Brief thoughts about Phase One from a film user

Earlier this year we needed a digital camera slightly better than the one in our mobile phone only to realise we don't own any digital cameras. We first thought we would buy something cheap. Then we thought we should buy a digital camera to supplement our film cameras. We considered Canon which we had past extensive experience with but their cameras just seemed boring. There was Nikon, Sony, Pentax and all the others but, at the end of it, we really didn't want to invest in a whole new camera system again. There was Leica, but although we really loved our M9, we didn't want to go down the small rangefinder road again.

As we have whittled down all of our camera gear to just two Linhof cameras (and one Mamiya Universal Press camera for dangerous outings) we eventually found ourselves considering digital backs. Bizarrely, we ended up with 2 backs: an older one and the current IQ3 100. 


Each back has its particular uses: one for the old CCD look at low ISOs and the newer back for everything else. We, unfortunately, can't share any images just yet as we are awaiting the arrival of a new computer (RAW files not processed for the web yet). 

We note a lot of owners in the past, less so now, comparing medium format digital backs with film. Quite frankly, we don't think this accomplishes much. The images from these digital backs look so completely different from film that it is a zero sum game to compare them. Let's just say that digital back output looks very "digital": clinically sharp (an almost 'etched' look), extremely clean, with zero of that analogue 'roundness' that film has. We really would be hard-pressed to quantify this as 'better', only 'different'.

As to comparing digital backs to 35mm digital cameras, well, the image output from digital backs are in a whole other league. 

Using a digital back on a rangefinder technical large format camera is an absolute pain. For each shot the lens has to be cocked and fired twice in succession - all within 4 seconds. One shot to wake up the back and the other for the picture. Focusing accuracy is critical. With film one was allowed some leeway as regards optimum focus: film was a forgiving medium. Digital backs offer no such allowance. It is disheartening to be happily taking pictures only to find later on that they were all slightly out of focus. 

Typical large format lenses optimised for film are not the best bet for the new backs. Better results are to be had from custom designed Digitar (and others) lenses. At this time we are 'winging it' with our old lenses. They aren't too bad. It is really quite fascinating to note that the 'artistic' experiments that we do with film that turn out looking really cool (pinhole images especially) look absolutely horrible with a digital back. Go figure.

So will these backs replace our film? No, not at all. There is only one thing that looks like film - and that's film.

As an addendum, we will use the backs to digitize our film for the web subsequent to the death of our film scanner. We considered a drum scanner but instead we opted for the backs which would serve a dual purpose.