I’ve had the fortune of being let loose with a high-end Phase One medium format full frame digital camera; here is what I learned.
Currently, I am in the process of procuring some new camera equipment. It is a minefield out there with new bodies and lenses being released almost every month. The last time I purchased a camera was eight years ago, and it was a Canon 5D Mark II. There haven’t been any major leaps in Canon cameras since then, at least not any that benefit photographers who don't shoot weddings, wildlife, or sports. But my kit is a bit worn out (very worn out) and I am looking to buy into something new. There should also be a disclaimer here: I do not lust for nor care about camera gear. I am not techy in any way and reading a gear review is my idea of hell. So, be patient with me while I talk about these cameras in a very simple way.
My options are to either stay with Canon and buy into the 5DS R range with a few new lenses or to go into Phase One and keep my old Canon gear for smaller jobs. I don’t want to have to learn a new 35mm camera system and lenses at this stage in my career, so if I am going to change, it will be to a bigger format where everything is a major leap. After talking to my local camera shop, I decided to give the Phase One a go. The camera is about £15,000 with a few lenses, the full-frame digital back, and a few accessories. That would cover me for pretty much everything I need. The images it produces are amazing, but the biggest differences were not what I expected.
Bad Photos Are Still Bad Photos
This might sound obvious, but a bad photograph is still a bad photograph. When I sat the camera on my studio stand and fired off the first shot, I was quickly humbled. Simply adding £15K of kit in front of your face doesn't make any difference at all. Your work doesn't become any better by having a better camera. However, it does allow you to do a few new things. Creating larger prints, shooting subtle variations in color within a single shot without risking banding, and also using an 80mm lens to create a 50mm-ish field of view. This is the same principle as a crop sensor to 35mm. This also means that when shooting flat lays, you can have your 80mm lens on camera at about the same height as your 50mm lens on a 35mm sensor. It may sound like a small thing, but for someone who shoots flatly week in, week out, it’s a massive bonus.
More Resolution Does Not help
Having more megapixels means that you can print bigger. And in my world, that’s all it means. Sometimes, my clients like to make monster crops of my work, so I am sure they like this at times, but it’s not really a great selling point for me. I don't pixel-peep and I don't crop my work.
Higher Bit Depth
This, for me, is the moneymaker. I have no idea why camera companies harp on about megapixels, ISO, autofocus points, and a myriad of other measurements that in 2018 are pretty pointless. Any camera on the market has more than enough in terms of ISO performance and megapixels. Yet, bit rate is hidden deep inside the camera specs. The addition of millions of colors a few more bits add to your sensor is unbelievable. The colors from the Phase One back are by far the biggest selling point to me. Grading the raw files in Capture One was a breeze. I tried a few in Lightroom too and it was far easier to create a great color palette than it is with the Canon sensors.
It’s Not Film, but You Will shoot Slower
I used film for a long time, and the sayings are true. Film slows you down. It really does: even when I wasn't paying for my film, I still didn't want to waste the physical medium. For some unexplained reason, the Phase One system makes me feel the same. The only reason I can think of for this strange change of pace when shooting is the value of the camera. People say that medium format cameras are slow studio machines, but I found it pretty easy to use on location too, yet I still worked a lot slower. It wasn't the camera slowing me down, more a change in mindset.
Using a Phase One makes me feel like Johnny big guy. I felt like a “real pro” and I wanted to go out there and create with it. Having such a monster of a camera and knowing it’s the best you can get is very inspiring. It’s a bit like when you first make the leap to full frame, but a lot more expensive. In the time I had it, whenever I didn't have a client nearby, I shot test shoot after test shoot and I created a really cool body of work that I am now showing to art buyers.
The tethering software for Phase One cameras is Capture One. Having tethered into Lightroom for eight years with a mix of frustration and outright anger, moving over to tether software that works seamlessly was very pleasing. Even if I end up going down the Canon 5DS R route, I will still invest in the Capture One Software. Over the time I had the camera, it didn't crash once. Today, I went back to Canon and Lightroom, and within 10 minutes, the tether had failed, files had been lost in transit, and I was closing it down and reopening it. Knowing that there is now another way is very useful.
Clients Do Not Care
During the time having the camera, I shot for a new client. It was a pretty big shoot where the images will more than likely be used worldwide. No one mentioned the camera, image quality, or anything related to having a monster of a camera on set. They talked about the composition, making sure the right elements were in the shot, and that the food looked tasty. I was actually a little bit disappointed that no one noticed my massive camera as I strutted around the studio. But it raised a valid point. Only photographers care about cameras.
What Will I Buy?
I am still undecided. There are very diminishing returns moving into medium format, but when shooting for large prints, especially in the food world, having the resolution, detail, and range of colors at your disposal is very important. It is also a far more future-proof system with the option to separate the body, sensor, lens, and viewfinders. I will more than likely make my purchase at the end of September and I will write an article about whichever way I decide to go.
The bottom line is, whichever camera system I invest in, my photographs won't get any better. I will have a slightly easier time making crops for prints and I might get a better color range, but I will still have the same subject, composition, and lighting that I have always had.
Given the choice, what would you go for?