A week with the amazing Alpa 12 Plus

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We spent a week with the ultra high end Alpa 12 Plus with Alpagon/Rodenstock HR 4.0/40mm X-shutter lens and the Phase One IQ4 150 digital back. Our thoughts on a camera which will cost about SGD 100k.

At the end of last year, I had the opportunity to try out the Alpa cameras, and came away quite impressed. Especially the attention to detail, the selection of materials and finishing of the cameras as well as how remarkably easy they are to use. The STC that I reviewed offered a taste of how by intentionally limiting the camera’s capability of movement to just a single axis made it compact, easier and more convenient to use than a full featured monorail view camera like my Sinar. This taste made me wonder what the STC’s bigger brother – the Alpa 12 Plus is capable. Instead of +/- 18mm of movement on one axis, the Plus offers +/- 20mm on two axis.

A quick discussion with Alpa, and the camera was shipped from Zurich for a short loan.

Review: The Alpa 12 Plus with Alpagon/Rodenstock 4.0/32mm X-Shutter and Phase One IQ4 150

Retail prices for the camera are as follows:

  • Alpa 12 Plus CHF 7,696 / approx SGD 11,900
  • Alpagon/Rodenstock 4.0/32mm X-Shutter CHF 12,915 / approx SGD 19,266
  • Phase One IQ4 150 GBP 35,400 / approx SGD 59,000
  • Alpa Gon tripod head CHF 2,700 / approx SGD 4,000
  • Novoflex tripod legs and TrioBalance Base EUR 800 / approx SGD 1,180

All prices are before VAT. Total for the system as reviewed is about SGD 95,346 before taxes. We do note that the system can be configured by just using 12 Plus body with the lens (Alpagon/Rodenstock 4.0/40mm, no shutter) and digital back (Hasselblad CFV II 50C) for the STC Silver Edition, and the pricing level will drop significantly to about CHF 35,500 / approx SGD 53,000.

Alpa 12 Plus camera body

The 12 Plus is very similar to the STC. But on a much larger body plate. The plate carries two sleds, each for one direction of movement. The front sled is used for rise/fall, and the rear sled for left/right shifts. As the movements offered adds a dimension and a total of 4mm larger in each, the body is also correspondingly larger than the STC. Fitted with a bright red Arca Swiss style tripod dovetail, and the dual wood handles, the camera looks very imposing and impressive.

The Alpa 12 Plus fitted on top of the Alpa Gon modular tripod head. As shown, it comprise of two GON goniometer modules, a Pano Plate module and a flat dove tail mount. The goniometer offer a deviation of +/- 15°, with self-locking fine adjustment. The tripod is a carbon fibre Novoflex legs on a Novoflex TrioBalance base.

As with the STC, the Plus body is crafted out of a single pieced of CNC milled aluminium, and then treated with black PVD. The body is hand finished to achieve the high level of finishing and hand assembled. The same features of locking and unlocking and moving the sleds are used in the Plus as are in the STC.

Rodenstock Digitar HR 4.0/32mm lens in X-Shutter

The camera that was loaned carried the remarkable Rodenstock Digitar HR 4.0/32mm lens equipped with a Phase One X-Shutter. The lens is re-branded Alpagon and is equipped with the Alpa HPF helicoid focusing ring. The X-Shutter is currently the only in-lens leaf shutter which is available new, and is an electro-mechanically controlled shutter system capable of shutter speeds ranging from 1/1000 sec to 60 minutes, with flash synchronisation at any speed. This is a superb piece of shutter and can replace the ubiquitous Copal 0 shutter found in many large format lenses.

Copal have stopped production of their mechanical shutters, and the only Copal shutters available in the market is either used or new old stock. Other efforts to make in-the-lens shutters have all failed. The Sinar e-shutter system was discontinued by Leica (who owns Sinar) in 2019, and the Horseman/Rollei electronic shutter system has gone defunct together with the demise of Rollei. Other traditional sources for such shutters like Deckel/Compur/Prontor and until the 1990s by Gitzo in France have also ceased production.

In the Rodenstock lens and working via a 12 pin cable connection to the IQ4 back, it worked flawlessly. Aperture control, shutter cocking and release can be actuated from the IQ4, and all EXIF data is captured and recorded by the back.

Phase One IQ4 150 digital back

The X-Shutter is designed only to work with the Phase One IQ4 150 back. This is digital back with a superb sensor, quite possibly the best in the market today. I reviewed this back together with the Phase One XF camera system in 2019. The image quality of the IQ4 paired with the Rodenstock lens is unmatched.

The Phase One IQ4 150 digital back is connected by a 12 pin cable to the X-shutter on the lens allowing full control of the electro-mechanical shutter.

The whole is bigger than the parts

The two obvious stars of the camera are the IQ4 back and the Rodenstock lens. Both are spectacular and quite possibly the best ever made. The role of the Alpa Plus is to hold these exceptional components together. And it does this job extremely well. Plus (pun intended) more. The combination as used for this review, the camera is a delight to use, and is highly capable to produce superior images.

To get the maximum performance out of the the ultra high end digital back and lens, the body needs to be extremely precise. Not only does it need to be absolutely rigid, the front and rear standards need to be perfectly parallel. This is the Archiles heel of ultra flexible monorail cameras like the Sinar. During the setup of a monorail camera, care must be taken to ensure that the standards are parallel. Though with a high precision instrument like the Sinar X/P system, this is not difficult to accomplish, but it still will require one additional step. This adds to the setup time, and one more place where an error can be made. With the Alpa, parallelism between the front and rear standards is set and fixed in the factory, and remains so for its service life.

Next, the precision of the movements are also very important. The pleasure derived from using a camera like the Alpa is almost indescribable. The wheel controlling the rise/fall and shifts are a joy to use. Not only are they precise, with almost no play. It starts with a small pressure, feels smooth but with a nice weighted feel, and stops when needed with no back lash. Locks are provided, but most of the time, I use the controls without locking and the camera stays where it is.

As the shift is effected on the front standard, while standing behind the camera, to read the amount of rise or fall, one needs to pop one’s head to the front of the camera. Alpa provides a magnetically attached ruler with engraved millimetre measurements to allow the rise and falls to be read from the back of the camera. Next to the ruler, on the left a small prism is mounted. This allows the spirit level mounted on the top plate to be read while the camera is setup in a high position.

The HPF focusing ring is also a joy to use. Smooth, precise. And with a beautiful weighted feel. As I mentioned in my STC review, the feel is excellent, much like the feel of a Leica M lens. But better. A whole magnitude better!

Sample images

The use case for a ultra high end digital camera like this is quite rightly limited. This is a highly specialised tool. The analogy was once made comparing a Swiss Army or Gerber multi-tool knife to a hand made Japanese Honcho (sushi knife). The multi tool is useful in any situation where a knife is required. It can be used to cut wood, trim plastic, as a plier, screw driver, crimp wires, open cans etc. But the Honcho is a work of art made by a craftsman, and can only be used to slice fish. Use it to open a can, and you’ve ruined it. The same with cameras. The general purpose cameras like the Canon R, the Sony A7, the Nikon Z are ubiquitous, and useful for almost all tasks. You can run and gun, and with modern IBIS, can work hand held for almost all usage cases. But a tool like this Alpa system is very specific in its use case, where it excels. The use of a tripod is mandatory. And a considered, slow and deliberate working pace is required.

The most obvious use case for the Alpa system is in architecture, for interiors and for landscapes. Being in Singapore, urban cityscapes are an extension of architecture and interiors. And in this use case, the Alpa 12 is truly excellent. Ne plus ultra. Here are some sample images. The images in this section will open up larger on a separate tab.

Thian Hock Keng Temple at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore. Just before sunset.

Alpa Plus with Alpagon/Rodenstock HR 4.0/32 and Phase One IQ4 150.

Raffles Hotel in the evening.

Alpa Plus with Alpagon/Rodenstock HR 4.0/32 and Phase One IQ4 150.

The interior of the National Gallery. The gallery was formerly the Supreme Court of Singapore.

Alpa Plus with Alpagon/Rodenstock HR 4.0/32 and Phase One IQ4 150. A rise of about 10mm is applied to capture the upper level.

The Fuk Tak Chi temple museum.

The Fuk Tak Chi temple museum. A small shift is applied to the Alpa 12 Plus, as the camera was setup with behind a pillar which is visible at the foreground on the left of the image. The shift allowed the point of view to be moved to avoid the pillar in the frame.

Concluding thoughts

This is THE camera for architectural and landscape photography. But is it also a tool for the high end photographer working in these fields? Or is this a ultra high end digital camera for the enthusiast who loves precision gear and takes joy of using the best equipment. We are beginning to feel it is the latter.

To an enthusiast, who may be used to buying an independent watch, the SGD 100k ballpark that this system retails for is expensive, but not beyond the stretch of imagination. In the watch world, independents like Rexhep Rexhepi, or Kari Voutilainen, or Grönefeld offer their three hand watches at a similar price level. In both the watch and camera world, there exist competition who does a similar the job at a much lower price point. A smart phone can do both very well – tell the time as well as take photographs! But at this level of boutique craftsmanship manufactures, the camera (or watch) is a lot more than just a tool or utility. The satisfaction of ownership, the joy of operation, the pleasure of the tactile elements in use or just enjoying the visual beauty becomes the key proposition. As they say, the price is just the price.

Of course the same tool is also useful and has benefits to the professional user looking at making a living from the camera (though not with a high horology watch!), in the face of the better value proposition offered by the much less expensive competition. Also in professional use, clients, even very high end ones, do not demand the ultimate quality achieved by a system like the Alpa. And certainly the joy of use and ownership is only limited to the photographer and can not be extended to the client.

What do you think? Would you buy an ultra high camera from a boutique manufacturer like Alpa?

But there is more! Our story with Alpa is not concluded yet. Next week, we compare the Alpa 12 with the Phase One XT.