A Closer Look at the Image Quality a $63,000 Camera Can Produce

Phase One announced a couple of new medium-format digital backs this year, the Trichromatic and the Achromatic. The latter is available for a whopping $63,000 in a kit with the XF body, and for that price it only shoots in black and white. At least that’s the way many seem to consider it. However, it’s much more than that. It captures black and white images like no other camera, and for the photographers that like black and white shooting film, this gorgeous beast offers a very similar workflow. See how it works and performs in this video.

Ted Forbes is the person behind the Art of Photography. He’s offered the community quite a few exciting videos with a more traditional approach to photography rather than the trendy Instagram way we find everywhere nowadays. His videos are usually very educative or at least they are worth the time. The one above is no exception. He explains pretty much everything there is to know about the Phase One IQ3 100MP Achromatic, a full-frame 645 digital back meant to shoot only in black and white.

Phase One designed this back to capture a broader spectrum of light than what most digital sensors do. The result is a back that produces images with an incredible dynamic range and virtually no noise even at 12,800 ISO — see the examples in the video above if you don’t believe me. It’s obviously not for everyone due to its rather high price tag, but as Forbes explains, it does mimic the process of shooting black and white film only with a digital back. The pictures require a bit of processing, and even when shooting, you may need to rely on filters to get the desired look. If you thought UV filters didn’t matter with digital photography, you may want to change your opinion with the IQ3 100MP Achromatic.

What do you think of this digital back? Do you feel like it could be worth the investment for your business or for a fine art photographer? Would you like to see such a technology in more affordable cameras or on a 35mm sensor? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Quentin Décaillet is a photographer and retoucher based in Switzerland specializing in portrait and wedding photography.

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A company will always make exorbitantly priced things for those that can afford them. This seems to be one of those...

Investment? No, because calling something an investment implies that you're looking to get some sort of return from it at some point. I can't really see that being the case here and even if it did net a return, it would still be a horrible investment compared to the numerous other products that you could use to achieve comparable results.

This is a splurge item, not an investment. It is deep into the "diminishing returns" territory and it's really just a luxury item for someone that's looking for that extra .001% that only they will ever probably notice (or convince themselves that they are noticing). It's pretty much the photographic equivalent of buying a Bugatti.

That having been said, if we're talking about emulating the workflow of film, I'm trying to think of how many rolls of 120 B&W I could buy for a Mamiya RZ67 or how many sheets of large format film one could purchase for the same $63,000.

So you're saying I don't really need that Bugatti I keep asking for? Well then, okay. As long as I get it eventually! :-)

Your return is you selling prints. I don't know your status in sales but to recoup that $63k would probably take you some time. Though still qualifies as an investment.

Your sheets of film are an investment too, except it falls into the quantity you get for $63K so it seems justifiable. This camera will out last your film stock.

A guy back in 2013 bought the last Velvia 8x10 sheets for $132K which was 12,000 sheets. Which would only equal 5,700 sheets for $63k (if my math was right). Than factor in the out of focus, bad exposure, human error of fixing your film to the holder, light leaks, etc. so over time and you're losing money now.

The Phase One would be a smarter investment than film stock. That camera is future proofed (IQ) for a pretty much a life time and his kids.

Your math is not correct in that sense that those films are not developed, not digitalized (or any other way made it possible to create a print out of them).
But on the other hand the IQ3 100 is closer in quality to 4x5 anyway.
Once I did the math, and without any additional cost (I mean extra studio time in case the film shoot had to be retaken, etc) and I think it was roughly in the ballpark of your result for color films (5-10k sheets of 4x5 C41 film developed and 20% scanned/retouched).
Black and white would be a bit different as b&w films are cheaper in general.

This camera will not last you a lifetime... Not even close to it. But aside from that, how many people today are buying prints? And how many of those are purchasing prints for the types of prices that you would need to sell this for not only to cover your initial cost, but to keep up with maintenance? And then how many of those people would not have bought your prints if they were taken with a Hasselblad or Pentax instead of this camera? Is that extra .001% of quality going to suddenly sell prints to the generally non-discerning public that would have otherwise not sold? It's not your camera that is selling those prints. It's your photographic skills, composition, and choice of subject matter (with some marketing mixed in). While I don't doubt that this camera can enhance the quality of a photo, I highly doubt that it can do so in a manner that would actually be meaningful to your bottom line from a business standpoint.

Also, this is not taking photos that rival the quality of 8x10 film. Not even close. It might compare to 4x5 if you're lucky. On top of that, you bring up Velvia when talking about cost and even go so far as to bring up the last stock, which is naturally going to have an inflated price.That's not comparable since the Achromat only take black and white photos and there are still plenty of excellent black and white film stocks in production today. Black and white film is far cheaper to buy and develop than color or slide so it would change the math completely. When you compare this to the cost of 4x5 or even 120 black and white roll film shot on a 6x7 camera (which it would probably be closer to), you'd have to be shooting like a mad man to come out ahead with the Achromat, which is also exactly the type of shooting you wouldn't be doing with a camera like this. This isn't the type of camera that you're going to take to the sidelines of a football game and fire off 3,000 shots over the course of a night. To reach a shutter count of 20,000+ the way people tend to use cameras like this would probably take years (if they ever reach it at all before moving onto the next thing).

Any way you cut it, this is a luxury buy, which is fine. Buy it if you have the money to impress clients, feel good about yourself, or whatever else. If this was a smart business investment that you could reasonably expect a return on, everyone and their mom would be buying one. That's not to say that there aren't photographers who could get a return on this, but they are few and far between. Those photographers are also talented enough that they could also sell just as many prints using a cheaper camera, too, so they would be buying this not so much to enhance their business, but because it suits their artistic taste.

Because it's a device that relies on a complicated array of finely tuned and sensitive electronic components in order to carry out its basic functions. There are far too many points of failure in such a device to reasonably expect it to last a lifetime.

That's not even taking into consideration its reliance on proprietary parts (such as batteries, LCD screens, and other components) that will likely no longer be in production in even a decade's time, much less several decades. Add onto this that no company is going to continue to update firmware in perpetuity so even if you magically went for 50 years without anything going wrong, you'll eventually run into a situation where you won't have software (or hardware) that's compatible with your camera or the file formats that it is outputting. And looking past all that, this camera will be completely obsolete within a decade's time just the same way we look today at top-of-the-line digital cameras that were released a decade ago.

Old mechanical film cameras and lenses could last a lifetime because they were simple devices which meant limited points of failure and relatively easy fixes even without an engineering degree and even those are limited in repair by available parts (something that 3D printing is helping with these days). Modern day cameras, on the other hand, are so complicated that "repair" even by the manufacturer often just means replacing major parts of the camera wholesale because even the manufacturer cannot be bothered to try to locate and repair the problem due to the complexity of the device. Once electronics get involved, it just becomes a whole different ballgame.

So sure, the shell of the camera and the actual parts could theoretically last a lifetime since they're not exactly going to rot, but it's doubtful that the camera will be functioning in a decade or two—especially if it's being used regularly.

Self Marketing, Hope on too it!

You said it doesn't last for an eternity. Phase One offers 5 years guarantee for the camera, so let's say that is the lifespan of it. To reach that magical 20k captures one would take 4000 captures per year, or 333 takes per month. I think that is not a huge number for a full time photographer - even for landscape work, not to say advertisement, fashion.

How many photographers in landscape, advertising, and fashion are working solely in black and white? I'm not talking about people who shoot in color and exercise the option to occasionally convert a photo. I mean people who absolutely do not shoot in color at all. Do you seriously think there's that kind of demand for that? Maybe for a small handful of photographers at the very top of the game and I would imagine that any photographer at that level can get by just fine with a lesser camera.

In the end, I didn't say that this was a bad camera. I said that it's not a sensible business investment and my argument was entirely based on ROI. If, as a business person, you don't actually care about your ROI as evidenced by actual numbers, then you can probably rationalize away any expense that you want.

Rather than argue that you can pay off the camera over the course of 5 years, why not argue why this camera will give you $30,000 more revenue over the course of those same 5 years than a Hasselblad H6D-100C or some other cheaper medium format digital camera? Hint: It won't.

It is an investment in a tool. So maybe you are not that great of a photographer who cannot not justify the price, work on your technique and marketing skills then. But there are many photographers out there who are good at their craft and make money who can justify the expensive. It is no different from the many cinematographers who can afford a Red camera at a $60K price tag.

Maybe you run your business differently, but for me, judging whether something is a sound business investment comes down to:

1. How much does this tool cost?
2. How much will it improve my final product?
3. Will this improvement DIRECTLY translate to greater income?
4. How much extra income can be DIRECTLY attributed to this tool? (Over what would have been generated otherwise?)
5. How long will it take to pay off the cost of the tool with ONLY the additional income generated that can directly be attributed to it?

If we take this camera as an example. How much of an improvement will this camera provide over some other camera? All other factors being equal (same photographic skills, same composition, same subject, etc.), how many more sales will you get solely due to this camera vs. sales that you would have otherwise gotten anyway based on the merits of the photographic content? Now using ONLY those extra sales, how long would it take to pay off the cost difference between this camera and a much cheaper one also taking into account the cost of maintenance?

There's a difference between the thing we want and the things we need. Very often, as photographers, we blend these two things. When it comes to running a business intelligently and managing costs, it's not just about being able to justify an expense logically. I can (and have) done all sorts of mental acrobatics to justify all sorts of purchases both to myself and my wife that were made with my own pleasure at the forefront with business taking a backseat. Smart business investments are based on numbers, not your vague sense that this tool would probably generate more income without any consideration of whether you would have or could have generated that same income anyway without being out thousands of extra dollars.

That's why I said that this is a splurge purchase. There's nothing wrong with splurge purchases at all because we don't only do things for the bottom line. We do things for our own pleasure, too. There is, however, a problem when you start confusing the things you want with the things you need when it comes down to running a business.

That having been said, you're right. I am not that great of a photographer and I could not justify spending this much money for the particular type of photography that I do as a business (real estate and portraiture). Honestly, I don't see any about of working on my technique or marketing skills changing the situation to make a $60,000+ "investment" on a camera that can only shoot in black and white a sensible thing to do. I'm sure that there are photographers out there than are able to get something extra from this camera that they couldn't from another camera and for them, it could make more sense than for me. But even then, I would argue that it would be their artistic drive that fuels this purchase rather than business sense because anyone that has that kind of talent can probably make the same income shooting with a Hasselblad or Canon.

You should mention that Capture One DB is a free download with the Camera.

It was sounding like it would be a great camera but Ted Forbes is one of the most annoying speakers I've ever had the privilege of watching about two minutes of. Look at the camera! Don't be so damn pretentious... Okay. I feel better now.

Oh yeah. Kudos for trashing Apple. :-)


Well, I did give you credit for the Apple segment. ;-)

If the goal is to emulate shooting with a black and white film, I can still use my Nikon FM2 with some Ilford or other BW film. For the $63K I can probably do 2,000 rolls. ;-).

I think you might be exaggerating just a tad there, sir.

I am definitely not getting your comparison. Clearly a 35mm film is superior to the Kodak Disk. Then you are comparing resolutions. Which mainly matter for how big you want to print (or display) a picture. Most of us have camera that have too many pixels for what we need (showing it online). So not sure how the 24Mp matter there. Finally, a film has way more information than any digital captor.
My comment was mainly to say that If the goal is to make b&w pics posted online, then there is no need for this kind of camera.
I am not against the camera per say. Whatever makes people happy... :)

63k and no popup flash ?

Everyone who's thinking this is some rich guy's toy or an overpriced camera for those with disposable income are thinking along the wrong lines. This is a technical photographer's dream camera, and the people at the Getty and MOMA and the Smithsonian already have their orders in. This is not a self-employed wedding or headshot photographer's camera, and was never meant to be. If my institution could afford it I'd get it in a heartbeat.

While I'm sure that there are plenty of technical photographers and institutions that will use this camera, I think that their actual customer base is primarily going to be composed of rich guys with lots of disposable income. That's just how these things tend to work.

Fair play either way. As long as people are willing to support the continued survival of camera companies as well as the ensuing R&D, I'm all for it, regardless of their personal motivations.

Impressive. I wish that I could afford it, but it costs more than double the price of my car.