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Thirty Minutes With the PhaseOne P20

ISO 50, 2.8/80, 1/250

July 27, 2007



See also the December 10, 2008 review of the 28 megapixel Mamiya DL28 in DAP.

This page follows two other reviews: An Hour With the Hasselblad 503CWD and An Hour With the Hasselblad H3D-39. Unfortunately, I was not able to take the PhaseOne P20+ for an hour-long solo walk and therefore explore and shoot freely, so the variety and quality of images shown here is limited. Still, a lot can be learned from the few images I did obtain.

Photosite size, or why “size matters”

The photosites on the PhaseOne P20+ are 9 microns, the same as the Hasselblad 503CWD. For a discussion of why photosite matters, see Photosite Size.

Impressions — operation

I felt right at home with the PhaseOne P20+. The menu system, histogram, etc felt comfortable to use, similar to using a digital SLR. I felt that I would be able to learn it quite rapidly.

Overall feel of the back is of a very well made unit of exceptional quality. The LCD display was visibly superior to that of the Hasselblad offerings (503CWD, H3D-39) in terms of brightness and perceived sharpness.

Cable required

The most inelegant aspect of the P20+ is the need to run a sync cable from the P20+ back to the lens sync socket (on a Hasselblad 500 series body and others).

With the Hasselblad H2 there is cable-free integration, but users of other cameras should be aware of this issue—it means that changing a lens also means unplugging and re-plugging a cable.

Be aware that Hasselblad’s decision to make the H3D incompatible with 3rd-party backs is a compelling reason to avoid the “H” series; a PhaseOne digital back (or other non-Hasselblad back) cannot be used with the Hasselblad H3.

Many PhaseOne digital back owners have been using them on the Hasselblad H1 or H2. Now they cannot use their expensive back on the H3. With a huge investment in the back, as well as lenses and camera body, this must be infuriating. Caveat Emptor.

LCD display

The PhaseOne P20+ LCD screen is the same as on all the other “+” models. Clear and bright, it’s as good as the screens found on the best digital SLRs, but undersized, especially considering the price of the unit and its physically large size.

Image quality

I shot the P20+ for only about 20 minutes.


Noise seems to be fairly random in nature, much like film grain—that’s a good thing. No blotchiness is seen. Making an extreme Photoshop Levels adjustment to dark areas whose RGB values fall in the 0-5 range does produce some color speckling. But that’s to be expected; one can’t create something out of nothing eg real data out of RGB values of 0 or 1.

ISO 50, severe Levels adjustment

2.5-stop push

Pushing an ISO 50 image by 2.5 stops does produce noise in near-black areas (luminance of 1). That’s as dark as the image can go without being pure black. With color reversal film there would certainly have been no detail available. It is not reasonable to expect no noise with such low levels; the mathematics of one or two “bits” of data simply make it unavoidable.

Mouse over the image below to see near-black detail in a 2.5-stop “push” from Capture One, and click to do so at actual-pixels.

ISO 50. Mouse out for +0

Dynamic range

There is only so much a camera can do with today’s technology; the P20+ is rated at 12 stops of dynamic range. The P20+ clipped the shadows and blew out the highlights, but the overall result is still very good considering the extremely high contrast of the image. I had no way of measuring the actual scene contrast, but 12 stops of dynamic range seems slightly improbable in this scene.

High contrast image—pinned blacks and clipped highlights

Moiré and color aliasing

Like most medium format backs that lack an anti-moiré filter, various “artifacts” appear around areas of fine detail. These artifacts are “false” or “junk” resolution, which is often accompanied by color aliasing.

The P20+ suffers significantly from this issue, and it must be considered a serious fault. Most digital SLRs have anti-moiré filters which cause areas of detail like this to be slightly less sharp, but also to not have such strong artifacting. While sharpness is often to be preferred, such strong aliasing could be a severe problem with some applications.

ISO 100. Note colored speckles throughout
ISO 50. High-frequency detail causes “junk” detail and color aliasing
ISO 50. High-frequency detail causes “junk” detail and color aliasing


Color seemed very natural and accurate as one might expect from a high-end digital back. Those hoping for pumped-up in-your-face color should look elsewhere; the P20+ offers very faithful rendition.

Shade, Auto Levels

Just as important as color is the handling of neutrals. The P20+ does this extremely well, avoiding the yellowish color cast seen with the Hasselblad 503CWD. The image below was set to daylight, allowing a warm white rendition, but avoiding an obvious yellow cast. It is a color image, not a toned monochrome image.

Mixed light, Daylight processing

Life and “zing”

As stated in my review of the Hasselblad H3D-39, results on the Canon EOS 1D Mark III offer a “pop” or “zing” that is very pleasing. While the P20+ produces pleasing and accurate imagery, the same sense of astonishment in viewing its images isn’t there; it feels neutral and ambivalent as compared to the 1DM3. This is a personal reaction, and so should not be taken as any hard fact—shoot the P20+ yourself if possible.

Accurate, neutral, but no zing.

Flare and starburst

Backlit shooting is of very high quality. The smoothness of the rays of a diffraction star is very impressive.

Click for actual pixels

Very fine detail and beautiful grayscale rendition are possible.

Click for actual pixels

Bad bokeh

No matter how good the camera, lens qualities besides sharpness and contrast are often more meaningful attributes to real pictures. The outrageously ugly bokeh of the Hasselblad 80mm f/2.8 was a huge surprise to me (this is no fault of the back).

Bad bokeh—ugly pentagons for out-of-focus highlights


Targeting the Hasselblad 500-series camera

Choosing between the Hasselblad 503CWD and the PhaseOne P20+ makes sense when the target camera platform is the Hasselblad 500 series. Here are salient points to consider:

  • The cable-free operation of the 503CWD is a big plus;
  • Color rendition—the 503CWD renders with a yellowish cast. Shooting a Macbeth card or similar neutral target might be required for accurate color. By comparison, the PhaseOne P20+ offers neutral and accurate color with no extra work.
  • Image quality—sharpness, moiré, dynamic range all are very similar between the two. No clear winner without a careful A/B test.
  • Workflow—PhaseOne CaptureOne software is clearly superior to Hasselblad FlexColor. Workflow considerations alone might be the deciding factor—try both before buying.
  • Price—the 503CWD can be had with the camera and 80mm lens for about the same price as the PhaseOne P20+ back alone. If you plan on shooting the P20+ no a Hasselblad 500-series body, budget another $2000-$3000 for the body and 80mm.
  • Build quality—without question, the PhaseOne P20+ has a better screen, and seems better built.
  • Upgrade policy—PhaseOne offers a liberal upgrade policy. Hasselblad seems to be clueless about it.


Found this review useful? See the December 10, 2008 review of the 28 megapixel Mamiya DL28 in DAP.

The PhaseOne P20+ offers balanced image quality with highly accurate color rendition and a natural look—not exaggerated and not dull, just a nice middle of the road accurate. The P20+ back itself exudes quality and its build quality suggests high reliability.

Prevalent moiré in high-frequency detail might be a critical concern for some users shooting fabrics or artificial surfaces. While Capture One offers an anti-moiré feature, it was not explored for this article. The P20+ is not alone in suffering from color moiré; any digital camera that does not include an anti-aliasing filter will be susceptible to the problem. The Hasselblad 503CWD back shows very similar moiré issues.

The PhaseOne Capture One software is better designed than the Hasselblad FlexColor software—grade A vs grade C. Photographers who need high-productivity in their workflow should consider the software just as carefully as the hardware.

See also:

An Hour with the Hasselblad 503CWD
An Hour with the Hasselblad H3D-39

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