Phase One, a specialist in medium-format cameras, has designed the XT IQ4 field system especially for landscape photography. It costs $58,990, which buys you the camera and the 32 mm F/4 lens, and there’s a new 90 mm F/5.6 lens available for just under $13,000 more. So what do you get for the total price, more or less, of a Mercedes-Benz CLS Coupe? To start, a crazy-high-resolution, 151-megapixel digital back; a sleek but sturdy body; and the absolute sharpest lenses anywhere.
The setup is simple and efficient, allowing quick access to all the features. The XT IQ4 is mirrorless, eliminating a clunky shutter, and supports Rodenstock lenses, also known as some of the world’s finest optical glass. I know from my own collection of Rodenstock lenses over a 30-year career.
With the 32 mm lens, the body tips the scales at 5.4 pounds, and the 90 mm weighs nearly 3 pounds on its own, together falling within my 10-pound weight limit for camera equipment on long hikes. So off I went. Even with just two lenses, I found myself with more flexibility than expected: With the shifting back, the 32 mm lens can be used to capture a wider field of view, and when cropping only 50 percent of a scene caught with the 90mm, I can crop to the equivalent of up to 180mm focal length.
Phase One calls the XT an “actively improving” system, which means when new elements are developed they’re added as downloadable firmware upgrades. I typically buy a new digital camera every two to three years, but with an improving system, the XT could last more than a decade. And I thought two such feature updates, added just before testing, were extremely useful: Automated Frame Averaging, which allows for long exposures without the use of neutral density filters, and Dual Exposure +, which eliminates the need for high-dynamic-range (HDR) bracketing.
I mostly shot well before sunrise and after it set; in low-light conditions, when the natural light is soft and more colors become visible, I found the camera impressively easy to operate. And it’s comfortable enough to consider hand-holding, the only challenge being there’s no viewfinder. Fortunately, its base is designed to rotate from landscape to portrait in seconds when mounted on a tripod.
One nit: The camera takes a full 20 seconds to boot. In a few races against vanishing conditions I had to make sure to click the power button before setting up my tripod.
But overall the system reminds me of the rig my grandfather Josef Muench used in the 1940s, when he shot for Arizona Highways magazine. He hand-held a Linhof Technika 4×5, which gave him only two shots per film holder. It’s hard to overstate how difficult that would be in the field,
but it’s what he put up with to capture the highest-quality images possible at the time. Today, with the same goal, I’d use the XT IQ4.
Rodenstock’s new 90 mm F/5.6 lens adds a welcome focal length to the Phase One XT. I usually carry a wide-angle and a medium telephoto on all my landscape shoots, but for my purposes the 90 mm can replace the telephoto, as I find it approximates 180 mm when images are cropped and is the equivalent to a 56.25 mm on a full-frame sensor. The latter is close to my favorite focal length in all of photography, the “nifty fifty,” which creates a fairly distortion-free view, similar to our natural perspective.
The most significant differentiator between this and any other lens is the large image circle, which makes it possible to use the Phase One XT’s versatile IQ4 digital back in all directions with no vignette. This allows for the seamless merging of two images into one without dark corners or soft regions, usually possible only with the type of traditional field camera toted by the likes of Ansel Adams.
Of course, the five-figure lens’s true value proposition is its sharpness, not only in the center but at the glass’s edge. And while I wish it were half the size, that would be physically impossible considering the aforementioned vast image circle. That quality alone makes the 90 mm Rodenstock my new must-have, no matter the price.