Six Things I Learned Shooting With High-End Photo Gear

Six Things I Learned Shooting With High-End Photo Gear

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.  

It's Inspiring 

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. 

Capture One

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?

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61 Comments

Johnny Rico's picture

This pretty much echo's my experience. The IIQ files from a Phase1 are just more robust, it doesn't make sense until you work on them first hand.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes, in post it was a breeze!

Gerald williams's picture

Hey as a pro of over 40 years in the business, I understand your reason for wanting the ultimate resolution and megapixels of medium format. For me personally who shoots in both the studio and on the street, events, sports, fashion, editorial and photojournalism both in stills and video, medium format gear is too slow and cumbersome for my needs. I shoot with the best 42 megapixel A7RIII and G-Master and Sigma Art lenses and can get superb quality and detail resolution and colors. No knock on your needs, just not for me personally and what I shoot for my clients, including food. Never had a client say they wished I had shot on a medium format camera. Cheers

Eric Salas's picture

The newest sigma lenses are flat out amazing and so is the A7Riii. I jumped to mirrorless 4 years ago and while it was painful, now I know I made the best decision. Just took a bit to get the lenses without adapters.

Scott Choucino's picture

I have some of the Sigma Art gear and it is amazing!

There things in here I would disagree with and things that I think don’t make sense (and a typo in the blurb and first paragraph). But, I remember the first time I used a Hasselblad and got the same crappy results as always. That was the eye opener for me. It truly drove home the point that it wasn’t the gear. Now I shoot with a Hasselblad (which is a viable alternative to the P1 btw) and canon gear (and Sony gear). Clients may not notice - but the first pharmaceutical I shot at 3 of 4 executives were photo nuts and all shot MFD - it was a given that I would too. So, your mileage may vary.

Yes the reviewer seems to lack some basic knowledge. The blurb about the 80mm lens? How exactly does he benefit over a 50mm for a 35mm? Perspective the same, distortion the same, compression the same. It seems he doesn't understand perspective very well.

Also his blurb about bit depth? Bit depth is not for color, but for dynamic range. Just check out some articles if you don't understand it, but a 35mm camera with the same MP count would have done the same job equally well

Gordon Cahill's picture

Bit depth most certainly does affect colour (and in some cases dynamic range). An increase in bit depth increases the number od descrite colour points available. The most obvious visual effect is in the smoothness of colour transitions.

Gordon

Scott Choucino's picture

The distortion from 50mm optics to 80mm optics are very different. As is the compression. Kind of like using the Breznier (might be wrong name) style. You get the lens you are using distortion and compression, but a field of view that is larger due to the bigger sensor size you have created.

Sorry but that is just wrong knowledge about physics/ optics:

Fstoppers has a nice video explaining it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TTXY1Se0eg

Leon Kolenda's picture

If your keeping your Canon System, then just go for the Phase-One, Why not, you like it, that's clear form this blog.

However, if your getting rid of the Canon system, and only want one system, I would op for the Nikon D850, and here is why. First, It's a very good sensor, it has the resolution if you need it, I have one so I'm a little biased. I bought the D850 for a few reasons, I like to crop, I'm thinking about cropping, when I'm composing a shot, just because it's easier.

Because of it's higher resolution, I usually have more than enough pixels to print large, I have not been disappointed yet. Another reason is I like the choice of lens's there are for the FF Nikon mount, with many second party lens's that are even better then some of Nikon's, plus the added value in savings.

Plus the fact, that the D850 offers so many features,( I know, you shoot studio work only) that it offers me a comfort knowing I have many features to explore for creativity as well as convenience, for quite a few years.

I did not know, or purchase the D850 for it's dynamic range, (Well maybe some what) or color science, (and that subject can be very subjective.) But for me, coming from Canon Crop sensor and a One other Mfg. and moving up to FF, It was pretty clear I could see the difference, especially in the colors. That and the cropping, locked me in for a long time, unless this D850 starts to have too many problems.

I have this feeling that the Phase-One's back, is even better than the D850's sensor, so that alone makes it a tougher choice to make, However, I know this kind of fly's in the face of what I'm saying here, but, Do you think your clients could actually see the difference in dynamic Range and Color in one from the other? I have my serious doubts that they couldn't.

Then there is the flexibility of the D850, some what in size, Lens's, and Accessories, that's hard to beat, even if your a Studio Photographer. One last thing, PRICE, Although that might not be a consideration for you.

Good Luck with your choice!

Eric Salas's picture

Or you could just buy a Sony A7riii because that sensor isn’t the toned down version that you find in the 850.
Yes, the software controlling it is different but functionality and ease of use is far beyond what you get from the Nikon. That’s opinion blah blah blah but I’m not paying for a Ferrari with a Honda engine when I can just buy a Ferrari with the engine it’s suppose to come with.

Marc Perino's picture

What do you mean with "toned down version" ? 🤔

Apart that we are shooting with the D850 I edit a lot of files from many different brands. I would not say that the Sony A7R3 files are any better than from the D850. It is a Sony-produced sensor anyway.
From my experience the files are one of the best RAW files that I ever encountered. We used to shoot film posters with Phase One systems. Now we do it with the D850.

So maybe you can shed some light why you came to this conclusion. I would really like to know.

Eric Salas's picture

That's not my opinion, that's straight from Kenji Tanaka that stated they do not sell their exact sensors to their competitors to use and alter them so they cannot perform at the same level.

Sony doesn't 'alter' the sensors just so they don't perform as good as the ones they put in their gear.
Other camera brands that use Sony-made sensors (such as Nikon) still design their own sensors. Nikon has an entire department that designs, creates, and does R&D to the sensor, then let Sony do the mass producing of the sensor, since they have t
he factories and the means.
The sensors Sony manufacture are to Nikon's design and specs. Not just an a7rii sensor/etc or other 'off the Sony shelf' sensor that's just not able to perform as well.

If you look at many big name electronics brands (Apple, Samsung, LG, etc) they will have tons of parts that come from other rival companies (apple has parts that Samsung makes. Samsung has parts that LG makes, etc). It's just how it works.

Eric Salas's picture

Say what you want but those aren’t my words. That’s straight from the Sony GM.

Leon Kolenda's picture

I believe Scott likes the size of a Medium F camera, with the Nikon's size not being to far behind the Phase One. I'm pretty sure he would be disappointed in the sony FF, from the color science, and the toy like size.

Scott Choucino's picture

I don't feel like I could move brand to another 35mm system as the loss would be too high in selling all of my Canon kit. But moving to the phase would make a lot more sense in that way.

Hasselblad X1D ?
Leaf shutters for more flexible flash sync.
Each sensor is individually calibrated.
See e.g.
https://blog.mingthein.com/2018/01/31/long-term-review-the-hasselblad-x1d/

Marius Pettersen's picture

Leaf shutter lenses are also available for Phase One - and a ton of other lenses.

Scott Choucino's picture

I've tried the Hasselblad systems in the past, I'm leaning towards Phase One due to the support I can have in my area.

Lars Daniel Terkelsen's picture

Don´t forget to check out the Fuji GFX system. I think you will find the tilting viewfinder insanely practical for much studio work.

The Fuji GFX system however doesn't work with capture one, which is probably more important

Scott Choucino's picture

I've had a play, but it wasn't really right for me.

Hold onto your Canon kit as backup. I made the jump and sold my kit to move to shooting with Phase One gear. I took a trip to South Australia and later Palo Duro canyon, TX this summer and loved how well the system just handled what I threw at it. Yes it will be expensive, but it will be worthwhile for your work and yourself at the end of the day.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks for the advice.

George Jerkovich's picture

I own a Phase IIQ system, a full Canon system, and the Fuji GFX 50s. All are great in their own way. The Phase is more for the studio where light can be controlled. For a quickly evolving situation the Canon is best. My favorite of the three is the Fuji GFX 50s since I mainly shoot landscape. It’s performance in low light and being weather sealed are major advantages. But, it’s the photographer’s artistic vision that is most important. We are the artist, and the cameras are merely tools.

Scott Choucino's picture

That gives me such camera envy! haha
The Canon is most certainly the most adaptable system.

Mark James's picture

As a M4/3's shooter, I have learned one thing from people on these websites. Smaller sensors are no good, so just buy it and be the best photographer ever.

Perfect comment! Just the right amount of sarcasm to make readers wonder. :-)

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