More Than Megapixels – IQ180

May 12, 2011 ·

Michael Reichmann

Background to the Test and Shoot

On April 28, Phase One shipped the first 50 full production IQ180 backs to its dealers around the world. Three days later, Claus Molgaard, Phase One’s Chief Technology Officer, flew from Denmark to Utah with production IQ180 backs for me and Mark Dubovoy. We were to shoot together for a week with Claus, Phase One Vice President Kevin Raber, and several other friends in southern Utah.

The timing was fortuitous, because our shoot near Moab initially had nothing to do with Phase One. It happens that Claus and Kevin are part of a small group of rabid landscape photographers that gets together once a year somewhere in the world in early summer to do a shoot, drink some good wine, tell some stories, and generally let down our hair and have a good time. This year’s trip happened to be scheduled for the first week in May, and as these trips always are, was planned a year in advance.

Earlier this year when Phase One announced that they would start shipping the new IQ180 backs before the end of April, Mark and I knew that we potentially had a great opportunity on our hands. After we each reviewed a pre-production sample of the back in February, here by Michael, and here by Mark, we both told Phase One of our intention to trade in our P65+ backs for IQ180s. The question would be, would the backs be ready for our early May trip? The shoot dates were long locked in with flight, car, and motel reservations. But Phase One has a bit of a checkered history of announcing products and then taking their time in actually delivering.

Maybe it was because we threatened to string Claus up by his toe nails if he failed to deliver on time, or more likely it was because the company has a new policy of keeping their delivery schedules, but when we got together in Salt Lake City on May 1, there was Claus, fresh off his flight from Copenhagen with two IQ180s, one each for Mark and me. 


I should point out that this is not a group of Phase One fan-boys (except of course for Kevin and Claus). Among our group there are Hasselblad, Pentax 645 and Leica S2 shooters as well. I should also clearly state that Mark and I are purchasing these backs and trading in our P65+’s, just like any other users. There are no freebees, except maybe for having them personally delivered on location by their designer. Who could say no to that?

I’ll also point out, since people are always suspicious, that everyone pays their own way on these shoots. Typically Kevin, on behalf of Phase One, buys dinner for the group one evening. If there is another “corporate” type person along, we lean on them to have their company buy dinner for the group one evening as well. 

Petroglyph Wall. Moab, Utah

Alpa STC & 120mm f/5.5 Schneider Apo Digitar with Phase One IQ180 back @ ISO 35

A Unique Company

Phase One is something of a unique company. Unlike the large Japanese mega-manufacturers this small Danish company has a very human face. There are no “suits” in corporate office towers calling the shots. Phase is owned by its management team, and every one of them is a real person who attends trade shows, works with the media, and visits with photographers in their studios and on location to discuss the company’s products and what features and capabilities photographers might want.

About seven years ago (2004) I bought a P25 back from Vistek in Toronto to use on my Contax 645. At around that time I met Kevin Raber, Phase One’s US Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Kevin happens to be an ardent and quite talented photographer. We subsequently became friends and started going shooting together when we could, along with a few other photographers that we each knew. I eventually was invited to do some workshop teaching for Phase One, and Kevin has subsequently joined me on some of my own workshops, including three of them over the years in Antarctica. This also lead to an invitation several years ago to visit Phase’s facilities in Denmark. This in turn lead to my getting to know Claus, who ended up joining our shooting group, because in addition to being the chief architect of Phase’s backs and cameras is also a passionate photographer in his own right. That’s the way things sometimes go.

So there you have full disclosure. If it seems that I write about Phase One backs and cameras more than others its simply because that’s what I personally use. But it’s also because over the years I’ve found them to be an open and accessible company. If that makes me biased – so be it.

The Window. Arches National Park, Utah

Alpa STC & 120mm f/5.5 Schneider Apo Digitar with Phase One IQ180 back @ ISO 35

The IQ180

There’s little point in repeating here what’s already known about the new IQ backs. If you haven’t done so already, read my earlier report, and Mark’s. What is worth noting is that between product announcement and introduction Phase has added quite a few new features to the back. 

Here is a list of those things that are new to the IQ backs since their initial announcement…

•  ISO 35 mode(IQ180 only)
• ISO 140 setting in Sensor+ mode (IQ180 only)
•  Higher dynamic range (now officially at 12.5 stops)
• Longer exposure times: Up to 2 minutes at room temperature
• Better high ISO image quality: Up to ISO 3200 

• Tools can be configured by a long press on tool or icon 
•  Instant Focus Mask! Optimized for shooting with shallow depth of field shown in Overview
• Configurable sharpness level, color, and flashing indicators 

• Alignment tool for horizontal and vertical alignment  
• Works with Auto Alignment function in Capture One 
• Auto Keystone Correction with C1 
• Auto Horizon Correction with C1

• Grid modes: Golden Ratio, 3×3, Square 4×3, Center Cross, Rectangular, Fibonacci Spiral
• Amount of grid lines can be adjusted with sliders when using Rectangular mode
• Grid color and line style can be configured as well

• Possible to select multiple images and delete them all at once 
• Select All and Deselect All buttons
• Very efficient image management and overview
• Browse to another image with a fixed position and zoom level
• Shoot consecutive images and keep a fixed zoom level and position for easy image comparisons at pixel level

• Tethered Live View
• Remote capture
• Synchronization of settings between CO and DB

New Functionality Available in June via Firmware Upgrade:

•  Live View on digital back display  
• Composition Mode in digital back
• 645DF Custom Settings control from DB 
•  DB Power Up from 645DF 
• Full camera control from Capture One
• 1:1 aspect ratio for 60 Mpix square image
• Faster CompactFlash speed 
• Faster boot time 
• Customizable User Interface
• Use of proximity sensors

More Than Megapixels

Back in February when I had a brief two days with a pre-production IQ180 in Mexico, my initial response on seeing the files was thatyes, having the extra resolution (over my 60MP P65+) was nice, but it paled in comparison with the other advances of the IQ180. Now, with a full production back in-hand, and the bulk of its features fully implemented (with more coming soon), its possible to start to take the full measure of this remarkable device.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the IQ series of backs may well be the most significant advancement in medium format digital technology since the first untethered back, the Kodak DCS Pro Backof 2003. The standout features are image quality, including dynamic range, user interface (high res touch screen), focus confirmation, and soon, Live View.

I’ll look at each of these in turn. Note that this is not a technical review. It is simply the subjective observations of someone who has been using MF backs since the early 2000’s, and has been shooting professionally for some 40 years.

Photo by Bill Atkinson

– Firmware Upgradability

Commenting on firmware updatability seems somewhat redundant in 2011, but this is the first Phase back that can be updated directly by the user. Simply download an update file, put it on a CF card, and the card in the back. The update takes less than 10 seconds, which is remarkable.

I mention this as well because in discussions with Claus it became clear that this back has been designed with considerable future firmware flexibility in mind. That they can ship dealer samples in May and then add Live View in June speaks to the fact that it will be possible for additional significant enhancements in the months and years ahead.

– ISO and Dynamic Range

The first surprise on working with the production IQ180 is that the lowest (native) ISO of the backs is now 35. All previous Phase backs have had ISO 50. The implication for this is that dynamic range has been increased by at least half a stop.

Shooting in the harsh light of the Utah desert I can say that working at ISO 32 I have yet to see a single frame that can’t be encompassed without either highlight or shadow clipping when exposed with care. One can quibble whether the range is 12 stops, or 12 and a half, but the reality is that this back delivers the widest dynamic range of any single shot device that I’ve ever seen.

According the Claus Molgarrd these new Dalsa sensors were found to have a lower native ISO than spec. Some of them could even be rated at ISO 25, but that would be pushing the envelope on ensuring that all delivered sensors met this rigid criteria. So Phase played it safe and now rates them at ISO 35 – which rating all production backs meet.

– The Screen & Interface

This is the largest, sharpest, and brightest camera LCD screen that I’ve yet seen. With a resolution of more than 300PPI it rivals the iPhone 4. In fact, using my iPhone 4 on the Alpa STC camera as a viewfinder, I can confirm that the IQ180’s back is every bit as bright and sharp, even in direct sunlight. If you know what an iPhone Retina screen looks like, you now know how an IQ180 screen appears.

This is a touch screen, and swiping and tapping are the way one can move around not just menu items but also images. The touch-screen smartphone and tablet paradigm has been used, and so its operation quickly becomes almost second nature.

Phase One’s traditional P Series navigation buttons are also present, and may be used instead of the screen. This means that when working with gloves on, for example, the touch screen presents no obstacle, and when working with ones fingers on-screen it’s as slick as poop through a goose.

After working for a couple of days under the brilliant southwest sky, and also in pre-dawn light and after sunset, I can say that it takes just a short time to become totally familar with what the back’s features have to offer and how to access them quickly and efficiently. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that in my opinion the IQ series back’s user interface should be held up to the entire industry as a paradigm of how a digital user interface should be done.

The back features a dual proximity sensor that detects when ones face is close, so that the screen can be turned off to prevent glare when shooting. This has not been implemented in the initial release firmware, but will be in the June release.

Barren. Arches National Park, Utah

Alpa STC & 43mm Schneider Apo Digitar with Phase One IQ180 back @ ISO 35

Focus Mask

If you’ve ever used Capture One you are familiar with Phase One’s implementation of Focus Mask. This turns the screen green over areas that are in focus. As implemented on the IQ180 it is a fantastic means of verifying that one has achieved optimum focus.

For users of technical cameras this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, since it means that the guesswork is gone from complex focusing tasks and depth of field judgements. A tap on the mini screen view and a customization screen appears, allowing the colour of the mask as well as the mask’s sensitivity to be adjusted to the user’s taste.

Composition Mode

Though it wasn’t implemented on this initial firmware release it will be in June shipments (and via firmware upgrade). What composition mode does is provide a review image when a shot is taken, but it isn’t saved to the CF card or tethered computer. This obviates the need to delete test shots either in the field or later in ingest.

Live View

One of the most exciting features of the IQ backs is Live View, but it isn’t quite here yet. It has been promised for the June Firmware release.

We were told by Claus that one thing we could expect was that in bright daylight one will have to attach a variable ND filter when setting up with Live View, as Full Frame CCD sensors overload on too bright light when run continuously. This won’t be an issue in the studio or at lower light levels. The exact point at which they become a necessity remains to be seen.

As for any concern about sensor heating, Phase One is confident that at any normal ambient temperature preview times of up to five minutes should not be a problem in terms of generating heat noise.

Screen Views

The IQ series has a screen interface that makes working with the back a joy. The standard view consists of  a large main review image and several smaller scrolling images to the right of the main screen. This includes a histogram, focus confirmation, highlight warning and an electronic horizon.

Each is “Live” and shows its information alongside the main screen. But if tapped its data will be overlayed on the main image (focus mask or highlight warning), and in the case of the histogram and artificial horizon it can displace the main image display. Holding down a mini-screen brings up customization options.

Taping once on the main screen causes it to fill with the current image displacing the right hand mini-screens. Double tapping on the main screen zooms to 100% and a left hand scroll bar allows zooming in and out, including down to a multi-image review.

Swiping left and right shows previous and next images, just as with an iPhone or iPod Touch.

Overall the interface is swift, intuitive, bright and sharp. Just what we’ve been waiting for from a Phase back all these years.

Tethering & Charging

With the IQ series backs Phase One has switched from a Firewire 400 connector to Firewire 800. This of course leads to much faster tethering, though I have not yet done any speed conparisons. Each backs ships with an appropriate 800 cable that fits snugly inside the back’s connector hole.

The back also features a built-in battery charger that will charge the battery in the back via the Firewire connection to a computer.

USB-3 will be supported via USB-3 as well via a forthcoming firmware update. 

As for the battery itself, it is the same 2600mhA battery that we’ve been using with P series backs for some years. But, now it is found inside the back rather than exposed on the side. This makes the IQ back an even slicker package than before.

Build Quality

One thing that has always impressed about the older P series backs was their rugged build. Phase has played this up on their advertising with a series of print ads and videos showing P backs being stepped on by elephants, dropped from hot air balloons, and frozen in blocks of dry ice.

The new IQ backs are built to a similar level of mil-grade robustness, both internally and externally. I recall from when I visited Phase’s labs several years ago being told that in some military and aerial mapping applications Phase backs have seen more than 1 million exposures without failure. 

The Window. Moab, Utah

Alpa STC & 120mm f/5.5 Schneider Apo Digitar with Phase One IQ180 back @ ISO 35

Image Quality

This is the tough one. Without anImatestorDxO evaluation system (both of which I’ve had and used in the past), I can’t give you hard numbers that compare the IQ180 to anything else, or give you numbers with which to amaze your friends and satisfy your curiosity. Instead all I can do is give you my subjective evaluation, though it’s one based on some 40+ years as a professional photographer, journalist, reviewer and consultant.

What I see from the IQ180 is resolution that, with the exception of theLeaf Aprus II-12, is the highest in the world. (Leaf is owned by Phase One and a similar (though not identical) Dalsa sensor is used in that back)). Will anyone else have an 80MP or larger sensor soon? One can’t say for sure, but Kodak has opted out of the next generation MF sensor game, and this sensor design was co-developed between Phase and Dalsa, so don’t expect to see it turning up anywhere else.

As for dynamic range, this is the thing that jumped out at me when I first tested the IQ180 in February, and I now see it quite clearly in almost all shots taken in Utah. There is a depth to the images – an openness to deep shadow areas, that is visibly superior to anything that has come before. In fact I often find myself making shadow areas darker for a more traditional rendition in prints. Weird huh? Too much DR. Who’d of thunk.

I can’t really comment on colour accuracy, depth and consistency, as I haven’t yet had an opportunity to do any serious testing. As and when I do I’ll report it on these pages, but its safe to say that Phase backs have long been used by critical commercial photographers and also for repro work in some of the world’s top museums, so I have little doubt that the IQ series will deliver in this area as well.

Who Is It For?

Every time I write a review of an expensive and high end camera or back I invariably get an email from someone whose sense of value is bent out of shape by the very existance of such products. “Who needs XX megapixels anyhow?“, they write? “Why would someone spend the price of a small car on a back that still needs a body and lens to become a camera?“, they ask.

The answer is that there are pros in photography, just as there are in music, motorsports, and dozens of other professions, sports, and art forms that simply do what they do better with the best tools. And as for wealthy amateurs, who is to naysay what they buy? If you’re wealthy enough to own a fine motorcar, boat or other expensive grown-up toy, why not a camera or back?

But all of this begs the question – does what an IQ180 offers in terms of superlative image quality really translate into tangable improvements for the photographer? This is the key question, because there is no doubt that when it comes to features and usability the IQ180 is arguably the best medium format digital back yet. But does the image quality that it produces similarly up the ante?

The answer lies in both ones needs and expectations. I’ll explain my take on it this way…

– On screen the difference between images from an IQ180 and just about any other competent camera are not worth quibbling about. If you don’t make large print, don’t bother.

– If you’re a working pro that needs exceptional image quality for your clients, and who needs to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack, then an IQ180 may be just the ticket.

– If you’re a P series back owner and curse its crappy screen, then the new IQ screen and user interface will be a breath of fresh air.

– If you own another brand of back, all I’ll say is to visit a Phase dealer and do your own comparison. 

– If you’re a fine art photographer, doing landscape and nature work, and print larger than 18X24″, nothing short of an 8X10″ view camera will produce images with the resolution of the IQ180. But as for dynamic range and colour reproduction, film will be found wanting. If your print sizes are less than about 18X24″ you might not need an 80 Megapixel back, and an IQ160 or IQ140 might do the trick and save you some considerable coin.

– If you’re a P65+ or other 60 MP back owner, will the jump to 80MP be worthwhile? Possibly not, if all you’re after is bigger files. But when it comes to user interface, screen quality and dynamic range, the IQ180 will more than satisfy. 

Wide Window. Arches National Park, Utah

Alpa STC & 23mm Schneider Apo Digitar with Phase One IQ180 back @ ISO 35

So – What’s Not to Like?

While Mark and I were shooting in Utah that week we discovered a few firmware bugs. Nothing major, mind you, just some things that needed addressing, like a timing issue when using short latency mode with a tech camera. What was cool was that Claus was able to get us a firmware update from Denmark within 24 hours that seems to have addressed this issue.

One of our other group members was Bill Atkinson of Apple Mac interface and Epson printer profile fame. Bill is one of the sharpest engineers in the world (and a widely published photographer and well-known educator), and he spent an afternoon with the IQ180.  He came up with a number of really good suggestions, which Claus has promised to seriously consider.  (Bill is also a P65+ user who will be upgrading to an IQ180).

As for hardware issues – there were none that we discovered, and believe me, we tried. 

The Bottom Line

At the risk of sounding like a PR flack for Phase One, I’ll simply say that the IQ180 may be the single most remarkable photographic tool that I’ve ever used. Of course you’ll need to add a camera body and lenses to make it into a usable device, and how that all comes together is a variable that you’ll have to work out for yourself.

I’m not crazy about the Phase One DF cameras, but I have one and use it. My Phase One lenses are all quite good, and the new Schneider leaf shutter lenses are truely excellent. There is undoubtedly a new Phase camera coming in the years ahead, and if it has anything like the design integrity of the IQ backs these will form a formidable combination. We know that Phase has more Schneider lenses on the way as well so that goodness is going to continue.

One question that can be asked is – where’s the tipping point? Are the best lenses out-resolving this new generation of backs, or visa-verse?

The answer that I’ve received from several knowledgeable sources is that the very best lenses available today are capable of out-resolving sensors down to about the 5 micron level at the size of a full-frame 645 format sensor. That means that a sensor of about 110MP will be needed to trump today’s best glass. An 80MP sensor is awfully close to that limit, so it seems fair to say that for the time being combining an IQ180 with great glass is about as good as today’s technology can achieve.

What a great time to be a photographer!

What’s Next?

This has been far from an exhaustive report. There are so many features and capabilities to be looked at that it will be a while until I have had a chance to do them all. In the weeks ahead I plan on testing the back at all regular and Sensor+ speeds. I’ll be looking at long exposure times (currently rated at max 2 minutes) and also tethered shooting speeds.

Once the June firmware is released I’ll also report on using the back with the Phase One DF camera and lenses. To this point I have been using it soley with the Alpa STC.

Stay tuned for Mark Dubovoy’s report as well for another perspective on the IQ180.


Please note that the images included with this article are not intended for pixel peeping.
There is nothing that can be determined about a 500MB 16 bit image file from viewing on an 8 bit 100ppi monitor.
At least a 20X24″ print is what’s needed. 


May, 2011

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Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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