By Robert Hold
ASMP Dallas Board Member
In the time I had to evaluate the Phase One XF-100 system, I learned quite a few things when using that camera and in comparison to the Canon 5D MkII that I shoot with normally…there are some major differences!
I’m going to start off with what I know, my Canon. I’ve been shooting with a Canon camera for the past 10 years. I started off with a D10 and made my way up to a 30D then a 7D, finally arriving at a full frame camera, the 5D Mark II. In what I have learned is that 35mm DSLR systems are designed to do a job well. Many systems now take photos, take video, able to perform time lapse photography, have wifi, GPS, NFC (near field communication), some even allow you to edit photos and videos prior to exporting from the camera.
In many ways, to use a car analogy, 35mm DSLR cameras are like SUVs. As such, they are great at handling what you throw at them and are able to deliver. For many professional photographers, they are the bread and butter to their business.
Shooting the Phase. This is a system that I can honestly say is damned good at doing one job very well and having little to no competition in the arena. I consider the XF to be built like a M1A1 Abrams tank. It’s solid. Reliable. Takes a sharp, clear, image with a detail that few other cameras can meet. It doesn’t have GPS, it does have wifi, a built in trigger for Profoto light systems, is able to interchange backs so that you can shoot with 40mp to 100mp full color sensors or an achromatic (b/w) back. This is a major area that 35mm-DSLR systems cannot compete. You have to buy a new body for every time Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, etc., produce a higher resolution sensor. If you wanted to shoot in BW only, you could do a menu change on the camera or send it in and spend a few hundred to a couple thousand to have a filter removed from the sensor.
Back the the Phase. As I mentioned, it’s like a tank, it does it’s job very well and is not nearly as versatile as a 35mm system. However, this is where we find a divide in the level of photography that is done. I stress this point because, as many know, in the world of 35mm the buy in we have is relatively cheap. The buy in for medium format…you take on a car payment (at the cheapest) or a second mortgage payment (at the most expensive). With the exception of a few brands currently, you cannot get into medium format for less than $10,000 buying new equipment, let alone the newest hardware available.
This is the dividing line that separates.
In the five days I had to work with this system, I gradually found that I preferred shooting with the XF over my Canon. My first shoot was in studio, at Camera Ready Studios, with a model from The Clutts Agency and make up artist LaDonna Stein. Early on in the shoot, I found that the color rendering between my Canon and the XF was different. My Canon had a more magenta tint in comparison to the pure white of the XF-100. I found I was focusing manually as the autofocus on the Phase was far too slow than what the Canon provided. This is one thing that I would like to see Phase One implement through either a hardware upgrade in the XF system or if possible as a software upgrade. Improvements on the autofocus, let alone additional autofocus points would be the best possible improvement I can see that would make transitioning to medium format from 35mm the easiest. Besides the color differences and my complaint about autofocus, when it came down to editing the photos taken and seeing the differences, I’m blown away at the visual differences.
The larger sensor on the XF gives me a shallower depth of field than what I would have on my Canon. The bokeh is smoother, like a fine cream or butter. I would see the images that were produced on my Canon appear to be flatter than those I shot on the Phase.
My next shoot was outdoors. I was doing headshots with musician Joe Garcia (IQ). The day was cold, sunny, plenty of hard light, and an excellent way to test the Phase against my Canon. Here again, I got to see a slight difference in color, not nearly as noticeable as it was in studio. Again, the bokeh was far smoother and noticeable. I was very pleased at what I was able to capture while shooting with the Phase. Taking advantage of the leaf shutter lens, I enjoyed being able to capture with a 1/4000th shutter speed and still getting clear, sharp, detail out of the photograph. I compared with my Canon, I was able to achieve the same as well, yet with the light we had outdoors I was still getting some blown out highlights that were recoverable.
The two additional shoots I had with the system I wound up shooting exclusively with it, not even once touching my Canon. I’m going to take that back… I had a boudoir shoot that I used my Canon as a sort of meter to gauge what I should expect, after that, the Canon got put back in the bag. In a low light situation, I was able to photograph the subject without an issue. I shot my set at iso 3200 and handheld my shots. What I was able to capture was impressive. Should I make the move to shooting boudoir exclusively, I would invest wholeheartedly into this system. This takes me back to the comment I made earlier, this does one job and does it very well.
The other shoot I had was portraits for a wedding client of mine that needed announcement photos taken. Again, the Canon was left in the bag. At this point, I was having too much fun shooting with the XF. I was treating it like my Canon. Throughout this whole experience, I found that the menu system on the Phase was very similar to what I find with my Canon and that I rarely had to remove my eye from the view finder to adjust my f-stop, shutter speed, or iso. More than anything, I only did so just so I can review the photos taken.
At the end of the day, we rely on the tools we have in our bag to do the jobs we get paid to do. Then we begin the editing process. I edited all of the photos taken through this review on Capture One v.10. I’ve been working on C1 since version 7 and upgraded every step through 9. I know many people utilize Photoshop or Lightroom for their editing. Again, all tools in our bag. What I have found in using Capture One over Adobe software is that C1 (Capture One) is designed to render color as it was shot, no adjustment algorithm to a baseline that Adobe applies when processing a photograph. Phase One developed the software to render the photos exactly as they were shot, no arbitrary adjustments that change your black point, white balance, or color tone.
Some people may have a hard time working in Capture One when transitioning over from Lightroom. I admit that I had a bit of a learning curve migrating over myself. I found that C1 operates like Lightroom in that you can manage a catalog, however a major difference is that you can also manage sessions, packaging the non-destructive edits that you perform with the raw file you import. In this way, any edits made to the raw file will travel with the image when you send it to an editor for further work.
During the editing process, if there was a skin tone issue (such as in the case of one of my boudoir photos) where the makeup was a few shades darker than the rest of the body, I was able to create a layer where I masked the face and made a color adjustment targeting a skin tone that would even things out and make the shot more pleasing for my client. I know that the same could be done in Photoshop, however an edit like this and being able to do it within C1 without the need of having to use Photoshop adds value for me. Managing color differences, deleting colors from an image, and balancing the color tones within C1 keeps it in my tool bag. I have found that the only reason why I keep Photoshop on my computer is when I need to add an effect to an image or use it to make certain prints where I cannot in C1.
At the end of the day, it is the tools we use to produce the images we create. Using the Phase One XF-100 along with Capture One v.10 has been a great experience for me and helped to push my work to a higher standard. I do see myself purchasing a medium format kit within the next 2-3 years. I will still use Capture One to edit my work. When I can, I will rent a XF system where possible when shooting for clients.