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Hands-On Review: Phase One IQ3 100MP Achromatic

Icebergs, Ilulissat, Greenland, shot with the Phase One IQ3 100MP Achromatic. Photos by Paul Reiffer

There’s something to be said for the relentless pursuit of perfection, the desire to eke out every drop of potential from something. It’s what drives companies like Ferrari, it’s how the airplane was born, it’s why we’ve been to the moon and back.

But the pursuit of perfection is a slippery slope; it’s the drive for an unobtainable goal that drives some artists mad. There’s a fine line to be walked between improving something to create the best possible result and improving something because you’re unable to settle for great when perfect is always right around the corner.

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Phase One’s IQ3 100MP Achromatic medium-format back walks a very fine line between those two worlds. The world’s first 100-plus megapixel digital back that only captures monochrome images will, for many, be well on the other side of that line.

The Phase One IQ3 100MP Achromatic back looks, and operates, like the company’s other backs, and that’s a good thing. The user interface and operation are some of the best in the medium-format arena.

The $50,000 price tag alone is enough to make the purchase seem like sheer lunacy for the overwhelming majority of users. It’s a 100-megapixel back that captures no colors, after all. That makes it a pretty specific tool, considering that most photographers simply make black-and-white images by desaturating the color images from their traditional bodies.

For others, though, including landscape, architecture and portrait photographers, there’s a level of detail and quality possible (at least theoretically possible) in a monochrome-only sensor that eclipses that of a sensor that captures color images. If that difference is enough to set a photographer apart and allow them to land a contract with a high-end commercial architecture or construction company, or to get a place in a museum show, the price tag is trivial compared to the opportunity it affords.

Don’t Judge A Sensor By Its Colors

All digital cameras, with the exception of those based around a sensor like the one from Foveon, are monochrome. The color output we get from digital cameras is simply an optical trick, created by the use of filters and mathematics.

Digital sensors are, actually, analog. The digital part of digital photography comes after the sensor has reacted to incoming light, creating an electrical charge at each pixel that’s then converted to a digital value. There are no red-, green- or blue-sensitive pixels on a digital imaging sensor; each pixel simply records the incoming light.

To create a color image, a filter is placed over the sensor, usually in a pattern called a Bayer pattern (after its creator), which places either a red, green or blue filter over each individual pixel.

When light is recorded by the sensor, each pixel is reacting only to that filtered wavelength, not all of the wavelengths, and then a bit of math is done to determine, based on neighboring pixel values and other sensor data, what the other two colors would probably have been, had each pixel recorded all three values.

This is an inherently messy process, and it’s why early digital images had poor color accuracy. The use of improved image processors, combined with better algorithms and higher-resolution sensors, has helped this tremendously. (Since the processor is picking two of the color values based on neighboring pixels, the more pixels nearby, the more accurate the guess. Higher-resolution sensors provide more data for that guess.)

Because of this interpolation of incoming light, digital cameras lose a good amount of resolution. When you take a color file from a digital camera and convert it to monochrome, you’re doing so based on the recorded color values, but anyone who has shot with black-and-white film knows that even slightly different shades of a color can result in different tones on monochrome film. What a camera thinks might be close enough to look like a single color of red on a fall leaf might, to monochrome film, look like a palette of different grays.

Start with a monochrome sensor, add color filters and mathematics, then remove the color, and you end up with a monochrome representation of the world that’s at least two steps removed from the original subject. You also end up with an image that’s less sharp than if you were capturing a monochrome image on the same sensor. Since each pixel is guessing some of the values, many objects—and especially edges where color changes quickly—can appear soft.

Just as a filter placed in front of a lens can reduce the amount of light that enters the camera, a filter on front of the sensor reduces light reception, too, decreasing sensitivity. A monochrome sensor has a higher ISO than a color version of the same sensor, all else being equal.

There are some other imaging benefits to starting with a monochrome sensor for black-and-white work, as well, most notably, the lack of an infrared cutoff filter. Imaging sensors can record infrared (and UV) that’s imperceptible to the human eye, so the filters on color sensors have a filter that cuts off frequencies in the IR spectrum. In monochrome photography, the IR spectrum can be beneficial, especially when capturing natural objects, like plants and flowers, and is beneficial in architecture photography, as well. The IQ3 100MP Achromatic lacks a cutoff filter, and a simple on-lens filter can cut off the IR range when it’s not desired.

The back is designed to be as free of filter-based distortions as possible, which means that the monochrome images from the camera are full of more detail and more tonality than a color image converted to black-and-white.

Handle With Care

The price tag of the back makes for interesting product testing. While I didn’t baby the camera, I did take it out with a good amount of protective camera bag padding. That said, I’ve used the Phase One camera system in the field before, and it always has worked well, even if it’s not used with kid gloves.

The operation of the back is, as one would expect from a product at this price point, nearly flawless. The back and the body integrate seamlessly, and there’s very little negative to report about its operation. I’ve tested all of the various medium-format systems, and the Phase One bodies and backs have the best operation, interface and integration. The Achromatic back doesn’t change that.

For a longer look at our thoughts about the Phase One system, and the comparison of it to other cameras, see our longer review at digitalphotopro.com/gear/cameras/redawning-of-the-age-of-medium-format/.

Focusing with an IR cut filter on the front of the lens is exactly the same as it would be with any other system, since it’s eliminating non-visible light from the incoming light. You can use the Live View mode or the viewfinder to compose the scene when shooting traditional monochrome.

You can see images on the LCD screen when focusing on subjects that include IR wavelengths, but you can’t judge focus by them. There’s a focus offset that you’ll need to dial in to capture IR light, even if you’re shooting at ƒ/22. It takes some practice to dial in an IR scene, but the ability to review your images on the LCD screen eliminates that depressing feeling of getting home and having a completely out-of-focus image.

Is It For You?

If you’ve gotten this far, have $50,000 in your bank account, and are thinking about the possibility of using a camera like this for your next Esquire cover or for your show at the Guggenheim, this digital back is for you. (It will also help if you have the Phase One camera system and lenses already, because they’re not part of that $50,000 price tag.)

That leaves a lot of photographers for whom this camera would seem to be a bad fit, but I’d encourage the commercial shooter working on a monochrome shoot to look and see if your local rental houses have them available. They may be hard to find for quite a while as they get into the market, but it would be worth it to look into renting the Phase One IQ3 100MP Achromatic for a shoot.

For everyone else, it’s a good look at why you might not be getting the quality you’re expecting when shooting images for monochrome output from your color camera, and it’s important to know why a technology like this exists. There are very few camera companies willing to strip back the traditional features of a camera in order to create an image that’s better than anything else on the market, and for that, at least, Phase One should be commended.

To see more of Paul Reiffer’s photography, visit his website at paulreiffer.com

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