Review Of The Phase One IQ250 Medium Format CMOS Back

Review Of The Phase One IQ250 Medium Format CMOS Back

You may have read my previous post previewing the first modern CMOS-based medium format back to hit the world market by Phase One. Soon after my post, Phase One HQ sent me one of the first IQ250 backs to arrive in the US to review for this site. I had a solid 2 weeks to try it out and see what this system was capable of doing.

Before you read my review, you may want to read this article about how the first modern CMOS IQ250 came to realization...

Some of you may know that I've owned my one Phase One system for about a year now. The 645DF+ body with the IQ140 CCD back, which is roughly the same size and crop factor as the new CMOS IQ250 (68 percent larger than a full-frame 35mm sensor). I've thoroughly enjoyed my IQ140 for its dynamic range, retina touch screen controls on the back, resolution (40 megapixels), the SHARP Schneider leaf shutter lenses, and the on-set baller factor of course. My 140 CCD performs AMAZING from 50-200 ISO, but anything higher than that and you risk noise due to the inherent design limitations of the CCD sensors (you can read more about this in my previous post). This is where CMOS sensors step in. A CMOS medium format back like the new IQ250 essentially retains all of the things I love about my CCD-based IQ140, but add higher ISO performance capability. From 100 to 6400 ISO in fact (compared to the IQ140's 50 to 800 ISO range).

The IQ250 at 1600iso setting. Click the image to see at 100% The IQ250 at 1600iso setting. Click the image to see at 100%

The IQ250 was very familiar in my hands since its housing was the same on the outside as the IQ1 and IQ2 housings. As I said above, it behaved very similarly as my own IQ1 series back, but with added built-in WIFI capability of the IQ2 backs that allows you link to your mobile device for remote fire and preview capabilities without needing a separate router. Also, battery performance on the CCD back was NOTICEABLY improved. CCD's are known to eat batteries for breakfast lunch and dinner, whereas CMOS's tend to be light snackers. I could do a photoshoot with one battery on the IQ250, where it would take me 2-3 batteries on my CCD back to do the same amount of shots.

Some commented on my first post asking why they would get a CMOS medium format if they are losing the quality they desired from a CCD at low ISO. I'm here to tell you that the IQ250 performed VERY well in comparison to my CCD camera. At 14 stops dynamic range (1.5 stops greater than my IQ1 back), it did amazingly capturing beautiful image info at 100-400 ISO with little to no noise.

Phase One iq250 portrait I took at 100 ISO using a single Profoto D1 1000 and a beauty dish. Click to see 100% Phase One iq250 portrait I took at 100 ISO using a single Profoto D1 1000 and a beauty dish. Click to see 100%

The images below were taken with the help of my friends at Digital Transitions, one of the biggest Phase One resellers in the US, who helped arrange for a studio and Phase One IQ260 back so that we may effectively do a side to side comparison of CCD versus CMOS sensors. They were taken during a demo event in NYC where we showcased the new IQ250 to the public.

CMOS 250 top vs CCD 260 bottom at 800 ISO CMOS 250 top vs CCD 260 bottom at 800 ISO. No sharpening applied. (click to see image at 100%)

In the comparison image above, you can see the 260 at its max ISO (800) vs the 250. If you click to see it full-size, you'll see that the 260 starts losing fine detail and edges become blotchy. Pay close attention to the eyes (pupils, eyelashes, eyebrows, even the skin surface) for the best comparison. The 250, on the other hand, hold up very nicely at 800 iso. Also, from personal experience, I can tell you that if you try and push the exposure in the RAW file on the CCD file at 800 ISO, and the noise and artifacts become very apparent.

Below I've posted a test shot from the IQ250 at 6400 ISO. If you are familiar with medium formats, it actually looks pretty similar to most CCD backs at 800 ISO. Pretty crazy to thing that you can now get a CMOS based medium format that can perform 3 or more stops better noise-wise than its CCD counterparts. This would have come in handy during that recent fashion campaign I shot using 1k HMI constant lights where I could have benefitted by having an 800 ISO file that looked pretty sharp and clean.

The IQ250 CMOS at 6400 ISO. Click to see file at 100%. No sharpness applied. The IQ250 CMOS at 6400 ISO. Click to see file at 100%. No sharpness applied.

The new IQ250 now has an easy to use Live View mode that gives you a live preview at 25fps video. The CCD backs can do something similar, but you have to jump through some hoops to make it happen and it doesn't look as clear. This is very helpful when trying to frame a shot, especially when the camera is tethered to Phase One's own Capture One Pro RAW processing and tether software, which will allow you to see the framing live through your computer. Great tool for us folks that shoot a lot of composite work.

As I mentioned above, you can use Phase One's Capture Pilot software on your mobile device to directly connect to your IQ250 (and any other IQ2 back) without needing a separate network, to remotely fire, change camera settings, and review previous shots. Although, it does not allow you to use the Live View function within the Capture Pilot app...yet...which is a bummer. It would be helpful, for example, for those of us that mount cameras to motorized vehicles and would want to preview our shots remotely before we fire. Do not fret, though. I have nudged Phase One officials and they kind of wink with that certain Danish charm when I ask when Live Preview will be accessible through Capture Pilot. I have a feeling that a firmware/software update is on the horizon for this.

CONCLUSIONS:

It is rumored that Phase One's 50 megapixel CMOS back is the same that is being released by Hasselblad and Pentax later this year. I've even heard that the Pentax may be wildly cheap for a medium format. Even the Hasselblad is supposed to be a few thousand dollars cheaper. So why is the first to the market Phase One a bit more expensive? Well, sensor alone does not define a digital back's value. The Phase One is the only one with a high resolution touch screen with focus masking to confirm that your shots are in focus. The Hasselblad is still running a non-touch screen VGA back that, in my opinion after testing similar Hassey's, is impossible to use on location without being tethered because you cannot confirm your focus. Phase One also has integrated WIFI for router-less connections to your mobile devices (with expanded functionality coming in the near future) where the other two do not. Based on the opinion of a few photographers that are familiar with the Pentax system, their lenses cannot touch the offerings by Phase One and Hasselblad. Also, the IQ250 will fit on a variety of MF camera body systems such as Contax, Hasselblad V (see pic below), Mamiya RZ, Mamiya  and of course the PhaseOne/Mamiya 645 platform.  Phase One maintains an open platform approach to their digital backs, unlike Hasselblad, Lecia and Pentax.

 

IQ250 back on a Hasselblad body does work well! Image courtesy of Digital Transitions. IQ250 back on a Hasselblad body does work well! Image courtesy of Digital Transitions.

Sure, the new Phase One IQ250 may be around $35k, but medium format digital photography has never been exactly cheap. Although, I have a feeling that they will not have problems selling them considering that the technology and interface are unquestionably class-leading. Phase One is also offering some nice trade in deals for pre-existing digital back owners. Sweet enough deals, in fact, that I am already talking to Digital Transitions about trading my IQ140 up to the 250. I probably will be making the move later this year.

If you want to see RAW files from the IQ250 or more comparison images, hit up Lance Schad at Digital Transitions. He can also arrange camera demos and trade in deals. Special thanks to Doug Peterson and Lance for helping me do a thorough test on the 250.

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15 Comments

Clint Davis's picture

The best of the best, of the best, of the best.

ISO 1600 Looks like ISO 6400 on my Nikon D800E

There's no doubt the IQ250 is an amazing camera and it will definitely produce amazing images, but I'm quite surprised that, at least from all the comments and even reviews I've read so far, nobody seems to have noticed the fact that the sensor in the IQ250 only has 14 bit capture just like any other DSLR (phaseone.com, specifically mentions this spec in comparison to 16 bit capture on their CCD models). Why do I bring this up? Well the Nikon D800/D800E is about $3000 and the IQ250 is over 11 times that amount, but is it really 11 times better? I know I'll get slammed for comparing Medium Format to full frame DSLR but I think the comparison is now more relevant than ever especially since the sensors in both cameras are made by Sony and they now both share the same 14 bit capture. One could probably go as far as guessing it's probably the same sensor technology just cut a little bigger to Medium format size... a cropped medium format that is.

Also consider the following...

If we look at the test results on dxomark.com the only metric where Phase One cameras (they tested the IQ180 and the P65+ backs with their CCD sensors) beat other DSLRs like the Nikon D800 was in the [Portrait] Color Depth, which is due to that 16 bit image capture in those cameras. That color depth was always one of Medium format's best features (well aside from the high mega pixel count, the high resolving/sharp lenses available which all resulted in that specific "Medium format look") and Phase One and Hasselblad have always pride themselves for it.

But of all that, I will argue that the Color depth is the most important/differentiating factor to consider since it's the one critical spec that changed between the different Medium Format models (at least the one spec that has a direct influence on image/color quality aside from the high ISO). I've seen some D800 (and other full frame DSLR) pictures that have that certain Medium Format feel to them (and I've seen some Medium Format pictures that look just like any other DSLR). Search for Nikon D800E by going to 500px.com/search and check out the first few pictures, especially the landscapes. I guess the photographers skills, advanced knowledge of their gear and their post processing abilities definitely helps.

Again people are gonna slam me for saying this for sure, but the point is that with advancements in today's DSLRs, image quality is at an all time high and that Medium format look is possible without the Medium format price tag. That gap between Medium format (specifically the IQ250) and full frame DSLR is not as big as it used to be so I can't see the justification for that huge of a gap in the price tag... And seriously for those who will mention commercial clients that need high resolution files... well following this logic, I'd say one may as well shell out an extra $2000 and get the 60 megapixels IQ260 with its FULL FRAME Medium format and it's 16 bit image capture and just keep using strobes to supplement in low light situations.

Douglas Sonders's picture

I appreciate your insightful thoughts

Doug Peterson's picture

Tropical: I'd suggest focusing less about deep specifications and website that do engineering-style numerical evaluation, and instead evaluate based on taking pictures, evaluating raw files, and making prints.

If you want to get involved in a deep technical conversation about the imaging chain, and the relative effects of various component choices I'd be glad to do so (you can call me at the office, www.digitaltransitions.com). But the bottom line is that the color discrimination (ability to show subtle color differences), tonal smoothness (the aesthetic quality of progression from one tone to another, whether it be banded, choppy, smooth, creamy, or stochastic), and practical photographic dynamic range (meaning, not in engineering terms where you can see the difference in two black patches, but rather the range over which you can produce natural, organic, correct color and tonality with pleasant rendering) is, if anything, better on the IQ250 than most other digital backs. I wrote about some of the process of bringing the color profile and look of previous backs to the IQ250 here: www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/the_phase_one_iq250_cmos_fully_realize....

Just like a talented photographer can produce great looking images with any camera, a talented camera-maker can produce really great cameras with any components. Those camera-makers, like Phase One, which emphasize image quality above all else (price/speed/features etc) and which have the price-points that allow them to invest in whatever components will do the job best, have a distinct advantage in this regard. Add to this the coupling Phase One has with their hardware, wherein the guys making the backs are down the hall from the guys making the software (and go to the bars together, family vacations together etc) and you can see where they get magic from this sensor.

I have plenty of raw files if you'd like me to send them to you. I've shot weddings with an IQ250 on a Contax 645, on a Phase One DF+, and a Hassleblad H4X. It's a fantastic back *especially* as regards color.

Doug Peterson's picture

(full disclosure if you didn't catch it - I'm highly biased as I work at Digital Transitions, Doug Sonders' Phase One dealer)

I'm looking to test the 250 and 260 myself and was wondering if you noticed any subjective difference at base ISO? Any differences in the color? Really curious to see the CCD / CMOS difference when high ISO is not important. I assume the 260 at full frame would allow a shallower DOF for a given angle of view. Thanks Douglas.

Douglas Sonders's picture

Subjectively, the 250 and 260 were very competitive at their base ISO's (50 vs 100) and color was represented very accurately. The 250 did a great job in comparison

Thanks - So 260 larger sensor vs flexibility of higher ISO / Live View / better battery life....even an extra stop of dynamic range vs the 260 (although 14 bit vs 16 bit color?). For my work the leaf shutter lenses are the real key on any of the kits.

Douglas Sonders's picture

in my honest opinion, if you are shooting with controlled lighting mostly and shooting under 400 ISO, the 260 will be the best, but if you want versatility to shoot more natural light on location stuff then the 250 is great. I have a 140 which has the same crop as the 250 and the crop has never bothered me. DOF is still plenty shallow

Bert McLendon's picture

Kevin, Digital Transitions has sent me multiple RAW files to test against my "OLD/Outdated" P65+ back and nothing has come close in terms of sharpness or tonal range. Attaching a 100% crop below of a shot at 50 iso on the P65+ just so there is a comparison to the iq250 image shot at 100 iso above. I don't shoot this thing over iso50... ever because it breaks down almost immediately. I know it's limitations, it needs light so I feed it light. =) Attachment couldn't be viewed at 100% so I'm attaching a link where you can see the full resolution image. Zoom to 100% at the eyeballs and you'll see sharp detail, not blurry mud. =)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/bertmclendon/13950576375/

Copyright_Bert_McLendon_2014
Bert McLendon's picture

well it doesn't look like the new image posting lets you view it at 100% =( hahaha

Seoirse Brennan's picture

Such a beautiful machine... would love to try one.

In this ISO 800 pictures the skin tones look nicer on the 260:https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.fstoppers.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/iq2... it may be less sharp and more noisy, still like it more.
The 250 get's the magenta skin look from the dslr's.
In the ISO 100 pic from the 250 the color seems more close to the 260.

Good article. I am currently using a Leaf Aptus II 12R on a Sinar P2 with a sliding back. Great system, but I am going to upgrade backs and invest in a Mamiya system.... or a Hass system. I was going to just go with the Credo 80, but I am seriously thinking of trying out the new cmos sensor. Two reasons, first is, although I shoot all studio product photography, I can really use the higher iso. I shoot a lot of splashes, so sometimes in order to keep the flash duration fast enough, I don't have enough light, and turning up the iso can be a good possibility. I rarely go above 100 on my current back , as the noise in 200 is so apparant. I am concerned with loss of megapixel, and I am still not sure the cmos can capture all the detail I need. Doug Peterson seems very knowledgable. I am also considering using on a H2 system, mainly because of availability of rental lenses for it. but I am not sure what will be more convenient. Anyways, if there is any insight to the use of this camera in a product setting and vs a 80mp, I would love to hear it. To be more aware of how I use my camera, here is the website. www.bill-cahill.com