Outstanding image quality. Full-size 645 image sensor. Infrared capture capability. 16-bit Raw imaging. Mechanical and electronic shutter options.
Extremely expensive. Slower autofocus. Heavy, bulky frame. Not fully weather sealed. Single memory card slot. Omits video support.
- Bottom Line
If you love black-and-white imaging, and have the budget, the $55,000 Phase One IQ3 100MP Achromatic might be the camera for you. The rest of us can admire it from afar.
Some cameras are crowd-pleasers, others fill a niche. The Phase One IQ3 100MP Achromatic ($54,990 with XF body and lens) is beyond niche. The digital medium format back packs a full-size 645 image sensor with a staggering 100MP resolution, and those 100MP photos are black and white. The sensor omits both color and infrared filters, which boosts effective resolution and, when paired with the right lens filter, lets you capture light that's outside the visible spectrum. It's a powerful creative tool, and the perfect fit for a few. Our Editors' Choice medium format camera in this price range is also from Phase One, the IQ3 100MP, which captures images in color.
Phase One sells modular medium format systems. That means the digital back, in this case the IQ3 100MP Achromatic, can be used with other camera systems, including large format cameras. The back is priced at $49,990 on its own.
I tested the Achromatic with the XF body and the 80mm LS f/2.8 lens. This is the second time I've shot with the XF system. For a deep dive on how the camera performs, head over to my XF 100MP review. Apart from the black-and-white output, shooting the XF with the Achromatic back attached is exactly the same as shooting with the color IQ3 100MP back.
If you need a refresher, the XF is a big SLR with a modular viewfinder—it ships with an eye-level prism, but you can swap it for a waist-level finder. It supports autofocus, has a focal plane shutter, and sports three control dials to adjust exposure settings. The body itself has a top touch-sensitive display to configure settings, which works in conjunction with the back's touch LCD. It includes some forward-thinking features, like a seismograph to trigger exposures when camera shake has been eliminated, and automated focus stacking for macro photography.
The Benefits of Monochrome
Despite almost every camera on the market capturing photos in color, sensors are inherently monochrome. In order to capture photos in color, a filter array must be integrated into the design. The most popular design is the Bayer array, although Fujifilm uses a more complex X-Trans design in many of its cameras.
The Bayer array filters red, green, and blue light on a pixel level. Half the pixels are sensitive to green light, and a quarter each record blue and red information. Because you're not getting data at every pixel site, the camera's image processor has to perform some interpolation in order to fill in the blanks.
Eliminate the Bayer filter and that guesswork is gone. The Achromatic records luminance information for each of its 101,082,464 pixels. You may not see the improved resolution in every photo—interpolation can do a great job for many subjects—but it's especially noticeable when shooting images with notable texture. Take a look at the shot of the aged barn door above, and the pixel-level crop below. The camera picks up more tiny details in the wood than you'd get with a black-and-white image converted from a color camera.
Detail isn't the only reason to choose a monochrome sensor for black-and-white work. Just as I experienced with the 35mm full-frame Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246), a black-and-white sensor acts much like black-and-white film when it comes to tone. Transitions between lights, midtones, and shadows are subtle, and you can use the bundled Capture One software to adjust images to taste. If you prefer a low contrast look, you can have it, and if you want punchy, high contrast shots, they're a few slider adjustments away.
And there's the dynamic range. The back only captures in a 16-bit Raw format, which Phase One promises delivers 15 stops of dynamic range. I found it easy to pull detail out of both shadows and highlights, capturing backlit scenes with the bright sun in the frame and deep shadows without losing data at either end of the histogram. The side-by-side comparison above shows an image as exposed in camera and after processing the image in Capture One to pull out details in the shadows and reign in the highlights.
Beyond the Visible Spectrum
The Achromatic is sensitive to light on the infrared spectrum—light that's not visible to the human eye. Typically you'll want to block the IR light, which requires a filter over the lens. Phase One provides a 486 UV IR Cut filter, manufactured by Schneider and sold under its B+W brand. The filter looks clear when viewed head on, but you can see its actual magenta nature when viewing it from an angle.
Photographers who remember the Leica M8 will know 486 filters quite well. Leica's first digital rangefinder, a color camera, had a weak IR filter over the sensor, which caused color shifts, especially when photographing synthetic black fabrics. Leica provided 486 filters with the purchase of the camera to block IR light. The filter serves the same purpose here, although the Achromatic's sensitivity to IR is an intentional design choice.
Remove the 486 filter and the Achromatic becomes a wide spectrum camera. It picks up light that human eyes can't see. If you look at the middle shot above you'll see that the dark foliage of the visible spectrum and the white foliage of infrared live together in one shot. You will need to manually focus and set exposure using the Live View display when shooting in this way—the XF's autofocus system and in-camera meter are tuned for visible light.
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You can also record images in infrared only (the far right portion of our comparison shot). You'll need to put a filter over the lens to block visible light from entering. I used a B+W 092 filter for infrared imaging. With the filter attached the viewfinder looks almost black, except when pointing the camera at an extremely bright light source (an afternoon sky, for example), where it takes on a dark red look.
As with wide spectrum shooting, you'll want to use the rear LCD to frame and focus when making infrared images. The XF system lends itself to tripod use to begin with, but it's nearly essential for shooting IR. Thankfully the back's rear LCD is sharp, and you can magnify any portion of the frame up to 400 percent in order to nail focus. You'll still need to set the exposure manually, using a longer shutter speed or higher ISO than you'd use for a visible light exposure.
One feature that comes in very handy for IR work, or any sort of Live View use for that matter, is an electronic shutter option. When combined with shooting using the rear LCD it eliminates vibration from image capture. Sensor readout speed is a concern, so you'll only want to use it for static subjects, and it can't sync with a flash, but for natural light landscapes, it's a good option.
The Achromatic has a higher base ISO than color backs. Its range starts at ISO 200 and goes all the way to ISO 51200. Compare this with the IQ3 100MP, which ranges from ISO 50 through 12800, or the IQ3 Trichromatic, which has a stronger than average Bayer color filter and starts at ISO 32.
The higher base ISO gives the Achromatic an edge over color models when shooting in low light. But if you want to incorporate long exposures into your landscape photography—to smooth running water or cloudy skies—you'll need to reach for a neutral density filter to cut incoming light.
The amount of noise in the Achromatic's images depends on your processing choices. By default Capture One applies noise reduction to Raw images, and if you leave default settings on the back keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 3200. With noise reduction disabled completely there's more visible grain, and the files show 1.1 percent noise at ISO 400 and 1.7 percent at ISO 800.
I've included pixel-level crops of the output, without noise reduction, in the slideshow that goes along with this review. Despite showing a fair amount of grain at high ISOs, detail holds up well through ISO 12800. Images appear rougher at ISO 25600, which detracts from fine detail, and take a more noticeable step back at ISO 51200. But that's an extreme setting for medium format photography, and when you consider the amount of resolution you're getting to begin with, image quality at the top sensitivity should be considered strong.
The IQ3 Achromatic is an extremely powerful photographic tool. It offers incredible resolution and dynamic range, superlative black-and-white output, and infrared imaging capabilities. If monochrome imaging is your forte, and you have the budget, there's nothing else that matches it.
That's not to say it's perfect for every application. Medium format photography lends itself to a disciplined approach. It's wonderful if you love working from a tripod or carefully crafting exposures in studio. But if you prefer to shoot in a documentary style, wandering through urban streets to capture candid moments and scenes from life, the 35mm full-frame Leica M Monochrom is a better fit for dedicated black-and-white work. And don't count out high-resolution color cameras, like the Sony a7R III and Nikon D850 if a rangefinder is not your style. Their sensors are among the best out there and handle black-and-white conversions quite well.
We continue to recommend to Phase One IQ3 100MP as our Editors' Choice for high-end medium format imaging. It's not as specialized as the Achromatic, but gives you the option of shooting in color and converting select images to black and white as needed.
There are also options out there for photographers who lust after medium format systems, but don't have the budget for a Phase One system. Our top pick among a small sampling of low-cost models—low-cost being a very relative term—is the Fujifilm GFX 50S. Its sensor isn't as large as 645 film and it "only" delivers 50MP resolution, but it's more accessible and handles more like a traditional 35mm SLR.
By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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