Phase One’s 645 AF With P 65+ Digital Back; The Megapixel Race Is Still On

On the surface, the Phase One 645 AF medium format D-SLR is the identical twin to the Mamiya 645AFD III, albeit with the Phase One logo. Step to the rear of the camera and you’ll find what sets them apart. Attached to this body is Phase One’s own P 65+. At 60.5 megapixels, this back, along with those of slightly lesser resolution, marks the turning point between film wannabes and true contenders to the throne. (Just in case, however, this is a Mamiya 645 at heart and supports optional film magazines.)

(Top): The Phase One 645 AF shown with the very capable and compact 80mm f/2.8 lens, which is included with the kit. (Above): The Phase One P 65+ 60.5-megapixel back with simple four-button control array and large LCD and card slot revealed.
All Photos © 2009, Jack Neubart, All Rights Reserved

If it weren’t for the high initial cost, equal to several top-of-the-line Nikons or Canons, I’d say chuck every other camera you own and buy this one. But let’s be practical. Every camera has its limitations, and we can’t simply count our eggs without opening the carton and really seeing what’s inside. Since I’d already tested the aforementioned Mamiya camera in a typical photo studio (see the September 2009 issue of Shutterbug), although with an entirely different back, I thought that I’d take a different tack this time around. So I returned to one of my favorite haunts, the American Museum of Natural History.

I used Capture One 4 PRO to correct color balance, enrich the colors a bit, and change the color of the flowers from pink to purple—all on the screen shown. I used a different palette (“Exposure”) to bring back the lost detail in the glass structure (Rose Center) in the far distance.

As before, I secured the necessary permissions, particularly for the use of a tripod in the exhibit areas. Once again, I called upon the talents of the museum’s photo department, specifically Matt Shanley and head honcho Denis Finnin. We even had an assist from Paul Sweet and the Department of Ornithology, which provided a turkey for us to shoot—photographically, of course.

We spent much of our time with the dinosaurs, while reacquainting ourselves with that 94-foot-long blue whale model in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. I also trekked outside to shoot the Rose Center (home of the planetarium) at “magic hour.” When we reviewed the images, Finnin in particular remarked on the superb details the camera captured. But before we delve further into this shoot, we need to take a closer look at the camera and lenses, and that amazing Phase One back.

I needed the 28mm lens to capture the full length of this blue whale model. We set up on the upper floor, practically eye level, and made this exposure for 30 seconds (ISO 50, f/8), which allowed me to light-paint the side of the whale from front to back with multiple pops from an SB-900. Dynamic range of the P 65+ is good, but not good enough to prevent some washed-out detail in the diorama on the right. Ceiling illumination is artificial.

While the camera can also be tethered to a computer, all testing was done with captures recorded to a Kingston Ultimate (266x) CompactFlash card. An 8GB card proved adequate to the task, despite the large storage requirements at highest resolution. Raw conversion and editing were done in Phase One’s Capture One 4.8 PRO on a Gateway P-7807u FX Edition running under 64-bit Windows Vista.

Front To Back
The Phase One 645 handles with aplomb. The rubberized grip is nicely contoured and quite comfy to grasp. The shutter release is responsive and even accepts a standard cable release—a nice touch in the digital age and one that came in handy. All the camera body controls are neatly and logically arrayed, so you don’t have to search for them. The Shooting mode dial, which includes X-sync and custom functions, is housed at the top, adjacent to the LCD data panel, whereas drive functions, including mirror up and off position, are governed by a dial that surrounds the shutter release.

This ocellated turkey (originally from Mexico) came from the Department of Ornithology. I took this opportunity to test the 80mm lens and used tungsten hot lights to shoot this bird in the museum’s photo studio, against a seamless backdrop. We focused on bringing out the iridescence in the feathers using a softbox on the left, right, and overhead. Thankfully, we included a Macbeth ColorChecker in our early frames because the camera’s Tungsten WB setting was inadequate, producing a strong color cast. I based color balance on the chart’s white patch in Capture One. Note the level of detail in the toe tag.

There are additional function buttons, among them exposure override, behind the top panel. Add to that the two dials, front and back, primarily for setting exposure (along with secondary functions), and you pretty much have it—all easily reached with one or two fingers of the right hand. In fact, I don’t recall a camera function that wasn’t readily accessible. All in all, the camera handled superbly. Good to see my opinion of the basic body hasn’t changed since my initial experience with the Mamiya 645.

Now, let’s move to the back. You may recall that the Leaf back on the Mamiya DL28 had a touch-sensitive LCD. The Phase One back is entirely button-controlled. The simple four-button array makes this interface remarkably simple to operate—at least for basic functions. Just follow the on-screen menu prompts. The LCD is large enough to present a clear view of the captured image, although it is no substitute for shooting tethered and using a large monitor for playback.