PhaseOne's 100MP digital back and the future of Medium Format Digital

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This morning Phase One has announced a 100MP digital back for their XF camera system. It’s unclear if this back will have the same camera support as the other IQ3 backs, but it probably will, so that means Mamiya/PhaseOne DF+, Hasselblad H / V and Mamiya RZ67/RB67 support. I’m not sure if you’d really want to put a 100MP digiback on an RB67. The lenses probably don’t have that kind of resolution. The RZ W lenses probably fair better…

The big surprise with this new 100MP back is that it’s CMOS. For years Phase’s higher resolution backs (60 and 80MP) were CCD. Very good CCD, especially the 80MP which had 14 stops of dynamic range, but still CCD which meant native ISO topping out at 800. Phase has been selling a 50MP CMOS back for years but it’s a 1.25x crop on full frame 645. The new back is not only full frame 645, but has an uncanny 15 stop dynamic range. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that Sony co-developed this sensor, what is surprising is that Sony is mentioned prominently in the marketing material for it. Sony also produced the 50MP sensor because they literally dominate CMOS fabing at this point. So that means Sony is now producing a 100MP full frame 645 CMOS. This is interesting.

The 50MP Sony sensor could also be found in several Hasselblad products and the Pentax 645Z. The Pentax is a complete camera at $10k while the Phase and Hasselblad backs with the sensor are $10-30k. Pentax certainly has very different value proposition. Does Phase have exclusivity on the 100MP sensor? Sony is going to want to maximize what is already a tiny market, will they open it up to other customers? That is the first question and only time will tell. It may be a timed exclusive. I’m mostly curious about a future Pentax solution, but a little worried that it couldn’t happen. I suspect the 100MP chip will be priced too high for a $10k Pentax solution for a few years at least (that’s ok, the 645Z probably has another few years left). Lenses are a bigger worry however.

Pentax has several series of 645 lenses. Their original manual focus lenses are the 645 A lenses. They then released the ‘FA’ 645 lenses with the release of the 645N and N2 film cameras to add auto focus. When the 645D digital came out, they released some ’D-FA’ lenses, which are suposed to be optically better and add things like their silent/faster autofocus. The real issue is that they also released a couple ‘DA’ lenses. These lenses are actually not compatible with full frame 645. In one case (25mm f4) it was just a tighter lens hood that would vignette on full frame, but in the other case (28-45mm f4) it may not work at all. This would make Pentax resistant to sell a full frame body. They could do what they’re doing with the new full frame 35mm body (and what Nikon smartly does) which is detact the crop lens and automatically just crop the picture. Hopefully this is an option. The final lens issue is that I’m not sure Pentax lenses are really ready for 100MP. Certainly some of the ‘current’ lenses (45mm f2.8) aren’t even really good enough at 40-50MP…

It also seems likely that if Phase doesn’t have exclusivity on the sensor that we’ll see a Hasselblad back using it sooner or later. Hassey probably needs this more than Pentax, as they’ve struggled to remain competitive with Phase with their 60MP CCD going up against the Phase 80 in similar markets. And while opinion is fairly split, the Mamiya / Phase / Schneider effort seems to have a better glass line up than the Hasselblad / Fuji team. If they could go toe to toe with 100MP backs, they would certainly be more competitive.

Either way, a new medium format digital censor, a full frame CMOS no less, is extremely exciting for medium format photographers. This is a pixel density of only ~38MP in the 35mm format, and while I don’t expect PhaseOne or Sony to stop at 100MP, it may be a real sweet spot.