Hands-on with the Phase One XT camera system


Phase One has just unveiled their new XT Camera System, which uses the same IQ4 digital backs as their XF system, but in a much smaller and lighter overall package. Phase One is billing the XT system as a 'field camera,' explaining to us that, while the XF system is really about ultimate image quality in a studio environment, the XT is about making it easier to achieve that quality beyond the studio.

Let's take a closer look at the components of the XT camera system and how it handles.

The XT camera

Although Phase One likes to use 'back-to-basics' as a phrase to describe the entire XT camera system, it's the impressively slim XT camera itself that is perhaps most representative of this philosophy. The IQ4 digital backs mount to the rear of the camera, and a series of new Rodenstock lenses (which are attached to the company's new 'X-Shutter' mechanism - more on that in a bit) mount to the front, using a standard Cambo mount. You can see the electrical contacts here that control that shutter, and also communicate shooting data between the lens and the camera.

The XT camera also allows users to quickly switch from landscape to portrait orientation, thanks to a tripod plate mounted on a grooved track (visible here on the right of the camera) that allows the whole system to rotate 90 degrees without leaving the tripod. If you like, you can remove the tripod foot altogether.

There are only three control points on the XT camera - one which you can easily see here, is that bright blue shutter button at the top left. The others are...

Lens shift knobs

...shift-knobs, seen here as the textured tumbler on the top of the camera. These will adjust the Rodenstock lenses by as much as 12mm up, down, left and right. There is another of these knobs on the rear of the camera (not visible, but just below the thumb in the photograph), and they principally allow for the correction of perspective distortion while shooting, but could also aid those shooting with high-megapixel stitched panoramas in mind, as well.

Lens shift knobs

Here, you can see one of this early prototype camera's lens-shift display windows, as well as a peak of that second shift knob. These show you how far you've currently got the lens shifted. This value is saved into the EXIF data for the files, for later reference.

So, on the XT camera, you have the dual-action shutter button and two shift knobs - how do you go about controlling the rest of the camera?

The digital back

As is already an option for users of Phase One's XF system, the touchscreen interface on the company's IQ4 lineup of digital backs becomes absolutely key when using the XT system. They provide a robust live view display to aid in composition, and also include helpful exposure aids, such as Raw clipping indicators. You also have full access to the system's menus, and from there, you can enable the new Automated Frame Averaging feature, which we'll be looking at in greater depth in a separate article.

The rear touch-sensitive display also allows for adjustment of all exposure parameters, including aperture (there's no aperture ring on the Rodenstock lenses). Speaking of rings on lenses...

Manual focus only

...the XT system is manual focus-only. Here, you can see the manual focus ring for the Rodenstock 32mm F4 lens - it's very well-damped and very smooth, and we'd expect the same on the other lenses offered. Of course, manual focus generally precludes the use of the XT system as a fast, reactive photographic tool for moving subjects, but Phase One is...unfazed...by this reality. The company has stated that it's really aiming the XT system at high-end landscape and architectural photographers that will likely use smaller apertures for greater depth-of-field, and for whom focusing using the rear screen and its in-built focus aids is an expected way of working.

Of course, there will probably be users who will take their XT system out as a 'carry-around' kit for shooting just about everything, just as there are users who currently do the same with the much-bigger XF system.

The X-Shutter and ebony grip

This brings us to the new X-Shutter mechanism, shown here protruding between the mount and the lens barrel. Phase One tells us that their experience in industrial applications informed this new unit's construction.

The X-Shutter is electromagnetically controlled, and allows for shutter speeds from 1/1000 sec to 60 minutes, and is tested for a minimum of 500,000 actuations. There are 5 rounded aperture blades, all made of carbon fiber.

Oh, and last but not least, you can get a nice view of the XT's grip in this image. It's made of ebony, and is one of very few non-metal components on the camera.

The wrap

And that's it for our quick hands-on tour of Phase One's new XT camera system. The Phase One XT is the second example we've yet seen of modular medium format makers embracing the possibility of mirrorless cameras.

With the exception of the Pentax 645D and Z, most medium format systems have been based around modular backs that attach to camera bodies that contain an SLR mirror and viewfinder mechanism, along with the mechanism required to fire the shutter.

In the digital era, most of the camera functions and, increasingly, the ability to preview the image, have migrated from the camera body to the camera back. A move to a mirrorless design further reduces the role played by the camera body, to the point that it becomes almost a back-to-lens adapter with a shutter button.

Whether encouraged by the acceptance of the mirrorless approach by the rest of the market or as a by-product of a generation of large CMOS sensors with usably-fast live view, it's interesting to see both Hasselblad (with its 907x) and Phase One recognize how minimalist a 'camera body' can be.

What do you make of the brand-new XT camera system? Let us know in the comments!