Phase One XF with IQ3 100MP back tested

Phase One has enjoyed two significant updates since we last tested the company’s medium format offering: the 645DF+ body has been replaced by the more modern XF, and the IQ2 series of backs has been replaced by the updated IQ3 series. Added to that, Phase One has introduced a 100MP sensor to the IQ3 range. The new 100MP sensor is of the 54 x 40mm format, so somewhat larger than the previous 50MP 44 x33mm sensor. What is also significant is that it is a CMOS sensor and comes with all the flexibility that technology brings to these big and bulky cameras.

Phase One says that it has developed the sensor alongside Sony, and that a new design has introduced a range of benefits, including helping to increase the ISO range that can be offered, improving color accuracy and boosting dynamic range.

When I spoke to Lau Nørgaard, the head of R&D at Phase One, and asked him whether anyone needs 100MP he replied that the obvious customer base was anyone who needs to make big prints that will be inspected close-up.

Less obvious perhaps are the workflow advantages such resolution brings. He cited an example of someone photographing a car and then having to shoot all the details individually. With a 100MP back you shoot the whole car once and cut out all the detail shots from that image. Online clothing retailers like to provide roll-over enlargements of garments that show the texture of the fabric, and this back is ideal for that  - the weave of the finest fabric can be shown even from a full length shot that includes three or four models. The resolution also presents less of a risk of aliasing. Museums, galleries and aerial surveyors are obvious customers, as they need the detail, but Lau also explained that images of anything from this back will benefit from the pixel count even when downscaled – noise is reduced, and the superior color and tonal information is retained.

The new XF body

The Phase One XF is a 645-style medium format SLR body that’s designed to accept digital backs, with the company encouraging photographers to use its IQ1 and IQ3 series backs with resolutions of 40, 50, 60, 80 and 100 million pixels. Phase One has given its body a complete make-over and while it remains much the same basic form factor as the previous model, it is now much less mechanical and clunky, and features a number of dramatic improvements.

Key new features Phase One XF:

  • Shutter and mirror dampening
  • Electronic first curtain
  • Touch screen top plate display
  • Improved integration with the IQ3 backs
  • New handling layout
  • Metering in camera rather than in prism
  • Accepts waistlevel finder
  • Seismograph built-in
  • Separate battery from back - but can power share
  • Built-in wireless flash sync via Profoto Air Sync

There are so many really key improvements to this body that it is hard to know where to start. The experience of using the XF is dramatically different to using the 645DF+, which is why I think Phase One has given it a completely different name instead of making it a ‘Mark II’ or ‘X’.

Let's start with the new shutter and mirror mechanism. The mirror action is still more violent than you’d encounter with a 35mm-style DSLR but the impact created when it flips up and down is a good deal reduced compared to the previous model. The shutter action is also much smoother, so when the shutter is tripped the whole operation is quieter. In the previous camera the mirror and the shutter were connected in the same mechanical set-up, but now the two operate as individual units - so in mirror-up mode the shutter can re-cock itself without the mirror having to flip back and forth.

Phase One has introduced a seismograph to the body that measures the amount the camera is vibrating, and displays the results as a moving graph on the top plate display. This helps to ensure the user trips the shutter when the camera is at its steadiest, and the incorporation of ‘vibration delay’ allows the camera to trip itself automatically when internal vibrations have died down. 

Further help towards reducing vibration comes in the form of an electronic first curtain mode that works when the mirror is already up – similar to that used in DSLRs like the Nikon D810. Phase One’s Lau Nørgaard told me that the company’s engineers studied the acceleration and rate of travel of the second curtain and mirrored that with the read-out progress of the electronic first curtain to ensure that the whole frame would be evenly exposed.

The new handling arrangements also make this a significantly easier camera to use, with a touch screen on the top plate that provides direct access to the shooting and exposure modes. Three dials controls shutter speed, aperture and ISO, while a mini-menu is controlled via a pair of Leica-style long silver buttons. In short, pretty much anything that you’ll need to access quickly and regularly has a short and direct path from the right-hand grip.

In the 645DF+ metering was handled through the prism of the camera, but in the XF it has moved to the body to allow exposure reading when using the new waist-level finder. There is an additional flash sync socket on the IQ3 backs for when the waist-level finder is in use, as the main one is on the prism head.

The XF body is light years ahead of the 645DF+, and a good deal more advanced than the Hasselblad H5D series cameras. It feels very modern for a medium format DSLR, and is so much easier to use and navigate as a consequence of the mass of new features.