Giving the Phase One XF Camera a Test Run

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Phase One XF camera

All photos by Jason Janik on the Phase One XF camera system.

By Jason Janik

ASMP Dallas Board Member

It’s not hard to find all the technical details you could hope for regarding the Phase One XF camera system.

Do I need to tell you how well this camera succeeds at producing massive image files with wonderful color, clarity, and contrast? Do I need to toss a bunch of numbers and graphs at you? No. That’s objective information you can pull from any spec sheet. You, like me, are curious about how the camera actually handles in the real world. You want to hear a subjective “this is how it feels” report back from the front lines.

Since Robert was giving the Phase One a spin in the studio, and Beatriz was checking out its landscape capabilities, I thought I’d take things in a different direction! Nobody expects to spend the equivalent of a new Audi A6 on a camera and use it like a point and shoot — or, even better…like a smartphone camera! So, that was my challenge. I absurdly decided to see just how well this five-figure camera would hold up against your favorite pocket-size selfie device.

I think we all know the outcome, but somebody had to do this, right? Well, I was pleasantly surprised to see the outcome wasn’t as black and white as I had assumed. I went into this endeavor expecting for the behemoth of a camera to fail miserably. But, it didn’t. Sure, it failed in the general sense that I could’ve much easier toted around my iPhone or a slim 35mm-sized rangefinder or modern mirrorless. Both would’ve turned on more quickly and been much less conspicuous to the rest of the world.

The Phase One XF camera camera takes a few moments to boot up, since it has a very comprehensive touchscreen-based system that must manage these truly massive files. Not to mention the camera’s gargantuan size — this makes it slower to swing around and very easy to spot by the random people I was hoping to covertly capture Bresson-style. It will simply never be a Lieca M series camera.

But, here’s the thing. Carrying this thing in a small satchel, slipping it out for any and every little visual that caught my eye, brought back memories of when I carried my Hasselblad 501c/m through London and used it like a point and shoot. Or when I had a blast snapping scenes with an old Pentacon Six during a trip through Venice. Sure, I had to take a bit more time to get the image, but that slow down gave me a chance to work on composition, look for the precise moment I wanted to capture, and really let the image soak in. I was capturing little moments that had real thought and depth. It was bringing back a love affair that had long been tamped down by decades of editors and art directors demanding that I shoot things their way. And, it felt great to be shooting all these little moments with a camera that could turn them into giant art gallery pieces!

I took it along to the record store and snapped some images as we dug through stacks of wax. I took it with me to a local taco shop and shot all the fun things that caught my eye. I carried with me while running errands and did a thirty-second impromptu portrait of a friend. It really didn’t seem that cumbersome, after all.

I soon learned that manual focus was the way to go. Auto seemed to nail things tack sharp when I was in studio-friendly settings, but it just couldn’t keep up like a modern DSLR does. But, that big viewfinder! Oh, how I wish my DSLR had such a luxurious viewfinder. It made manual focusing so easy. With the addition of an old school split-screen viewfinder ground glass, this would’ve been so dreamy. I doubt anyone makes one, though. It’s a shame.

Oh, and that huge preview screen on back! It was really easy to see and control (touch screen controls!!!) in all the environments I shot, and subjects loved seeing the big preview images. Realistically, shooters with a camera like this will tether to a laptop for previewing, but we’re up against an iPhone in this scenario, so haters back off!

Since returning this beautiful beast, it’s made me start carrying around my bigger cameras more often. Sure, my iPhone 7plus has a neat camera built in, but there’s something about wielding a real piece of photographic machinery that changes the dynamic. Who would’ve thought a massive, medium format could be an actual contender as a casual tag-along camera?

 

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