Phase One 645DF. Image © Adam Woolfitt.
The medium format market looked pretty shaky a couple of years ago with the emergence of ultra-high-resolution digital SLR cameras, and aggressive moves by Hasselblad to monopolise the market. Sinar lost the financial backing of Jenoptic, Contax was shuttered (to the great distress of countless devotees), and Franke & Heidecke went into liquidation, wiping out its new Rollei-based camera platform that formed the linchpin of Leaf’s AFi system and Sinar’s Hy6.
From this sorry mess emerged the marriage of Phase One and Mamiya with, as feisty bridesmaids, Leaf with its brilliant Aptus backs and Schneider-Kreuznach with its superb high-speed leaf-shutter lenses.
The Phase One 645DF embodies the fruits of the first co-operation. The camera body and the lenses that use its focal plane shutter are made by Mamiya, while a growing range of lenses with leaf shutters from Schneider-Kreuznach provide flash synchronisation at unheard of speeds up to 1/1600s.
This whole package has now been honed to work with digital backs from Phase One, Leaf and, refreshingly, Hasselblad too. This means that a studio with legacy systems can now integrate existing gear in a whole variety of ways. The end result is an extremely flexible and competent grouping of systems that provide a complete digital workflow across the professional spectra of fashion, advertising, industrial, social, architecture and still life work.
In the hand, the 645DF is very similar to its Mamiya ancestors. But the engineering feels superior; sleeker and better finished. It is also fully integrated for use with Phase One and Leaf backs, without quite offering the full robotic control of lens correction that the Hasselblad H system delivers. However, it’s a moot point whether extensive controls, such as those offered by the H4D, need to be built in at system level, with the advent of very sophisticated lens correction tools in the latest version of Photoshop (CS5) and Lightroom 3.
The external controls have been simplified and repositioned to make the handling simpler than ever, but delving into the full menu structure the user will find that the gamut of options is comprehensive, not to say daunting. Starting with the handgrip, there is an improved layout on the main control dial to set the exposure methods and access user set custom functions. These controls are governed by two knurled wheels, one at the front of the grip just behind the shutter release button, which falls convenient to the user’s index finger, and the other is on the back edge of the handgrip, convenient to the user’s thumb.
The usual exposure modes – Programme, Aperture Value, Time Value and Manual – can be set directly on the dial, while the X setting locks the shortest exposure to 1/125s or 1/60s when using flash with the camera’s focal plane shutter. The LCD panel will display an “LS” symbol when a Schneider-Kreuznach lens with a Leaf shutter is fitted, allowing speeds up to 1/800s to be used for synchronising electronic flash under high ambient light levels. A very recent firmware tweak to the Leaf Aptus backs even permits synchro at exposure times of 1/1600s – an amazing achievement. The CF position on the dial is used to input and save up to three separate custom set ups for rapid access, locking them into the further positions marked C1, C2 and C3.
Although the new 7312x5474 pixel sensor in the Leaf Aptus II 8 back is less than full frame, it delivers excellent quality even when extended to ISO 800. Image © Adam Woolfitt.
Just forward of the main dial a small push button sets delays for shots where the photographer wishes to join the shot, or it can be used with the optional mirror lock up to allow all vibrations to settle before long exposures. All of the push buttons are rubber covered and pleasant and positive to use.
In a row on the back edge of the handgrip, four more buttons activate a screen backlight for working at low light levels, metering (spot, centre weighted and average), bracketing and multi-shots, and exposure compensation. All these choices are scrolled using one or other of the two knurled wheels. Just above the rear knurled wheel an AE-L button will lock the auto exposure setting when recomposing and refocusing the image, and there is also a menu option available to lock the two knurled dials to prevent accidental changes.
The shutter release button is surrounded by a collar with four click-stop positions: L for Lock, S for Single shot, C for Continuous shooting and M.UP to lock up the mirror. In the centre of the release button is an old-fashioned threaded cable release socket.
Just below shutter release set in the front of the grip sits an infrared lamp, which lights briefly to assist autofocus in very low light levels. It only works over a fairly limited range and the AF mode must be set to single shot, but it will certainly help out in gloomy conditions. Below that again on the right-hand side of the camera front is a stop down button. At the lower left front of the body (and very handy to the forefinger of the user’s left hand) is a focus mode selector with a special profile that enables changes between continuous, single shot or manual to be made by touch alone.
The left-hand face of the body has a sliding lock to free the lenses during changing and two rubber covered sockets one for synching older digital backs and one for synching to studio flashes with a trigger cable.
The AE prism finder is now a permanent part of the magnesium body casting and can no longer be removed. So no chimney or 45° hoods then – a pain if the camera is ever used on a vertical copy stand.
On the rear of the prism finder by the ocular is a small switch that toggles an internal shutter to prevent stray light upsetting auto exposures if the eye is away from the ocular. On the left-hand side a dioptre control enables spectacle wearers and others to fine-tune their image of the focusing screen. A hotshoe is fitted towards the rear that will synch most small on camera flashes or house radio or IR triggers to fire studio units. With the right combination of Metz flashguns and control modules, full ETTL control is also possible.
By and large the Phase One 645DF is a very satisfactory package with an excellent range of top-class lenses, among them the Schneider-Kreuznach optics that can provide flash synchro at 1/800s and with a firmware tweak recently implemented in Leaf backs a truly phenomenal 1/1600s.
The only fly in this nice pot of ointment is the quirky battery compartment, something I picked on the last time I reviewed a Mamiya 645 camera. Housed in the handgrip, the cartridge requires six AA batteries or their rechargeable equivalents. But the fiddly system to reload them and a not very extended life when shooting is really dumb. I am sorry that neither Phase nor Mamiya have designed and sourced a dedicated, rechargeable one-piece battery pack. Japan is stuffed with battery makers who could oblige.
Back to the future
Peartree Rental spoiled me by lending me two different Leaf backs and five lenses to try with its 645 DF.
The sensor in the 54 megapixel Aptus II 10 measures 56×36mm and covers the full width of the 6×4.5 format and captures a huge 9334×6000 pixel file size. An eight-bit RGB TIFF is 172 MB, and the back can capture one per second. The Aptus II 8, with its 40 megapixel resolution, is a more recent introduction, which doesn’t quite capture full frame, but can shoot a burst of 60 images at 0.8fps. It delivers a 120 MB eight-bit TIFF, which is substantially smaller than the Aptus II 10, but not enough to explain the huge price difference between the two backs; £22,723 for the larger model compared to £12,722 for the Aptus II 8 (while the difference is startling, this doesn’t take into account that the backs are often sold in bundles – see panel below).
Cameras and backs like the Leaf Aptus II 8 are very often tested under studio conditions with flash. To test the real world performance of the Phase One 645DF, I shot this simple location portrait handheld at the relatively high ISO setting of 400. The 80mm f/2.8 Schneider Kreuznach lens performs quite beautifully, and the smooth mirror action presents no problems when shooting handheld. Neither noise nor grain at ISO 400 is evident, even at 100% enlargement. Image © Adam Woolfitt.
I am a fan of the design and image quality of Leaf’s Aptus backs, and with each iteration they seem to get better. This is because the sensors get better and the internal processing gets slicker, and sometimes because the physical design is modified like the very latest Aptus II 10R (not reviewed here) that has an internal mechanism to rotate the 560×36mm sensor within the back from vertical to horizontal without removing it from the camera.
The Aptus backs are all powered by standard video batteries that slide in underneath, and although the batteries are widely available (in different capacities) and last pretty well, a sensible photographer would carry several spares plus a 240v and 12v DC charger.
But what I like most about the design of the Aptus back is its very generous touch screen on which to set up shooting functions and preview the captures. It is actually sharp enough when in magnified view, to tell you something meaningful about the image. Except for turning it on, which you do with a small button on the top edge of the back, the four icons on the LCD touch screen provide the entry point to all the nested menus which govern everything to do with the back and its functions.
Putting on the stylus
It takes around 10 seconds for the back to boot up before the orange warning light turns to green and the menu icons become visible on screen. For those who bite their nails down to the quick there is a dinky little stylus stored in the top of the back for navigating and inputting commands on the touch screen. The menus are straightforward and logical but that does not imply that they are simple or skimpy. They are extensive, with sophisticated facilities like an on-screen keypad that enables naming the job, naming the photographer, naming folders and so forth.
ISO can be selected from 80 to 800, and there is a DIY system for creating white balance in a specific lighting situation as well as the usual standard presets.
I had the use of Mamiya’s excellent 28mm wide-angle, a Schneider-Kreuznach 55mm and 80mm f/2.8 standard with its remarkable Leaf shutter that can sync at 1/800s with flash. In addition, I had a manual focus Mamiya 120mm f/4 Macro that is sharp enough to shave with.
My time with the system was most enjoyable and I started to use it more and more as if it were a DSLR. This is certainly not how most buyers would treat it, but if medium format makers want to convince me that their cameras are better than a DSLR, then that’s what I should test them against.
Of course, there is really no comparison because we all know they are different. A medium format camera is most at home on a tripod in a studio, but they are gradually getting more flexible, with zooms, higher ISO settings and gradual additions to the optical armoury. And they certainly can deliver exceptionally large images, especially from the latest generation coming to market with 50 megapixels and more.
Many photographers looking at building a medium format digital system will start from a legacy films camera, and one of the virtues of the Phase One is that it is built around the Mamiya platform and works extremely well. It is simple and robust and not actually very expensive. The camera body with a Schneider-Kreuznach 80mm f/2.8 lists at £4752 +VAT, and packages that include a digital back will reduce that price further.
There is a good choice of excellent Mamiya lenses, including a 75mm-150mm zoom, and the 55mm, 80mm and 110mm Schneider-Kreuznach leaf-shutter lenses.
And besides Leaf, the 645DF is also compatible with Phase One and Hasselblad digital backs, and those backs in turn are compatible across an extensive range of specialised camera platforms, some dedicated to architecture or studio product work.
The 645DF package coupled with an Aptus II 8 or an equivalent “entry level” Phase back (like the P40+) makes a highly versatile and very competent system that is not ruinously expensive, and has the distinct advantage that the digital back itself can be detached and used on a huge variety of more specialised cameras. Versatility rules.
Leaf Aptus II 10 (56 megapixel)
Camera body only: £22,723
Peartree bundle: £25,450
Includes: Phase One 645 DF camera body; F2.8/80mm Schneider-Kreuznach LS lens; plus two additional lenses from entire range inc. Schneider-Kreuznach lenses
Leaf Aptus II 8 (40 megapixel)
Camera body only: £12,722
Peartree bundle: £15,450
Includes: Phase One 645 DF camera body; F2.8/80mm Schneider-Kreuznach LS lens; plus one additional lens from entire range inc. Schneider-Kreuznach lenses
These prices exclude VAT and are correct as of June 2010.
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