Unprecedented Versatility – The Alpa 12 FPS Technical Camera

When we made the decision last year to invest in a medium format camera system we researched the major offerings in the market and settled on Phase One’s XF camera system with what was at the time the medium format digital sensor with the most megapixels in a single-shot system, the IQ3 80 Megapixel back. At the same time, I knew that the kind of work we were doing in digitising a diverse range of collections at the highest level from museums, archives, media organisations and historic schools was going to require a camera with more versatility than the XF could provide. My extensive research convinced me that the XF camera would be the very best in the World in terms of both quality and speed for capturing museum objects and other materials in a studio setup. The IQ380 back, however, opened up to us significant possibilities for high quality and high throughput capture of flat materials from large posters and maps to negative and positive film and glass-plate negatives. Such flat materials ideally require the use of a technical camera. So that began a whole new research venture looking at various technical camera systems that could harness the Phase One IQ380 digital back.

The Alpa 12 FPS in action at the Durban Natural Science Museum. The Phase One digital back is mounted on the back of the camera.

Part of that research was to seek an answer to the question, what are the World’s most precious heritage materials and manuscripts captured on, such as the earliest copies of the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures? One obvious place to go to answer that question is the Dead Sea Scrolls, a project I had heard about from Simon Tanner, founding Director of King’s Digital Consultancy Services (KDCS) at King’s College London. I also happened to be doing some work for the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Razia Saleh from the Foundation told me about a photographer, Ardon Bar-Hama, who Google had employed to capture extensive parts of their collection including a wide variety of materials. Ardon was the photographer who captured the Dead Sea Scrolls. I had heard about him years before and the remarkable quality and throughput he was able to achieve, two elements we were set on achieving. In fact hearing about his work had originally inspired the journey to switch to camera-based systems that were so obviously getting the lions share of research and development in comparison to scanner systems that seemed to be falling by the wayside with many high-end scanner manufacturers ceasing production of what had been the World’s leading scanning systems – Heidelberg, Kodak, Fuji and others.

The Alpa 12 FPS technical camera with a Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon-D lens mounted on the front of a Novoflex Balpro 1 Universal Bellows. This setup allows us to capture very small objects, such as slides and negatives or natural science specimens including flies and tiny shells

Ardon had not only captured the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nelson Mandela collection, but also the Aleppo Codex, the earliest surviving copy of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Codex Vaticanus, the earliest surviving complete copy of the Christian Bible. And he did it on an Alpa camera system. I knew that Alpa had already teamed up with Phase One to produce the A-Series for the highest quality capture in a mirrorless camera system. So I began to interact with Alpa as well as with other manufacturers of various technical camera systems. Alpa took time to listen to what we needed to accomplish with a technical camera system and put forward the Alpa 12 FPS as the solution that would give us the quality we were looking for in a package that would enable us to capture the most diverse materials in a highly productive manner.
In spite of amazing reviews, such decisions are hard to make from afar, which is why my trip to New York last November to attend the Phase One Cultural Heritage Practitioner training was so important. By then we had already placed a Phase One XF camera system on order. I got to look closely at other technical camera systems while I was there and was determined to get to see the Alpa 12 FPS. Alpa put me on to Jeff Hirsch of Foto-Care in New York who supply capture systems to many of the leading heritage institutions in that city, including The Metropolitan Art Museum. Jeff was able to let me handle the Alpa 12 FPS. What finally convinced me that this was the way to go was not only the quality of capture that could be gained from it – all the technical camera systems could do that – but its incredible versatility. There is perhaps no other camera platform that is as diverse, that allows us to put almost any medium format camera back on it, including Phase One, Hasselblad and Sinar and almost any professional camera lens including Canon, Nikon, Zeiss, Leica, Schneider Kreuznach and Rodenstock.

Looking like nothing one has ever seen before, the Alpa 12 FPS attached to our motorized Kaiser copy stand. The copy stand is an essential part of what makes the camera system highly productive, providing for precise and predictable placement of the camera

Having made the decision to go with Alpa, the Alpa team in Switzerland began to put together a specific offering for us that would allow us to capture the range of materials we said we wanted to have the capacity to capture. In the end, that included three Rodenstock lenses, including the leading German lens manufacturer’s sharpest lens, the Rodenstock HR Digaron-S 60 mm f/4, and Novoflex bellows. It was a steep learning curve to get the camera into production. Getting a remote trigger working on the system required some jury rigging to get it going, but the Alpa team was certainly supportive.
So where has all of this got us? Not only do we have the first Alpa camera in Africa, we have a mirrorless technical camera with lenses, the sharpness of which I have never seen before, and an industry leading digital back able to produce digital reproductions at the very highest standard comparable with the very best in use anywhere in the World. This brings to the capture of African cultural and natural heritage collections the quality and productivity we have always dreamed of. That has certainly been wonderfully gratifying and the results just thrilling.