Feedback on my Phase One ‘challenge’

Above: Burnt up, with model Sam Jey.

So, a few weeks ago I posted a long-winded blog entry about how I was embarking on an ‘intense period of creativity’ with a Phase One 645DF and P40+ back, along with lenses and a whole wad of ideas. Nearly at the end of this period with the medium-format system, I’m going to be doing a few things in response to my experiences. I confidently set out wanting to do loads of stuff whilst I have it in my possession, I’ve managed to do most of it. I wanted to shoot 5 self-portrait shoots and 3 shoots with other models. I’ve managed to do 3 significant shoots with myself as model, only one with another model, but I shot a combined total of 10 models at the 2 Production Shoot Experiences. And the big python I shot with can count as a 13th subject! We managed a few interesting locations including Dungeness although we ended up mostly using the 5D there, plus an abandoned laboratory, where as well as self-portraits, I shot a fashion shoot with another model. I also shot at my workshop at the Royal Hippodrome with the camera.

I went into this experience already vaguely aware of the pros and cons of medium format, echoed by articles like this one on PopPhoto. I knew that there would be a substantial quality superiority but paying the price in weight, of course (hypothetically) cost too, compatibility with certain lenses and other accessories, and also speed, even if that’s just down to the weight. The advantages were all down to superiority of quality, but I wanted to know what had to be sacrificed to get it, and how well it fits into my own techniques.

I’m making 3 videos which each highlight a major advantage of shooting with this kit: pin-sharp lens quality, resolution, and superior dynamic range. It is all 3 of those factors, really, that go toward producing what has been described as a ‘3D quality’ to its images.

Above: Double bind. Our first shoot with the camera went magnificently. Shooting in bright sunlight with TritonFlashes, the Phase One made a super job of immortalising me nude with a 9-foot python. The finished images had a depth to them that was even evident at small size. I’ll be talking about resolution and zooming into tiny details in my second video.

The LCD screen was probably our main issue with the P40+, and it’s already been noted by many for its inferior quality compared to that of DSLRs. I found it hard at first to judge whether an image was properly exposed by looking at the back of the camera, and they can look misleadingly noisy. Learning to rely more on reading the histogram representation is one solution! The LCD screen on the new IQ backs is a whole lot better, with a touch-screen capability and so much brighter that apparently a loupe/magnifier isn’t necessary for any situation. Although the interface on the P40+ is fairly easy to use, it takes a bit of getting used to (I’m used to that wheel and those zoom buttons on my 5D) and so I’d like to try out an IQ back.

Next, we shot at sunset at Dungeness, where we didn’t even want to use the Phase One. Time was crucial, we had minutes left before the red sun disappeared behind the crumbly huts, and maybe because at that stage we were not hugely familiar with the equipment to be able to set it up and trust everything was as we wished it (focus, exposure etc). The LCD screen’s low quality knocked my confidence in being able to use the camera and quickly check shots, so we went with my 5D MkII instead. Shooting with the Phase One at the workshop at the Royal Hippodrome in Eastbourne, I had issues with the exposure being too dark, resultant noise in trying to lighten in Raw, and also discovering the focus was not sharp. I started to question whether I was using the camera correctly. I made sure I had it on a sturdy tripod and paid more attention to focusing. It was a bit of a blip for me because the discrepancy between the shots on camera screen and on the computer screen was more significant than all the other occasions on which I shot with the camera. I started to think that the Phase One was much more accustomed to shooting in strong, controlled lighting conditions – the snake shoot for example.

Tethered shooting is something that seems to go hand in hand with medium format, and the photographers that would conventionally shoot with a camera like this would be stationed in a studio hooked up to Capture One. I have never shot tethered and it was my intention to try it out on this challenge. I have not yet tried it simply because of the unsuitable predicaments I’ve been shooting in, outdoor, roaming around large spaces indoors… and the notion of being on the end of a cord to a computer, the thing I’ll be spending days on afterwards anyway, is still somewhat unappealing to me. However, the advantages would be palpable too… ensuring I definitely won’t be disappointed with image quality afterwards, and also, when shooting myself as the model, it would make collaborative work with Matthew a whole lot easier! No more running up (half dressed) to chimp at the camera.

We shot Half-life (above) in the abandoned lab, and this was formed from 3 exposures in Photomatix. With all that detail already in the file, and then doing HDR, you’d certainly expect a lot of detail – which there was in abundance (I’ll be showing some close-ups in the video.) This is a great thing for fine art images that I’d like to blow up huge for exhibition, an aspect covered in my videos.

I shot a host of models at our two Shoot Experiences in London. This was the best opportunity to use the camera, as I had a variety of lighting situations at hand, 10 different models in total from both events, and lots of interesting visuals in terms of props and colour. As opposed to shooting self-portraits or collaborations as above, I enjoyed having full control of shooting another subject.

I realised quickly (or already knew)  that the Phase One certainly has a lot of quality to offer – and, it’s easy to use. But I’ve still got to make sure I take care to use it properly. I can’t just wave it around like a point or shoot, or even in the way I might wave around my 5D. On the Shoot Experiences I used both my cameras, and there were various pictures from not just the Phase One camera but my DSLR also, that were either not pin sharp, or downright blurred, owing to camera shake. I didn’t use a tripod most of the day which made the low-key lit scenes the fuzziest in particular. Taking that into account for my next MC Motors shoot that followed in May, I used a tripod more, which improved shots on the whole, but I realised after discussion with fellow photographers that my low aperture choices can also be an issue – especially for a camera with a larger sensor, attached to a long lens. However, in my first Phase One video, I show how one of my handheld portraits still gave pin-sharp quality.

Downsides to using this dream-camera? Battery life isn’t great – the monster eats up power, and also, of course as you’d expect, the files take more space, longer to process and might not be compatible with certain software you use to look through your images – thankfully though the IIQ files have become compatible with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge since CS5. Waiting for the huge files to show up as previews in order to judge each one can take a little more time, but not that much. My impatience to get that first glimpse of new shots for the first time on the computer makes it seem longer! Although I like using Capture One to batch-process a string of shots from my fashion shoots, I like to only take a handful of images into the program, to make life simple for myself, so I like to sort through them first in CS5 Bridge.

I found that the camera’s performance and quality only really becomes apparent when you put yourself into a great shooting situation – a spectacular one, with good lighting and something beautiful or striking. But that goes without saying – that’s photography itself. When you first get a new camera out of the box and swing it round to take a banal picture of your bookshelf or cat, the impatience to really see its real capabilities is palpable. This kind of camera takes that to an even higher level, where something like a yellow snake and the hottest day of the year are the five-star ingredients necessary to make this kind of kit shine. No-one thinks this camera is any good for all-conditions candid reportage, and it’s not generally the weapon of choice for sports, street or concert photography. It has its place, and generally demands more of a plan. Otherwise the difference from using a DSLR might be insignificant. For me personally, my photography is becoming more ‘planned’ at least logistically, since my earlier days of spontaneous student snapping when the sheer size of the 645DF would have been a completely unnecessary pain (I’d die for its resolution on some of my early images which galleries still ask for though!). I would also invest in several more hard drives and a better computer to maintain an efficient workflow. This gear is like a fine steak – it needs cooking properly and presenting with the right accompaniments, and then you will taste the difference. When you use a camera like this – everything needs to upgrade, including your imagination.

I’ll add the links here as I make the videos.

1/3: detail for fashion portraits (shooting models at MC Motors)

2/3: resolution for fine art (shooting nudes with a python)

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Posted in Essays, musings, Press/sponsors on May 26th, 2011 | 5 Comments |

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Comments for “Feedback on my Phase One ‘challenge’”

    1. Lash LaRue
      9:12 pm on May 26th, 2011

      Thanks for the post; I have been curious about these cameras, and I am delighted that you are sharing you reflections. …. More, more!!!

    2. Paul Bohman
      5:35 am on May 27th, 2011

      Your experiences with medium format are similar to mine when I first started. I have a Hasselblad H3D-39 which I’ve been using with Hasselblad lenses but also with a modified adapter on a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II. Both setups have produced images with spectacular quality, but I almost gave it all up after finding the process very slow and difficult to focus, and in some cases finding it impossible to focus in low light. When I use the digital back with the manual focus Mamiya RZ67 I have to stop down the aperture a few more stops than I would with an autofocus camera simply to take into account the margin of error with focusing. My first sets of photos came back with a lot of photos slightly out of focus. I’ve since gotten better at understanding how to interpret the focusing screen on the camera (plus I had to shim up the focusing screen slightly to match the plane of focus of the digital back). So things have improved, but I still have to be careful.

      I thought the problem would be solved by using Hasselblad’s own autofocus lenses, and to some extent that is true, but the Hasselblad camera requires a lot more light than my Nikon cameras to focus, which means I have to keep my subjects well lit… which may affect the actual photo, depending on the circumstances. In these scenarios I’ve found it easier to use manual focus on the Hasselblad, or else switch to the Mamiya RZ67 and use manual focus there.

      Plus, as you mentioned, the LCD screens on most medium format systems are abominable. I’ve had to become much more skilled in reading the subtle differences in the histogram (which is a very useful skill to have, by the way).

      Battery life is atrocious. I’m always worried if I’ll have enough power to get through a session. Working tethered provides power to the back, so I don’t have to worry as much, but it’s not always an option to work tethered, and it’s extremely inconvenient in some circumstances. On the other hand, I know what I’m getting when I work tethered, with no unpleasant surprises when I transfer the images to the computer.

      In terms of usability, most medium format systems suck. That’s just the way it is. I’ve tried the same camera that you’re using, and I’m not a fan of its usability either. I like the feel of the Hasselblad in my hands better than the Phase One… if the darn things could only focus like Nikons.

      But the photo quality of my Hasselblad and your Phase One… wow. When you take your time and work with the slowness and clunkiness of the systems, they really deliver phenomenal quality.

      Someday the camera usability will catch up. I hope.

    3. Paul Bohman
      5:42 am on May 27th, 2011

      And the other thing is that I have to use more powerful strobes than with my Nikons, especially when using manual focus, to compensate for the fact that I stop down the aperture more. And of course powerful strobes are more expensive than less powerful strobes. It’s interesting how the purchase of an extremely expensive camera necessitates the purchase of other expensive gear. I can’t get by quite as easily as I can with 35mm cameras.

      Is it worth it? I don’t know. But I love basking in the details and color quality of the photos I take with the system, and it pains me to think of using 35mm for my serious work… at least in terms of the outcomes.

    4. Bradford
      7:59 pm on May 29th, 2011

      I really loved reading the detail to this writing. Very astute and interesting observations made here. A long time ago I made a point that one of your strengths is writing. There is excellent communication in your written words.

      I was wondering … have you ever thought about writing creative fictional stories? Narrative drama?

      Good luck on your videos and I look forward to seeing the footage on your youtube channel. You will, unequivocally, get great joy and fulfillment out of filmmaking and video production.

    5. Bernie Greene Photography
      2:46 pm on June 3rd, 2011

      Let’s be honest here. I have read many of your posts and my usual emotional response varies from interest to admiration. This time there is some of that too but in truth they are pretty much overwhelmed by lust for the camera and envy for your having such a thing on loan to “see what it’s like”. I feel like spitting venom in the nicest possible way of course.:-)

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