Phase One’s new XF digital medium format camera system is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s all new… something many of us didn’t expect to see again. Phase One’s previous DMF platform was derived from a Mamiya which traces its origins back to 1999 and the 645AF. Hasselblad’s current H5D system goes back to the 6x4.5cm format H1 which was launched in 2002. Of a more recent vintage is the Franke & Heidecke-designed Hy6, originally badged as a Sinar and then returned to the Rolleiflex fold, but you could hardly call this camera a commercial success.
So a brand new digital medium format camera in 2015 is cause for both wonderment and celebration. Better still, Phase One has gone back to basics so the XF has interchangeable viewfinders – always a design element of the box-form SLR design – which increases flexibility, especially in the studio environment. As before, there’s the option of using leaf-shutter lenses (with flash sync now up to 1/1600 second) or the camera body’s focal plane shutter (with a top speed of 1/4000 second). Yet the XF also makes the most of all the latest camera tech so, interestingly, it has an info display with touch controls to complement the touchscreens on the next-gen IQ3 capture backs. Body and back can power share, and there’s a completely new autofocusing system – designed in-house by Phase One rather than ‘off-the-shelf’ – based on a dedicated, one-megapixel CMOS sensor.
All this indicates a very significant investment in the future which, not so very long ago, might have been considered a tad risky. But digital medium format appears to have weathered the storms that have beset it pretty much since smaller image sensors started delivering acceptable image quality. Nikon’s 37 megapixels D800E – squeezing out yet more imaging performance via its novel LPF cancellation system – looked like a body blow. Canon’s 53 MP EOS 5Ds/R duo likewise along with Sony’s A7R II, and then there’s the new pixel-shift technology promising ultra-high resolutions (albeit with some operational compromises). Funnily enough though, rather than looking weakened by these developments, digital medium format appears to have gathered strength. Perhaps it’s because the more the smaller sensor formats strive to deliver a performance to rival the DMF systems – often a stated aim in the promotional materials – the more it’s evident that there’s no substitute for the real thing. I’m testing the EOS 5Ds right now and, believe me, it does what it says on the tin, convincingly blowing all its full-35mm rivals into the weeds (the full review will be in the next issue), but it’s a different matter when you line it up against any of the DMF systems currently running the 50 MP ‘645’ sensor… and, of course, Phase One can load up the XF with 80 MP.
Much is made of the differences in form factors which determine the suitability for various applications, but here again, the attempts at a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution have merely confirmed that this can never actually work. And t’was ever thus. Medium format cameras were always largely designed for use on some sort of stand or another (i.e. a tripod when in the field) and while integrated grips have enhanced their ‘free’ handling characteristics, there are other considerations which demand a solid and stable base. Tellingly, our road-test 5Ds arrived with the recommendation that it be used on a tripod and what’s more, we’ve subsequently found that not only is this critical to optimising its resolution, but so is using its mirror lock-up delay facility (which can be timed between 1/8 and 2.0 seconds before the shutter is released automatically) to allow any camera-induced vibrations to die away. So, to a fair extent, the inherent manoeuvrability of the ‘35 SLR’ body shape is, in fact, of no real benefit here. Make no mistake, Canon has done a brilliant job with its ultra-high res sensors, but they also serve to confirm that pixel counts actually don’t mean a whole lot on their own. A 50 MP full-35mm sensor is a very different beast – performance wise – to a 50 MP ‘645’ sensor. With pixels size really does matter and, perhaps because this is now more evident than ever, the justification for digital medium format capture systems is finally being realised.
Mind you, this transformation is happening right now which makes Phase One’s decision to build the XF – however long ago it was made – even more courageous. But there’s little doubt it will be rewarded… this is the right camera at the right time and… perhaps for the very first time… the digital medium format camera business is ripe for growth.
Paul Burrows, Editor, ProPhoto