By: William Carter
I recently decided to purchase a medium format digital system. The decision to “step up” was driven partially by client needs and partially by my own desire to return to shooting medium format, to get a higher megapixel count than my current systems, and to shoot with what represents the pinnacle of digital equipment.
II. Background: why medium format digital?
A bit of background is in order, so that you have a sense of my experience and shooting needs, which may differ from yours. I have been shooting for almost 20 years and have used a variety of 35mm and medium format camera during that time. I’ve been shooting exclusively digital for the last 5 years or so. My first digital camera was a Nikon D100. From there, I progressed through the Canon 1Ds, the Canon 20D, the Canon 1D Mark II, the Canon 1Ds Mark II, and the Leica Digital Module R (“DMR”). I currently own the Canon 5D, the Nikon D200, and will soon add the Leica M8 digital rangefinder when it becomes available. I am primarily a fine art photographer, but have done a variety of commercial jobs, including portraits, fashion, weddings, product, documentary, advertising, and editorial work. Most of my current commercial work is portrait, fashion and editorial/advertising in a studio setting. I shoot with a Profoto D4 powerpack with a variety of heads and modifiers. In short, my current commercial work tends to occur in highly controlled studio environments, while my personal fine art work involves travel, documentary and landscape work where one is at the mercy of the elements and working with existing light. Accordingly, my equipment choices need to reflect the wide variety of shooting conditions in which I work.
In light of the equipment I already had available (the Canon 5D and the Nikon D200), it’s reasonable to ask why I added a medium format system to my bag at all. The 5D and D200 are both excellent cameras and the 5D, at 13 megapixels, certainly has enough resolution for a good deal of my personal and commercial work. So why medium format? Well, the highest resolution medium format backs offer three times (39 megapixels) the file size of my Canon 5D. Not that I’m shooting for billboards, but, in general, I believe it’s better to have more “native” pixels for a given print size than to create those pixels via interpolation in Photoshop. Since I routinely print 16×20, and it’s not unusual for me to print much larger than that on my Epson 9800, I do stand to see some benefit with the increase in resolution over my existing systems. Secondly, I have a variety of photographers as clients of my printing studio who have expressed interest in being able to rent a medium format system for their needs. Also, all other things being equal (e.g., lens quality), medium format backs tend to offer not only greater resolution, but also greater dynamic range and “color depth” for lack of a better word. (Some have attributed this to the greater “bit depth” of files produced by a medium format back versus those produced by DSLRs. Not being a technician, I can’t speak to the exact cause for the differences, other than to say that they’re there and they’re visible). Finally, I realized that I had almost $14,000 invested in my Leica Digital Module R system, counting the cost of the back, the R9 body and half a dozen lenses. Since I had been using the DMR as my “almost medium format” camera, it occurred to me that by selling my DMR system and making a relatively modest additional investment, I could be shooting with anactualmedium format digital system.
III. Camera system choice: the Contax 645
Choosing a medium format system was relatively easy for me, since, from my perspective, it was essentially a process of elimination as there is not currently a medium format system that I would consider ideal (although the recently announced Sinar/Rollei Hy6 comes close, at least on paper). Over the years, I’ve owned or shot with almost every medium format SLR system, including manual and autofocus Mamiyas, the Contax 645, the Rollei 6008 and 6008AF, a variety of V series Hasselblads and I’ve also used the Hasselblad H1 on one occasion. The Hasselblad H series camera simply doesn’t work for me. It’s quite advanced electronically, has a big, bright viewfinder, and there’s nothing objectively wrong with it; it just never “clicked” for me (no pun intended). I dislike the Mamiya 645 AFD for much the same reasons; it simply feels more like a computer or video camera than a “real camera” to me. I owned a Rollei 6008AF system for quite a while and really loved it, but the digital back options for the Rollei are currently limited to the Sinar eMotion and the Phase One P20, ruling out Leaf altogether and all Phase backs other than the P20. That left the Contax 645, which has the very big disadvantage of no longer being in production. That said, there’s a lot of Contax equipment in the used and rental markets and it can be had a quite a reasonable price these days. I was able to put together a fairly complete Contax 645 kit (body, prism finder, and 80mm, 35mm, 140mm, and 210mm lenses) for less than $4000. (By way of contrast, a new Hasselblad H2 kit including 80mm lens and film back retails new for almost $8000). The Contax 645 has autofocus Zeiss lenses, a full range of metering options (including spot metering), handles very well, has a real aperture and shutter speed dial and a mirror lockup button (rather than relegating everything to flywheel controls and menu options) and is rock-solid in terms of reliability. It does eat through batteries quite quickly, but other than that and a few minor quibbles, it was the best system for my needs. Plus, I owned one in the past and was impressed with it from my previous experience.
IV. Digital back choice: the P30
Having decided that I was likely to choose the Contax 645 as my camera system, I then had to decide which medium format back best fit my needs. After much consideration, I narrowed the choices to the Leaf Aptus and the Phase P series. I quickly decided that the top of the line versions of these backs (namely, the Aptus 75 and the Phase One P45, which both retail for over $30,000) were financially out of reach. Thus, I narrowed my search to the Phase One P30 (31 megapixels) and the competing Leaf Aptus 65 (28 megapixels). Both are “sub-full frame” chips, meaning that there’s a “crop factor,” i.e., neither chip covers the full 6×4.5 frame. Both have a crop factor of roughly 1.3x, meaning that your long lenses act as if they’re 1.3 times longer than they actually are (i.e., your 140mm lens has an angle of view of roughly 180mm) and your wide angles also have a slightly less wide angle of view (i.e., your 35mm lens has an angle of view of roughly 45mm). Both backs shoot at roughly the same rated speed (1.55 seconds per frame for the Leaf Aptus 65 versus 1.33 seconds per frame for the Phase One P30). Both cost roughly the same (around $20,000 retail, although available for less from most dealers) and both are capable of producing incredible images. From my perspective, the Leaf has two primary technical advantages: the huge 3.5 inch LCD screen on the back and the fact that its RAW files are directly readable by Photoshop’s Camera Raw and Adobe Lightroom. The screen on all the current Phase P series backs is not only smaller, but of far worse quality than the Leaf (more on that later). Moreover, the Phase backs currently use a proprietary RAW format that is only directly readable by Phase One’s own Capture One software (more on that later too). Finally, Leaf has the iPaq DP-67 device that allows for wireless viewing of files. When working with a client or art director, this could be quite useful. Phase thus far has nothing comparable.
So why did I choose the Phase P30? Actually, I purchased the P30+. The new “Plus” series backs will offer higher ISO, faster shooting rate, and a better screen. Although the P30+ isn’t available yet, I received a “regular” P30 to work with in the meantime until the Plus version is available. Part of the reason for choosing the P30 over the Aptus 65 is that, as far as I’m aware, Leaf does not have a similar “loaner” structure for prospective purchasers of the newly-announced Aptus-S series. One can of course upgrade from the Aptus to the Aptus S series when it’s available, but there is a not-insubstantial cost involved (around $2000-$3000 to upgrade form the Aptus 65 to the Aptus 65-S). Given that I need a back to work with now, the Phase structure seemed a better deal. Also, I was told by several dealers that the Aptus 65 in Contax 645 mount runs about 4-6 weeks for delivery, and that the Aptus 65S in Contax mount won’t be available until some time in the second quarter of 2007. By contrast, Phase had several P30s in Contax mount in stock for immediate delivery at the time I was looking to purchase and stated that the Contax mount P30+ should ship at roughly the same time as the other Plus series backs (Q1 2007). The new Plus series backs are promised to have a much better screen than existing P series backs and, according to reports, Phase will begin making the details of its proprietary RAW code available to Adobe, thus alleviating my concern about needing to convert in Phase’s own software before the files would be readable by Camera Raw/Lightroom. Also, Phase will allegedly be providing a wireless file transfer device, but there’s no firm official estimate as to when (or if) that will happen.
Image quality, of course, is the most important consideration. One well-known photographer who frequents the medium format digital discussion group on The Luminous Landscape produces absolutely incredible images with the Leaf Aptus, which initially had me leaning in that direction. After a while, I came to realize that his images are influenced not just by the camera back, but by lighting, shooting technique, years of experience, his artistic vision, etc. In short, I ultimately realized that much of what I’d seen in his work and attributed to the “inherent” characteristics of the Aptus back was, in large part, a function of the fact that he’s a very good photographer. Other comparisons that I’ve seen between the Aptus and the Phase didn’t provide me with much guidance in either direction in terms of image quality; the fact is, both are capable of producing truly outstanding images on a technical level. So, in the end, it was a bit of a shot in the dark in terms of image quality, with the deciding factors being availability, useability, and upgradeability.
(I hear you gasping: “What? You didn’t do a hands-on, side-by-side comparison of backs X, Y, and Z, yourself before buying?” No, I didn’t, primarily because I don’t have the time to spend countless hours testing backs. Also, I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars renting the various backs to test them. Finally, I figured that if I got the P30 and it sucked, I could always return it.)
V. Packaging, contents, manual, and dealer support
So, having been through my admittedly unscientific decisional process, I called Dave Gallagher at Capture Integration to order the P30. Dave spent over an hour on the phone with me, walking me through the details of the purchase, technical issues to orient me to the back before it arrived, discussing various accessories, etc. I placed the order on a Thursday and left town. The back was waiting for me when I returned on Monday. Because I like to live dangerously, I planned to use it for a paid shoot on that Tuesday. (Don’ttry this at home! Using a paying client as a test shoot for new equipment is a dicey proposition at best, but I was counting on several things to get me through: (1) telephone support during the shoot from the folks at Capture Integration; (2) my already adequate knowledge of the Capture One software; and (3) my Canon 5D, which my assistant was shooting as backup).
The P30 (along with a secondhand Contax 645 kit consisting of the body, film back, and 80mm, 35mm, 140mm, and 210mm lenses), was waiting when I returned. A minor, but unexpected, bonus was that it ships in a very nice aluminum case. The case is user-configurable to hold the back plus cameras, lenses, etc. As shipped, the case contains the P30 back, a Firewire cable, two batteries, a charger (which will hold two batteries and will use a variety of included international adapters), a viewfinder mask for your back (so that what you see through the camera reflects the back’s “crop factor”, a 1Gb Sandisk CF card, a CF card reader, a sensor cleaning kit, and various doodads that I didn’t examine. It also includes a printed manual for the back, but not, unfortunately, a printed manual for the Capture One software, which is far from intuitive if you’ve never used it before. Again, a relatively minor point, but for this amount of money, I’d like a printed guide to everything and not have to rely on searching through the on-screen Help in Capture One). I also ordered an extra-long (30 foot) Firewire cable, a third battery, and an 8Gb CF card separately.
VI. Installation and setup
After charging and installing the battery in the back, I booted it up for the first time and began to set it up. (As a side note, it seems to require a “press and hold” operation rather than simply pushing the power button to turn the back on). The P30, like all P series backs, has 4 soft keys used to set the back’s functions, unlike the Aptus S series, which uses a touch screen menu system. While I was able to figure out basic settings pretty easily (changing ISO and reviewing images, for example), I found the Phase menu system unintuitive, mostly because the soft keys change function depending on what “level” of the menu system you’re at. Given enough time and the user’s manual, one becomes accustomed to this system where the button changes functionality depending on what submenu you’re in, but, quite frankly, I find it easier to have labeled buttons with a dedicated functions, such as is found on most DSLRs.
Since I was shooting tethered for this first shoot, I needed to figure out tethered operation within the Capture One software. I assumed that plugging the Firewire cord into the back and then the computer would do it, but when I did so, I got a flashing “Empty” error message from the camera and it wouldn’t let me shoot. The P30 back also showed “0” frames available, meaning it wasn’t ready to shoot. (It did shoot fine untethered). By this point, it was 6:30pm and I was supposed to start shooting at 7pm. Since I felt I wouldn’t be able to figure it out in the time I had, I called my dealer, who kindly walked me through the problem step by step. Apparently, the issue was that, at least in initial setup, you have to “tell” Capture One that you’re shooting tethered by selecting the “Captures” folder and clicking an almost invisible tiny little camera icon at the bottom of the Capture One screen. Having done so that first time, I now can shoot tethered simply by launching Capture One and plugging in the Firewire cable, even if I’m shooting a new “session” with new “captures” and “processed” folders. (By the way, I find Capture One’s image organization system to be confusing and unintuitive; I’ll return to that later).
Another quirk (or “design feature”) is that, when shooting tethered, you set all the back’s functions (such as ISO) from the computer, rather than the camera back. This seems silly; I can’t figure out why, from a technological perspective, tethered shooting has to work this way, rather than allowing you to set the back’s functions from the back itself and having those settings transferred to Capture One. Perhaps this is common for tethered shooting with any back; I don’t know, but I found it annoying. Granted, when shooting tethered in a studio setting, you’re unlikely to change ISO or white balance often, but on those occasions when you do, it’d be easier to be able to change them from the backorthe computer.
Having figured out tethered operation, I proceeded to shoot a couple of shots of my assistant with a WhiteBal gray card, both to check lighting ratios and establish a white balance for processing the images. Capture One allows you to set up a custom white balance for the shoot and have that white balance applied to incoming images, but I couldn’t figure that out in time, so I just used the WhiteBal reference to batch white balance the whole shoot after the fact.
VII. Performance on-set/shooting tethered
At about 7:15, the stylists finished with the models and I was ready to start shooting. I’m happy to report that actual shooting was flawless. There were no “hiccups” or problems with tethered shooting, even when I (twice!) accidentally stepped on the Firewire cable and yanked it out of the back. I simply plugged the cable back in, waited for the “ready” beep from the computer, and began shooting again. The back itself can also be set to beep when it’s ready to shoot the next frame, but I found I seldom needed the beep, because (a) the back won’t let you take the next shot ‘til it’s ready anyway and (b) I found that the back’s shooting speed was more than adequate to keep up with the pace of a portrait/model shoot, where you’re seldom shooting more than one frame every couple of seconds. So, at least for this type of shoot, shooting speed simply wasn’t an issue for me.
The reason I was shooting tethered for this job was so that the art director could see the incoming images and provide feedback. Capture One was quicker than I though it’d be in displaying previews; it probably only took 1-2 seconds for each preview to appear on my 17 inch MacBook Pro (2.16 Intel Core Duo processors and 2Gb of RAM). It then took another 2-3 seconds for each preview to fully render, but I’d explained that in advance to the art director. A bit more speed in rendering previews would be nice, but it wasn’t really a problem for this shoot. I’d also read that there are some problems with the 17” MacBook Pro not providing sufficient voltage to the Firewire port for tethered shooting. My dealer explained that if this occurred, I should simply switch the P30’s power source for shooting tethered from Firewire to the internal battery, but I didn’t have this problem.
I will mention that the screen on the P30 is, in my opinion, horribly inadequate for anything other than seeing if you got the shot (and, perhaps, seeing the histogram). Really, the screen is a joke. Literally, the screen on my $50 cell phone is better than the P30’s screen (let alone the screen on my Canon 5D, which makes the P30’s screen laughable in comparison). Not to be too harsh, but there’s no other way to say it: Phase should have been embarrassed to put a screen this poor on a back this expensive. There’d better be some serious improvements to the screen in the forthcoming Plus backs.
The Contax 645 itself performed flawlessly. I shot about 200 frames with one 2CR5 battery, using autofocus regularly, but would have switched batteries had I been shooting for much longer, given that this camera is quite a battery hog. (Although I did notice that the battery seemed to last longer than I recalled from my pervious experiences with the Contax, perhaps because the camera is no longer winding film). The crop factor was unnoticeable to me in looking through the viewfinder. I did notice, however, that the single central focusing spot is a bit too large to be ensured of accurate focus on the eyes, rather than, say, the cheek in a full length shot. It would be nice to have had multiple smaller focus points surrounding the central focus point, but it was manageable, especially since I just switched to manual focus when in doubt. (One of the nice features of the Contax is that you can relegate AF to a button on the back of the camera grip rather than the shutter release and thereby choose between manual and autofocus on the fly). Autofocus was quite accurate with very little hunting, even in a studio lit only by the strobes’ modeling lights (250 watts). And the autofocus speed, while not on par with my Canon 5D, wasn’t as slow as I remembered from my film days.
I did notice a large dust speck on the images about halfway through the shoot. One of the nice things about medium format backs as opposed to DSLRs is that the sensor is readily accessible for cleaning purposes, so I just popped the back off (after sitting down and praying not to drop it!), wiped the dust speck off, and continued shooting.
VIII. File quality
Image quality was outstanding. Quite apart from the P30 back, the rendering one gets from medium format lenses is quite different from 35mm lenses. As just one example, I got a quite nice depth of field dropoff on headshots even shooting at f8 and f11. I found the P30 files, in purely subjective terms, to be “richer” and somehow “rounder” than my 5D shots, in addition to being more detailed. Objectively, I noticed three substantial differences between my P30 images and my 5D images. The first is that the P30 files require a lot less sharpening, probably due to the lack of an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor on the P30. In my experience, there’s a difference between asharpfile and asharpenedfile, with the former being preferable. Secondly, one of my complaints with all the DSLRs I’ve used is in how they render areas of shadow transition, i.e., areas of sharp contrast differences between light and shadow. On both my 5D and my D200 (and my 1Ds Mk II before that), these transitional areas seem muddy and somewhat posterized. By contrast, these areas in my P30 shots look a lot more like film would look in these areas. Thirdly, in terms of deep shadows themselves, the shadows with my DSLRs seem muddy, noisy, and flat. In contrast, deep shadows in my P30 shots show little to no noise and hold detail quite well. It has been suggested that one way to deal with shadows and transitions from shadows when shooting with DSLRs is to light the and expose the scene so that the shadows are more open, then to adjust in Photoshop to bring the shadows down to where you want them (a variant of the “expose to the right” school of thought regarding digital exposures). That may work for some people, but I prefer to light scenes the way I always have, which is to reflect my vision and intentions for the shot at the time I shoot it, and not have to rely on too much post production in Photoshop to get the effect I want.
A mini-portfolio from my first shoot with the P30 is shown on this page. All images were shot at ISO 100, at around f8 or f11. They may be of limited value if you’re looking to know what the files are like “straight out of the camera” because they reflect my usual minimal post-processing in Photoshop. Keep in mind, however, that even if I posted unprocessed JPEGs, they still wouldn’t give you a true “out of the camera” file, because JPEGs are obviously different from the actual RAW file, and because the JPEGs produced in Capture One are already processed to include the profile and “look” you select in Capture One. Besides, I’m not a camera tester (paid or otherwise), so I’m interested in how the P30 works with my normal workflow, not in shooting test charts or brick walls.”
In sum, I’ll just note the obvious: the Phase One P30 is one of the best photographic tools with which I have ever worked. It has obviously flaws, many of which will be addressed in the Plus series backs. Until then, I’ll keep shooting with the P30 (and trying to figure out a way to pay off my credit card bill!)
© 2007, William Carter