Phase One XF IQ3 Camera System

On Sunday May 17th, I boarded a flight to Copenhagen, Denmark. I was invited by Phase One to be one of two dealer representatives that would get some hands-on time performing a final beta test on the new XF camera system. I would spend Tuesday and Wednesday (all day) testing the camera body, providing feedback and reviewing some of the changes that we suggested become implemented in real time. It was an honor to be selected, and exciting to see the changes made to the camera system. There is a lot to talk about, so I’ll break it down into sections here for you.

At First Glance – Look and Feel of the XF Camera

Upon first glance, the XF is both familiar and yet a new look. While you can feel some resemblance and familiarity with the previous models, the new shape and design takes on a much more industrial appearance than before, yet has clean lines that suggest a modern esthetic. The design is influenced by the IQ Series digital backs, and in a similar respect has been previously glimpsed in the aerial (iXA) and reprographic (iXR) Phase One camera products. The camera looks more durable and feels more solid than the DF+. It is more subdued, with a smoother finish that is visually pleasing. There is far less rubber coating on the body itself and minimized lettering telling you what the buttons are for (we’ll get to why that is shortly). The port covers have a smoother, more finished appearance, even after removing and re-seating, and the buttons and dials now have a significantly improved quality and ergonomic feel. Overall, this all builds to update the look of the camera, making it feel like a fresh beginning.

Brand New “HoneyBee” Autofocus System

One of the first things I wanted to test was the new Honeybee Autofocus Platform. Being the head of our tech support and rentals teams, I receive a fair amount of questions regarding the speed at which the DF platform focuses, its precision and low light aptitude. After an early meeting with the team working hard to develop and tweak the XF, we headed to Phase One’s studio where they had a model waiting for us. It was great to test out the Honeybee autofocus platform in a studio situation to see the level of improvement. I can say I was not disappointed. The autofocus system itself was much faster than previous models (unfortunately, I do not have comparison times versus the DF nor competitor system cameras at this time). The focus lock was quicker, and accuracy seemed high and importantly, much more consistent. I had the opportunity to test the focus performance in natural light as well as strobe. The performance increase repeated with each lens I tried (150mm LS, 110mm LS, 80mm LS and 55mm LS), and in multiple lighting environments. It was great to feel how responsive the autofocus performance was to environmental changes, and see the results on the LCD – sharp and where I placed the focus each time. I would routinely focus on my subject, then focus either further behind (or in front) in order to really make the system work. I wanted to simulate, as best I could, all kinds of shooting styles, and the system impressed me in terms of keeping up with speed and accuracy in each varied shooting situation.

A great addition to the system is the AF Assist Light. Gone is the old IR assist beam, which has been replaced with a white spectrum assist light that is either off, at 50% or 100%. This light allows the camera to be focused in virtually no light at all. It was so bright at 100% that our model had to close her eyes. It did its job though, and allowed us to get focus in a situation with autofocus that would not have been possible before. I felt that even lower light without the AF Assist light was more accurate than previous, thanks to the new Honeybee platform, which incorporates a new 1000 point, CMOS AF sensor. The AF system is now a true contender, moving quickly with consistent and accurate results. Hands down, this fact for me made me love it and want it over a DF+ and that’s before any of the other advancements.

The Honeybee platform provides three new AF modes you can choose from: Average, Spot and Hyperfocal. Unfortunately, Hyperfocal was not yet enabled during my beta test so I was not able to see it in action though am intrigued to see it work as landscape photographers may find it useful. The Hyperfocal Mode allows the user to set an optimal Hyperfocal position for the lens that is repeatable with the auto focus engaged and set to the HyperFocal Mode. Speaking with the developer of the Honeybee platform, and knowing the potential, I am interested to see how much more improved this system can get and what else they will introduce in the way of added features.

We Have Options – Multiple Viewfinders!

Though at first glance the new prism finder may not appear amazing from the outside, the improved glass and design internally makes it impressive. I found it extremely easy to use and see through, especially in low light. There was virtually no loss, so what your eye saw of the scene was just about what you saw through the prism. This is a welcomed change to the system. Additionally, the finder is removable, which means, all you waist level finder loving freaks, you can swap it out for a waist level finder. The metering even works in the waist level finder, so you’ll still be able to rely on the meter if you need to while using it. It’s good to have options with the camera viewing setup and nice to see Phase One has listened and implemented this option, which had been requested by many of our clients. Despite initial information that the legacy Mamiya / Phase One viewfinder accessories (like the Magnifying FD or Angle Finder FA) are supported, the new prism finder mounting point for those accessories has changed and those accessories are not compatible.

Make It Your Own – XF Camera Customization

The XF offers you a new experience with ultimate control over the camera. There are three dials and six buttons that are left for the user to set, as they like. This allows the user complete control over how they operate their own camera. If you are thinking, “the DF system had some programmable options but who wants to deal with remembering the CF numbers associated with setting it”…… fear not, it is much easier to accomplish these changes with the XF. The intuitive touch screen that replaces the previous LED panel on the camera is a welcome breath of fresh air. Much like the IQ Series digital backs, the menu navigation is very straightforward, with names and categories like you would expect. We actually sat down as a group and discussed naming and categorization of each.

You can now easily set the rear button (or front button) for AF focus drive without having to memorize cryptic codes. You can change the shutter speed and aperture controls like before, and even change the direction of the wheels. You can program the lower front button to serve as a shutter release like an old Hasselblad 500, I found this extremely helpful when using the waist level finder. The ability to customize has been greatly expanded, but the biggest difference, is that this is now all incredibly easier.

Saving your custom setup is streamlined thanks to the touch screen UI. In the future, you will see the ability to export your custom settings though a plist in Capture One Pro as well. This will allow you to bring your setup with you. Photographers who find themselves renting XF cameras and digital tech owner / operators will see the advantage to this in being able to have their setup with them at all times. Customers who own their XF will also find this handy for those times when you need to restore the camera setting to default and want to get your custom set up back quickly.

Another addition to the customization is the ability to adjust the navigation screen display (with the ability to select a Classic view with more information) or a simplified version with minimal details. We discussed the ability to have a customizable menu that the user can pull in the details they want and I am hopeful we will see this option soon as well.

Great New Thing – Vibration Delay Tool

The XF is packed with new technology, notably a built-in seismograph that allows for the camera to monitor shake/vibration and record that data as a user viewable seismic chart. As well, it can be used in a Vibration delay mode. Once this mode is activated and the shutter is engaged, the body will only fire once the recorded vibrations have halted or lessened to an acceptable level. Unfortunately, I did not get to try this mode out, as it was not yet activated, but can’t wait to test it out in the field. Importantly, this not only allows for optimal captures when camera vibrations from operation or human intervention have receded, but also any external vibration (trucks driving by, models stamping their feet, or herd of elephants stomping you into the ground).

Huge Improvement – Camera Touch Screen with IQ Buttons

Phase One has implemented a 1.6” touchscreen with touch screen menu on the XF. This seemingly simple advancement just makes sense and is a great compliment to the touchscreen on the digital back. Viewing is easy in any light and navigation is as simple as you would expect. However, as with the IQ Series digital backs, physical navigation buttons remain an option, and I can see how some will use both.

Best Surprise – Profoto Air Integration

Continuing the prior integration seen with the V Grip Air, the XF body now has Profoto Air technology built into the camera body itself. Goodbye external hot shoe trigger that breaks or falls off or needs a new battery. You can easily turn the built-in Air Transmitter on or off from the touchscreen and adjust the channels there as well. This is extremely convenient for Profoto users who like to keep their setup streamlined and compact. Even for non-Profoto users, while it won’t be able to individually control a 3rd party light (say, a Broncolor or Elinchrom product) with a ProFoto Air receiver attached to the light, the built-in ProFoto Air will still be able to trigger any 3rd party light. Use of the device was easy and completely reliable throughout our testing.

More Great New Things – Auto Exposure Limits

For users that like to let the camera do some of the work for them via Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or even Program modes, Phase One has enhanced these functions. They have added the ability to set an acceptable range while using auto exposure, including Auto ISO, which has become popular with many photographers. This means you can set the camera not to go over a certain ISO limit, or under a certain shutter speed and the camera will work around that to set the proper exposure.

It’s Never Too Late – Mirror Up, Done Right

I am happy to report that Mirror Up now functions exactly how everyone who relies on it would like to see it: Once you set the mirror up, it stays there while you’re shooting. It does not return to the down position until you take it out of mirror up. This can be accomplished by pressing the button you have assigned it to or engaging / disengaging it from the touch screen. This will definitely save time and ease frustration for still-life photographers and those working on copy stands, etc.

Now, Repeat After Me – Proper Bracketing Controls

Similarly, bracketing exposures has been improved. From a quick key selection off the touch screen, you can enter into the bracketing mode and set it easily. As well, the camera will now stay in exposure bracketing mode for the duration of shooting while it is enabled. There is no longer a need to reset the bracket after each set. For those who do back to back brackets, this will come as a huge relief.

Show Your Lenses Who’s Boss – Enhanced Focus Offset

The XF will now allow for a focus offset for each lens – up to 32 lenses, where as in the past the DF+ only allowed for one global correction. This enhancement allows the user to set a correction for each lens in their lineup so they can make sure everything is spot on perfect.

Substantially Improved Reliability

One of the things we discussed was reliability, specifically when it comes to the life of the focal plane shutter. This had been a contention point for rental houses and volume shooters so we asked what changes had been made. The XF boasts a new winding and shutter mechanism. They are no longer together as one internal part, but now two separate devices that have been strengthened and advanced in order to last longer. While this may not be as exciting as some other features to most, Phase One is backing the shutter with a 5 Year 250,000 Shot Warranty, when bought in an IQ3 system configuration.

Wild Card Feature – IQ3 Digital Back – Temperature Graph Feedback Tool

While working with the new XF Camera, I also spent some time with the new IQ3 digital backs. One of the new features of the IQ3 Series is a temperature graph tool. This tool will show in real time the actual temperature of the imaging sensor. As temperature affects image quality (especially on long exposure) this tool is ideal for giving an overview of when it is ideal to begin your exposure.

Great Devices Think Alike – System Powershare

Newly added to the XF system with an IQ3 digital back is the ability to share power between the body and digital back. The XF now uses the same 3400mAh Lithium rechargeable Battery that the IQ3 Series Digital Backs use. While both the body and the digital back need to have a battery inserted in order for each to work, power sharing enables a low battery to be swapped out while both units are still powered on. While you can’t go ahead and shoot with only one battery, it was nice to be able to swap batteries out on the fly without having to shut down.

Tools That Help You Take Better Images – Exposure Zone Tool

We all want to make sure we get properly exposed images right? Sometimes judging that in the field on the digital backs LCD is a littler hard to do. Histograms are commonly used visual aids to show obvious clipping situations and provide overall exposure feedback. But there’s room for more. Phase One took this challenge and added a new tool found in the IQ3 backs to help you with this. The Exposure Zone Tool adds a color-coded overlay to your images with a key breaking down your stops – letting you know where your information is both under and over, so you know which exposure zone each part of the image resides in.

Improving A Tool You Already Had – Enhanced Exposure Warning

The Exposure Warning tool has been updated as well to give you more control on overexposure warnings. You can now set the point at which the over exposure will come up, select its color and add in a clip warning with its own color as well. This allows you to differentiate between just over your target and completely out of gamut information, an important distinction.

True Integration – XF Camera Control from the Digital Back

The continued integration of the platform allows for control of the XF camera body from the IQ3 digital back. This is a great improvement over the DF system. You now have full control of the XF Camera from the IQ2/IQ3 Series Digital Backs. This includes shutter speeds, aperture, ISO – all modes, as well as firing the shutter. This is extremely beneficial when you have the camera on a tripod or stand in a hard to reach or read situation for the traditional camera body display / controls. And the layout looks great. While IQ1 Series Digital Backs are compatible with the XF, the IQ1 Series will not have the new enhanced camera control.

Anthony Festa – Phase One Visit Wrap Up

The XF Camera and IQ3 Digital Backs are an exciting advancement in the Phase One line up. As I mentioned previously, the speed at which the camera body focuses and responds is worthwhile enough, then add in all the other features and you have a great new system that still retains some familiarity to those that came before. Looking at the ground up design and execution of this camera in a forward thinking manner, I believe this new camera platform demonstrates Phase One’s commitment to its customers by listening to their needs and implementing changes to make it a better system. It took some time, but it is here.

Being able to be one of two dealers with a representative at Phase One Denmark for the final round of beta testing was an honor. Being given that level of involvement shows our relationship with Phase One and how committed we are to serving the customer best. We received a behind the scenes look at the development of the XF, talked to those actively developing and tweaking the camera and even saw our suggestions put into action via firmware updates several times while we were there. Seeing how quickly our tweaks were implemented, I believe we will see more rollout of greater tweaks and features that will be as simple as a firmware update, and not a new camera release to add better functionality. So stay tuned, there’s certainly more to come.

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