“If the image is in my mind’s eye, I know my Phase One can capture it.”
That was the sentiment that stood out the most in my conversation with Robert Sinclair about his experience with the Phase One XT camera system on his winter photographic expedition into Svalbard, Norway — the northernmost permanently settled place on earth. Coming from an artist with over 50 years of experience, I knew that this meant a lot.
Here at DT, we talk a lot about gear, tech specs, and features, but we focus on those things because they are an important means to an end — fulfilling a creative vision, and creating works of visual art that leave profound impressions on viewers. At our core, that’s what we empower our clients to do. Robert’s mission involved chasing ephemeral light phenomena on the Arctic Horizon in Polar Winter, and choosing the optimal system for doing so was a critical part of preparation for his expedition. The Phase One XT proved to be the perfect tool for the job.
Planning for Polar Winter
In Svalbard, the sun drops below the horizon in late October and does not rise above it again until mid-February; it goes as much as 6 degrees below the horizon before heading back up again. These months are known as the Polar Winter and are almost completely dark throughout December and January. But as February approaches, a “blue light”, as it is called, begins to appear, and it is this light and the transition into the Sunny Winter in March that he wanted to capture
During the planning for this project, Robert expected to use the equipment he already owned. Over his photographic career, he has used systems, digital and film, from most of the major manufacturers — Canon, Leica, and Hasselblad, to name a few, but ultimately settled on Phase One systems for his most serious landscape work. “The dynamic range, color accuracy, tonal subtlety, and of course, resolution, of the Phase One systems are simply unmatched by any other photographic system on the market. There are cases where I use other cameras, but when I need the ultimate image quality, I always turn to my Phase Ones.”
Having worked with Michelle Matthews at Digital Transitions for years, Robert had built a well-rounded, modular kit that could be adapted to fit his exacting specifications on a diverse set of projects. This included the Phase One XF, IQ4 150MP and IQ3 100MP Achromatic digital backs, and 3 types of ARCA-SWISS technical camera bodies (Rm3Di, Factum, and Universalis), along with selected Schneider-Kreuznach (XF) and Rodenstock (ARCA) lenses. But this project was different — there were more environmental limitations and safety considerations than usual. The entire kit would need to be limited in size and weight for packing on snowmobiles, and more importantly, due to the extreme weather, temperatures, winds, etc, executing a shot would need to be highly efficient (fast) to avoid frostbite. This made using the ARCA-SWISS technical cameras challenging, as the system (and all technical cameras) required copal shutter lenses and cabling systems to trigger and sync with the digital back.
The XT Enters the Picture
Fortunately, Phase One announced the XT field camera system shortly before the trip, and Michelle immediately contacted Robert about it, knowing it might be the perfect solution for his needs. Robert was immediately intrigued. “On paper it appeared to me that in combination with the IQ4150, which I had been using since its introduction to the market on my XF and various ARCAs, the XT field camera would be sort of a “tech-cam lite”, with its vertical and horizontal movements, full use of the touch screen capabilities of the IQ4, and as an added bonus that I was having a hard time grasping until put into use, a shutter release button on the body,” Robert said.
What made the XT even more attractive to Robert was the initial set of lenses available with the system; the 23mm, 32mm, and 70mm lenses from the uncompromising Rodenstock Digaron line — the same lenses he was using on his ARCA systems. “My ARCA mounted Rodenstock lenses were the 40mm, 90mm, and 2 rarely used longer lenses from years ago I used with a Linhof 679 I had remounted for the ARCAs. So the possibility of the XT with the wider lenses would allow me to expand my focal length range in the direction I needed (wider) and with the 70mm, fill in between the 40mm and 90mm.”
Michelle arranged for an XT to be made available for Robert to demo during the twice-yearly Texas Road Show, and after a test drive, Robert was sold. With the camera and lenses in such short supply, it was challenging for any Phase One dealer to ensure delivery before Robert’s trip, but as the largest Phase One dealer in the US, Digital Transitions was able to make it happen. “Within a few weeks I had the XT in hand, along with all three lenses. And, having been impressed with the output of the IQ3100 Achromatic that I used on my ARCAs and Mamiya RZ67, I further purchased the IQ4 150MP Achromatic to use with the XT.”
Confident that the XT was the right technical camera for this particular trip, his compact-but-powerful kit was all in order, and he was ready to make the trip.
Robert arrived in Longyearbyen, the primary town on Svalbard, in mid-February, where he met up with his guide, Chicco Mattos, of Shutterbird Productions. Though Robert is normally a “go-it-alone” type traveler, Svalbard was different — there are no roads beyond Longyearbyen, travel can only be accomplished by snowmobile or dog sled. In fact, travel on land outside of the town of Longyearbyen is actually prohibited unless one is permitted to carry a firearm, as the danger of bears and other Arctic predators is very real. Chicco is a seasoned guide whose passion for the Arctic led him to move from his native Brazil to become a guide there, and the two men got along very well. “Having worked together on scouting locations for interesting light, Chicco learned what my eye was attracted to,” Robert said.
He recalled one particularly memorable experience on one of his 60-mile snowmobile drives back to town through the Sassendalen valley. “I noted that while the sky appeared clear, the air we were traveling through had a foggy quality to it, revealing what locals call the ‘pink hour’. I pulled my tripod off of the snowmobile, but the cover for the head had fallen off and the entire head was frozen so it was not usable to make an image. I pulled the XT out of the bag with the 32mm and IQ4150 mounted and proceeded to frame up a handheld shot of the valley. I needed sufficient ISO to allow for a fast shutter speed for a handheld shot at f/11.” Was it really possible to take a great handheld image on a camera like the XT?
Prior to venturing out, Robert had developed a method that reduced the need to “fiddle with the camera” using the XT and the 32mm and 23mm lenses. “During my preparation or ‘training period’ back in December, I sought to find the hyperfocal distance setting for both the 23mm and 32mm at f/11. In doing so I could set the focus and aperture before heading out each day, leaving the shutter speed and ISO as the only required variables. And given that in many cases the light was always indirect, soft, and created little contrast, in many cases I would set the shutter speed fast enough to ensure a sharp image on the tripod in windy conditions, thus only having to adjust the ISO to gain the proper exposure setting; the XT with the wide lenses came close to being a ‘point and shoot.'”
So he simply adjusted the ISO to match the dimming light, framed the shot, released the on-body release button, and made the shot shown below:
“Chicco said we need to keep moving because of the extreme cold and his face was getting nipped, so the one handheld shot is what I would have to be satisfied with – I am.”
I had a few final questions for Robert — the first few regarding the shortcomings of the XT system.
Many prospective XT buyers hesitate due to the lack of tilt in its native lenses, but when I asked Robert about it, he said he “didn’t miss it at all.” A veteran view camera and technical camera user, he felt that the shorter focal lengths on a 645 sensor (as compared to larger sheet film) allowed for effective throughout-the-frame focus even without it, particularly for the 23mm and 32mm lenses. The 32mm was permanently attached to his XT, he stated, and with 150MP of resolution, there was plenty of room to crop in while retaining high resolution and focus throughout the frame.
I asked what other limitations and challenges he ran into that stood out to him — he said that the only technical or equipment issue I ever encountered was due to battery failure in the cold. “This I learned, however, can be avoided if one removes the battery before putting the camera back in the bag and putting the batteries back in my 5 layers of clothes for warmth. The only other issue I found with the XT is forgetting to zero-out the movements after each shot sequence, but this is “operator error” and not the equipment.” Fortunately, the XT shows and tracks movements in metadata, and displays them dynamically in the live view window.
The last, but most important question was how the images translated into print. Robert was quick to reply, “When I started using the IQ4150 in 2018, it quickly became apparent that no matter how good I thought the prior MFDB’s were, this back was far and above on a different level and a more robust capture tool. With the IQ4150, what one has in their mind’s eye of the image is what one can get and depending upon the complexity of the light and content, many times little post-production work is required.”
But taking full advantage of such detail rich files requires equally high-quality monitoring and printing equipment, he said. “When I returned to my home and studio following the Arctic trip, what I was seeing on the computer monitor and what I was producing as prints were not the same.” Robert came back to Michelle at DT, who helped him choose an Eizo ColorEdge monitor for post-processing and proofing. “It became more apparent that this part of the image-making process is critical if one has print output from a 150 megapixel back, and it took the subtleties of the Arctic light in Svalbard to reveal this last link to me. To assist me with putting the right computer system together to go with the Phase One equipment on the capture end and the Epson P20000 printer on the other, Michelle put me in touch with DT technical support and we finalized a solution for the monitor and computer.”
Want to learn more about the XT system, or start your own XT adventure? Contact your sales rep, or if you’re new, send us an email at email@example.com to get more information, schedule a demo, or arrange a rental!