What it’s like shooting with a camera that costs as much as a Tesla

October 30, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments

Imagine you’re scrambling down a steep canyon in Utah, tripod balanced across your shoulder, to shoot one of those nice photos of layered sandstone. Now imagine the camera gear in your backpack is worth almost $100,000. Better not slip.

I experienced that anxiety this summer while testing the 151-megapixel Phase One XT Camera System. It costs as much as a high-end Tesla when lenses are included. I loved the camera, but boy was I nervous about dropping it on the sandstone.

Some people like street photography. Some people like taking portraits of pets and kids. I like nature and landscapes, which is why I was so excited about the Phase One XT. It’s great if you want to follow in the footsteps of famed American wilderness photographer Ansel Adams — and if you have 10 times the budget of a premium camera from Canon, Sony or Nikon.

The Phase One XT has a giant IQ4 image sensor geared for equally giant photos. It’s a digital member of the medium format camera family, the type Apollo astronauts used in the film era and that now use image sensors 2.5 times larger than those in conventional high-end cameras. It’s smaller than other medium-format models, including Phase One’s studio-oriented XF cameras, so it isn’t as hard to haul around the wilderness. It’s not simple or fast to use, even if you’re a photo expert, and it’s eye-wateringly expensive. The Phase One XT shows there’s room for a super high-end class of camera, even if most folks are happy shooting with smartphones.

The Phase One XT camera and IQ4 back in a canyon near Kenab, Utah

Stephen Shankland/CNET

For more than a month this summer, I tested the Phase One XT on a road trip around the American southwest, camping and hiking and otherwise steering clear of humans during the coronavirus pandemic. I shot before dawn, after sunset, in parched canyons and in mountain forests. The Phase One XT isn’t for everyone, but if you put in the effort, the camera delivers exceptional image quality.

The photos I got have spectacular detail and rich color. They’re also marvelous for editing because of their extraordinary 14,204×10,652-pixel resolution. Over and over, I’d zoom in to see details like pebbles and grainy sandstone that transported me back to the place I took the photo. The shots, which allow for fine-tuning color and exposure, cry out to be seen as lavishly large prints.

Big price, big sensor, big posters

The camera costs $58,990, including a 70mm lens made by Phase One partner Rodenstock. If you want the 23mm, 32mm or 50mm lenses, expect to pony up another $11,990 each. A newer 90mm Rodenstock lens for more distant subjects is $13,000 (and another telephoto lens with a longer focal length is on the way, too). The kit I tried, with the camera and four lenses, had a total price tag of about $95,000.

That’s a lot more money than the vast majority of photographers will shell out, of course. But sometimes people spend big on their passions, whether it’s cars, clothes, travel or home entertainment systems. And professional photographers have their own calculations when it comes to factors like image quality, hourly billing rates and staying competitive.

Cameras from mainstream manufacturers accommodate poster prints. The Phase One XT lets you go even bigger.

Kitchen Mesa at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, photographed with the Phase One XT camera system. Download the full-resolution JPEG for a closer look.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

At conventional high-quality printing settings, you can make a poster about 6 feet wide. One professional printer, Robert Bullivant of Bullivant Gallery and Consulting, told me he routinely prints 10-foot-wide prints from 151-megapixel Phase One cameras. (The XT and XF camera bodies both can use the IQ4 image sensor back.)

The XT camera system stands out in another way, too: a lens shift feature that lets you twist a knob to glide the lens up, down, left or right along the front of the camera. This changes how light travels through the camera, reducing distortion when you want to capture scenes like tall trees or deep canyons since you don’t have to to point the camera itself up or down as much. That’s possible with specialty lenses on conventional cameras, but it’s built into the Phase One XT and works with any lens.

Channeling Ansel Adams

To get more out of the XT, I had to learn to blend modern mirrorless camera technology with old-school manual photography methods.

The Phase One XT camera system captures subtle colors as well as fine details. To pixel peep a little, download the full-resolution JPEG. Be warned, it’s a 38MB file — still a lot smaller than the original raw photo at 221MB.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Phase One XT camera system offers good dynamic range for challenging lighting, as shown in this predawn photo shot in Dual Exposure+ mode for abundant shadow detail. Click the photo to enlarge to a 4K version or download the full 151-megapixel JPEG.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Because it hasn’t got autofocus or autoexposure, the Phase One is a lot more work to use than a modern Canon DSLR or mirrorless Sony.

This isn’t a run-and-gun camera. It’s best to adopt the mindset of Ansel Adams or some other old-school film photographer when using the Phase One XT.

These are the steps I took when using the camera: 1. Set up the tripod. 2. Pull the camera out of the backpack and turn it on, because it takes about a half minute to boot up. 3. Mount the camera to the tripod and change lenses if necessary. 4. Compose the shot and straighten the horizon with the camera’s built-in leveling tool. 5. Set focus with the camera’s focus peaking tool, which highlights the scene elements that are in focus. 6. Set exposure using brightness data shown in the live histogram. 7. Shoot.

The effort and pace are suited to a contemplative, deliberate style of photography. It works well for trees and mountains and canyons and clouds. If you photograph twitchy birds and fidgety children, forget it.

Could be easier to use

The measured pace of using the XT comes at a price. It’s a lot easier to try different shots when your camera has autofocus, autoexposure and a zoom lens.

The XT’s button controls and touchscreen also aren’t as ergonomic or fast to use as conventional high-end cameras’ dedicated adjustment knobs and dials. There’s one shutter release button plus four buttons on the camera’s back with different jobs depending on what mode you’re in. I can’t stress this enough: You’ll have to read the 135-page manual.

This is a mirrorless camera, which means there’s no DSLR-style mirror to reflect light through the lens into a viewfinder to compose your shot. Instead the light goes straight to the Sony-built image sensor and then to the screen on the back of the camera.

Skull-like formations at Devil’s Garden in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, photographed with the Phase One XT camera and IQ4 sensor back

Stephen Shankland/CNET

That brings advantages like allowing for a relatively compact design and enabling focus peaking. Unfortunately, though, sometimes I had to squint hard or shade the camera with my hat to see the screen in bright sunlight. As with other mirrorless cameras, using the screen all the time drains batteries rapidly. Happily, the camera’s USB-C port lets you plug in the same portable batteries already available to charge phones and laptops.

Editing such large photos is a challenge. The 151-megapixel shots brought Adobe’s Lightroom to its knees on my MacBook Pro, a 4-year-old formerly top-of-the-line model. Phase One’s own Capture One software, although not as easy to use in my opinion, is much more capable. Unlike Lightroom, it automatically corrects lens problems and can handle Phase One’s compressed file formats.

Scratching the surface

The Phase One XT and its IQ4 sensor module, which houses most of the camera’s processing brains, has got some useful tricks up its sleeve.

Phase One photos’ broad dynamic range lets you recover lots of detail in dark areas, especially when shooting in Dual Exposure+ mode. Left and right here show one photo before and after editing.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Dual Exposure+ fuses one photo with another taken at a much slower shutter speed to capture much more shadow detail, dramatically reducing image noise and improving color for challenging lighting conditions. Frame Averaging blends many individual frames into a single shot, good for blurring water and clouds and reducing noise during long exposures.

Those are computational photography tricks more common on clever smartphones. I like them, and Phase One gradually brings them out of its labs through software updates to the camera.

The Phase One XT isn’t 10 times better than a camera that costs a tenth its price. But the shots you can take with them are marvelous. Next time you’re strolling through a gallery looking at giant prints, be grateful that cameras like Phase One’s exist.

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