Midway through 2015, Phase One released the XF camera system, an impressive digital medium format system which combines modularity, software upgradability, and image quality into the ultimate shooting package. Last August I spent a couple weeks shooting with the XF paired with the IQ3 50MP digital back, and in January I again spent two more weeks with the newly released mind-blowing XF 100MP system. In this review I cover my time with the new Phase One system shooting landscapes and nature photography and my experience playing with the image files in post-processing.
When I first picked up the XF out of its Pelican case fortress, I had two immediate reactions. My first reaction was that it’s quite impressive how securely the camera fit right into my hand like a glove. Next it was realized that I just figured out Douglas Sonders’ workout secret. However, the heft of the camera is certainly somewhat offset with the natural, ergonomic fit of holding onto it.
The XF is designed with the idea of being a system platform rather than a typical what-you-see-is-what-you-get camera. That is, there are many ways to customize the XF to make it into a specialist, whether that be for landscapes, portraiture, or whatever you please.
The XF features a streamlined three dial system for controlling shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The two thumb dials on the rear and one index finger dial on the front offer immediate and comfortable access to the controls you most often use when operating a camera. On the topside of the grip area there is a 1.6-inch capacitive touch display that shows your current settings at a glance, and also holds the powerful XF camera menu system which can be interacted with using the two physical buttons next to the display. In fact, even though the display is touchscreen and really sped up the tasks I wanted to perform with direct manipulation, I could also completely disregard the touch system and move through all the options using only the physical buttons as well. This is a perfect built-in alternative for the super cold days up here in Minnesota where I’d rather not remove my thick winter gloves.
The top display on the XF has a number of menu configurations and features I found useful for shooting landscape photography. One of the most interesting features is the new ability to automatically delay shutter release until the camera is perfectly still, which was just introduced in the latest firmware update. This trigger utilizes the camera’s seismograph which you can actually view by sliding the top display to the left. I happen to photograph a lot of waterfalls and streams, so my tripod has had its fair share of time sitting in moving water. It was really interesting watching the seismograph react to these conditions, and definitely played a role in helping me find the most suitable footing for long exposures. If you slide the screen again to the left there is a bullseye level which is fairly self-explanatory.
Another great feature of the XF for landscape photography is the ability to save and retrieve hyperfocal points for individual lenses. I could pop on the Schneider Kreuznach 35mm LS f/3.5 for a quickly developing scene, recall its hyperfocal point I had registered earlier, and start grabbing frames.
In the menu system, one is able to save and load from three shooting mode memory slots. Personally, I had two set up in Av mode with one based on bracket shooting for sun-in-frame sunrise/sunset images and the other for general tripod shooting. The third slot I had set to Tv mode and customized for when I came across wildlife during my nature hikes. I would have preferred to save a couple more shooting modes based on particular things I like to photograph in order to spend even less time adjusting the camera, so expanding these memory slots to five or so would be a nice update. Also being able to give these memory slots a short custom name in the load menu would have been helpful.
Of course, what truly brings the Phase One XF system to an unprecedented new level are the remarkable new IQ3 digital backs. My first two weeks with the system I was loaned the IQ3 50MP and more recently I got to use the jaw-dropping IQ3 100MP digital back.
The functionality held within these medium-format backs while paired with the XF offer up a shooting experience unlike anything else. Starting with the 3.2-inch retina touchscreen, getting to the information you care about could not be made any easier. This was my first time using an IQ-series digital back, and getting familiar with it did not take much time at all. The interface layout is not complex, and if you’ve used a smartphone you can easily predict what your touch input is going to do. Exactly like the XF camera body though, utilizing the touchscreen is not required. There are four buttons on the IQ3 that can do everything that your finger on the screen can.
Without a doubt, one of the most important functions to the digital photographer in the field is live view. In terms of on-screen image quality, the XF 100MP goes beyond anything I’ve used before. With other cameras, focusing in live view means you have to hunt back and forth until you find the spot that is the least amount of blurry zoomed at 100 percent, and at times it can be impossible to make the distinction. The XF 100MP display shows live view images tack sharp when in focus at 100 percent. It’s unreal. Using the IQ3 live view in the field is also quick. I can double-tap the touchscreen and it brings me to 100 percent zoom at the exact location I tapped. For the way I shoot, this saves so much time. As background, I tend to focus stack all of my work rather than aim focus at the one-third mark and get kind-of sharp all around — I have a thing for getting true sharpness throughout. With the XF 100MP that simply means I double-tap the foreground, focus and fire, double-tap middle ground, focus and fire, and double-tap the background/horizon, focus and fire. I hope you can appreciate how much of a burden this is with other camera system’s live view setups.
For long exposures, the XF 100MP is set up with some great tools. For one, the shutter speed can be set to go all the way to a 60-minute exposure. There’s also a stop-and-save option while the shutter is open which works well for capturing lightning strikes. In the menu you will find an exposure calculator with the ability to factor in neutral-density filters, saving you the time from having to calculate using a reference shot. Additionally, there is a sensor temperature monitor so you can keep an eye on any heat-related issues with noise developing in your long exposures.
After the capture, the playback screen is also useful in ways that are a step above. Highlight and shadow warnings are based off the actual raw file rather than the JPG conversion, and the warning marker itself can be changed to show up after your customized lightness values. This minimizes the game we are used to playing where we know we didn’t clip, but the camera is bugging you about being in the ballpark and covering up the image with a warning marker. There’s also two color codes for clip warnings. One color represents values that are close to clipping but can be pulled back in postproduction if you choose, and the other color represents full loss of data that Capture One will not be able to recover. Again, being based off the raw data, this kind of specific information is invaluable to landscape photography where scenes are constantly pushing the full dynamic range of sensors.
Phase One XF Image Gallery with Capture and Post-Processing Notes
When I set up for this iconic shot of the Minneapolis skyline with the Stone Arch Bridge in the foreground, it was about -10˚F and getting colder as the sunlight retreated. Turning on the XF100MP, it was clearly being affected by the harsh temperature and camera functions such as live view were slow to respond. After being turned on for about five minutes, the IQ100MP was warmed up enough to act like business as usual. This could also be confirmed with the onboard sensor temperature graph. While the battery drained faster than usual, I was actually surprised at how well they still kept juice. They have an impressive capacity and duration for the amount of camera power they wield in return.
Postproduction for this image included bringing up the exposure for the buildings quite a bit while managing the bright highlights of the city lights. Even after increasing the exposure, the noise in the image didn’t become any more apparent or start fuzzing distant fine lines, and that’s especially true when not viewing it at 100 percent. There was a fair amount of clone tool use, removing clutter on the frozen river and power lines in the sky area. The amount of image data the IQ100MP holds makes these tasks much easier to get realistic results.
A 100 percent crop of the above image. Playing with the image files from the XF100MP feels like the TV show “CSI” in real life, where you can in fact “enhance” photos to a ridiculous degree. Being able to resolve those antennas so sharply and keep the dark lines of the golden building clean and not muddied together at this distance takes some great optics and sensor technology which Phase One delivers.
These 100 percent image crops show the ISO range of the IQ3 100MP from the minimum 50 through the maximum 12,800. One thing I found particularly amusing about looking at the results of this test is that on my 27-inch display, all of these full fit-to-screen photos look identical. The noise grain characteristics are not apparent for most likely all digital consumption of the images from the XF100MP. Likewise, I had some images with missed focus that looked tack sharp in the same scenario on my display. The leeway of 100MP and excellent resolution is mind-blowing. As a landscape photographer, hanging out at base ISO is the typical hotspot, but it is clear that with the XF system you can bump these settings when the situation calls for it without the fear that you are trading image quality.
If you love post-processing, there is absolutely no better camera system than the XF100MP. Nothing is off limits for clean adjustments and alterations for your nature images. The system makes it very simple to capture the entire dynamic range of a scene in almost always one photograph, and focus stacking with the XF live view cuts capture time down tremendously. This final image consists of foreground, middle ground, and background photos for sharpness throughout and a small aperture long exposure photo for the water. Shooting all these photos for each composition I find can sometimes be a bit tedious with other cameras, but the XF handles these accurate focus shifts in live view faster than any other camera I’ve used.
This image was captured on the first morning I had the XF system. There was an issue with the leaf shutter on the 150mm lens I was using and exposures on one side of the 1 second mark would be greatly underexposed and exposures on the other side of the 1 second mark would be greatly overexposed, regardless of any camera settings that would make this not true. So finding this out at dawn right as the sun was popping up threw me into a panic as I thought this shoot was going to be a total waste (at the time I didn’t know the issue was with this one lens, and I didn’t have time to really figure out any of this stuff until later on — the sun was about to pop up!). Luckily, in Capture One I was able to pull up the underexposures enough to salvage the images I was sure to be a loss.
Shooting with the sun in frame is something that is pretty common for landscape photographers. With the IQ3 digital backs, the gradations from sun to sky are elegant. If you bracket one photo for the sun (and sometimes you don’t even have to do that when it is low enough), you have immense control over how you want the sunspot to appear to work best with your image. It can either be a small orb or a brilliant spot of light, whatever you choose in Capture One by adjusting the highlights slider. Smaller sensors tend to make the gradations more crunchy as you play with these delicate areas in postproduction.
Shooting with the XF handheld in natural light was something that worried me at first, but I found that the results were on par with other flagship cameras you find landscape and nature shooter using. The XF’s HAP-1 autofocus was able to keep up with this fidgety squirrel grabbing some lunch before scampering back down the tree. I was really hoping to come across some more wildlife during my time with the XF system, but unfortunately most of my chances were a bit out of range for the 150mm.
It may not really look like it, but there was some special attention paid to the sky in the image. I’m not a fan of doing sky replacements, so in this photo I tried my best to pull out absolutely anything I could from what seemed like a total blank white sky. It actually took quite a lot of pulling to get this amount of subtle characteristic, but it’s all I really wanted in order to give just a little presence of something happening up there and a dash of color. The resolution offered by the Schneider lenses and IQ3 sensor made it possible for the processing software to adjust for the sky without bleeding or haloing the effects or having a strange transition into the many tree branches.
This image was also captured on a tripod sitting in the moving water. The built-in seismograph of the XF helped me find the best footing for my tripod legs and also helped me determine how much I should bump my shutter speed to make sure everything stayed crisp in the captured photograph.
With some cameras, it can feel like you’re working against it to get the landscape image you desire. The Phase One XF is an impressively powerful feature-rich camera that still feels incredibly simple. For landscape photographers, no other camera gives you an equal shooting experience or quality image results that the Phase One XF provides.
It also doesn’t end here. From the time I first had the XF50MP to when I received the XF100MP, there had already been great improvements made to the software. A few bugs that I encountered when it was first released were gone and they added in more landscape-friendly shooting features such as shooting with vibration mode while in live view and vibration mode while bracketing. Some of the screen displays were changed to better convey the information and they added in helpful new features like showing the histogram on the top XF display after the shutter closes. As time moves forward, the XF continues to improve upon itself with an upgradeable camera OS that Phase One confirms will see regular updates.
XF camera system configurations are available now through Phase One partners worldwide.