The PhaseOne P30 Medium Format Digital Back. Or: New Gear - Moving Backwards Instead Of Forwards, And How Good It Makes Me Feel.

I want to share something with you that makes me really, really happy. Ready?  Here we go:

What you are looking at is my Hasselblad 500C/M.  I've shared my awesome story about how I came to own this camera in the past, but if you look on the back of the camera, usually where there is a 120 film holder, it might look a little different.

That is because instead of a film holder, it now has a PhaseOne medium format digital back.  It's an old back, and it's clunky, and I've been told it's "horribly out of date" by photographers, but I am so happy with it.  I'm happy that I can now shoot digitally with my Hasselblad.


I've always been sad that I haven't used my 500C/M as much as I could.  I would use it for occasional film shoots, or to randomly pull a Polaroid or two during a commercial session.  But, mostly, the camera stayed in the case.  I'd take it out and set it up on a Tripod during sessions, just so it could be a talking point with clients "Oh! What kind of camera is that?"

In the back of my mind, I've always dreamed about a medium format digital back.  The idea of marrying a digital sensor to the Hasselblad was like a dream come true; using my favorite camera in the world with a nice, fat sensor on the back.

Ideally, I wanted a back that I could put in a CF card and shoot without being connected to a computer; something I could carry out into the field with me and have it just be me, the camera, the back, and the subject. Very old MF backs could only shoot tethered to a computer.  Back around 2006 I assisted someone that shot with a 500C/M and a tethered digital back for big commercial jobs.  It was a cumbersome process; carrying a laptop and a cord connected to a digital back that had no screen on it.  Even when we were out in a field in Kentucky for this shoot - there he was, tied to a laptop and anytime he'd want to move further than the cord allowed, we'd have to uproot the whole thing and move it.  It might not sound cumbersome, but trust me, it's a process that really breaks up the creative mode.

So I knew I wanted a back that didn't have to be tethered.  I wasn't too worried about sensor size, as MF sensors are much larger than DSLR sensors, and the quality looks fantastic.  Sensor sizes change a little with each type of MF back, so I figured if I could find something in the 10-16 megapixel range for a back I'd be happy.

Over the years, I'd stumble across a back here and there online, and I'd daydream.  But the problem with MF backs are the price; they are excessively expensive.  Which left me to nothing but daydreaming.

Then, one day back in May 2016, while browsing and daydreaming looking at backs on eBay, I came across one that I kept looking at.  After working the numbers out a few times, and after emailing the owner a bit, I decided to make the jump.  The price was pretty good for the back, and if I didn't jump now, I might not come across the opportunity again.  So I jumped.

The seller and I emailed back and forth quite a bit, and I would ask him for a recent photo taken with the back.  He sent me this one, which pretty much sealed the deal :)

So this is a PhaseOne P30 digital medium format back.  The P30 was originally released in 2006.  It is a full frame CCD sensor (44.2x33.1mm, 6496x4872 pixels). It's 31 megapixels.  I wasn't looking specifically for 31 megapixels.  Again, I was looking in the 10-16 range, but I came across this specific back and the price was pretty decent, which is why I jumped on it.

Now, going by today's standards - this is pretty much a dinosaur.  It's 10 years old.  But, see, I don't care about that.  What I care about is that I have a really good sensor that can be snapped on the back of my 500C/M and I can use it to make photographs.

Headshot of Julie • December 2016

You might not be able to see the difference in a tiny image on a computer screen.  But when I open up a P30 file on my computer and zoom it to 100%, it just looks amazing.  The details, the skin tones - everything just looks incredible.

When I first got this thing, I was really nervous.  When dealing with DSLR cameras, the sensors are buried far back into the camera's body; hidden behind the mirror and the shutter and with a piece of UV glass in front of it of some kind.  With the P30, when you take off the sensor cover for the back, that big, fat sensor is just sitting there exposed - to your fingers, to the weather, to dust - to everything!  I was so nervous handling it.

The P30 sensor.  Right out there in the open, totally exposed to the elements. Ohmygod.

So: how has it been since I picked it up?  It's been great.  Great, but slow.  It's a learning process.  This isn't like using a DSLR.  This is a whole other beast.  In some aspects it's slowed me down considerably.  It isn't as forgiving as using a DSLR.  I'll explain:

Since I shoot a lot of head shots, I wanted a longer lens to use with it.  Something comparable to the 135mm focal length that I use with 35mm.  That would equal out to somewhere around 250mm for medium format.  So I picked up an old 250mm f/5.6 Syncro Compur lens.  It's massive.  It's this big piece of metal and instead of a rubber grip to manually focus it has these sharp teeth.  It rips my fingers to shreds.  It's caused some cursing out loud.

But then I discovered that Hasselblad made quick-focus handles:

These are pretty amazing because it slips over the teeth, and it gives you a handle to yank on to focus.  It's pretty amazing, and it makes focusing much easier and smoother.

The other issue I was having was that my eyes aren't what they used to be.  For the last year and a half I've been wearing glasses because I have trouble seeing things at a distance.  That is no problem when I've been using DSLR's because they have a little adjustable diopter in the eyepiece that I can adjust for clear focus.  But with the 500C/M, both of the prisms that I had for it (a 90 degree and a 45 degree) needed special round glass diopter for each prism, and trying to find those lenses was impossible.  I even visited my eye doctor to see if he could order or make the lenses, which he informed me he couldn't, and that I should just wear my glasses when looking through the viewfinders.  But that usually caused my glasses to get all smushed and dirty.  There had to be another option.

Luckily, Hasselblad used to make an old 90 degree prism finder that had an adjustable eyepiece.  Once you find good focus, you adjust the screw and tighten it, and it stays in place.  So now I can have the camera up to my eye and see everything nice and sharp.

So that image above is my setup when I'm shooting with it.  I've got my flash trigger mounted to the camera with velcro.  I've got the whole thing on a tripod because it becomes very heavy, very fast, when trying to shoot it handheld.  I'm not much of a tripod shooter; usually I don't use one at all (only when I'm shooting with my Petzval lens), but now I'm dragging a tripod out any time I want to shoot with this.

The sensor on this camera isn't square.  There aren't too many square sensors that exist.  The old CFV-16; a Hasselblad-made digital back, has a square sensor, but because it's made by Hasselblad, the resale price is still really high and at an unobtainable price-point for me.  So compromises were made.  Luckily, the P30 came with a gridded masking screen that I can put over the ground glass:

You can see the grid mask that shows me a vertical composition and a horizontal composition.  The sensor itself has a bit of a crop-factor, so I use this mask to figure out my compositions when I'm looking into the viewfinder.  Normally I have the back positioned to a horizontal composition.  In order to get a vertical composition, I have to manually detach the back and put it back on in a vertical position.  Which makes me nervous, because I'm exposing the sensor to outside elements.  Scary!

It's very cumbersome.  I've got this giant camera on a tripod and I've got my eyeball stuck in the viewfinder and I'm trying to find my focus and once I find my composition I have to lightly tighten the ball on the tripod (but not so tight I can't move the camera around to recompose) and my left index finger is sitting on the shutter button and then I press it and then CHOCK-LOCK! the shutter snaps and the exposure is made and that sound omigod that wonderful sound and the digital back beeps to indicate it has captured an image . . .

. . . and then I bring up the shot on screen that is on the digital back.

Okay, let's talk about this screen on the back.  Remember when I said that this back is 10 years old?  The only way you would know that is because of the LCD screen on the back.  Because that screen is a total piece of junk.  I love this digital back dearly, but this screen is a total piece of crap.  I mean, I know I'm not buying the digital back for the lcd screen, but, man, this thing is garbage.  But, hey, that is what buying something a decade old gets ya, right?

Using the back I can judge exposure.  I can check my levels to make sure I didn't blow anything out, or I'm not underexposed, but that's about it.  I'm actually still learning how the LCD works in regards to showing the exposure on the digital back.  I can zoom in on the image to check to see if it's sharp/in focus, but it's a very rough version of doing so.  I've done side-by-side shooting with my DSLR and the P30, and what meters as perfect exposure on my light meter and what I capture on my DSLR looks totally different on the LCD of the P30.  I really need to sit down and go though a through test with the P30 and really learn how to judge the screen and know that when I have a perfect exposure on the sensor what that in turn looks like on the LCD.  It needs more research.

Also - when dealing with medium format, it isn't forgiving in any way.  When I nail focus, it looks amazing; the Heavens open up and Angels come down grace me with kisses.  But if I even miss focus by a little bit, it totally blows the entire shot.  I mean, totally blown.  I have many more wasted shots using this back than I do with my DSLR.  But, man, when I nail focus, it's unlike anything I can capture on 35mm DSLR.

Headshot of Drew, Dec 2016

The batteries are also a pain in the butt - they don't last very long.  The spec sheet for the P30 says a battery lasts roughly 4 hours or around 250 shots.  I've charged a battery to 100%, and then taken about twelve shots and the battery indicator on the back will show me at 75% left.  Crazy.  I've 4 batteries right now.

The 500C/M with a 45 degree prism finder.  This finder needs a special glass diopter for me to see things correctly, so I'm not using it any longer.

I've had many people stare at me, perplexed, asking why on earth would I go backward and buy a digital back that is a decade old.  In today's "constantly-upgrade-or-be-left-out-of-the-crowd", buying something old like this can't be fathomed by someone. "Why not just get Hasselblads new mirrorless camera?" or "Just get a new digital back with a better screen and more megapixels".

Hasselblad's new X1D-50c; a mirrorless medium format camera with 50megapixels runs $8,995.  That's nine-thousand dollars, and that isn't including a lens.  Want a lens with that package?  Now we are up to $13,000.  I don't have that kind of cash.  I'm cash-and-carry with all my business purchases.  In no way am I charging for that kind of camera.  That is crazy money, and I'm nowhere near the point in my business where I could even dream of affording that kind of camera.  And newer digital backs?  We're talking upwards of anywhere near 30-50,000 bucks.  Wait, what?  No thanks.

Ten years ago, the P30 retailed for around $20,000.  That is crazy-insane.  But, because it's old and "out-dated" I picked it up for 13% of that cost.  Everything is a compromise.

I'm sure some of you reading this are saying to yourselves "Okay.  He bought an old, out-dated back that has a terrible LCD screen so he can shoot with his big, cumbersome Hasselblad camera.  What a stupidhead." I get it.  I mean, there are a ton of caveats I have to deal with when using this; the bad screen, the heavy camera, the heavy lenses, "old" technology, wires dangling all over the side of the camera, using a tripod, etc.

But to me,  I found a pretty affordable way to shoot digitally with my Hasselblad.  I love that camera.  It's my favorite camera.  When I hear that CHOCK-LOCK! sound it makes my heart melt.  No other camera makes my heart this happy.  That should be what it's all about: the feeling I get when I'm using it.  Everything should make us feel positive and happy.  But we shouldn't have to break the bank to feel that way.

Technology isn't everything.  Don't fall into that trap of feeling you have to get the newest (NEWEST!!!) gadget or else you will fall behind.  Don't let marketing make you feel bad about the gear you have.  Remember this: there are people out there, right now, this very day, with gear much much older than yours and they are kicking all of our asses making amazing art and photographs.  It isn't the gear.  It's YOU.  Don't let not having the newest thing hold you back.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.

Silhouette of the 500C/M with 250mm lens, HC-4 viewfinder and P30 digital back in the new studio.