Top Ten Digital Back Innovations

 In CI Top 10, Leaf, Phase One
capture integration medium format phase one mamiya leaf

Medium format digital backs have for years offered a great alternative to smaller digital formats when it comes to premium image quality. This list recognizes some of the important innovations from a historical vantage point. There are many to choose from, and while many of these may not seem terribly advanced in and of themselves, when combined with the leading image quality that medium format digital backs provide, (and the inherent challenges as a result) they are impressive in their own right and facilitated important advances for medium format digital users.

10. 1996 – Leaf DCB II Live

While not the first digital back on the market (the Leaf DCB “Brick”, introduced in 1992 holds that  distinction), the Leaf DCB II Live helped usher in the digital studio era in several  important ways. It offered a live view feed to the computer as an aid for focusing and composition. The original Leaf DCB could mount on medium and large format cameras, but due to the small sensor size (and therefore small ground glass viewer), did not offer an effective way to focus and compose on view cameras, which were the benchmark for tabletop product photography. While not the Live View we know and appreciate today from DSLR cameras (and from #1 on our list, the IQ250), live view on the DCB II was a very usable aid, and opened the door for the critical integration with studio view cameras.

Leaf DCB II Live

Combined with the Sinar P2 View Camera and Electronic DB Shutters with Rodenstock lenses and the SinarCam, depth of field and creative focus techniques were made available for digital capture at a relatively high level of quality. This became the benchmark for quality digital catalogue production for years to come.

9. 1998 – Phase One LightPhase – Firewire Cable Tethering

Until 1998, digital back connectivity utilized a number of interface technologies that were restrictive or fast becoming outdated (SCSI, Nubus, etc). Phase One changed the game by adopting a Firewire interface that would remain in place even up until today, though is has changed from firewire 400 to Firewire 800 and Apple computers now have no native Firewire ports (Thunderbolt to Firewire adapters work well today, with supplemental battery or ac power). This fast, simple, 1 cable solution that was pioneered by Phase One for digital backs created an interface for digital file transmission that has endured for 16 years, an eternity in the digital age.

Phase One LightPhase

8. 2000 – SinarBack 23 HR – 1 Shot, 4 Shot, 16 Shot Capture Modes

In the year 2000, the largest single file size capture from a single shot digital back was 6 megapixels (Leaf Cantare, Phase One LightPhase, SinarBack 23),  which produced about a 36 megabyte, 16 bit RGB  file. Multi-shot capture was already an existing technology and had proven itself superior to single shot capture. While great quality for the time, 6 megapixel single shot captures were prone to color artifacting, aliasing and color/pattern moire. The 3 shot and 4 shot multi-shot capture technology found in products like the Leaf Volare and Sinarback 22 greatly reduced, and in most cases, eliminated these single shot anomalies. But while multi-shot capture provided a superior pixel quality, the end file was still no larger than the single shot capture size of 36 megabyte, 16 bit RGB files. Sinar changed that game, working with Jenoptic, by introducing a 16 shot capture mode that produced a 192 megabyte, 16 bit RGB capture – a stunning file size at the time (and even still today)

This 16 bit, 150 Megabyte file came from a 6 megapixel digital back – Sinarback 23HR 16 shot capture

7. 2004 – Phase One P Series – Portable Digital back with CF Card Slot

While not the first digital back to offer a CF Card Slot (Kodak DCS ProBack holds that distinction), the Phase One P Series provided a wide array of sensor solutions for high quality medium format digital capture on location, sans computer. *P20 (16 megapixel, 36mm x 36mm square CCD) *P21 (18 megapixel, 44mm x 33mm CCD, Micro-lenses CCD) *P25 (22 megapixel, 49mm x 37mm CCD) *P30 (31 megapixel, 44mm x 33mm CCD, Micro-lenses CCD) *P45 (39 megapixel, 49mm x 37mm CCD)

P25 (IR Mod) with compact flash slotWhile unique solutions existed for portability – various add-on batteries, mini-computers, etc – despite the success of some of these solutions (notably the Imacon 40GB Imagebank and Leaf Valeo Wi 30GB Portable Power), what many wanted was to stick a card in the digital back and shoot away without additional accessories and cables to hang onto. The Phase One P Series mainstreamed that capability with a wide variety of products to choose from, and as such, helped usher in future development for portability in the medium format digital segment.

6. 2007 – Phase One P+ Series – Superior Long Exposure

Until the Phase One P+ series,  most digital backs could produce a low noise file at exposures up to about 30 seconds. The Phase One P20+/21+/25+/30+/45+ changed the game by producing extremely low noise in files up to even an hour in exposure duration. While many photographers would not find themselves in a situation requiring a 40 or 60 minute exposure, the ability to do so provided creative opportunities. But what many overlook when it comes to the long exposure capability of the Phase One P+ series, is that even at shorter exposures, 20 seconds, 40 seconds, 2 minutes, the results are better than any exposures from other digital backs. Even today, the low noise levels from these files is quite amazing.

5. 2008 – Leaf AFi-II Series – Tilting LCD and Internal Rotating CCD Sensor

In 2006 Leaf, along with Sinar, introduced a series of digital backs for the new Hy6/Afi camera, jointly marketed by Sinar, Rollei, & Leaf (the Leaf version of the camera was known as the AFi, the Sinar and Rollei versions, Hy6). While Sinar produced standard Sinar digital backs with an adapter to mount to the Hy6, Leaf took a different approach and created a dedicated digital back especially for the AFi camera only, with a slightly modified exterior and internal electronics. The Leaf AFi-II, introduced in 2008 brought to fruition stunning advances, including a 3.5″ Tiltable LCD and an internal rotating CCD sensor. While these innovations have not yet appeared in future digital back models, the introduction of these features has resulted in a strong cult following of these specific models.

Leaf AFi-II 10 on AFi Camera

4. 2009 – Phase One Sensor Plus – High Quality Pixel Binning with No Sensor Crop

Prior to Sensor Plus, if one wanted to shoot at ISO 400 or higher with a digital back, results were mixed unless you owned a micro-lensed CCD-based product like the P21+/P30+ or an H4D-31/H4D-40. With the release of the Phase One P65+, a patented technology from Phase One called Sensor Plus was introduced. Sensor Plus utilizes pixel binning. While pixel binning in the past typically reduced the active capture area, the size of the capture, but increased capture rates, it was also prone to creating more noise in the files. Phase One took a different approach, applying the binning process before the analogue to digital conversion step. By doing so, the files are actually cleaner (by about 2 stops) than the full resolution file. This technology is called Sensor Plus. From a feature standpoint, Sensor Plus provides:

  • 2 Stop advantage in ISO compared to full resolution files
  • 30% faster capture rate compared to full resolution files
  • 75% reduction of raw file size (for projects not requiring large files)
  • Capture area is not cropped, and lens coverage remains the same as full resolution capture.
  • Canon 5D-MK II ISO 800
      Phase One P40+ Sensor Plus ISO 800

While most would switch to a 35mm DSLR camera for lower light photography, Sensor Plus provided the ability to keep shooting medium format digital in these situations.

3. 2011 – Phase One IQ Series – Million Dot LCD, Proximity Touchscreen, USB Interface, Ramped Processing

While many for years justifiably stormed about the lack of usable LCD screens on the back of Medium Format Digital Backs, all (or nearly all!) was forgiven in 2011 when Phase One launched the IQ Series digital backs. Featuring a 1.1 million dot Retina-type, proximity-based touchscreen, this was a huge leap in usability from the past. The resolution of the LCD and also the speed with which one could check focus and navigate is even today, un-surpassed. But what was also extremely important was the introduction of a USB 2/3 interface. This has created an important bridge as Apple has moved away from Firewire, and also created additional lightweight host computing options like the MacBook Air and the Surface Pro 2 Tablet. Driving all this was an updated chassis with substantially increased processing capability, which also opened the door for future development, like advanced live view and Wifi, as we’ve seen from the Phase One IQ250.

Phase One IQ Series

2. 2013 – Hasselblad H5D-200MS – High Quality Swiss Army Knife Integrated Medium Format DSLR

The H5D-200MS provides an extremely unique product in the marketplace. While there have been and are medium format digital backs that have offered many of the H5D-200MS capabilities, no product has ever offered them all so successfully in the same camera.

  • Portability with CF Card Slot, 460,000 Dot LCD
  • High Level of DB/Camera Integration (Remote focus and mirror control, lens corrections, etc)
  • Exposures up to 2 minutes
  • Multi-Shot Capture on Technical or View Cameras
  • Multi-Shot Capture on SLR Camera
  • Largest file from digital back capture

The result was a product that in one setting could provide an SLR-type of location shooting experience, while in a studio environment, could produce multi-shot captures resulting in file sizes in excess of 1.2GB (16 bit RGB) for extremely high quality detail. All of this was backed by a digital back and camera that offered live view and control of focus adjustment in the live view from a host computer.

Hasselblad H5D-200MS

1. 2014 – Phase One IQ250 – First Medium Format CMOS Sensor

While technically, Leaf developed the first CMOS sensor used with medium format products with the CMOST in 2002, the Phase One IQ250 represents a very different development for medium format. Offering true Live View, outstanding high ISO performance (ISO 3200, even ISO 6400 has usability), the real surprise is the actual quality of the file – the color depth and the dynamic range, which was a concern from many before the release of the IQ250. The quality of the file from the IQ250 significantly exceeds our expectations and will be a standard bearer for future generations.

Phase One IQ250

**Honorable Mention – while the top 10 may seem to exclude some important models, we have tried to represent some other important milestone products below. Capture Integration has never sold Megavision or Kodak digital backs (or Dicomed, for that matter) but feel it is important to at least acknowledge their accomplishments as well. 1992 – Leaf DCB “Brick” – First Medium Format Digital Back

Leaf DCB “Brick”

1992 – MegaVision T2 Digital Back – Multi-shot & Live Preview Pioneer

Megavision T2

2001 – Kodak ProBack – 1st CF Card capable Digital Back

Kodak DCS ProBack

2002 – Leaf CMOST – 1stCMOS Sensor in Digital Back (36mm x 24mm)

Leaf C Most

2004 – Leaf Valeo Wi – Bluetooth Technology

Leaf Valeo 22 Wi

2005 – Leaf Aptus Series – 3.5” Touch Screen LCD

2006 – Hasselblad H3D – Enhanced DB>SLR Camera Integration

Hasselblad H3D

2009 – Phase One P65+ – First 645 Full Frame CCD Sensor

Phase One P65+
Phase One P65+

2010 – Leaf Aptus-II 12R – First 80 Megapixel CCD (Rotating) Sensor

Leaf Aptus-II 12R

2012 – SinarBack eXact  CTM – 16 Shot capture, (1.1GB File), combined with unique filter for expanded light spectrum

Sinar eXact CTM

2013 – Phase One IQ2 Series – Wifi Connectivity

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