SIMPLY REVOLUTIONARY. PHASE ONE XT REVIEW
WHEN SIMPLICITY BECOMES REVOLUTIONARY: PHASE ONE XT REVIEW
Looking at the new Phase One XT, in its simplicity, you might ask yourself why the need for a Phase One XT review. After all, the camera is essentially a small, thin frame connecting a Phase One digital back with a lens, featuring only four control points: a shutter button, two shift wheels and one tripod orientation latch. However, in that simplicity lies a revolutionary product, one that in my opinion changed field tech cameras as we knew them in the digital age. And that definitely caught my attention.
Disclaimer: at the time of writing, I am a Local Ambassador for Phase One. However, since I value my intellectual honesty far more than anything else, being an Ambassador for any brand never stopped me from reporting my findings freely, good or bad.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s start this Phase One XT review examining the camera and its operations.
IN THE BOX
Since my days with the Phase One P45+ and P65+, back in the early 2000’s, I always found Phase One’s scope of delivery amazing, and the Phase One XT is no exception. The camera comes with an extremely durable Pelican-style case, filled with all sort of goodies. While your configuration might vary according to the back and lenses ordered together with your Phase One XT, to give you an idea of what to expect I prepared a short unboxing video for you to enjoy: PHASEONE XT UNBOXING VIDEO. As you can see, from a second battery to a dual battery charger, from a sensor cleaning kit to a comprehensive array of cables, from an extra insert for your Pelican case down to a kit of labels to customize your containers, and more, Phase One got you covered.
I used a lot of cameras in my days, including high-end Leica & Hasselblad systems, and while some of them came in fancy and well-thought-out packaging I have to say that no other manufacturer ever came close to Phase One’s scope of delivery.
BUILD, ERGONOMICS & USER INTERFACE
For the uninitiated, Phase One aside there are five main digital field tech camera manufacturers active nowadays: Cambo, Arca-Swiss, Alpa, Linhof and Silvestri. It is no secret that the Phase One XT is actually built by Cambo; however, the Phase One XT is an original design, meaning that the camera is not a re-labelled existing Cambo product. A quick look will tell you that the camera in this Phase One XT review is clearly, albeit loosely, based on the Cambo WRS-1600’s concept. Like the Cambo WRS-1600, the Phase One XT offers shift on both axes and the capability of turning on its foot to change between landscape and portrait orientation without having to turn the back, which often means removing it. The two main differences between the Phase One XT and the Cambo WRS-1600 are that the former offers less shift, keeping the camera more compact than the Cambo, and implements the turning operations more elegantly than thanks to its round rail design, vs the Cambo’s angled one.
While manufacturers such as Alpa and Arca-Swiss enjoy a somewhat better reputation than Cambo’s in online circles when it comes to build quality, to me the build quality of the Phase One XT feels very good. Smoothly carved out of a block of aluminium, the camera feels great in the hand, is solid and has no plays whatsoever. The black ebony handle is ergonomically very good, but if you aren’t happy with its size and feel, you can replace it with a different handle of your choice. At the time of writing, Digital Transition in the US offers a beautiful rosewood one, and I hope that there will be more on offer in the future.
The shift mechanisms on the Phase One XT are very well designed, featuring easy to operate, large shift wheels both offering a clear distance scale allowing you to check out the amount of shift in both direction without forcing you to move from behind the camera as other field tech cameras do. More, both wheels feature detents, spaced every 5mm, helping you understand by feel where you are. The action of the shift wheels is smooth, and while the detent clicks aren’t hard at all in use, the mechanism offers enough resistance for the vertical shift to stay put even with the weight of the Phase One IQ4 back attached to the XT. Of course, shifting the back upwards requires a bit more strength than the other way round, but that’s to be expected.
The rotating mechanism allowing you to turn the Phase One XT between landscape and portrait orientation (and everything in between) feels secure, if perhaps a bit hard to operate on a brand-new camera. After a few days of use, the sliding action of the round rail got smoother, while still feeling very secure. The Arca-Swiss compatible integrated foot can be locked and unlocked via a latch, and while the camera slightly wobbles when the latch is unlocked, once you lock it into place the Phase One XT will solidly stay put in your orientation of choice.
The only nit I have with the otherwise wonderfully clever rotating mechanism’s design, is that the camera’s handle, where the shutter button is, rotates together with the camera. Thus, when in portrait orientation, the shutter button will find itself in a less-than-ideal position, kind of what you’ll get turning to portrait orientation a DSLR without a vertical grip. Since the rotating mechanism is only there to use the camera on a tripod, it would be great if in the next iteration of the XT Phase One could figure a way to make just the inner part of the body turn, leaving the handle where it is.
Personally, since I always control the camera via the digital back’s screen, this is not a deal breaker for me in real world use; of course, others might feel otherwise.
Lenses are attached to the Phase One XT via two latches and a safety lock. When you first connect a lens to the camera, the safety lock will click into place preventing the lens from falling off the camera; the two latches are then used to firmly secure the lens to the camera body, so that it stays in place without any play. To remove a lens, you’ll just need to open the latches first, hold the lens with one hand and release the safety lock with the other. While the system works well, I would love for the two latches to offer a little more resistance; it happened to me a couple of times that, after carrying the camera in my backpack for a bit, one or both got slightly loose. Therefore, I would definitely recommend you check your latches before starting to work after a hike. Of course, once your camera is on a tripod and the latches are locked, they will stay locked without any problems whatsoever.
Last, as you’d expect from any camera, the Phase One XT’s body also gives you the possibility to attach a camera strap, or a hand strap if you prefer. Personally, while I use my cameras on a tripod pretty much all the time, I always like to have a neck strap attached to them. I find that this makes it much easier to work in the field, allowing me to carry my camera around my neck during packing and unpacking operations, or if I need to swap cameras on my tripod, and so on. As many readers already know, I use and love Harry Benz “The Brogue” straps; in particular, I was very happy to find out that my “The Brogue SL” straps, albeit designed for the Leica SL, work perfectly with the Phase One XT thanks to the use of a similar lug system. If you are interested, see what I thought about Harry Benz’s straps in my HARRY BENZ “THE BROGUE” STRAPS REVIEW. Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not affiliated with Harry Benz in any way.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? THE 24MM SHIFT ISSUE
The camera in this Phase One XT review offers 12/12mm of horizontal shift and 12/12mm of rise and fall, for a total of 24mm shift on both axes. While better than having no shift at all, on online discussions this has been seen as a limitation compared to other alternatives.
Let’s start by seeing how much of a real concern this is with available lenses for the Phase One XT. At the time of writing, these are:
– Rodenstock HR Digaron-S 23mm f/5.6, image circle 70mm;
– Rodenstock HR Digaron-W 32mm f/4, image circle 90mm;
– Rodenstock HR Digaron-W 50mm f/4, image circle 90mm;
– Rodenstock HR Digaron-W 70mm f/5.6, image circle 100mm;
– Rodenstock HR Digaron-SW 90mm f/5.6, image circle 120mm;
On a 40x54mm sensor, such as the one you can use on the Phase One XT, this translates in the following amount of available vertical and horizontal shift, according to Rodenstock:
– 70mm image circle: 2/2mm;
– 90mm image circle: 16/13mm;
– 100mm image circle: 22/19mm;
– 120mm image circle: 33/29mm;
So, while I agree on principle that having more available shift is better than having less, in practice the situation is as follows:
– Using lenses with a 70mm image circle (i.e., the Rodenstock 23mm), having more than 12mm shift would be completely irrelevant
– Using lenses with an image circle of 90mm (i.e., the Rodenstock 32mm and 50mm), having more than 12mm shift would result in an extremely minor advantage, making you gain just 4mm of vertical shift
– Using lenses with a 100mm image circle (i.e., the Rodenstock 70mm), having more than 12mm shift would noticeably make you gain shift on both axes, but if you planned on stitching on all directions to cover the whole image circle, then 12mm shift would be the maximum you could use anyway
– Using lenses featuring an image circle of 120mm (i.e., the Rodenstock 90mm), having just 12mm of available shift is a serious limitation
To make things visually clearer, I prepared some graphics for you:
If you plan on using shift for stitching, as you can see, the maximum stitched coverage of the Phase One XT is enough to use practically all available image circle with all lenses except for the Rodenstock HR 90mm. If you plan on using horizontal shift, the Phase One XT’s horizontal shift is enough to use all available image circle with all lenses except the Rodenstock HR 70mm and 90mm. Last, if you plan on using rise and fall, you’ll lose 3-4 mm of coverage with the Rodenstock HR 32mm and 50mm, which is minor, but of course you’ll lose noticeably more with the Rodenstock HR 70mm and 90mm.
On the market, there are various field tech cameras offering more shift than the Phase One XT; however, we’ll have to keep in mind that camera design decisions are always a compromise and that such extra shift will inevitably result in a larger and heavier camera. Just to give you an idea of the differences in size and weight, let’s consider three cameras offering around 20mm rise/fall and shift:
– Phase One XT: 12/12mm rise/fall, 12mm/12mm shift, size: 160 x 148mm, weight: 700 gr;
– Cambo WRS-1600: 20/20mm rise/fall, 20/20mm shift, size: 180 x 160mm, weight: 920 gr;
– Alpa 12 Plus: 20/20mm rise/fall, 20/20mm shift, size: 184 x 184mm, weight: 1025 gr;
– Arca-Swiss Rm3di: 40mm rise/fall, 30mm shift, size: 195 x 200mm, weight: 1050 gr;
As you can see, all alternatives offering more shift in both directions than the Phase One XT result in a larger and heavier camera. As well, if you plan on using any lens out of the high-performance HR Rodenstock lenses it’s worth keeping in mind that only two out of eleven of those would dramatically benefit from having more than 12mm shift, at the time of writing at least.
It’s worth noting that you can use an enormous number of large format lenses on a field tech camera, beside modern, high-performing Rodenstock HR ones. Of course, most of these large format lenses feature very large image circles; if you are planning on using those, the Phase One XT’s shift abilities would definitely feel underwhelming. On the other hand, most of these older design lenses aren’t performing as well as modern Rodenstock HR ones, and they would not be my first choice to use on the kind of digital backs that you can use on the Phase One XT.
Again, gear choice is always a matter of compromise, and different photographers might need different solutions. For instance, if you do architectural photography and need to work with large amounts of shift, your requirements will be different than mine. For me personally, with a kit including 23mm, 32mm, 50mm and 90mm Rodenstock HR lenses, the 12/12mm horizontal and vertical shift offered by the camera in this Phase One XT review is more than enough for my landscape work. Using a different system offering more shift would only give me more shift capabilities with the 90mm, which is not enough for me to give up all the advantages of the Phase One XT in exchange.
WHAT ABOUT TILT?
In the current selection of field tech cameras, only the Arca-Swiss Rm3di and Factum offer built-in tilt that I know of, short of using a bellows & standards camera such as, e.g., the Linhof Techno or the Silvestri Bicam with Flexibellows that I used back in the day. Cambo and Alpa solved the tilt problem following different approaches, one offering a tilt mount for their WRS lenses, of which you’ll need one per lens, the other offering tilt / swing adaptors, which you’ll be able to use on different lenses.
To add tilt to the Phase One XT, at the time of writing you’ll need to use Cambo WRS tilt lens mounts. Using one such mount with a XT lens with X Shutter will allow you to control your lens’ aperture and shutter from the camera body but won’t allow you to record the amount of shift and tilt you’ll dial in when shooting, not to mention that it would also require you to use a cable to connect your back to the X Shutter. I hope that Phase One will add native tilt mount in the future, so that we can benefit of full electronic communication with the XT body and the digital back when using tilt lenses as well.
Now that we know a bit more about the Phase One XT, let’s move to examine its significance in the development of field tech cameras.
A REVOLUTIONARY APPROACH TO FIELD TECH CAMERAS
In the opening paragraph of this Phase One XT review, I called the camera revolutionary, adding that it changed field tech cameras as we knew them in the digital age. Both are pretty bold statements, so let me expand a bit.
First of all, let’s get the naming confusion out of the way. I started working with tech cameras in 2009, I studied the theory, used them in practice, worked on my Scheimpflug principle, read all my Ansel Adams’ books, and more; therefore, I am well aware of all the distinctions between field cameras, tech cameras, and so on. That said, since I am not interested in splitting hair exercises, for the sake of simplicity and for the purpose of this article, I decided to call the Phase One XT, as well as all similar cameras offering movements and that are useable in the field, field tech cameras regardless of eventual differences between them. Field tech cameras are a subset of tech cameras, so let’s have a quick look at tech cameras first.
TECH CAMERAS: WHAT ARE THEY?
While a complete analysis of tech cameras is definitely out of the scope of this article, I believe a quick word about tech cameras can be useful for those readers less familiar with them. In their simplest form, tech cameras basically consist of a lens, of an image recording support and of a frame to connect them; the frame also normally supports a viewing / framing device, such as a ground glass. Tech cameras feature a variable array of movements, such as horizontal shift, vertical shift (better known as rise and fall), tilt, swing or any combination of these.
Movements are powerful, specialised tools allowing photographers to overcame various photographic problems occurring in certain genres of photography. To give you just a couple of examples, shift is useful when photographing buildings, trees and the like to straighten back vertical lines that started converging due to shooting from a low or high vantage point; or, when you need to photograph a reflective surface standing right in front of it without yourself ending up in the image. Tilt & swing are useful to manage depth of field, allowing you to adjust the plane of focus according to the Scheimpflug principle.
TECH CAMERAS: HOW DO THEY WORK?
Having such features is definitely great, for photographic applications such as landscape and architecture. Since there is no free lunch, though, in exchange for such powerful features, in the good old film days field tech cameras traditionally have inflicted upon the photographers using them a special cumbersomeness as well, a set of “operational limitations”, so to speak, compared to your regular DSLR systems. Such cumbersomeness and limitations are inherent in the way these cameras are designed, and they reveal themselves most apparently in the sequence you need to follow to take a photograph with one of these cameras, something you would take for granted these days with any modern camera.
Here it goes. Set your camera on a tripod. Open the lens’ shutter. Set the aperture to wide open. Remove your image taking support (or slide it out of the way if your camera allows) in order to be able to frame and focus through your ground glass. Frame and focus. Replace your image taking support (or slide it back into place). Select your working aperture. Set your shutter speed and cock the lens’ shutter. Remove your dark slide from the film holder or film back. Take the shot. Replace the dark slide and repeat.
Of course, all operations are manual: manual metering via an external meter, manual focussing, manual selection of shutter and aperture. That was in the film days, though: surely, the advent of digital brought some improvements in the workflow, right?
TECH CAMERAS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Unfortunately, not really. The way tech cameras operate changed very little since the advent of digital backs. In the early days of digital, the sequence of operations was pretty much the same, albeit with two small differences. First, using a digital back you obviously didn’t need a dark slide to protect the film emulsion anymore, eliminating one step in the workflow. Second, however, with a digital back you needed to activate, or ‘wake”, the digital back before pressing the shutter on the lens, something you obviously didn’t need to do using film. For that, a cable contraption was needed; on the positive side, this could be achieved with a single cable taking care of the whole sequence, according to the kind of back you used.
Despite using a digital back, all operations were still manual: manual metering, manual focussing, manual selection of shutter and aperture. More, coming to the digital part of the workflow, the use of a tech camera meant that you didn’t have any of the integrated, automatic recording of your shooting information in EXIF that we enjoy with pretty much any other kind of digital camera. If you wanted to keep track of shutter speed, aperture, amount of shift and degrees of tilt, you had to do it the old fashion way: you had to write them down.
While image quality produced by tech cameras with digital backs was fantastic compared to anything available back then, that as well didn’t come easy. Due to the relationship between the design of large-format lenses and the sensor technology used in early digital backs, most lens/back combinations created vignetting and, most importantly, colour cast. Colour cast was often present even without shifting a lens at all and was the more pronounced the more you shifted your lenses. Such colour casts needed to be fixed in post-processing via a LCC profile, custom-created for each shot, which in turn required you to shoot a second frame through a white translucent filter right after your “main” shot.
More recently, at long last, newer generations of digital backs started supporting live view, thus eliminating the need for removing – or sliding – the digital back out of the way to frame and focus. As well, the support of electronic shutter meant that you could get rid of the opening-closing-setting-the-speed-and-cocking-the-shutter sequence, which you could replace through the use of the electronic shutter for those shooting situations where this was possible. Finally, with the latest generations of digital backs, colour cast started to become a thing of the past as well; with the Phase One IQ4, for instance, depending on the lenses you use you could do without LCC profiles most of the time. This made the use of tech cameras in the digital age easier, but still a far cry from being fully integrated like any other smaller-format digital camera. Not to mention that if you wanted to record your shooting data, you still had to do it by hand.
A NEW ERA IN FIELD TECH CAMERAS
In 2019, nearly three decades since Leaf in 1991 introduced the first commercial digital back, with the Phase One XT field tech cameras finally entered the digital age. A quick look at the camera in this Phase One XT review, and you’ll notice a series of contacts, both on the lens mount and on the back of the camera body, where the digital back connects. If you are used to work with any interchangeable lens camera, these contacts will immediately look familiar; for tech camera users, however, this is a first. Together with the X Shutter installed in the Phase One XT lenses, these contacts are what actually makes the Phase One XT revolutionary, bringing field tech cameras into the future. Let’s see how.
FULL INTEGRATION BETWEEN LENSES & DIGITAL BACK
Lenses for the Phase One XT come mounted on panels compatible with Cambo Wide RS digital lens panels, or WRS Digital Lenspanels to follow Cambo’s naming conventions. This is great in that it allows you to use all your old WRS-mounted lenses on your Phase One XT. As well, this means that as any lens you can adapt via WRS-mount adapters such as, e.g., Hasselblad V lenses, Mamiya 645 lenses, Pentax 67 and Canon EOS lenses can be used as well. Of particular interest to me to complement the existing line of Phase One XT lenses are Hasselblad V lenses, i.e. the Hasselblad 180mm f/4 CF Sonnar T*.
Contrarily to regular Cambo WRS Digital Lenspanels, though, all Rodenstock lenses native for the Phase One XT come mounted on “intelligent” panels, panels featuring a series of electronic contacts. First and foremost, these contacts allow Phase One IQ4 digital backs to control the X Shutter in the Phase One XT lenses. The X Shutter is a leaf shutter, controlling both shutter speed and aperture. This means that you can now operate your field tech camera as you do your “regular” digital camera, with no need for the whole open-the-shutter-open-the-aperture-and-so-on sequence of operations you previously needed to follow to take a shot. That, in turn, means that you can now control everything from the IQ4’s display, with no need for contraptions and bizarre double cables. Not only that, but this also means that now, for the first time, you have access to automated exposure modes, such as aperture priority and shutter priority, on a field tech camera.
As well, these contacts allow the shutter button on the Phase One XT body to work as you are used to: half press wakes the back, full press takes a shot. The shutter button is also customisable, and new functionalities can be added via firmware updates to your digital back. Last, but not least, these contacts allow the X Shutter and the Phase One XT to pass back to the digital back – and write into EXIF – all your shooting information, including aperture, shutter speed, and most notably the amount of shift you dialled in. Beside archival and statistic purposes, this, in turn, makes it much easier to create and organize LCC profiles, when needed.
Bringing this Phase One XT review to an end, let me start by saying that, after about ten years since I last used a field tech camera with a digital back, the Phase One XT with the IQ4 is the camera & back combination that convinced me to get back to field tech cameras for my work.
With the Phase One XT I get the incredible resolution and beautiful colours of the Phase One IQ4 coupled with the amazing image quality of Rodenstock HR lenses, in a compact package, with as much horizontal shift & as much rise and fall as I need for my work, all controllable from the digital back without the need for cables and contraptions, and with modern-age EXIF.
Compared to other field tech cameras, I gain in terms of size and weight, while losing in terms of extra shift and, in the case of the Arca-Swiss Rm3di, built-in tilt. While I expect the X Shutter to be used with other brands’ systems as well in the future, it won’t be as closely integrated as it is when you use it on the Phase One XT. As well, using X Shutter on any camera other than the Phase One XT will require a cable to work, making it more cumbersome to setup your camera in the field.
Compared to other, smaller-sensor medium format systems, I gain in terms of sheer image quality, movements, UI essentiality and landscape-oriented features available in the IQ4, while losing in terms of zoom lenses availability, weather-sealing, overall camera speed, autofocus and battery life. Out of all these, the one that matters the most to me is weather sealing; luckily, this is easily taken care for using something like the Think Tank Photo Emergency camera cover.
As always, choosing a camera system is a matter of compromise, as I outlined in my CHOOSING THE BEST CAMERA SYSTEM FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY article. Field tech cameras are wonderful tools, and they offer the best image quality available with any camera system today. However, they also come with limitations, compared with smaller format systems, either medium format or 135.
For me personally, at this point along my path with landscape photography, these limitations aren’t actually limitations at all. I love working with primes, I love the discipline, the way primes keep me sharp and help me focus my vision. I love working with manual focus lenses, with precise, long focus throw and a physical, precise distance scale. I love working with a slower camera, something I find brings a more deliberate, thoughtful approach to landscape photography. I love having shift and rise & fall, both for stitching without having to worry about parallax problems, and to be able to precisely solve converging lines problems at the time of shooting. I love the image quality, colours and depth of the Phase One IQ4, and I love working with the amazing Rodenstock HR lenses.
However, I am definitely not a luddite, and this is where the Phase One XT comes into play. I love having complete control over all shooting parameters from the IQ4 digital back. I love having features such as dual exposure, frame averaging long exposures, live histogram, ETTR, the Lab features, and so on. I love having all my shooting data recorded into EXIF. Last, but not least, I love that all that comes in a small and light package, both in terms of field tech cameras and compared to what I was carrying with me previously.
Whether a field tech camera is the way forward for you will depend on your specific requirements, and only you know what these are. For me, the camera in this Phase One XT review is not only the best overall field tech camera solution for landscape photography in terms of image quality, digital integration, ease and speed of use, etc available today. It is also the best overall solution for landscape photography, period. Highly recommended!
Thanks for reading this Phase One XT review, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?
Have a great day, and don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE TO MY NEWSLETTER!