In the past few years, medium-format digital cameras have captured a smaller share of camera sales worldwide for two reasons: They seemed to come equipped with extravagant price tags and they handled, for the most part, like the Frankenstein inventions they were. The communication between removable backs and traditional camera bodies was slow, autofocus seemed like an afterthought, and the "mix and match" batteries had the endurance of a chain smoker trying to run a marathon. It's little wonder that many photographers chose to go with high-megapixel DSLRs instead.
But in 2008, the landscape is beginning to shift. Prices seem to be dropping even while pixel counts are rising, while at the same time the engineering that matters is getting better and better. The bottom line is that the camera bodies, lenses, and support accessories are actually the foundation or platform for an efficient and effective medium-format system. These parts should be a long-term investment that stands the test of time while allowing for backs to be upgraded as technology improves.
Mamiya and Phase One have teamed up to take advantage of a truly open platform with a growing vertical integration of options for medium-format shooters. Phase One makes incredible, high-density digital camera backs; Mamiya makes one of the most comfortable high-performance medium-format camera bodies on the market today. Bundled, the combination is formidable competition in this small market. And it's not an entirely exclusive relationship. If technology moves on and the Phase One back becomes obsolete, the open nature of the system leaves ample space for you to choose replacement backs from a range of suppliers, including Leaf and even Mamiya. Kudos to Phase One and Mamiya for establishing a clean upgrade path.
Here are the basic details of the Phase One camera I tested: The camera itself is a rebadged Mamiya AFD3 camera body. The back is Phase One's latest 39-megapixel 45+. The back and the body looked like a matched set and featured the same matte-surface finish. The AFD3 is the fourth-generation Mamiya 645AF camera body. The camera handles just about as easily as a 35mm camera. The traditional camera functions were absolutely flawless and as easy to understand as just about any camera in the market today. I'll be frank--I loved the body and the lenses more than any other medium-format camera I've ever handled. And that's saying a lot, since I've owned a slew of Rollei, Hasselblad, and Pentax cameras. The Mamiya body represents the very best that medium-format manufacturers have been able to design.
The only caveat about buying the Mamiya camera body would be for users who need to remove the pentaprism finder and replace it with a waistlevel finder or other accessory. That doesn't seem like a priority for most photographers--even Nikon and Canon have done away with the removable finders.
So thumbs up to the camera body--now the lenses. All the sensuous body ergonomics in the world are meaningless if the glass doesn't measure up. I've compared it with the Zeiss glass I own for my Rollei system, as well as the Schneider glass used in the Leaf camera system (Hy6), and at 100% on my monitor, the Mamiya glass definitely makes the grade. I worked with three lenses while testing the Phase One camera system: a really incredible 28mm lens, a 75-150mm f/4.5 zoom lens, and the 80mm f/2.8.
The 28mm Phase One lens is, along with the digital 28 from Hasselblad, the widest production lens available for medium-format digital SLR systems. With a field of view that matches a 17mm lens on a 35mm camera, this 14-element wide angle is a powerful optic. This, along with the 45mm tilt-shift lens offered by Phase One, should really appeal to architectural photographers who miss the highly corrected wide angles they used on their 4x5 view cameras. The image quality of the 75-150mm Mamiya zoom blew away the output of my 75-150mm Schneider zoom for the Rollei, while the 80mm was sharp, well behaved, and a welcome relief from all the big, fat glass of the other optics. While not silent focusing lenses with integral motors, the lenses were quick to autofocus and bitingly sharp at all medium apertures.
There's an additional advantage to the Mamiya system. They've been making a wide range of AF and specialty lenses for their 645AF camera system for the better part of 15 years. And all of these lenses, as well as many of the manual lenses from previous Mamiya systems, are usable on this new body. If you're so inclined, you can pick up a real, live film back and use that as well.
The Mamiya AFD3 camera and lens implementation is close to perfect. That leaves the digital back. Here's what I want from a digital back: I want it to be so boring in actual operation that I don't have to waste any mindshare worrying about it. It should start up quickly, the menu and control options should be straightforward, it should be easy to shoot tethered, its RAW files should be intelligently compressed and write quickly to disc, and the LCD should give me a good idea of what I'm capturing under all lighting conditions. The back should be parsimonious with batteries and shouldn't have any "nervous tics" or idiosyncrasies. It should give me enormous, high-bit-depth files that brutally trump the resolution, color accuracy, and other rendering characteristics of all smaller-format cameras.
So, how does it stack up?
Setup: One click of its power button and the back springs to life. It takes three seconds from button touch to open the menu. All the navigation is done with four silver buttons on the back; all the menus are easy to understand. I felt right at home with the back in the first half hour. Unlike other systems, which offer a range of profiles and adjustments in nested menus, the Phase One 45+ back sticks to the basics (format, white balance, etc.). The benefit? You're up and shooting quickly.
Shooting tethered: Here Phase One cheats. They offer a big, fat FireWire port (not one of those mini four-connector FireWire pinholes) with which to tether the camera, and then they provide you with one of the best software systems for tethering and RAW conversion found on the planet: Capture One. To say that tethering the camera and shooting to a Mac laptop is smooth and easy is an understatement. Do it twice and it becomes as easy as eating chocolate. In six weeks, I never lost connection with the back and never had a crash.
Writing with RAW: Each of these files opens up as a 120MB TIFF, but unopened, they're a slim 33MB. Using SanDisk 4GB Extreme cards gave me a system that shot at approximately 1.5 fps and rarely left me waiting with a full buffer. One thing I'd love would be the option to shoot at a reduced file size, as I don't always need the full bucket of pixels for the kind of portrait work I do.
Chimping: The LCD is fine in the studio and just O.K. out in the Texas sunlight. I bring along my Hoodman viewing chimney when I head outdoors and so was able to see the histograms and check relative light balances. If you shoot tethered, the LCD becomes a convenient "menu" screen, while all serious evaluation gets done on your laptop.
Batteries: One set of AA batteries powers the camera body and the AF functions; the back is powered by a lithium battery. Depending on how often I checked the image on the LCD, the battery for the digital back lasted between 120 and 240 exposures. As the back can also draw power from the FireWire connection, the short battery life isn't problematic in the studio. Location shooters will want to take at least three batteries with them on the road. Another bright spot for the camera back: the included battery charger, which can charge two batteries at a time and has an info window for each battery.