say this not because this milestone will bring an end to the film-vs.-digital debates (it won't), but because with luck it will put more attention in those debates on the different meaning of shooting film in the digital age (which is why I personally shoot film).
"If film is to survive—and I want it to—film's proponents will eventually have to make their case on factors other than 'higher resolution,' because as digital steadily improves and film does not, any such remaining arguments won't hold up for long. Fortunately, as digital cameras continue to not only provide higher resolution but also make it ever easier to nail the shot with ever more compact cameras, some photographers will decide that 'higher resolution' and 'easiness' and 'compactness' aren't the only criteria to consider when choosing which camera to use. At least I hope they will.
"P.S. Lest I be considered a Luddite, I’ll note that I shoot a couple of thousand digital photos (full-frame DSLR) every week for my day job. But it is because I shoot so much digital—and consequently spend so much time at the computer—that I use film for my personal work."
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "Good points, Mike. And yes, that LuLa piece is interesting. (The Wired piece is crap for the hipster hair gel crowd...Wired's main audience.) [Perhaps, but I had to give them credit after I stole their great line for my header.... —Mike.]
"I've been a Phase One / Mamiya fan for a while, having recently updated from a P65+ to the new IQ160 back principally for the world-of-difference in usability features of the new IQ series. Even though my dealer gave me an excellent offer to upgrade to the IQ180 I chose to stay with the 60MP sensor. Frankly, I really don't need 80MP file sizes and also chose to stay with the larger pixel pitch. The dirty little secret: it turns out I chose correctly, as the 160 images may have a quality edge over the 180's in some situations.
"Yes, these things are expensive. But, without going into a full 'review' they offer features and options that 35mm-size DSLR systems simply do not, not to mention resolution and dynamic range to satisfy any application. The Phase One system, in particular, offers an unequalled degree of configurability and adaptability. You want to stick a Phase One back onto your wonderful old Hassy? Can do. How about sticking one on a technical camera? Sure. Just examples.
"I know that many of my fellow TOP regulars are middle-aged fellows who enjoy more contemplative styles of photography. Those readers should note that the introduction of the new IQ backs is precipitating a hail of trade-ins which, in turn, creates some outstanding deals for lightly-used backs in the P30 and P45 range. For the approximate cost of a new DSLR you might be able to get into this remarkable system. And once you're in you'll never leave. If you don't need the Phase One flexibility or its large image files I think the Pentax 645D or, even better, the Leica S2 are much saner choices for DSLR-style medium format work."
Featured Comment by Curt Gerston: "I participated in a Phase One workshop for four days, shooting in the Palouse of Washington State with an IQ160 (the 60MP version of the camera above) provided for participants. Now, I've never used a medium format camera, much less such an expensive sensor. What struck me as the most amazing thing about it wasn't just the resolution, it was the incredible dynamic range. We were shooting outdoors in full daylight, and picking up details in the shadows and highlight in one exposure with ease. Blows the doors off any digital camera I've ever used in that department, and that to me is the advantage of a back like this. Alas, all I could afford was the workshop tuition (worth it to shoot with Art Wolfe and other great instructors there and to just try the back), I couldn't come close to finding the scratch to actually buy one for myself."
Ctein comments: Regarding the L-L article, like Mike, I couldn't come up with a case where someone would really want to be pixel-peeping 8x10 format. Strikes me as more of a giggle than anything else. But since it's been done….
The results are so unsurprising that it's almost unnecessary to run the test. What few people realize is that the larger the format, the less sharp (in line pairs per millimeter) the results are. The larger dimensions of bigger formats more than make up for the drop in resolution, but the drop keeps things from improving proportionately. By way of example, a typical high quality 8x10 photograph will only have 2–3 times the resolution (line pairs across the entire image) of a typical high-quality 35mm frame. Understand, that's a lot! But it's a lot less than people would guess.
So, very crudely, wondering if 80 megapixels can look as sharp or sharper than typically-good 8x10 film is kind of like wondering if 15 megapixels can look as sharp or sharper than typically-good 35mm film. The answer to that one has long been firmly established as, “Yes!” No surprises here. What would have been an interesting result would have been if the film were able to trump the sensor.
Understand that none of this has anything to do with film resolution or grain, or theoretical results obtained by convolving MTF film, lens, and focus functions. It's just what actually happens in the real world.
I do think the tester made a strategic error in not doing one scan at twice the resolution, just to prove to people that it would not markedly alter the results. But that doesn't make his result wrong, it just makes it much less convincing to folks who are looking for an excuse to disbelieve it.
Also understand that no meaningful scan of 8x10 film is going to show the film grain clearly. It doesn't have to! That's the whole point of large format; that the film grain/noise is so far below the level of any real subject detail that it's ignorable. This is what people really notice about larger format—not more resolution, not more twigs on branches, but a clean, almost liquid tonality where the film artifacts simply disappear. It's what makes larger format images especially attractive and it's why you can usually pick them out even in magazine reproductions that are, resolution-wise, far too coarse to allow you to distinguish between 35mm and 8x10.
And, it's always possible to do hero experiments that turn the typical results on their head. I've done them; Mike has done them. But they hardly ever have a bearing on real photography. I think there are only two (maybe three) photographs in my 300-print dye transfer portfolio that came from negatives that would actually correspond to hero experiments.