The Phase One XF and IQ3: Exposé on Exposure

by Doug Peterson


And Now for Something Different

Phase One released a whole host of new hardware and software today. Three new backs, two new lenses, one new version of software, and I think may have even released a partridge in a pear tree. We have pages of information about these on our Phase One XF Blogs, and there are several relevant threads on the forums. Rather than rehash that same information here I wanted to share several of the new easily overlooked features that revolve around exposure evaluation. Even when shooting raw, exposure is one of the most important elements of realizing your vision.

Note: where noted these features are limited to the IQ3 series and IQ2 series backs. The IQ2 backs will receive these new features via a free firmware update.


Real Time Exposure Meters everywhere (IQ2/IQ3 only)

The XF provides four different places to review a real time feed from the Exposure Meter before you capture an image. There is a readout in the viewfinder as well as on the top LCD of the camera, but nearly all cameras do. It also provides this reading in the digital back, either as a small tool off to the side while you’re in review mode, or in a dedicated camera controls screen that exactly mimics the interface on the top of the camera. Finally, with the release of the IQ3, the live feed from the exposure meter is even shown in Capture One’s Camera Controls tool. Meter readouts are everywhere!


Large EV Bracketing

The advent of HDR imaging (the smartly used subtly blended variety, not the horrid over-the-top variety) calls for bracketing in larger increments in the past. While the high dynamic range of Phase One backs mean that many previously-challenging scenes can be captured in a single frame, there are still outlier cases where you want to bracket to include an area of the frame that is especially bright or dark. The XF removes the low limit imposed by many cameras and allows bracketing to be done in up to 5 stop increments, for up to 7 frames. In theory you could capture nearly 50 stops of range between bracketing and the native dynamic range of the sensor; you’d never have to do that, but placing the ceiling that high means you’ll never have to worry about where the ceiling is.


Exposure Calculator (IQ2/IQ3 only)

This built in “app” is a handy tool to calculate exposure times. It was originally intended to help with calculating very long exposures – take an ISO3200 capture wide open and judge the exposure, and once you have the right exposure you can use the Exposure Calculator to find the correct long exposure when at low ISO and stopped down. My previous approach to this was to count stops on my fingers, but when being off by even one stop means waiting 20 minutes for an underexposed image, you would appreciate a more automatic approach. I’m sure there are iPhone apps out there for this, but it’s nice to have it built into the back, where it can pick up on your current settings and apply the new settings automatically.

The Zone Exposure Heat Map (IQ2/IQ3 only)

The Zone System, promoted by Ansel Adams, provided the foundation for proper exposure for decades. Modern camera companies seem to have wholly forgotten it, instead preferring the modern histogram.

I love histograms, but they have three major weakness. First, they represent exposure in a continuous spectrum that isn’t stop-referenced. It’s hard to look at a histogram and make anything more than a rough guess as to how over or under exposed it is. Second, it promotes evaluation of the images based mostly on the tails of the exposure; it is clear when the histogram shows clipping to the right, or too much information densely packed to the left. But there isn’t much use in the middle of the histogram. Do you know where a dark green leaves or caucasian skin should fall on a histogram? Probably not. Third, it doesn’t show you WHERE in an image tonality occurs. For instance, in a backlit high-key portrait you may wish to blow the highlights of the background, but you might want to know where the exposure of the highlights on the cheek are falling. In a histogram there’s no way to know that.

In the IQ3 there is a new tool called the Zone Exposure Heat Map. This tool will also be ported to the IQ2 via a free firmware update. The heat map overlays the image and shows where that part of the image falls in photographic stops. If you prefer it can also provide this guidance in RGB values; I know that I’ll personally be using it exclusively in stops.

The New Clipping Option in the Highlight Warning Tool (IQ2/IQ3 only)

Nearly all modern cameras feature a highlight warning tool. This almost always takes the form of blinkies which indicate when a particular area of the frame is beyond some particular highlight value. On the IQ this number is customizable; the color of the overlay can be changed (the default of red works most of the time, but you may want to change this when the subject itself is a red color) and the tool can show exposure warning in a thumbnail off to the side without obscuring or shrinking the view of the main image.

Like histograms, highlight warning tools are very useful, but have inherent limitations. Specifically, over the past few years the raw processing in Capture One has been improved to include powerful highlight recovery. A cloudy sky that would trigger the highlight warning tool that was previously unrecoverable might be easy to bring back with highlight recovery. A second level of warning was required which showed true point-of-no-return clipping information. The IQ3 now has such a tool. In the Highlight Recovery Tool simply turn on the new “Clipping warning” option and hard-clipped areas of the frame will be indicated in magenta. This is calculated from the underlying raw file rather than the 8-bit preview on the screen, and is therefore very precise in letting you know just when a highlight is truly blown.


Metering (and Autofocus) with the Waist-Level Viewfinder

The waist-level viewfinder in the XF provides high-accuracy spot metering. This is accomplished by using the Honeybee Autofocus Sensor, which is, itself a one megapixel CMOS sensor. The XF is not the first to provide this functionality, but it is the only system in production which does.


One Shot AE

I live in manual exposure mode. But there are times when I’m about to miss a shot, I know my exposure isn’t set right for the next shot, and I don’t have time to adjust it manually. All the buttons on the XF can be assigned custom functions, and one of those functions is a One Shot AE which adjusts the exposure automatically even if you’re in Manual Mode.

That means I can quickly assure a good exposure with a single hard-button push, without removing my eye from the viewfinder, even when I’m in fully manual mode.


Easy Auto Functions (Auto ISO is IQ2/IQ3 only)

The terminology Av, Tv, and P have been kicking around forever. They were born in the film era where Auto ISO wasn’t an option – you couldn’t even manually change the ISO of a frame unless you stuck a different roll in. Instead of relying on this arcane terminology, the XF provides very simple and intuitive control over each parameter. Tap an exposure parameter (e.g. Shutter Speed) and you can opt to change it between Manual and Auto. For instance, if you put all three (Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO) on auto you’d be in a mode similar to P. This paradigm is significantly more logical, and represents a ground-up rethink of what a modern camera body should be.

Easy Auto Limits

The automatic options are great, but without limits an Auto ISO mode might push you to maximum ISO when you would have preferred it drop shutter speed instead. In the same one-touch menu that allows you to change an exposure parameter from manual to auto, the XF offers high and low limits, each controlled by a dedicated dial. For example, you can opt not to allow Auto to push the ISO above 400, or set the shutter speed not to go below 1/125th (for hand holdability).


A Photographer’s Company

These tools offer useful solutions to common photographic problems. Once you’ve seen them they seem as intuitive as “swipe to unlock” and yet many of these have never been done by any camera company. I’m convinced this is because of the nature of Phase One’s R+D Team. There are so many photographers at Phase One, and though they’d never admit it, I think many of these features were pushed to the top of the queue because they wanted these features for their own photography. Moreover, they spend so much time interacting with their customers – more than any photo company I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. With the XF launched, the R+D team is dispersing across the globe to meet with clients, show the XF and get feedback for its further development. Digital Transitions will be hosting XF launch events in LA, New York, Chicago, DC, Boston, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Philly, San Francisco, and Birmingham with Phase One R+D or Support personnel at most.


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