QA: Down the Phase One Rabbit Hole

There were a few misconceptions (and a LOT of questions) that popped up in the comments after I wrote about ditching the D4 for a used Phase One camera and back.

Videos, answers to Q's and some specific things that convinced me to make the jump, inside.

First off, making a jump like this is not an easy decision. In fact, it scared the crap out of me. But one thing that made the research much easier was the fact that Phase One is very committed to educating photographers.

To that end, there are dozens of tutorial videos up on YouTube that were done by Phase One. And that's in addition to all of the third party stuff. And they don't just shove gear in your face, either. There is generally good content. This is a typical BTS photo shoot video from them:

They do stuff like this for just about every piece of gear they make. I have long been banging the drum about this approach being a great idea for every photo gear manufacturer. As a customer (even if indirect, as I was buying used) it made a big difference for me. I honestly do not know if anyone is doing the video thing as comprehensively as is Phase One.

But the educational component on the site is not just about the gear. They also have video tutorials for many of the main tools and processes in Capture One, their RAW converter / image browser / post production software. Literally, videos pop up to educate you when you launch the program. They are all via YouTube, so anyone can watch them.

They are a very small company (relative to Nikon or Canon) so they still have a sense of humor. The tongue-in-cheek video below, done by Phase One with my friend Drew Gardner, is a pretty darn good way to get the point across on build quality and ruggedness.

They are tough. Get ready to cringe:

And they video just about everything -- even the brutal climate control tests they perform on the backs themselves.

In the end it was of course the file quality that was the main determinant. I looked at a lot of files and talked to a lot of people who had made the jump before me. And I lessened the financial risk by purchasing the kit used. Meaning I could always get out relatively unscathed if things did not work out.

It didn't surprise me that there were lots of questions in the comments after the original post. So here are some answers.

How will this system work paired together with speedlights or is this baby all about the big lights?

I am actually looking forward to using the Phase One with speedlights. Remember, I am a manual guy, so everything works cross platform as always. But the 80mm lens I bought is a leaf shutter version, which means I can sync a full pop at 1/800th of a second. That makes my small lighting bag much more powerful.

Shooting at 1/800th vs 1/250th means having the ability to open my aperture up 1 2/3 stops. Which makes my flashes (relatively) more powerful. It is as if every one of my SB-800s went from 60ws to 200ws. Me likee.

Do you ever shoot tethered with that back? If so, does the firewire cable have some locking mechanism?

Not on a job yet, but I am playing around with it and plan to shoot tethered for a complex photo I have coming up. The firewire connection is very good -- it happens about an inch inside of the back, with the firewire cord going deep into a channel. No worries there.

Did you get a roll film back for this 645?

Nope. I am done with film. Shot it for 30 years, processed it for 25. Pixels, please.

I have always enjoyed all your work and tips. This is why I am so sorry to read this post and know that Nikon 'security' will disappear you within days...if not hours.

I'm still here. If they did not disappear me after this post, I figure I am safe.

RE: the Phase One back to Camera body locking... Is there a screwdriver lock or some sort of way to make sure it's very, very tight?

It's a double-lock system, and feels ridiculously secure. In fact, getting a back off takes a little practice. But the only time I'd want to do that is to clean the sensor. Which has proven to be a wonderfully easy thing to do.

I'm curious if you gave the Pentax 645D a look? I like the selection of old lenses that will fit it and it seems more or less in line price-wise with the Phase One.

I did. Remember, I was going for format size -- for the look and feel of 120 film. The Pentax sensor is smaller than the P25+, actually more of a hybrid 35/MF size. So that was a consideration. Also, the Pentax system was not modular. You couldn't upgrade the back without swapping bodies, too. Basically, the same restrictions put onto me by the DSLR mafia.

As for the selection of new and used lenses, I felt the existing Mamiya lenses gave me the same advantages as the Pentax system. No regrets there.

Several people asked what I meant about the dynamic range. I.e., what's the use of having 12 stops of range?

Think shadow detail, as far down as you want it. Remember I mentioned Drew sent me a straight image from a shoot we collaborated on? It's a full-range portrait. Skews dark, actually. Lots of deep crevices and the like. Lotta bass in the music.

So I opened the 100+MB(!!) TIF file in Photoshop, and pulled the histogram from this full-range, deep bass portrait:

Not allowed to show you Drew's photo yet, but that histogram speaks volumes. That's what twelve stops of tonal range gives you as a starting point in Photoshop. There's no noise in there, either. And 16 bits of pixel depth. It was at that moment I passed the point of no return.

How are you finding converting the field-of-view of your lenses in your head? Seeing as you already used APS-C and FF is it not too much trouble to throw a third set of numbers in the mix? Or do you just look through the view finder and what you see is what you see?

Remember, I used to shoot Hassy. 80 is a normal, 150 is a portrait, 50 is a wide. And yeah, you just look through the viewfinder and shoot. The difference is that the normal 80 on a big chip gives you a nice, selective depth of field, even at f/8. It's a function of chip size, and what is a "normal" lens.

David, regarding your lending program, could you give me a bit of insight to the type of insurance you have on your gear?

Any insurance I have is through a business rider with my home insurance company. But they would not cover this. So my risk management is to (a) only deal with people I know, and (b) make it very clear (and in writing) that they are assuming full responsibility for the gear while it is in their possession.

Does anything change from a Strobist point of view if you use MF? Maybe additional differences between digital and analog MF? Will there be coming up an MF section on this site?

Nope, nope and nope.

I wonder how its going to affect your power requirements when you want more rather than less depth-of-field? Now that you are using big lights I guess it won't be as much of an issue?

I thought about that a lot. Most of the time, I do not need huge depth of field. I tend to shoot portraits in the middle apertures, for natural looking DoF and best sharpness. Landscapes would likely be when I would need extreme DoF, and that's more about a good tripod than flash power.

What do you plan on doing for storage as the file output size is massive?

Good question. In terms of filesize, the TIFs are ~60MB from my P25+ back. But you can also shoot in one of two Phase One RAW formats that will cut that by up to two thirds. But my biggest line of attack is throwing a lot of crap out. If you are not keeping every frame (bye bye, newspaper days!) that solves a lot of problems. Besides, storage is cheap and getting cheaper.

I've been thinking about switching to medium as well. If you don't mind sharing, where did you purchase your used body, back, and lenses for $10K? Seems like a great price and I can't find used Phase One gear anywhere.

It's important to note here that I do not use the blog's footprint to negotiate special deals on gear. Not that they are not offered. In fact, while I was caressing a Phase One camera with my grubby little hands at PPE in New York in October, there was a guy from corporate who was offering a special deal. Nothing wrong with that from his perspective. It makes sense to get the camera into as many very public hands as possible. I'd do the same in his position. But from my perspective it is a completely different ethical equation. I value the site's objectivity too much.

Long story short, I bought on the used market from a private seller, via eBay. Phase One's build quality and service reputation gave me the confidence to do so. I put up very specific searches on eBay and RSS'ed the results into my Google Reader. That way I would know whenever anything in my target zone came up for sale. Ditto every Craigslist region within driving distance, too. But that is more for bikes and SB-800s than medium format digital gear.

I've assisted with commercial studios here in Singapore where we used the phase one backs, and also used the leaf backs when I was doing my course up in Hallmark, so I do agree that Medium format just "feels" that much more different.. the control of focus, and depth of field especially. What I'm wondering is, do you really see the difference in prints?

Yes. I looked at several huge prints that Drew had done, hanging both at his home and at the Flash Centre in London. The richness and detail practically made me wanna punch him in the face. It really shows.

Lastly, I got a lot of @tweets and mentions saying I had ditched 35mm for medium format. Nope. In fact, the D3 will probably remain my most-used camera. It is a great all-around body. But rather than jump into a D4 I decided to rethink my choice for those photos where Nth-degree quality is the main focus.

So, not leaving 35mm. Just drawing the line at how deeply I am willing to go down the 35mm path before looking at another format.


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Blogger Ken said...

One quick comment about the Pentax 645D: the cost of the body+sensor (all one unit) is less than most MF digital backs. It's like you're getting the body for free, and it's a weathersealed body as well, w/ nice ergonomics and a great LCD screen unlike most MF backs except for the latest stuff... :-)

Tethering is where Pentax's 645D is let down though. Pentax claimed tethering would be released for it soon, but haven't yet. If you use MF in studio, you really need to tether to get the focus right because it's so narrow...

January 19, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger Jeff Snyder said...


Interesting divergence from the well-travelled path. Looking forward to seeing your results. At least you know you won't be getting the same exact shot as everyone else, not that you really ever do.

January 19, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger Nikon Coach said...

Thanks for all the details, David. Following in your footsteps I'm hoping lots more to jump the ship. Probably then I can snag a used full-frame Nikon at an affordable price!!

January 19, 2012 2:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Padua said...

For what it's worth, while storage is relatively "cheap," it's actually more expensive now than it was a year ago. From what I understand, much of it is due the flooding in Thailand, though I'm sure there are other factors and I don't claim to be an expert in economics.

In fact, having taken a quick look at TigerDirect, their least expensive 2TB internal HD as of this moment is $169.99, whereas around March of 2011, that would have gotten you two of those drives.

Not trying to be a doomsayer or anything--I'm really looking forward to what you produce with the new system!

January 19, 2012 2:12 PM  
Blogger Bill Giles said...

I can't see anything wrong with your reasoning or decisions. I would love to go to a larger format, but can't justify the expense.

January 19, 2012 2:18 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

David, I've been following this development closely as I'm considering moving from DX to FX in the Nikon universe. In terms of the improvements in image control, quality, DoF finesse, print quality improvements, etc., as you go from FX (full frame) to Medium Format, is there a similar gain (albeit at a lower end) to be realized from going DX to FX? - Colorado Beer Guy

January 19, 2012 3:06 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Thanks a lot for your answers.
Sorry to bring yet another question after your Q&A.
But don't you think there's a flaw in your thinking?
I mean, looking at Drew Gardner's work, it's obvious that you want to use the same chip as he does with the hope to get the same results. So you go for Phase One.
Just like you could look at McNally's work, and go for the D3/D3S/D4.
Ditto for Cartier-Bresson & Leica, Laforet and 5DII, or D. Hobby and SB-800's.

My 2c$.

January 19, 2012 3:46 PM  
Blogger Robert Busch Photography said...

I had missed your original post on this topic. It's interesting, I have come to the same conclusion. After waiting for the next evolution of Nikon camera's I have decided to not upgrade. Rather, I am in the search for a used digital MF system. I have had the opportunity to use both the Hasselblad and Phase systems (borrowed) and have always been very pleased with the results.

January 19, 2012 4:34 PM  
Blogger James said...

I have to say I think you've made a bold and intelligent choice. You already have a D3, a thoroughbred 35mm DSLR. It makes perfect sense to me that you should use your investment capital to get something you don't already have. The medium format back adds a capability to your gear that you didn't have before. The D4 wouldn't have done that, as wonderful as I'm sure it is. I look forward to seeing some shot from the Phase One, hopefully with some downloadable super-high-res links in there for us all to drool over :)

January 19, 2012 6:16 PM  
Blogger Adi Talwar said...

The next step would be to use that Phase One back on a View Camera body. That would give you extreme control over your view to the Universe and all things in it. Make balls look like eggs! All in Camera.

January 19, 2012 10:05 PM  
Blogger aerone said...

I think the biggest plusses with shooting non 35mm slrs are the modular designs, DOF and the leaf shutters.

I recently got a 4x5 Toyo camera after borrowing a friends SQAi and RB67 for about a year. Apart from the increased "depth" from shooting 120 roll film the biggest shock was just how shallow the DOF is on these formats. I was initially afraid to shoot portraits with the 4x5 but after i realized with the tilts and shifts, i can still shoot wide open and have full DOF control.

With both MF and LF the choice of switching films is a huge bonus. I guess this point is moot with digital... but phase one does make a achromatic back.

After this revelation i can say im not really looking at getting a medium format camera anymore. However i think using a phase one back with the Toyo would be an interesting experiment.

January 20, 2012 12:06 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Careful with gear inflation. When MF isn't enough, then you go large format... and later on even that isn't enough. Before you know it, you'll be driving around one of these:

January 20, 2012 12:42 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Joe - That's absolutely hilarious! I love it! Where can I get one?

January 20, 2012 5:32 AM  
Blogger Sodabowski said...

Shall we expect a medium-format portrait series of the eight-pointer and nosedivers from your backyard? :) That would be awesome.

January 20, 2012 6:33 AM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...

Thanks for sharing more info on your switch. I've actually been using the Capture One software since you posted the link -- OMG! I absolutely love it! I'm nearly a week into the trial and I find it to be a perfect transition from lightroom and a comfortable fit with photoshop. And thanks for answering my question about the file size and storage. All the best!

January 20, 2012 12:52 PM  
Blogger David Coleman said...

One question I keep coming to when considering digital MF as a part of our business isn't necessarily the cost, it's the support. One of the things I love about Canon is if one of my bodies goes down, they'll ship me a loaner overnight while they repair mine (and pay shipping both ways). Does anything like that exist for Phase One (or any other digital MF company)? Sometimes we get booked for projects pretty tight, and if a body went down on day 1 of a 3 day stretch, falling back to the 35mm bodies would be less than desirable.

January 20, 2012 12:58 PM  
Blogger Chad said...

I love the PhaseOne system. I know you don't go into software very much here but I'm curious how you like CaptureOne, or if you'll be using it.

January 23, 2012 6:33 PM  
Blogger R. J. Kern said...

I greatly appreciate the follow-up, David, as it played a role in my final decision to jump feet first into MF digital with a Phase One P30+ with the 645 DF and w/80 Schneider. 8 months of saving and thinking and more saving, but I can't wait to use it on some test shoots coming up!!! The guys at Capture Integration were very helpful in assembling a kit in my budget, seem to stand by with customer service and warranty, and were able to offer me a substantial savings since I bought it as a kit. Thank you for the peace of mind and affirmation for what I thought all along!!!

January 25, 2012 1:34 AM  
Blogger Clear said...

It's actually 1/1600th flash sync for the ls. Pretty damn remarkable.

January 26, 2012 12:25 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

But only 1/800th with the older, P25+ back.

January 26, 2012 11:30 AM  
Blogger JMac said...

Sounds like a good and well reasoned call. I've wanted to make the jump to MF for a few years now but I still need some of the uzi in the dark aspect so going to pick up a 1Dx later this year. Hoping to go MF 2013 or 2014 right now in combination with having a few 35mm bodies around.

Glad you are enjoying it.

February 01, 2012 8:31 PM  
Blogger Jeremy DeBauche said...

David, I'm curious. Both you and Zack made the decision to jump to MF right around the same time, but both made the decision using the D4 as one of the reasons to make the move. It just so happens it was right before the D800/D800e were announced. Now that you've had over a year under your belt with your P25+ back, is it everything you had hoped for? I'm sure the faster xsync speed is great, but would a D800e and nicely matched lens met your needs equally, or even better?

July 29, 2013 7:04 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Honestly, I am kinda with Zack on this. The Phase comes out when Nth-degree quality is the priority. The Fuji is used for nearly everything else. Nikons being used less and less.

With Phase it wasn't # of pixels so much as tonal depth and richness. Just in another class. Can't speak to the D800; never used one.

July 30, 2013 12:06 AM  

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