Digital Large Format
What is a Technical Camera?
The original medium format mirrorless camera: Put simply, a technical camera is a lens, body, and digital back with a cable connecting the lens to the digital back for electronic communication. That’s about as specific as I like to define a technical camera because they come in all kinds of different flavors- some barely even resembling the definition I just provided.
The design of this kind of camera allow manufacturers more freedom to implement extraordinarily high quality lenses that produce the absolute greatest image quality. Building on the design of large format field and view cameras, technical cameras often feature perspective correcting and stitching movements including rise, fall, and shift. Lenses can also be found in tilt and/or swing panels- thus providing essentially all of the movements of a traditional large format camera with the ability to use high resolution, large sensor digital backs as well as the high resolution digital lenses designed specifically for them. Because of these movements, as well as the ability to stitch several images together thus increasing the effective size of the sensor and subsequently resolution, Technical Cameras are the modern day large format camera.
Quality and Precision
Ideal for Architecture and Landscape, the unifying aspect of nearly all modern technical cameras are their build quality and precision feature set. Glancing at several of the current technical camera manufacturers like Alpa, Cambo, Arca Swiss, Sinar, and Linhof you’ll find that they all are machined to an extremely high level. For the bodies these manufacturers give movements to- they are often found either geared or with very small movement methods so that the photographer can precisely dial in exactly where he/she wants focus or where he/she intends their next image to be for a stitch.
Due to their uncomplicated design and general lack of electronics, most technical cameras have the ability to mount large format style digital lenses from Rodenstock and Schneider Kreuznach. These two manufacturers create obscenely high resolution lenses that don’t have to clear a mirror box, since technical cameras do not typically have an optical mirror reflex system (technical cameras were the original medium format mirrorless cameras). This lens design is a huge benefit for wider angle focal lengths since the rear element can be positioned very close to the sensor. And since the image circle only has to cover a medium format sized recording medium rather than a large 4×5 negative, the resolving power of these lenses is much higher which leads to corner to corner sharpness from a single frame unlike any other offering available to consumers.
Because technical cameras are so simple and lack heavy mechanical parts, glass, or electronic components, they tend to be lighter in weight than their medium format DSLR counterparts. Also, depending on the model, its possible for a technical camera to be significantly smaller than other medium format systems. For many, this lighter weight means more time can be spent on location shooting before fatigue sets in. Your back- or maybe your assistant- will thank you.
The comparison to 4×5 view cameras is natural- and considering the technical camera is essentially a digital large format camera, expected. Those that shot 4×5 in the past will appreciate the small size of the technical camera. Since modern lenses need only cover 53.7 x 40.4 sensors, the lenses, bodies, and digital backs are much smaller and more manageable than their 4×5 predecessors.
Like the best medium format camera systems, technical camera systems are completely modular- meaning that, through carefully crafted adapters, nearly any digital back can be used to create images. Its even possible to use film backs!
Because of the various manufacturers currently producing technical cameras, users have the ability to choose the system that works best for them. Some manufacturers have tilt and swing adapters permanently mounted to their lenses. Some use tilt and swing panels that exist independently of which lenses are mounted to them. More still have sliding backs allowing users to focus on a ground glass and literally slide the digital back in front of the lens once a photograph is ready to be made.
A plethora of accessories can also be used for accomplishing various tasks. Whether its an iphone holder to use as a large-screen composition/focusing aide, an oversized bubble level to ensure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the camera is perfectly leveled, or a magnetic ground glass with loupe to see the image as it appears on the sensor plane, its possible to easily add and remove attachments to supplement your system.
This is another point where we see technical cameras as a reincarnation of large format cameras. Because of their lack of automation, technical cameras require a photographer’s full attention. Composition, proper exposure, focus, correct shutter speeds, stitching parameters, Scheimplug principle, etc. These are all variables that only the photographer can control. Wile this may sound like a nuisance to some, to others its part of the pleasures of manual photography. I know that I personally feel more connected to an image if I know I’m responsible for it in all of its aspects. There’s a zen like meditative element to being out in nature composing a manual camera and finally, once the light is right, getting the shot.
Phase One Electronic Shutter
With its most recent firmware update, Phase One added a medium format first with the IQ3 100MP’s fully electronic shutter. Without the need for a copal shutter, imaging solutions with the IQ3 100 are vast. This technique lets the photographer remove any and all mechanical vibrations, use lenses with broken shutters, lenses without a shutter at all, and always have a failsafe in case a problem with their mechanical shutter arises.
Normally, as described in our “Intro to the Phase One A-Series” video, an LCC or Lens Cast Calibration should be taken with each new lens, aperture change, or shift movement for optimum vignette correction and image quality. Taking this into account, Phase One has programmed a specific set of digital backs with these lens cast calibrations for their respective lenses already implemented into the firmware of their A-series digital backs. FLC, or Factory Lens Calibration, speeds up the shooting process when not using any movements, allowing photographers to just set up, compose, and shoot.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the appearance of technical cameras. Truly, tech cameras are a photographer’s camera. Their unusual appearance immediately garners intrigue from other photographers. And who can blame them? While no two are exactly alike, technical cameras immediately carry the appearance of a camera- but one that only a small group of current photographers would call routine and most would find only vaguely familiar.
Many manufacturers take advantage of this unique appearance by offering accessories made from alternative materials that add to the technical camera’s already obvious likening to wooden field cameras.
Sure, tech cameras might be fun to use, look pretty, and have large format movements, but how do the images really look? The combination of high resolution digital backs from Phase One and the aforementioned Rodenstock/Schneider glass designed specifically for those digital backs renders an image you really have to see to believe. Corner to corner sharpness, beautifully rendered detail, superb highlight and shadow information, and gorgeous color.
The Best of Old and New
Obviously the technical camera is an imaging device that is not only beautiful itself, but highly capable of creating beautiful images. For those looking for an alternative to an automated shooting experience, there’s nothing like tripping a mechanical copal shutter, hearing the digital back’s ping, and watching an image appear that you know is as good as you could have possibly captured it.