A Modern Field Camera

Posted by Greg Hammond on

Phase One has just announced and—note to Hasselblad, Leica, Nikon, and Sony—is already shipping its brand spankin' new XT field camera. Billed as the first modern field or technical camera, the XT brings significant improvements to the use of high image quality medium format equipment.

If you don't know what a field or technical camera is, you're in the majority. But you might already have an image of it in your head without realizing it. Current versions of field or technical cameras differ little from their 19th century predecessors, though quality control and manufacturing improvements have made them more reliable. Essentially, the field camera is a slab of metal, a lot like the Cambo 600. Sometimes, there are bellows attached, and sometimes there is nothing more than provision for a lens and a film or digital back to be attached. There is generally little or no automation built into any of these cameras. The essence of a technical camera is a precisely made slab of metal or wood with a big hole in the middle to pass the light through. That's it.

So, why would you want to use one, other than for fulfilling some "I am Ansel Adams" fantasy? Well, actually, that is exactly the reason to use one. It is true that a modern phone can easily take better pictures than the average human operating it. But there isn't a lot of joy in using it. Just as a Toyota can take you to the grocery store in pretty much the same time as an Audi R8, a phone or point & shoot camera can take a pic that will look just fine on Facebook or Instagram. IG will even "improve" your photo for you. But it doesn't give you the satisfaction of creation, let alone the emotional involvement with the device, that working with a fine camera can. One of the reasons that cameras by Rollei, Hasselblad, or Leica are so desirable, apart from brand snob appeal, is their sense of jewel-like design and production, their precision, their very raison d’être to be in your hands doing what you are doing. These cameras feel good, and there is a "sensibility" to the way they work that invites you into a creative process rather than obstructing you with quagmires of non-sensical menus and myriads of buttons. A top shelf Sony or Canon or Nikon can, in the right hands, produce beautiful images. But I don't know any pro or serious amateur who will tell you that any of those cameras is a joy to use. Because they aren't. They may be technically impressive, and they truly are, but they have no soul. I would even put the Phase One XF in this category; it's a medium format DSLR of unparalleled quality, with a superb line of lenses, whose IQ shames its nearest wannabe-competitor and whose menu system is the best there is. But any tyro can pick it, set it to P [no, 'P' does not stand for "professional"], make sure auto-focus is turned on and start snapping away. It will even do focus stacking, auto-bracketing, HDR, and programmed flash. Like having a V-12 Aston in Hawaii with gear shift in D and 40mph speed limits.

Conversely, a technical camera, or any of its variants—field, press, large format, medium, etc.—forces one from the very moment of setup to engage the scene or landscape, make intentional decisions about focus point, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. Now, you can do this with just about any camera. And many have no doubt heard that the best thing one can do for one's photography is to take your camera off P and set it to M ['M' by the way, is the photographer shorthand for "Landscape"]. But it's all too easy to not do that, and let the camera make decisions for you, and even fire off in spray & pray mode. You cannot do that with a technical camera. You are forced to engage intellectually and, if you've got it, emotionally. This is a Good Thing™.

But now, along comes Phase with the "first modern field camera." I think what they mean by this is the first of the digital era to offer an electronic integration of the simple elements of the technical camera. But is what it offers more of an homogenization at the cost of elemental purity? The XT arrives with just three Rodenstock lenses already built with the Phase X-shutter that allows for the integration. With such a lens, the Phase IQ4 digital back can control the shutter and aperture of the lens, just as one can with a mirrorless or DSLR. In essence, the XT is a mirrorless medium format camera without an EVF. One that offers built-in ± 12º shifts. Mind you, that's less shift than a number of Cambo and Alpa and other tech cameras already offer. And it offers no tilt [other than what a lens itself might provide].

Lenses fitted with Cambo WRS lensboardss can be used with the XT—the tech slab is actually made by Cambo—but they'll be in traditional dumb technical mode. You will still have to set the aperture and the shutter, either electronic or Copal. Next year, Phase says an adapter will allow use of Phase Schneider BR lenses. That's cool, but it doesn't fit the reduced size/weight use case.

So, realistically, what's the point? Well, if you are a new medium format person, one who is interested in starting out with a technical camera, this is very attractive. The XT system offers all the technical capability of a truly modern field camera, supreme IQ, and compactness. It allows for integrated lens and shutter control [no cables in the way], zero latency, and retains all the sweetness of the IQ4, including Automatic Frame Averaging. There are many other advantages. The XT slab is itself a little less than twice as expensive as a Cambo WRS 1600, but if you're new to the category, it's not the least bit difficult to justify. But what about the current MF user, who already has a Cambo 1600, and a several Rodie and/or Schneider lenses? Well, the use case is easy, because XT truly represents an improvement in shooting capabilities and control, but the ROI case may be tougher. Modern, digital-ready MF/LF lenses are not cheap, and their trade value is inherently diminished by the arrival of X-shutter lenses, the three of which that are available now representing no improvement in IQ.

To me, the XT is sleek and sexy, but I'm not sure it's got the same soul as a traditional field camera. Even with that lovely rosewood grip offered by DT, she still reminds me a bit of an old Led Zepp song.

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