Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Luminous Landscape

A commenter recently inspired me to look in to LuLa and Phase One a bit more.

A quick peek around the network suggests that Phase One sent a demo unit of their new 100 megapixel 645 format camera to exactly one place, that being LuLa. This supports, rather firmly, the notion that LuLa is essentially a wholly owned sub of Phase One. The CEO of LuLa is a former Phase One guy, which is a bit of a tipoff, too.

Let's unpack that a bit further. WTF is up with Phase One? At first glance, they appear to be a small to medium sized company ($50M in revenue, a small number of millions in profits, in 2012) that makes extremely limited market cameras, and which should therefore be struggling for a bit before eventually dying off. This is because if you're mostly looking at photography stuff on the internet you get a very wrong impression.

Silverfleet Capital bought them in 2014 (majority stake, whatever, Silverfleet is calling the shots now). Silverfleet is in the business of buying companies and growing them. They help roll out new products, and do acquisitions, and ultimately sell the resulting larger company off at a profit. Silverfleet doesn't think these guys are circling the drain at all, they think there's growth potential.

Silverfleet thinks there's money, and quite a bit of of, to be made here. They think they can grow Phase One from $50M in revenue to maybe $200M in revenue in the next handful of years. Some of that's going to come from Capture One software, sure, but these guys are probably thinking in terms of shifting $100M+ in cameras (XF, repro, aerial), per annum, as a possible outcome, one to be highly desired. That's several thousand complete systems a year.

So here's what I was missing: Phase One isn't a medium format camera company. They're an industrial camera company. They sell aerial and repro cameras, as well as medium format systems for amateurs.

The 100 megapixel camera system makes perfect sense for aerial applications. More pixels translates into less flying time. The ROI on a 100 megapixel camera can be calculated in a moment, and is going to be very very good. Flying airplanes in extremely expensive. Massive color depth probably makes a lot of sense in the repro market. The whacky "vibration detect" system which can, optionally, fire the shutter only when vibration is low is almost certainly a feature for the aerial market, and so on.

So here is probably what happened: Silverfleet rolls in in 2014 when Phase One had a collection of products and platforms that were sort of separate. They probably shared a lot of bits and pieces, but not enough. Silverfleet funded the development of a shared platform (XF). A common set of hardware to house sensors, control software, communication protocols and connectors, etc. This is why the XF camera system presented on LuLa looks so industrial, austere, and frankly a little weird. It is an industrial camera, in a hastily drawn 645-style body.

The amateur camera platform is now a cheap add-on to what is probably the real business. Not to cheapen it too much, it's probably a million bucks a year or something to maintain the XF camera system in the product suite, but at 30,000 to 60,000 per, you don't need to shift that much kit to cover your expenses.

The fact that LuLa appears to be literally the only place that Phase One talks to, works with, suggests that either they're not taking it very seriously, or that they think LuLa captures very close to 100% of the potential market for this thing (i.e. the more or less traditional 645-format camera system, the XF). I am betting the latter, the Silverfleet guys are not in the business of half-assing stuff.

To be honest, I am starting to think the commenter who kicked this whole train of thought off ain't so dumb after all. The $12/year pricetag on LuLa might be in place almost entirely for the purpose of harvesting zipcodes from the user base.

In summary: Phase One is owned (for practical purposes) by a sharp bunch of guys fixated on growing Phase One over the next couple of years, and selling it to a bigger private equity firm or investment group. Phase One is therefore fixated on growing through more products, more markets, and (maybe) acquisitions. LuLa is owned (for practical purposes) by Phase One, and has recently switched to a for-pay model at a very very low price.

I'm not convinced by the strategy, the LuLa crowd knows how to get 100 megapixels, you take a dozen shots with the D810 and drop them in some photo merge thing. The XF camera system may be a status symbol in a certain very narrow way, but given that it looks like and is an industrial camera, that seems an unsure bet. This isn't a camera system that makes any sense, no matter how you slice it. The commercial photography market has basically no use for this thing, although I'm sure there are a handful of pros out there who have an application for it. Amateurs simply stitch up whatever they need.

The only play I can think of is some sort of purist thing. Some sort of "Get it right in camera" pitch, which will play to both the resolution and the color depth features. I think we can look forward to some articles on LuLa about making 30x40 inch prints, and bigger, and the Obvious Advantages, Nay, The Necessity of 100 Megapixels for this sort of Important Photography.

Also, keep your eyes open for LuLa plugging ALPA cameras. There's already a partnership in place, and ALPA is probably a natural acquisition target for Phase One, if the "sell cameras to retired dentists" business works out tolerably well for them.


  1. Apropos of nothing much, I remember when, back around 2004, people on the Digital Wedding Forum were boasting about the beautiful 30x40 prints they were making from their four-megapixel Canon original 1Ds and Nikon D2Hs.

  2. Nice analysis! I've still got LuLa in my RSS reader but they've been uninteresting for a long time and I won't pay for access in the future.

  3. A quick Google search does the basic homework and comes up with other photographers who have their hands on this camera, beginning with Peter Eastway:

    1. Well, my quick google searches didn't come up with Peter's post. Thanks for the pointer, but I think my points remain on-target: Phase One is holding access to systems closely, and keeping them to strictly to Known Friendlies.

      This may be simply because they haven't got that many working prototypes, or because they see no reason to deal with the mainstream, or any number of other reasons between.

      You say "beginning with", can you point to any more? We've got one sample at LuLa, one that visited Eastway (possibly the same sample, actually).

  4. Peter Eastway wrote:" was entrusted with a pre-production IQ3 100MP digital back on my recent voyage to Antarctica, along with some tricked-up Capture One software and the requisite 100-megapixel sensor profiles. Externally, the back looks much like all the other IQ3s, except for the discrete '100MP' displayed in shiny letters, but the other passengers on the Polar Pioneer..."

    Hmmm...Antarctica...the Polar Pioneer...sounds kind of familiar,no?

    1. Yes, the Polar Pioneer is what Michael Reichmann uses for his workshops in Antartica.

  5. I had a quick look at the Phase One website and it appears the XF 100MP system has been around the traps for a while looking at their publicity metadata. I can walk into my local camera store here in NZ and try one out now if I want to waste an afternoon. I can't believe I've just wasted 10 minutes looking the up.
    Isn't there something a bit kinky about this whole post? An obsession with sniping at photographers and websites you've disagreed with? Get back to doing your own work all of you :)
    PS I liked the Vancouver photographs by the way.

    1. With respect, it's my blog, and I am interested in various and sundry things, not all of which are likely to be interesting to you.

  6. I think you are looking too hard for a conspiracy.

    My thoughts with no special insight are...

    First off, why would Phase One choose LuLa to be the sole (?) recipient of $50,000-$70,000 worth of equipment for review? Well, they KNOW Kevin Raber, they know Kevin knows his way around a MFDB and the Phase/Mamiya 645 DF+ and I'll bet you LuLa would not have been gifted with a review copy without him there. Relationships mean something.

    As for LuLa being in the bag for Phase and ALPA, I don't see it. Phase and ALPA make some beautiful equipment but none of the employees or Michael Reichmann own any of that stuff. MR states he has owned 3 Phase backs in the past but his current choice in MF is a Pentax that costs little more than a Nikon D4 (or D5). My point is that your criticism on these grounds is probably without basis. In fact, I think sending the Phase XF and 100 mp back to be evaluated by a happy Pentax MF owner with lots of Phase One experience is probably subjecting the Phase to scrutiny and comparison that it won't get elsewhere.

    When I think of what one "needs" to make photographs the list is always very modest. When I think of what some of the great photographers of our time have actually used to make photographs the list goes from modest and simple to quite the opposite. Having once owned an 8x10 view camera, I can tell you, no one "needs" an 8x10 unless one "needs" to do contact prints. The expense of photographing with an 8x10 is not insignificant. Same goes form Medium format digital. Funny how subjective that word "need" can be. Can it be OK that an artist or even an amateur (or a retired dentist) chooses to use equipment that is not just more than the bare minimum required but even might be considered overkill?

    Personally, I think LuLa is trying to be more than just a gearhead site and that's good even if the efforts have been mixed so far.

    1. Well, to be sure, I don't really think there's a conspiracy as such. I think there might be some undisclosed business relationships, of the sort privately held concerns are likely to have.

      None of the players are under any obligations, legal or moral, to tell bozos like me anything.

      But, there's something not entirely obvious going on, starting from "Phase One has built an extremely expensive camera that makes absolutely no sense", and I find non-obvious goings-on interesting.

  7. You are right about the aerial photography market and both Hasselblad and Phase One have aerial cameras (without viewfinder and with connectors for an industrial bus system). The XF is not adapted to an aircraft pod. Hasselblad and Phase one also have IR sensitive backs, aerial photography is not google only. Think crops and I've said enough.

    There is also the reproduction market, museums all over the planet are digitizing their collections and want massive megapixels amounts. Hasselblad has a special multishot back for that market.

    As to the LuLa crowd "knowing how to get 100 megapixels by taking a dozen shots with the D810 and dropping them in some photo merge thing", that is not really true for the crowd which buys MF cameras, they don't want that. The marketing argument is not about photography, but about belonging to a crowd who owns "different", exclusive cameras and goes together to workshops in remote places (e.g. Antartica...). There are plenty of hobbies which work that way: car racing, boating or even golf for example. There are also plenty of people in America who are ready to spend $25,000 a year on their hobby, which is about what we are talking about here (a $30,000-$50,000 camera every 3 years, plus lenses, workshop fees, etc...). Lula simply serves that market. It is only a part of the global MF market, and very US-centric, but it is worth it commercially.

    The XF camera was developed and is built by Mamiya, BTW. Not that it makes much difference now that Phase One / Silverfleet has bought Mamiya (and Leaf).