Self-Assigned Challenge: Shoot with a Medium-Format Camera

On the grayest of Seattle days, one dripping wet with record-setting rain, I set out to find some color with the Phase One IQ3 100MP Trichromatic digital back ($50,000). Shooting with it was sort of like wearing a technicolor dream coat—well, raincoat—or when the Wizard of Oz switches to color from black and white or putting on a pair of those They Live glasses and seeing the aliens among us.

Conditions were soupy when the $50K body showed up.

Ok, there’s NOT neon-faced aliens or shiny lizard people (that science can confirm) lurking in human form, but the point is once you snap a 101 MP picture in glorious colors, you’ll never look at digital photography the same.

I was warned of this potential outcome by a medium format shooter, Joe Towner, who befriended and walked me through the quirks of a Phase One system. He said:

Joe: You know this is a bankruptcy type situation after you shoot with one of those, right?

Me: Why’s that?

Joe: Get out your credit cards ’cause once you try it, it’s addicting and you’ll see the world entirely different.

I was thankful that Phase One sent me the Trichromatic with their kit lens, the Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS f/2.8. It was less the opportunity to shoot with camera gear out of my price range and more to find some color and creative inspiration during, as I said, a record-setting stretch of rain.

Reds, blues and yellows pop on an overcast day at the Ballard Locks.

I was also thankful for my credit card discipline and sent the camera back to Phase One on time without making a purchase or going bankrupt as Joe warned.

If you’re a pro with the budget, then I’d absolutely recommend it for ultra-high-res client work. But maybe this is a midlife crisis purchase too; if so, it’s less than a sports car or visit to a gerontologist for anti-aging supplements. At the least, get yourself to a Phase One workshop to see what I and others have seen.

To that point, the color science that goes into the sensor is complicated to explain. It takes a Ph.D. in color theory to understand it fully, but for brevity, I’ll pull a quote from Phase One’s marketing:

“In the average sensor, the degree of color separation between the wavelengths of blue, green and red light is where the color compromise begins. The color filter array of the Trichromatic sensor, however, is designed to pick up exactly the right wavelength of light that allows us to get the most color nuances in the most natural way possible. This means that we achieve fully saturated colors, and that we can get every shade of blue, green, and red exactly as the scene reveals itself. The uncompromised nature of the color rendering from the sensor in the Trichromatic means that straight out of the camera, the possibilities in the RAW capture and color are wide open.”

Passing that through a marketing filter, what you need to know is in post-production using Phase One’s software, Capture One, you could spend days, even weeks, on one photo pushing and pulling it either into what you saw or another world.

What Sony is best known for, besides disrupting the camera market with mirrorless, is clean files. The Trichromatic files are as clean and twice as big. That also means clone stamping, removing dust, all the normal cleanup tasks are less tedious because the image is billboard wide compared to a poster. No surprise that Capture One 11 works faster with their native, 100 MP files than it does all others.

The backstory and context to this assignment is I identify as a Sony shooter and the Trichromatic is built around a full-frame, medium-format Sony sensor. Given that, the first thing I did was forget everything I know about shooting with a Sony body and all the weight benefits of mirrorless.

Carrying the Trichromatic into North Cascades for a nature shoot was quite the haul. I also steadied it on a monopod and had an umbrella to protect the body.

Looking for a shot in the Okanagons, these skiers passed us and stopped for a photo.
The flowers were just starting to bloom.
This craggy tree, right?

Saturated Colors

Before the camera arrived, my editor said,

“You’re going to want to shoot something with as much saturated orange and pink and fluorescent as you can.”

Sounds good…chew on this wall covered in gum:

Trichromatic at the Gum Wall in Pike Place.

A theater marquee:

Trichromatic downtown Park City looking at the Egyptian Theater.

And, tulip fields:

What I learned about taking photos of tulips is to be the yellow one in rows of red ones.

Oh, a tie-dye shirt vendor too:

Tie-dye vendor at the market.

After a shaky start, once I got into the groove of using the Trichromatic, I compared it to the power band of a cafe racer.

I eventually learned where and how the XF system performed best, like revving a motor through the gear range. The schelunk shutter sound is as loud as a motorbike and it vibrates distinctly through the body to your hand, changing slightly if you shoot continuously. I also learned that the onboard metering was only a guide. Consistently overexposing, at one point, I relied on the Sunny 16 rule to get the shot I was after.

Trichromatic Forest

For this long exposure of a creek, I spent an hour in the rootwell of a tree with silent shutter mode on walking through the settings until I found a combination that worked. Spending that much time taking a picture brings you into the aesthetic of the manufacturer. Medium-format forces you to slow down; it’s not a run-and-gun or spray-and-pray. Before you know it, you’re out of space on the card too.

For the luxury price, you either get this camera or you don’t.

Of the thousands I took, this is my favorite medium-format photo because of the near hyper-realistic moment with this group of teens enjoying a ride around Alki. They didn’t even notice me with a huge camera body, but I saw their care-free expressions.

Youths riding bike shares.

To experience Phase One for yourself, sign up for one of their workshops. Heed Joe’s warning, though, and ease into the medium format by renting first. Here’s another shot I’ve been working on getting for years.

Next up, I’m going to print a handful of the photos with a large format printer.

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