Why the film/digital hybrid is a dead end

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The I’m Back digital back for film cameras (Pic: I’m Back)

In 1996, I was reporting for the NME’s website at that year’s Reading Festival, one of the biggest events in the UK’s music calendar. We had a Portacabin backstage, where reviewers and bands doing webchats would troop in and out of.

Most of the NME’s photographers were shooting on high-end Nikons or Canons. Couriers were on hand to take bags of films back to London for overnight developing. There was, however, one photographer doing something a little different.

Steve Double was one of the paper’s leading snappers, and he was sporting something that looked like a Nikon with a black-coloured housebrick underneath. It was a Kodak DSC, a film SLR with a special digital back that allowed it to take 1.4 megapixel shots.

It cost something like £20,000. Steve had borrowed one for a few days to see what it was capable of.

This, I realise now, was my first glimpse into the future of mainstream photography. No more films to buy and load, no more costly processing. A click of a button, and you have a picture – no trip to the photo shop, no waiting for the prints to come back. No money, and no mucking about.

These giant hybrids died out by the turn of the century, camera makers having solved how to miniaturise the sensors needed to take a pic so they could fit inside the body of an SLR. No longer did you have to cart around something that looked like a prop from a 1980s sci-fi film.

Now, all that stuff that helps take a digital image is so small it can fit inside a mobile phone. Which makes it odd to see that, more than 20 years after I first saw those bottom-heavy Kodaks, we’re seeing the re-emergence of the film/digital hybrid.

These hybrids come in myriad forms. Only this week came the launch of I’m Back, a digital back that can be bolted on to a whole range of film cameras (provided you take the back door off first. It is, essentially, the same concept as those monster Kodaks from the 1990s.

The images posted on I’m Back’s site are certainly interesting – they have a decidedly retro feel that evokes the early days of Instagram filters of Hipstamatic (the one at the bottom of this story on PetaPixel is particularly atmospheric). They look like film pics too, but pics from decidedly low-fi cameras like the Halina 35X or the Smena cameras made in the USSR. The cameras that they have been shot on, however, are much higher up the price scale – I’m Back’s site includes an image of a Nikon S rangefinder attached to the device.

I’m Back comes hot on the heels of the Yashica Y35 announced earlier this month – a digital camera that evokes the classic rangefinder models made by Japanese camera makers Yashica in the 1960s and 70s. The Y35, however, is a plastic compact with a digital sensor. The wheeze with the Y35 is that you ‘load’ its digiFILM plug-ins – essentially jpg presets that process images to look a particular way, like black and white or high-ISO colour film. Despite the tactile qualities – you even wind on the camera to ready the next shot, and you load the plug-in like you would a roll of film – the Y35 is a fully digital camera. (When this story was published, it had raised over $1m in 11 days through Kickstarter.)

The Yashica Y35, complete with digiFILM (Pic: Yashica)

No doubt, these projects have been created by people passionate about photography. But they also seem to have tried to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist.

“It seems to me that the perception of what is commercially viable within the area of camera manufacturing is a little twisted,” says Hamish Gill, who runs the film photography blog 35mmc.

“For a start, we have the massively growing instant photography market. A market that’s been largely regenerated by Fujifilm, a company that has on many occasions – despite their name – ditched film stocks and told us there’s a good chance it’s going to exit the film market.

Then we have traditional film photography – the latent rather than instant image stuff. Those who wish to partake in this sort of photography and wish to buy a new camera are lumped with either Lomography plastic fantastic cameras, or a £3.7k Leica.

“The rest of this market place is entirely supported by dwindling stocks of ever more valuable second hand cameras – with cameras like the Olympus mju-ii seeing a used value increase from £30 in 2013 to up to £150 in 2017. Yet despite this, none of the big manufacturers have taken the plunge and brought a new film camera to market.

“Instead, we are teased with pseudo film nonsense like the new Yashica Y35 – a camera that angers me instantly just by including the numbers 3 and 5 in its nomenclature. The only thing that this camera has to do with 35mm film photography is a vague nod in its design to when Yashica (the real Yashica, not the modern company that owns the rights to the brand) made a similar-ish looking camera in the 70’s.

“This thing offers none of the advantages of either film or digital. It doesn’t have the immediacy of digital through its lack of a screen on the back. Instead it offers a claimed film-like experience by forcing the photographer to insert pretend film cartridges into its backend and a need to wait to see the images when they are loaded onto a computer later.

“It doesn’t (can’t) have a film like quality, as it’s simply not film, and it won’t offer the potential quality of digital as the system is to be based around a minute sensor. Yet somehow, its Kickstarter has flown. Who are the people buying it?”

Steven Lloyd, a photographer and camera inventor, is also skeptical. “As an analogue photographer and custom camera builder, I really wanted the Y35 to be as good as the marketing hype around it but, coupled with the complete lack of manual control, the Y35 ends up trying to be a synergy of analogue and digital but ends up dropping the best parts of both.  It has neither the instant gratification and flexibility of digital (no screen and no way to change settings on the fly without switching out a faux-film cartridge like an idiot), nor the tactile handling and excitement of a true metal-bodied film rangefinder.”

EM, who runs the film website EMULSIVE is another film community stalwart struggling to find the market for these products. He says film photographers has reacted with confusion to this return to a halfway house – and it’s not because they’re stuck in the past.

“Contrary to popular belief, practitioners of film photography, or analogue photography if you include instant film, wet plate and other alternative processes are not, on the whole, the luddites they have been portrayed to be. They do not resist the encroachment of digital technology in their lives, nor to they deny the benefits of pervasive technologies. What they do understand however, is that digital photography is not the best expression for their creative output. It’s a choice based on a desired end result,” he says.

“‘Film has feeling’, ‘film slows me down’, ‘film describes my world’, ‘film provides me with an intrinsic connection to my entire creative process’… These are just a few of the ways film photographers have tried to describe what the medium means to them over the two plus years I have been conducting interviews on EMULSIVE and with only a handful of exceptions, each and every photographer I have spoke to is a hybrid shooter.”

EM says there is a space for new camera technology that could marry analogue and digital.

“There is a huge untapped space waiting to be filled with hybrid devices and technologies that will take advantage of the best of both worlds. There will be inevitable missteps as we edge toward this unified future and I believe that we exist in a period where these missteps are not only common but they will get worse before they get better,” he says.

Not all film cameras have risen in price so steeply – and film is plentiful and some of it still inexpensive (Pic: Torange.biz)

“It is apparent to a moderately serious photographer that there is a need for digital camera manufacturers to innovate into the thriving (not to mention growing), film photography space… A good example are the film scanning features and hardware found on Nikon’s newly-announced DSLR, and devices that make the process of digitising film easier without dedicated scanners. These are both welcome and a sign of things to come.”

“But for every step in the right direction there are wrong turns, endless circles and dead ends. The recent digiFILM announcement by the Hong Kong based company that manages the Yashica brand is a fantastic albeit sad example of this. It is a mediocre device that seeks to emulate the “actions” of shooting film with none of the results. It misses the point of film photography altogether. It is at best a gimmick and at worse, an opportunistic cash-in on nostalgia without a single thought being paid to the untapped desire for some meaningful differentiation and innovation in the digital film marketplace.”

Over the last decade, some of the attempts to make film cameras live on in the digital age have focused on trying to make a sensor fit where the film would usually go. Concepts like Pseudo Film imagined a film-shaped sensor could be dropped into any film camera – even mechanical models that didn’t need a battery. The sensor would carry its own rechargeable battery. You could drop it into you camera. Take it out and upload the pics, charge it up again and shoot once more.

But this seemingly wonderful idea has several issues. How does the sensor make sure it’s operating at the same time as the camera shutter? How could it be sure to capture the image in focus when the distance between film plane and lens can differ so widely from model to model? How could you make it the strip behind the shutter robust enough?

Film has not only survived the digital revolution, but film sales have started to rise again

Problems like these sank concept after concept, ever since the first, SiliconFilm, was unveiled in 2000. This was meant to give a new digital lease of life to modern film SLRs like the Nikon F100. But the SiliconFilm was soon buried by the pace of digital progress – it soon became clear that photographers would rather trade in their expensive film gear for a digital SLR.

Concepts like these also presumed that film would become increasingly rare and hard to find – you’d want to buy something like this on your Leica III or Minolta SLR because Kodak and Ilford would be names from the past. Here’s one major problem with that – film has not only survived the digital revolution, but film sales have started to rise again. Old films that had been pulled are even returning.

The pioneering Silicone Film Concept (Pic: Silicone Film)

People who want to use their parents of grandparents film cameras can still buy film – perhaps no longer from a store in their town, but film on the internet is a couple of clicks away. If you want to shoot on something that harks back to the golden age of film photography, you don’t have to shell out for something digital that’s trying to evoke it.

“All of these faux-digital…figital developments do have one important consistency, however,” says EM. “They miss the point. Film as a medium provides something that most digital cameras are unable to produce and it’s not dynamic range, in case you were wondering. Film photography provides the photographer with a connection with the medium, a connection and involvement with the process and the feeling of having created something real. No amount of fake film cartridges or “winders” are going to come close to matching that, and therein lies the problem.”

Lloyd says there is plenty of room for film and digital photographers to shoot as they wish, without having to confuse things with a third format. “Personally, I shoot film because I like the mechanical feel of ‘pre-EOS’ systems in all sizes; particularly medium/large format, as well as the flutter that I still get when I pull a roll of film out of the developing tank or wait for my processed film to return in the post.  Essentially, I know that if I didn’t get the result I was hoping for, it’s most likely my fault because a film camera is generally a light-tight box with a lens on the front.  However, I’m also a digital shooter and strongly believe that both systems play their part in my hobby.”

The plans for Japan Camera Hunter’s new film compact, unveiled last month (Pic: Camera Ventures/Japan Camera Hunter)

Japan Camera Hunter‘s Bellamy Hunt is one firm film fan who believes a hybrid camera could work – but with a caveat. Hunt has already unveiled plans to try and make a high-end 35mm compact camera, and at its launch last month said h intended it to have a digital sensor aswell.

“I think the concept of a true hybrid camera is a good idea, after all that is what I am currently working one,” he says. “What I think is damaging to the market is the cameras being called hybrids, when they are clearly not. The Yashica camera is not a hybrid, it is a digital camera with a gimmick that is designed to play on the sentiments on people who revere the Yashica brand.

“I am also opposed to the idea of making a unit that can ‘convert’ a film camera to digital. The fundamental idea of this is flawed in my opinion. Film cameras and the lenses were designed for film and would perform quite poorly with a digital unit. If you want to get the film look shoot some bloody film.”

Hunt believes the effort would be better directed at helping keep the film cameras we do have going as long as possible – as well as introducing new models that will keep the format alive for those too young to have lived through its golden age.

“It is a retrograde step, it is not solving any problem or helping to advance the use of film. It is a shame as there are some clearly talented people working on non-issues, when their expertise could be put to better use in say, making a completely new camera for example. If we want to help bring film to a new audience then we should be working in this direction together. If you want to make a digital camera then make a digital camera that looks like a classic camera.

“Old cameras do not need to be made new. We should be working on ensuring that the classic cameras we have can be used for generations to come. And that new cameras and systems are coming onto the market to ensure a new generation of photographers.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Well, Bellamy’s project is not the only one trying to mix digital and film on the same body.
    At PONF (www.ponfcamera.com) we are making a reflex with interchangeable backs: one is a 35mm film, the other is a full frame / APS-C Sony sensors based digital back.
    What PONF (an acronym for Photography ON Film) is trying to do is collecting all the actors interested on photography to join a global and common path to share knowledge, experience, time to make what photographers love most: taking photos.
    PONF is an open project, that welcomes every individual, company, academy, university willing to participate in a project whose result will be larger that the sum of the elements carried in.

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