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PhaseOne monochrome medium format digital back

Any photographer who appreciates fine black & white or infrared photography should be interested in what can be done with monochrome in the digital domain—not by converting color images to monochrome, but shooting directly to a monochrome sensor

Shooting in color and then converting to monochrome does offer considerable flexibility (e.g. post-shoot filtration). But with no color filter array and hence no interpolation, the resolution of a monochrome sensor is fairly characterized as up to twice as sharp as a conventional color sensor. Color aliasing doesn’t exist, and noise at any given ISO is lower. A monochrome sensor is also sensitive to the full spectral range from UV to infrared, allowing specialized applications in fine-art photography, as well as scientific study.

I have researched the market, and currently there is no monochrome digital back that is acceptable to me. Among other things, it must be of high build quality, have a quality LCD screen, good software and take Compact Flash cards. In short, not a “science fair” project!

“Science fair project” is a humorous but descriptive term I borrow from Pete Myers, a Santa Fe black & white fine-art photographer with whom I’m working on this project. We both share a common interest in seeing a monochrome digital back brought to market. Pete shot the Kodak DCS 760M for a time, a monochrome digital SLR of which perhaps 80 were made.

Researching the issue with the aid of my local (and extremely knowledgeable) PhaseOne dealer, Bear Images, I have learned that PhaseOne can build a monochrome version of their back, but there is a fixed upcharge to persuade Kodak to actually manufacture the sensors (“line interruption”). That fixed charge could be divided among a group of photographers. Two buyers cuts the cost in half. Three buyers by 2/3, etc. In addition, with enough buyers, perhaps a discount could be arranged. My role would be to arrange the particulars with my local dealer as a service to readers, charging nothing for my time or effort. So—

Obviously, 39-megapixel chips are much more expensive, and it’s likely that most photographers would prefer the much lower cost of the 16.8-megapixel chip (myself included). With enough buyers, the price would decline to about the same price as a color back. But even with as few as 4 buyers, the price premium would be relatively small, and you’d have a tool that competitors would not be able to match.

Particulars of firmware and software are of course critical issues; the back must function just as well as any PhaseOne color digital back, images must be very high quality and understood by Capture One (and preferably Adobe Camera Raw as well).

Chip particulars

KAF-16802: 4096 X 4096, 9-micron pixels, 30% quantum efficiency, 73dB dynamic range
KAF-39000: 7216 X 5412, 6.8-micron pixels, 30% quantum efficiency, 71.4dB dynamic range

There is also the KAF-16803, with 76dB dynamic range and 60% quantum efficiency, gained via micro lenses. But micro lenses are problematic for shifting/stitching applications, which would limit the usefulness of the back.

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