Phase One 100MP vs. Canon 5DSR and Sony a7R II for Architectural Photography

Medium format systems are widely known as being the best, producing the most detailed and technically superior images. The lenses are supposedly the best available too, such as the 40mm from Rodenstock which is praised for its amazing performance. If you want the best in image quality, the widest dynamic range, and the deepest depth of field with the least amount of diffraction, then medium format is the answer... or is it? Is this simply perception? If you repeat something enough does it become fact? How many people who believe this to be true have actually tried and compared the best from medium format to the best available from full frame?

Over the last few years I have been using medium-format cameras to find out exactly what they are capable of. Aside from resolution, which some would say is overrated, many of the claims are unfounded. This is particularly true when comparing lenses. Even lenses like the 40mm from Rodenstock don't hold up to the best available from full frame.

In the video above, I demonstrate how the Canon 24mm Tilt-Shift lens outperforms the Rodenstock at pretty much every aperture. The Rodenstock suffers from noticeably more diffraction and is overall a softer and worse performing lens. This may come as a surprise to many, however, if you're not convinced, I urge you to try it for yourself.

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48 Comments

Mike Kelley's picture

The Canon 5dsr paired with a 17 or 24mm tilt shift is quite simply the best camera/lens combination I have ever used when all factors are considered. Ease of use, setup time, mobility, sharpness, speed, simplicity. It's just brilliant.

I've never felt a desire to jump to medium format after using this system.

But let me just get all the usual comments out of the way for you:

1) You're an idiot
2) You're a terrible photographer
3) This test means nothing
4) You did it wrong
5) Something was wrong with the camera/lens you tested
6) You need to print photos to see a difference

etc, etc...

Now that that is done, I look forward to a civil comment section :)

Michael Kormos's picture

Oh, you just wait for the D850, Mike!

Ken Flanagan's picture

I'm doing it wrong. wait...

Chad D's picture

so true :)
Mike dont know ya but love your arch work I actually used to do arch on Maui where I am from

mostly did high-end resort work and mega $$ homes making them look good for advertising so seeing your series promos was fun! now this was over 10+ years ago I moved though and out of that work

my camera of choice then was the 1Ds 11MP (spanking new then)

ironic even then some of the high end guys said if I was not using film I would never make it with that digital crap !
everyone likes to think certain gear is what it takes?

anyways this was one of the shots that was used in 2004 :) no med format needed :)
13 yr old shot for Kapalua wine and food festival event sadly one of my last before moving :) loved doing this event shot on a 11MP 1Ds with a old 16-35 zoom
my phone has better specs than this old beast :)

I so wish I could be doing what I did then with the gear of today :)

Anonymous's picture

There's no question some of the FF SLRs put out great images but from your words, it sounds like you've never used medium format so, I'm sorry, your opinion is worthless. The author is basing his analysis on two specific lenses, one each from one system each and, based on his comments, what appears to be a bias. I'm not saying you guys are wrong because, I don't know. My point is, neither do either of you. And in any case, this kind of think is very subjective on your taste and output. You both seem to be near the top, on the downhill side, of the knowledge graph. JMO

Mike Kelley's picture

I have actually used both Pentax and Leaf/Mamiya medium format digital cameras extensively. Not so much Phase or Hasselblad. I used the Pentax for about half of this project: www.mpkelley.com/projects and have admittedly rented a Mamiya with a Leaf Credo back for 5 or 6 architecture gigs, and found it to be bulky, difficult to use, slow, and the lenses were not as sharp as my DSLR lenses, even the much-lauded primes. Even though many of the images in the project were shot using medium format, I ditched it halfway through the project and switched to a 5dsr. I probably put 35,000 exposures on it while I had it. The files were marginally better in some conditions but not at all enough to justify using it full time.

Anonymous's picture

Okay. That's better. Do you talk to architectural photographers, using medium format, and how do they respond to your preference? I find it odd that some photographers keep moving to higher resolution and larger format while others keep moving to smaller systems. I have to believe part of it is due to one's level of good enough. Again, I have absolutely no experience with medium format but I can't imagine people deal with the inconvenience just to look cool or professional, although there are probably a few of those out there.

Mike Kelley's picture

There is a big spread of cameras in use. Guys like Iwan Baan are using DSLRs to great effect in an almost photojournalistic way. Guys like Scott Frances use DSLRs as well for more 'traditional' architectural photography. And then of course there are the guys shooting with tech cameras and MFDB. Different approaches for sure, but I do believe that DSLRs absolutely hold their own in this day and age.

Jeremy Witteveen's picture

I don't think anyone is an idiot for not using MF, or that they did it wrong, or that the test means nothing, etc. I thought this review was good.

I shoot MF (hasselblad) and FF (canon) for our interiors. Hell, I whip out a Fuji X100s and my phone for some deliverables.

I LOVE the IQ (and challenge) of MF and I find working with the files to be thrilling. On the flip, I certainly enjoy the ease/speed/sharpness of the FF with 24mm ts-e especially when I'm trying to bust through a big house.

If I have time to setup, MF shines for me. My clients love it. I love it. So I use it.

While art direction is taking time, I tend to walk around with my canon and a 50mm or an X100s and pickup vignette shots. My toolbox is loaded with fun tools that make set life a blast and our deliverables a great mix of what our clients expect.

Just my $0.02.

Nour El Refai's picture

The Canon lenses are absolutely great, but I always found their bodies laking in Dynamic Range, last camera I tried was the 5D mk3, did it get any better with the mk4?! I understand that if you will composite everything you won't care much about dynamic range, but for other styles it matters in my opinion.
I was thinking of getting the Fuji GFX but waiting to see if they will introduce lenses wider than their 23mm, any ideas about that camera? did you try it?!

Bill Larkin's picture

Mike, I agree with you about the 5Dsr being a great combination, however the big elephant in the room of the Nikon vs Canon discussion, is that the D810 smokes the 5DSr for dynamic range, and most would argue dynamic range is more important than a few more MP at this stage. :)

Mike Kelley's picture

For me, personally, I would rather have the extra MP than the dynamic range. There are very few occasions when I wish to have more dynamic range, truth be told. It would be nice to have but I don't find it necessary.

If Canon came out with a camera with expanded dynamic range I would enjoy it. If they continued on their current trajectory that is fine. I use the 5dsr for one of the most demanding subjects, dynamic-range wise, and don't have much trouble with it at all, even it broad daylight settings. The times I do find that it struggles are when I'm shooting aerials with the sun between about 20 and 45 degrees above the horizon.

This is a very specific use case but it's hard to explain. With a lot of shadowy textures, as aerials at this time of day are likely to produce, I have trouble bringing up some of that shadow detail. In broad daylight or at softer times of day, aerials are not a problem - it's just that super annoying 2 hour period before high noon but after/before the golden hour. When I have much larger shadow areas the camera seems to do fine recovering shadows.

Since I try to avoid shooting at this time of day anyway, and I sell a lot of very large prints as an art photographer,I am not too miffed.

Attached are two examples of the 5dsr - one where I think it excelled and one where I think it flopped due to lighting conditions. The airport photo is broad daylight - 1pm - and the residential high rise photo was about 9:30am. For some reason it really struggles with those deep shadows in these lighting conditions (this is with full shadow and highlight recovery - still clipped in the shadows and the highlights), but in the brighter daylight times, it's great, and the contrasty look lends itself well to these scenes. For the airport photo there are hardly any adjustments at all, nearly straight out of camera.

Bill Larkin's picture

I really like the airport photo... that's cool.

Very interesting thoughts on the DR vs MP - I would have thought that way if it was 12MP vs 36MP for example, but since the DR is close to 2-stops more I believe... that's more than just a little bump, that's pretty significant.

That being said, what one shoots tremendously would have something to do with that, like you said. For me, shooting a model with backlit sun and a bright sky for example, with dark clothing, the DR is critical to have detail all across every part of that scene. I had actually switched to Phase One for this reason... but found that unless you get one of the newest digital backs, like an IQ3, the Nikon actually is just as good for the DR. And of course the cost on an IQ3, is hard to justify.

I'm actually glad to hear the real-world of the 5dsr is that good, because based on the reports and tests, I was seeing the Nikon as just crushing it. I would certainly appreciate a little extra MP, hopefully the 850 addresses that. We certainly benefit from the companies competing. :)

Ed Sanford's picture

I think you nailed it Mike. Dynamic range is an overstated concept. I have had the 5DSR since it was released. I really push it to its limits and have no issue with noise on the low end. I also emphasize ETTR and use my histogram to capture a full exposure. Post processing in Lightroom CC yields a great image. The resolution is still eye-popping to me. I use the camera on a tripod because I choose to shoot at low ISOs for landscapes. Proper execution and canon lenses yields phenomenal images. This is not the camera to use for NBA basketball.

Mike I shot jewelry in a studio for a long time using the Phase One P60+ on a Sinar with Schneider 100 digitar. When the 5Dsr came out I rented one to test it against the Phase One and the Phase One was a tiny little bit better but not 30grand better and that was with a Canon 100mm macro L. It convinced me buy buy 2 of the Canons. I also wanted to get a tilt shift to use with it and maybe sell the Ones. Unfortunately I took another job with a different company before I got to test it out. If your doing studio work it is hard to justify the expense of the Phase One. I would be interested to see someone test the Canon vs. 100 Phase One.

Mike Kelley's picture

That's awesome to hear. See, I'm not completely insane :)

dale clark's picture

The Canon 17mm-24/mm T/S on my SONY A7rii is fantastic. In fact, the t/s as a regular prime lens (no t/s) is probably one of the sharpest I have ever used. I also had the 5Dsr which is outstanding (I switched to Sony 2 years ago). The dynamic range of the SONY comes in handy if, for example, I need to bring out some dark wooded areas far in the background of the main building im shooting. Before, with 5d system, I would have to mask in a higher bracket for that portion. That is a rare situation, but nice to know the detail are there.

One advantage I did have with 5dsr, is that Canon has "medium raw" setting. Sony only has compressed vs non compressed file setting which still leaves a super large image file. Basically, with medium raw, the 5dsr was like a regular 5diii for shoots that did not require such large files sizes.

Link to Raw Files please?

Spy Black's picture

From a practicality standpoint, 35mm cameras rule. I'm sure the IQ from the Phase is wonderful and all, but the system is just not practical. As far as competition with the Phase is concerned, I wonder if anyone will ever manufacture a full frame 4x5 sensor back you can slide into any existing 4x5 camera. Then we'll talk about tilt-shift...

Ryan Cooper's picture

I've read reports suggesting it has been tried but quickly scrapped as the product cost would have been far too high to sell to more than a tiny handful of the most elite photographers in the world. (think like 10x over medium format prices)

Alex Cooke's picture

Scanning 4x5 backs are a thing, you just can't have anything move while taking the exposure: http://www.betterlight.com/products4X5.html

David Apeji's picture

Is that an Adobe Portfolio site you are using for your website?

Jonathan Reid's picture

I'm using the 5DS for architecture after trialing the Sony for a year. I loved the noise performance and dynamic range of the Sony, but I experienced terrible performance in the corners pairing canon lenses to the Sony body, especially when going wider than 24. I would have loved to see a comparison between the canon and Sony using the canon 17tse.

I love the Corn Exchange building!

dale clark's picture

I've heard that from others as well. I have pretty sharp corners with the 17 t/s/metabones (just as sharp as the lens on the 5dsr). My native sony 17-35 seems just a little sharper on corners. I generally crop in anyway. I believe the new 5div may be pretty close to the Sony in DR. So I would expect the next generation of the 5dsr would narrow the gap as well.

Jonathan Reid's picture

The problem with the Sony/metabones adaptor is that the results are not consistant. Sounds like you have a good combo going, so consider yourself fortunate. My corners were terrible using the 12-24, 16-35 and 17tse but were perfect on the 5D.

dale clark's picture

Funny you say that. The first copy of the Metabones I received have terrible light leak and lots of mis focused shots with my Canon 16-35. I exchanged thru B&H (the copy I have now ) is flawless. The 16-35 I had was like a native lens with a new copy ( I don't need super fast focusing). I'm willing to bet there are copy to copy variations with the adapters.

I say one really can't go wrong with any camera system today. As long as the system meets the needs of your workflow.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I hear what you're saying. I loved the Sony A7RII. I would have stayed with it happily over Canon, but the corner/edge problems were too significant to ignore. Unfortunately in London and the UK, there is almost no support for Sony and even less for Metabones. I went to 10 camera stores and none had metabones in stock for me to test out. So whilst I agree that you can't go wrong with any camera system - the UK just isn't ready for Sony/Metabones for professional use.

dale clark's picture

SONY-Zeiss Should develop their own T/S. it would be hard to beat Canon's though

Jonathan Reid's picture

When Sony have a mature lens lineup (and they're not far off), I'd be seriously tempted to switch.

michael andrew's picture

Not that I would havre an argument either way, but it appears as though he just glossed over the incredible advantage that the Phase seemed to have: Highlight recovery. Now I personally have never used this 100mp system, and wouldn't ever be convinced to given the price difference, but the Highlight recovery looked to be lightyears ahead of the other 2 cameras, and that was not even a particularly good situation to test this difference.

A Ferrari costs 10 times what a Prius costs, and its much more expensive to maintain and insure. It drives faster and looks nicer. I also would never buy a Ferrari.