Phase One’s IQ3 Achromatic camera sacrifies color for incredible detail

phase one achromatic switch iq3 45degree 2
Phase One / Isamu Sawa

Phase One’s 100 megapixel line is designed for detail, but their latest medium format camera captures even more fine detail — because it ditches color entirely. The IQ3 Achromatic is a monochrome version of Phase One’s first medium-format sensor with an electronic shutter that drops the color all in the name of detail.

So why not just take the color IQ3 and convert it to black and white in post? The answer lies in the design of a color sensor. To read color, digital cameras have what’s called a Bayer array, which is a pattern of tiny red, green and blue filters. The camera has to translate this pattern into full color and assign each pixel a color value. But, as the camera translates that pattern, the finest details, such as the weave in a piece of fabric, become distorted, a phenomenon known as moire. By removing the color filter array entirely, those finer details remain intact and undistorted. Leica’s M Monochrom takes a similar approach, trading color for quality.

Removing one more layer between the sensor and the incoming light also enhances the cameras sensitivity. Niels V. Knudsen, Phase One’s Image Quality Professor, says that ISO 200 looks like ISO 50 on a color sensor, which allows the camera to retain more detail in low light.

Along with ditching the color, the camera is also designed to capture the full spectrum of light including infrared. That means that when shooting with IR, you can still see the full preview of the effect in the Live View. (And if you don’t want to include both visible and IR, a filter is used).

The IQ3 Achromatic, besides the absence of color, includes a number of the same features as the company’s other 1Q3 cameras, including an electronic shutter — and a high-end price tag. The IQ3 Achromatic is slated to cost around $50,000 without a lens, while the color variation sits around $44,000.