Review: Phase One 645DF
By Stan Sholik
Since the introduction of the Phase One camera in 2009, the company has promised us leaf shutter lenses so that we can sync our strobes at shutter speeds higher than 1/125 sec. Their follow-up announcement later last year of a strategic alliance with famed optics manufacturer Schneider Kreuznach confirmed that the promised lenses would be soon forthcoming.
The new lenses are now here or on their way and along with them is a new camera body, the Phase One DF. Apparently the Phase One/Mamiya/Schneider group decided that the venerable Mamiya 645 body needed an update to efficiently incorporate the latest technology, and so the Phase One 645DF and its sister camera, the Mamiya 645DF, were born. While the two bodies are identical in nearly every way, the Phase One version is the one to have if you are a Phase One P40+ or P60+ user, as we shall see.
While the Phase One 645DF (DF) offers significant improvements over any previous 645 generation, one major loss is the inability to mount a film back on the camera. It’s always good to have a backup camera around anyway, so that could be any older Mamiya 645 body that would also take a film backs. Unfortunately, you couldn’t use the new leaf shutter lenses with this body.
While compatibility with film backs is lost, compatibility in other areas is improved. Unlike the latest Hasselblad cameras, the Phase One 645DF remains an open platform. This means that should there be a problem with the DF body, you can send it off for service and use your backup body or a rental until it returns. It also means that you can mount any Phase One or Leaf digital back that is compatible with a Mamiya body on the DF. As an aside, because Leaf is now a Phase One company, you can even use Capture One software with the Leaf backs.
At first glance the Phase One 645DF looks identical to the previous Phase One 645 body, but numerous changes have been made, some of them significant for professional photographers. ©Stan Sholik
The Phase One, Medium-format, Mamiya, Leaf lens (left) is appreciably larger than the non-leaf shutter Phase One 80mm f/2.8 (right). Filter diameter of the LS lens is larger also. ©Stan Sholik
While there are numerous little improvements in the DF, the most significant is the ability to use the new line of leaf shutter lenses. I was able to test the Schneider LS 80mm f/2.8. Soon this lens will be joined by the LS 55mm f/2.8 and the LS 110mm f/2.8. The 55mm and 80mm lenses are new optical designs over the existing Phase One lenses, upgraded to the requirements of digital imaging according to Phase One. The 110mm is a new addition to the Phase One lens line. Optical performance of the LS 80mm is excellent, although I could see no difference between images shot with it and those shot with the non-LS 80mm.
Changing lenses from a focal plane shutter lens to a leaf shutter lens is entirely transparent to the user. The DF body automatically senses the lens type. The focal plane shutter controls shutter speeds from 60 minutes to 1.3 seconds (including Bulb and Time) and from 1/1,000 to 1/4,000 second. From one second to 1/800 second the leaf shutter is in control. All of this is automatic, with LS or FS displayed on the LCD as appropriate. There are custom functions to permanently assign the shutter to either the focal plane or the leaf shutter.
The LCD screen on the grip presents a lot of information in a small space.
The LS symbol below the 125 shutter speed indicates that the leaf shutter
lens will control the exposure time. ©Stan Sholik
All of the LS lenses offer a flash sync speed of 1/800 sec. And with the latest Phase One P40+ or P60+ backs, or a previous version of these backs that Phase One has upgraded, the sync speed is lowered to 1/1,600 sec. That is, if your flash system can deliver it.
It turns out that mine couldn’t, at least not without some effort. Achieving shallow depth of field when shooting outdoors in sunlight seemed the most obvious use of the high sync speeds, and for this most of us will be using a wireless radio trigger. My first disappointment came while trying the 1/800 sync with my Elinchrom Skyport. There is no way that the Skyport can send a sync signal faster than about 1/400 sec. Frames at 1/640 and 1/800 were totally blank.
I was similarly disappointed with my PocketWizard MultiMAX until I dug through the manual and found Fast Mode. Using this setting, I was able to reliably shoot at 1/800 with the DF camera and LS lens. Phase One indicated that the Profoto Air trigger would also work at 1/800 sec. Through the magic of electronics and sensor technology, any flash trigger that works reliably at 1/800 sec. will also work at 1/1,600 sec.
Above Left: I wanted a dark background with the model brightly lit. Without the flash, the background exposure was 1/800 sec at f/8 at ISO 50.
Above Right: Using a PocketWizard MultiMAX in Fast Mode as a wireless trigger for my Nikon SB-900 zoomed to 105mm I was able to light the model’s face and let the rest fall off to the ambient exposure. Model: Amelia Lotus. ©Stan Sholik
Even connecting the camera to the flash by a sync cord doesn’t guarantee success. Sure, you’ll get an image, but unless the full flash duration is shorter than 1/800 sec., exposure and color balance will definitely suffer. Again, the latest Profoto equipment, and I imagine some others, will not disappoint. Other flash units, including those I own, will. So before you count on those high shutter speeds, test your equipment. Meantime, Phase One is working on their own solution to high speed sync. Stay tuned.
Other changes abound. If you have shot with Mamiya 645 cameras, you will notice significantly improved autofocus speed with the DF. You will also notice significant changes to the Exposure Mode Dial. You can now program three Custom settings with any logical combination of custom functions. The custom function list has been trimmed to 19 on the DF and here’s where P40+ and P60+ users with the latest firmware update have the advantage. You can use these backs to set the custom functions! Full names of the functions are displayed on the backs rather than the cryptic abbreviations on the camera’s LCD.
One of the significant changes to the Exposure Mode dial is the ability
to program and instantly call up three Custom settings with a combination
of the 19 Custom functions. Here, Custom setting C3 for User A is
programmed with a flash sync of 1/100 sec at f/11 with central area
autofocusing and average/spot autoexposure metering. The battery
icon indicates a full charge. ©Stan Sholik
One change to the Exposure Mode Dial that I’m not happy about is the removal of the lock from the center. It seems too easy now to move the dial in the heat of the moment off of the Custom setting you so painstakingly programmed, and with possibly disastrous results.
For studio shooters, Live View is significantly improved both in setting it up on the camera and in the Capture One software. Of particular interest to me is the availability finally of Live View for Windows. Just be careful to follow the directions for using Live View with the DF body and P40+ or P60+ backs. While it is much easier, it has changed.
If I had had an assistant or stylist it would have been easy to compose this flower still life while looking through the viewfinder. But since I was working alone, I arranged them myself while watching the monitor using the Live View mode with the DF camera, 120mm f/4 Phase One macro lens and Capture One PRO v5.1. ©Stan Sholik
Live View is now available for Windows, as shown above. The interface on both Mac and Windows is identical, but has changed from the earlier Mac-only interface. A big change is the ability to zoom into the main preview window to check focus rather than in a smaller separate focus window. The quality of the preview also looked better than I remembered. ©Stan Sholik
Capture One software continues to improve, with more tools and setting to fine tune your image. ©Stan Sholik
One of the subtler improvements in the DF is useful when you need to eliminate as much vibration as possible, as here in this close-up of a lupine. The DF allows you to use the self-timer as an exposure delay tool. With the release dial in the Mirror Up position, you can set the self timer to delay the exposure from 0.5 seconds to 60 minutes from the time you release the shutter. I used a 5 second delay for this 1/20 sec exposure at f/11 and ISO 50 that I chose in order to underexpose the background. I used an off-camera flash to light the flower, so I needed the time to get the flash in position as well as to eliminate vibration. Now, how about a leaf shutter macro lens to eliminate vibration further!
The Phase One DF camera provides professional photographers with an open platform that can now meet all of their needs in a medium format digital system, including the ability to flash sync at high shutter speeds. MSRP for the DF Camera (body only) is $5,990 and the Schneider LS 80mm f/2.8 lens is $2,490. When they become available, MSRP of the Schneider LS 55mm f/2.8 lens will be $3,490 and the Schneider LS 110mm f/2.8 lens will be $3,990. More information is available on the Phase One website, www.phaseone.com.