In the medium format digital back, there stands perhaps two giants...yes, only two...Hasselblad, a system which I use and have written quite substantially about, and Phase One. Currently Phase (as its commonly and affectionately known within the industry) owns 51% of Mamiya and all of Leaf (another digital back maker). The smallest of the back manufacturers - Franke & Heideke, who used to make Sinar and Rollei backs has gone bust, and it looks like no white knight is in sight to rescue them. Sinar continues manufacturing superb cameras like their large format view cameras (P2 and P3), and the quite magnificent ARTEC (on paper, I have not seen the ARTEC), but have given up on digital backs, and their one time medium format digital camera - the HY6.
Currently, Phase holds the king of the hill position with their IQ backs...notably the 80 Mpix IQ180. Yes, Leaf does have a 80Mpix back. and Hasselblad has the 200Mpix multishot back. But Phase leads. The back features full 80 Mpix, but also using Phase One's unique bining technology, able to deliver 4 times higher ISO photographs at the same noise profile at 20 Mpix. This makes the back very versatile...high res, low ISO for studio, and lower res (20Mpix is nothing to sneeze at), high ISO (up to 3200) outside.
Also notable are its smaller siblings...the IQ160 and IQ140. These backs feature not only high megapixel sensors, but also an industry leading "innovation"...the retina display at the back for the photographer to check focus. Something that the tiny consumer cameras that sell for about the price of a Phase or Hassie screw (mild exggaration) can feature LCDs which are 900,000 pixels, while my H3D has an LCD which is 240,000 pixels...dismal...and totally inadequate even to check focus. Maybe they feature advanced photographers don't need to check focus...afterall, we went along fine with checking focus the next day when we developed our film.
But the IQ180 is a game changer...large sensor, almost covering the same ground as 645 film, retina display, and built like a tank...really. More on this later
Here are some photographs taken with my miniscule LX3, during the Singapore launch event.
First, the Phase One 645DF camera, with optional grip. The grip not only provides a vertical grip to the camera (essentially a Mamiya 645DF), but also quite ingenious to incorporate a built in Profoto Air Sync device, so it will trigger your Profoto lights.
With the grip, the camera, from far, looks like your regular Canon 1d, or Nikon d3. But on closer examination...the rear reveals the IQ180:
Playing with the back, I must say, the display is excellent. Live view...albeit a bit low frame rate, but works nicely...focus, compose, zoom in to confirm critical focus, shoot. Then double tap on the screen to bring up to 100% to check focus...finger gestures can be used to move to the part of the picture you want to examine...and a small zoom slider appears on the left to allow you to zoom out. Nifty. Very nice. 1.15Mpixels.
Focus Mask, another Phase unique...shows the preview picture after it is taken by overlaying a semi-transparent mask to show the areas which are in focus. Nice touch!
The back is built like a tank, as many youtube videos involving elephants and trucks show...
I asked Jasper about touching the protective glass on the digital backs...he responded that he doesn't think there is any harm, as long as the glass remains clean before shooting...he proceeded to take off the glass on a demo back he brought...
And the sensor...I think this is the IQ140:
We went on to discuss the demands placed by such a high resolution sensor on the camera...the sensor is perfectly flat, unlike film...so places precision demands like never before. Shims are used by Phase to allow the backs to be adapted for another camera body when one changes bodies...the shims look like thin copper strips...
Hasselblad does not practice shimming their backs, but demands that a back and body be coupled at the factory forever. If one needs a spare back or spare body, they have to be coupled in the factory. I understand the process is similar to shimming (perhaps digitally accomplished, perhaps mechanically like the Phase way), but as this is factory calibrated, the user is not able to switch at will. Phase allows this, but I am not sure if the regular photographer is able to add/remove shims himself when he switches bodies.
However, the biggest challenge remains the lenses. How will the lenses keep up with the resolution requirements needed by these backs? Well, new digital lenses would be needed. For Phase One, that comes in the form of Schneider...now designed by Phase, approved by Schneider, and made by Mamiya in Japan. Hasselblad uses a similar methodology...designed in Sweden by Hassie, and built in Japan by Fujinon.
But in my view, though the latest Schneider for Phase and Hasselblad HC lenses are good, especially after software correction by Capture 1 and Phocus respectively, starting it right, with better optics is still the more elegant solution. Perhaps accessing the large format Rodenstock HR lenses via technical cameras are the solution. I haven't decided yet, but am now exploring the options of using the Rodenstock HR and Schneider digital lenses for large format with the use with a medium format digital back. Technical cameras like Alpa, Arca Swiss, Cambo, Linhof, Sylvestri, Sinar and perhaps more.
For me the IQ now represents the state of the art in digital backs. But the Phase 645Df camera leaves much ergonomics to be desired, especially compared to Hasselblad's H4D. The IQ is available to attach to H bodies...due to a recent victory in court against Hasselblad, so perhaps that's a consideration.
Thanks to Seng Fai and Phase One's Jasper Johansen for the entertaining afternoon.