The Most Important Unimportant Part of the XT Launch
The Phase One XT has arrived. This is the first tech camera with… er…It’s a mirrorless, full-frame format featuring…Um, it’s the younger, cooler brother to the XF that…(Sigh.) This is not going well. It’s a modern field camera without…What the heck do we call this thing?
Most cameras fit neatly into colloquial camera categories, but the Phase One XT does not. This unique piece of precision equipment is a blend of form and function that defies photographic naming conventions.
Before we discuss the XT specifically, let’s do a quick revisit of some terminology commonly used by photographers when categorizing a camera. Let’s agree that many of these terms either don’t have widely-agreed-upon formal definitions, or are commonly used to mean things that aren’t present in their formal definition.
Term: View Camera
Pedantic Definition: Any camera that produces a direct view of the scene, projected (upside down and backwards) onto ground glass.
Commonly Used For: A camera with a rail and two standards (one for the lens, one for the film/sensor), joined by a bellows, capable of movements.
Connotations: The term carries some unfortunate connotations: big, slow, heavy, and old. It conjures images of Ansel Adams standing behind an 8×10 film camera on a mountainside. This is not dissimilar to associating the word “computer” with 1960s mainframe computers. Modern computers are only loosely related to their historical relatives, and the view cameras of 2019 are only loosely related to those used by Ansel Adams.
Term: Technical Camera (aka Tech Cam)
Pedantic Definition: Any camera with technical movements such as rise, fall, shift, tilt, or swing.
Colloquial Use: Primarily used on photo forums and social media to mean the modern digital pancake-style cameras made by Cambo, Arca Swiss, Alpa, and others. On occasion this included models that offered no movement, like the now-defunct Phase One A-Series.
Connotations: In this case, the connotation is best summed up by the term itself: “technical.” Most photographers hear the term “technical camera” and think “complex,” or “cumbersome.” There are two reasons for this: recent history and a coincidence of language.
In recent history, using a technical camera with a digital back was, indeed, cumbersome: lots of cables, lots of steps in the workflow, and lots of hassle just to capture a single image. That is no longer true with the Phase One IQ4.
Some of the connotation is a coincidence of language. Early photographers/manufacturers could have dubbed cameras with rise/fall/shift/tilt/swing as “Movement Cameras,” or “Flexible Cameras,” which would have been a friendlier-sounding name, but don’t let the term “tech camera” scare you off.
Term: Field Camera
Pedantic Definition: A subtype of view camera, designed for use in the field. Often this meant a collapsible design and a moderately reduced range of movement in exchange for reduced weight and size.
Colloquial Use: This term had, until the Phase One XT, fallen out of common usage.
Connotations: Those at all familiar with the term will associate it with “the power of a view camera in a smaller, more portable package.”
Pedantic Definition: A camera without a mirror.
Colloquial Use: A camera that looks, feels, and acts like a SLR, but with an EVF rather than an mirror-based optical viewfinder.
Connotations: Light and small.
So What Is the XT?
The XT has technical movements (rise/fall/shift on any lens, and tilt/swing depending on the lens), so it is a technical camera (or “tech cam”). But the XT is far more integrated and simpler to use than any previous technical camera, so to call it a “tech camera” can be misleading.
The XT has no mirror, so it is truly a mirrorless camera. Yet it’s a manual-focus camera and doesn’t have a dedicated EVF. It shares almost nothing with a camera like the Sony A7R, that photographers will more commonly associate with the term “mirrorless,” so that term can also be misleading.
The XT is clearly not a view camera in the interpretation most photographers would use, as it lacks bellows, independent standards, and ground glass.
That leaves “Field Camera,” a term that had fallen out of common usage. With a moment’s thought, you might agree that it fits. The XT is a camera designed for use in the field. It’s small and light, but still offers rise, fall, shift, tilt, and swing.
Given all this, it’s not surprising Phase One has opted to call the XT a “[various adjectives] field camera.” This calls attention to the XT’s capabilities (technical movements) without implying complexity.
Does this Matter?
Not even remotely.
You can call the XT whatever you want. Here at DT, we’re so used to the term “tech cam” that we will likely end up using that term more often than not, if only out of habit. The truth of a camera is in the real-world use, not in the terms a manufacturer’s marketing team uses for it.