The P45

The Fattest Pixel Multi-Millionaire

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Being the crazy photographer that I am, once I learned that I'll be able to go to a roll-out, of course I started thinking what equipment to bring along. Knowing that my chances of coming back for a re-run were about as good as those of this country going metric during my lifetime, I knew I had to get the big guns. Not so much because I think that size matters, but because I like REALLY large prints, and let's face it, the awesome D30 pictures from 2001 don't even fill my screen today. It became obvious that I needed to organize a P45 back. This is however easier said than done.

I can't really explain the details, but I got a loaner P45. If it is anything as good as its presentation, it will be awesome, I thought: the back comes in an aluminum suitcase with magnificent padding - which it badly needed, because FedEx delivered it in a soaking wet, for all intents and purposes destroyed shipping box.

Along with the back I needed a MF body. I opted for the Contax 645 because I have used it extensively in the past and felt really comfortable with it. Since I got the back a week early I could go practice first. That turned out to be a really good idea, because in the past 6 years I've forgotten how clumsy a MF camera feels compared to say a Canon 1Ds (and you thought that one was heavy).

When dealing with a digital back, and specifically the P45, you'll realize that it's a different game from your P&S or even DSLR. Slow capture. Premeditated everything. Raw capture only (not that there's anything wrong with that). Huge files. In direct comparison with the Aptus 22 which I've also used, the P45 has a cumbersome menu system that's operated with four buttons instead of the Leaf's touch screen. The screen is tiny and has color accuracy that could rival that of my original 1Ds (that's not a good thing). Add to that a very dithered display, and you basically don't know what it is you just shot. But again, most people either use the P45 tethered or don't even look at the display, so they don't notice this problem. NOTE: As of October 2006, this has been fixed by PhaseOne with the release of the P+ digital back series. Still no touch screen, but a good normal one. I actually prefer this to a touch-screen.

The back loves light. Lots of it. Initially, the roll-out was scheduled for 02:00 EDT, which would have given us really unique pictures - but probably not with the P45. Its ISO range is 50-400, with 400 sucking less than one may expect but still not something I'd choose to use if given a choice. Combined with the fact that the Contax 645 can capture only up to 32s long exposures, the P45 doesn't cooperate with the Contax in Bulb mode, and that the crawler can crawl a noticeably long distance in 32s anyway, let's say I was happy that the roll-out was delayed until 12:30 EDT.

Shooting is not much harder than with a normal DSLR, even if slower. Problem is diffraction: since this is medium format, you need f16 or more to get some real DOF (the shuttle is quite fat); but anything above f11 will give you serious diffraction. On the other hand, you need a fast shutter speed when hand holding the camera: the mirror is so huge that the resulting flap is noticeable with anything slower than 1/350s, based on my tests. So you are looking for enough light at ISO 100, f11, 1/500s. Now go do the math.

Now this may give you the impression that I didn't like the P45. Just the contrary: I loved it, and the only reason that I didn't run to the next store and bought it was its sticker price of ... well, I don't actually know, it's not well advertised - and the local camera store doesn't have them in stock; but the commonly used ballpark figure is $1k/megapixel. All I am saying is that I was pretty much abusing a wonderful camera and made it do something it wasn't really intended for. It's meant to be used by studio photographers, either shooting hot girls in bikinis or some yummy dinner plates or wine bottles. Rarely, a P45 may be found in the arsenal of a landscape photographer - but let's face it, how many landscape photographers can afford it? The studio photographer has all the strobes he can dream of, and the landscape shooter has a tripod, since the mountain & lake scene typically doesn't run away (unless you are shooting a receding glacier these days). But who on earth would shoot it handheld, a moving subject under natural light? I had to be crazy.

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All things considered, the P45 did extremely well - as well as I would let it. Clearly, I could have done a better job, mainly if I had known what to expect; had I not lost the level (and thus ended up with crooked images); had I not run out of batteries at the most inopportune moments; had I had a Contax telephoto lens in my bag. Photographer errors aside, the software seems to be the weakest link here. I have been using C1 since the day it became available on the Mac, and never quit using it. I still think it's the best thing out there, esp. with respect to color and workflow. My only beef with it is the way it handles shadow detail - or the lack thereof. Again, I am faulting a piece of software for not being able to do something it wasn't originally designed for (since C1 is mainly a sidekick of the PhaseOne backs). Still, C1 makes shadow detail look like a wax sculpture, not in a good way. Normally, you can open your occasional night image in Photoshop and then marvel about the revealed details, but when facing a P45 image that's not an option - Photoshop doesn't support any PhaseOne camera backs, as if they weren't the market leader. Some research has shown that RawDeveloper does a splendid job with dark P45 images (even though its workflow completely sucks when compared to C1), so by the end of the day it was all good.

I have been asked if I'd take the P45 with me if I had to do it over again. My answer is yes, but I would be more selective about where to use it, or I would require more time. Especially the OPF and VAB visit on the first day was way too rushed in order to do the P45 any justice whatsoever. If I had two hours for the OPF alone, I'd take the P45 in a heartbeat; otherwise I wouldn't even bother, as a 1Ds2 at ISO 1000 would give me far better coverage and better pictures of what's actually going on inside. But at the end of the day I think that the P45 pictures which I brought home were well worth the effort. I have a feeling that they won't fall out of favor anytime soon.

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