Entrepreneurs operating under the Yashica brand just managed to raise over $1,000,000 on Kickstarter, for a $140.00 camera shooting “digiFilm” (that’s a trade mark). That’s eight times what they expected. It’s a success.
What’s so special about this camera?
It’s a very simple point and shoot digital camera with a tiny sensor and a fix focus lens (not a zoom, and pre-set to the hyperfocal), which looks like a compact camera of the seventies (Canon Canonet 27, Olympus Trip, Rollei 35, …) and is not technically different from the very basic entry level point and shoot digital cameras that were selling by the tens of millions twelve years ago.
It has no LCD display at the back to visualize the images, just an optical viewfinder. A fake wind lever needs to be activated to arm an inexistent spring loaded shutter.
Its unique selling proposition is that its jPEG files are processed in-camera to emulate 4 different types of film (B&W 400 ISO, 200 and 1600 ISO color film, and a square format); the settings of each “film” are stored in a cartridge that looks like a 35mm film canister. Supposing the camera is shooting “200 ISO color film emulation”, and the photographer wants to switch to Black and White or to 1600 ISO color settings, he/she has to open the back of the camera, remove the 200 ISO cartridge from the camera, and insert the B&W 400 ISO or the 1600 ISO cartridge. As far as I know, the cartridge is not storing any image (there’s an SD card in the camera). It’s just contains a ROM with a few instructions for the jPEG processing engine of the camera.
Nothing here that a smartphone and a few Instagram filters could not do. Fujifilm has been letting the users of its cameras chose the film emulation they wanted to apply to their images for years – photographers can pick the type of film (Fuji’s own Provia, Velvia, Astia and Acros as well as generic interpretations of “chrome” and “professional negative” film), by simply selecting the desired emulation in a menu, and without the gimmickry of cartridges that have to be purchased, inserted, removed, carried around and possibly lost.
Why such an outcry in the photography blogs?
In the grand scheme of things, the number of subscribers of the Y35 camera on Kickstarter (5,500) is a drop of water in the ocean: Instagram has 700 million users and the Japanese industry sold more than 20 million conventional digital cameras last year.
To a large extent, this Yashica is a fake. It’s an entry level digicam, maskerading as a film camera, and sold on a promise of simplicity it can not meet. It won’t be easier to use than a conventional digicam (you’ll still need a USB cable or a WiFi enabled SD card to upload your images to your PC, and from there to your favorite messaging or social networking app).
But its relative success (the catch is that it was purchased by people who have not seen, let alone tested it) is yet another indication that beyond the smartphones and the serious digital cameras – which both are predominantly operating in the abstract world of software – there is a demand for a simpler, more analog user experience.
Today, it’s the instant film cameras, and not toys like this Yashica digicam, which are the best answer to this quest for simplicity, authenticity, and unencumbered fun.
Is it the right way to give a new life to old film cameras? Or is it a solution in search of a problem? The images below were published on Kickstarter – and as of Oct 4th, 100 people had actually subscribed.
What it looks like from the outside:
How it works
The simplest thing to do is to check the Kickstarter page of the project. A few interesting points: it’s a small sensor, paired with a small lens, capturing a picture of the image projected by the camera’s lens on a mat screen placed where the film would normally have been – the camera has to be set with the exposure in “B” (Bulb), and the shutter button has to be pressed for 2-3 seconds.
How it looks behind the curtain
The new and improved version
My take on it?
If you need a smartphone anyway, why not take the picture with the smartphone? And use the film camera for what it does best: shoot film.
It reminds me of previous attempts of marrying technologies which had nothing to do with each other…
The Leica Digital-Modul-R
The idea is not new. Leica even made a very serious and very expensive digital back for its R8 and R9 35mm SLRs. It was actually selling (probably in very small numbers) in 2003, for 4,500 Euros (in addition to the cost of the camera body, or course).
As almost any dSLR of the early years of this century, it did not capture the images full frame, but on a 10 Megapixel APS-C sensor. It was kludgy (if I remember the reviews of the time), but it worked. Look at the pictures taken by a Danish photographer: Thorsten Overgaard.
Of the importance of convenience in photography, and how it will drive conventional digital cameras to irrelevance for casual photographers.
Before they lost everything, Kodak had built an empire on convenience. They had made a process which was seen as extremely complex and cumbersome – taking photographs – into something as simple as pressing a button.
Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram and a few others have made an activity which was discouragingly complex for billions of people – taking pictures, uploading them to a computer, editing them and sharing them with family, friends or perfect strangers over the Internet – so simple that a 6 year old can do it. For the casual photographer, there is no better camera than a smartphone.
How is the obsession with simplicity and convenience going to impact photography as we know it?
It may take a few years, but digital photography as we know it is going to leave the mass market and become a niche:
Smartphones and their cloud ecosystem will only get better at meeting the needs of casual photographers. They will not only take better pictures, but will also offer more functions and even more convenience than today, in a way that will be impossible to match with conventional digital cameras. Imagine the possibilities of combining Presence, Search, Face Recognition, Augmented Reality and Video to make pictures more beautiful, more flattering for the subject, more relevant, easier to share and easier to retrieve for the average user.
Conventional digital photography, with its big and heavy cameras and its cumbersome workflow requiring PCs or Macs and Terabytes of storage will not be able to compete on convenience with smartphones. It will leave the mainstream, and will increasingly be the field of people passionate about creating the absolute best pictures. Those photographers will form a small niche – with its forums, its Web galleries, its exhibits, its sub-culture. The situation of digital photographers will be comparable to what photographers shooting with film experience today. They will form a new minority of enthusiasts.
I don’t expect photographers working with digital cameras to abandon their 50 Megapixel sensors and the Terabytes of disk space where they store their RAW or DNG files to go back to film.
But you can wonder what newcomers to photography will do. If they have an interest in photography as a craft or as a form of artistic activity, and want to go beyond the pictures that the smartphones of Apple and Google will have prepared for them, will they invest in digital cameras and in the digital workflow, or will they go to film? I don’t know. But I’d like to bet on film.
There is no clear and widely accepted definition of what a “Pro” photographer is.
But for practical reasons, camera manufacturers have one. Canon, Nikon and Sony have a dedicated support organization for Pros. The admission criteria is somewhat different for each brand, but, high level, they all consider that a Pro photographer has to derive most or all of its income from photography, and owns a few high end camera bodies and lenses of the brand. At the top of that, Sony also asks for samples of the photographer’s work before granting admission.
Who was manufacturing “pro” cameras in the time of film?
In the days of film, Canon and Nikon clearly were the vendors of choice for pro photographers. At some point, Minolta and Pentax had modular SLRs in their product line (the XM and the LX), but those cameras were a one off – Minolta and Pentax never developed a family of pro SLRs over the long run, the same way Nikon developed the F series and Canon the F-1/EOS-1 product lines.
Minolta, Pentax, Olympus (and even Fujica) probably had many bona fide professional photographers among their customers. But they did not have Canon or Nikon’s presence in big events like the Olympic Games or the Soccer World Cup. And they did not have the lenses and accessories that professional photographers needed (or thought they might need one day).
The power of 9
The closest Minolta came to having a line of pro SLRs was its series of Maxxum autofocus cameras, starting with the Maxxum 9000 in 1985, followed by the Maxxum 9xi in 1992 and the Maxxum 9 in 1999 – remote predecessors of Sony’s high end dSLRs (Alpha 900) and mirrorless cameras (A9).
The 9000 was launched a few months after the revolutionary Maxxum 7000, the first technically and commercially successful autofocus SLR. The 7000 was the “prosumer” model, and the 9000 was supposed to target the “pros”.
Minolta replaced the 7000 with the 7000i in 1988 (relatively similar, but faster), and enriched the product line with the 8000i (a 7000i with a better viewfinder). In 1991, the 7000i was replaced by the 7xi with even more automation (xi stands for “eXpert Intelligence”), and in 1992 a new 9xi replaced both the 8000i and the 9000.
The 9xi was an expensive camera in 1992, with a US list price of $1190, which probably translated into a $650 street price at retailers such as B&H and Adorama. Minolta was very ambitious – its price placed the 9xi in the same ballpark as the Nikon N90, at a much higher level than any Canon SLR bar the EOS-1, which was selling for $1099 (street price).
xi : eXpert Intelligence, fuzzy logic
With its Maxxum line of autofocus SLRs, Minolta was genuinely trying to make photography simpler. In the early eighties, manufacturers had tried to attract new customers for their lines of reflex cameras by removing features – hoping that stripped down SLRs would be less intimidating for people who were just looking for a camera delivering better pictures than a point and shoot. They failed – those simplified SLRs (Canon AV-1, Pentax MV, Nikon EM) were still complex for the average amateur – they offered no program mode for auto-exposure, and still required the user to know how to focus and to load the film. They were too complex compared to a motorized/autofocus point and shoot, and at the same time too primitive to guarantee good results to amateurs ignorant of the technical fundamentals of photography.
The success of the Maxxum 7000 proved that if you added more automation to make SLRs easier to use (automatic film load, auto-rewind, programmed exposure, and of course, auto-focus) customers would come in droves.
Beyond all the buzz-words and the marketing verbiage – ”expert intelligence”, “fuzzy logic” – the Maxxum i and xi cameras introduced features that we still find in today’s digital cameras – matrix metering with a large number of metering cells, predictive AF, info provided on an overlay over the matt screen in the viewfinder, eye sensor to wake up the camera, scene modes and wireless flash control. Other ideas did not stick because they were too weird (automatic zooming), too cumbersome to use (expansion cards giving access to scene modes or extra features), or too irritating for technically savvy photographers (no direct access to exposure and metering modes, built-in flash that automatically pops up).
Power XI zooms – automation pushed to the absurd
The xi cameras were compatible with the “normal” Minolta A series autofocus lenses, but were designed to work with a new line of Power XI zooms. The main difference was that zooming was motorized. When the camera was powered on, it set the zoom automatically to the focal length best suited to the scene, and in some scene modes, the camera could even override the photographer and reframe the picture on its own. Pretty radical at the time.
In retrospect, the Power XI zooms happened to be a distraction for Minolta. They were not widely accepted on the marketplace, and consumed engineering resources that could have been used to develop a line of “pro” lenses. When they launched the 9xi in 1992, Minolta did not have any of the lenses of the pro-trifecta: the f/2.8 constant aperture wide angle, trans-standard and tele-objective zooms that professional photographers tend to use. The “Pro” zooms would arrive in time for the launch of the 700si, but too late for the 9xi.
The fate of the xi series
I don’t have access to sales figures, but I does not look like the 9xi, the Power xi zooms, and the xi product line in general were very well received on the marketplace. The 7xi was replaced with the 700si after a very short sales career of only two years. The Power XI zooms were discontinued at the same time, and replaced with conventional non-motorized lenses. The buying public did not root for the design of the 7xi, and did not see the benefit of power zooms. It can also be argued that the 7xi had been crippled to leave room for the 9xi (it lacked the depth of field preview, exposure bracketing, a programmable function button, and the ability to use AA batteries with in a grip) – all features that enthusiast photographers expected from this class of camera, and present on the 9xi.
With the Maxxum 700si, Minolta addressed the concerns of the enthusiasts about the feature set, made the interface more configurable, and returned to a pleasantly conventional design. But in the process they also made the 700si much closer to the 9xi, whose only remaining differentiator was its weather sealing.
The 9xi remained on Minolta’s catalog for a few years – as a signpost to confirm that Minolta still had ambitions in the “Pro” market.
Was the 9xi a “pro” camera?
In the early nineties, Minolta only had a marginal presence in the “Pro” market, and its line of auto-focus lenses and its support organization were not on par with Canon or Nikon.
Was the 9xi so significantly better than its competition, or so innovative, that it could lure a large number of Pro photographers into abandoning the Nikon and Canon systems? Would the Pros take a leap of faith with Minolta, hoping the brand would beef up its product line and its support organization as more of them became Minoltians?
At the time, the market’s answer was “no”. It would take the revolution of mirrorless, and Sony’s introduction of the A7 to finally see a product of the Minolta-Konica-Sony family encroach Canon and Nikon’s duopoly in the world of professional photography.
Every year, comes September, Apple presents a new iteration of the iPhone, and every year, the iPhone gets better at taking pictures. One year, the iPhone gets better with low light shots, another year with portraits. Last year it started emulating the low depth of field and bokeh you normally get with a few high end lenses. This year, it will be about studio lighting. And every year, in the forums dedicated to digital photography (or should I say – to the cult of digital cameras), purists and fanatics develop new arguments to explain that “a photo shot with an iPhone is not the same, it’s looks artificial, you can see the difference”.
Maybe. To the trained eye of a specialist. But for the majority of people, the pictures they get from their phones are much better than what they used to get from a point and shoot camera 10 years ago. Incredibly better than the prints they used to receive when they were shooting film. And now they can share them. Without having to be an expert.
Smartphones ARE the go-to digital camera of billions of people
We always have them with us,
Taking pictures with them is simple and intuitive
With their large, high resolution screens and easy to use interface, they’re a great platform to edit and enhance pictures,
The integration with email, messaging and all sorts of social network apps is seamless. And the images are backed up automatically (in a cloud) and made available in cloud based galleries.
did I mention selfies?
And they’re getting better every year – integrating better sensors, better lenses, adding optical image stabilization, adding a short tele lens, and using software emulation to let billions of people take pictures which used to require expensive hardware and a solid photographic knowledge (portraits with low depth of field and pleasant blurry backgrounds, studio lighting).
As a result, smartphones are more than good enough for casual family photography or casual travel photography, and many news organizations have equipped their reporters with smartphones. In any case, the pictures will be primarily seen on screens (smartphones, tablets, laptops, TV), and on this type of support, the quality of the images (resolution, contrast, dynamic) is more than adequate.
Of course, smartphones are missing a few things:
No viewfinder (an issue when shooting outdoors on a very sunny day or with long tele lenses)
No ultra-wide angle lens (can’t emulate that)
No medium to long tele lens: the tele objective of an iPhone has a focal length equivalent to 56mm – even with the “digital zoom” (aka cropping) you can’t get beyond the equivalent of a 200mm lens, and with a reduced resolution.
No macro lens
No fine control of the exposure or the focus (you can put your finger on the screen to indicate where you want the phone to set the exposure or the focus, but that’s still pretty limited)
No way to control multiple flash guns or studio lights
And of course, they don’t have a 50 Megapixel full frame sensor.
Where does it leave us?
Amateurs, families, people traveling light and all sorts of professionals needing good quality photographs will be happy with a smartphone
Soccer moms, enthusiasts, who need a longer reach and more control over the picture will use a bridge camera (such as a Sony RX10, Panasonic FZ1000), a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder or a dSLR.
Provided they have the skills and have bought a few good lenses (in any case something better than the trans-standard zoom usually coming with the camera) – they may sometimes get better results than with a phone. It’s a bit provocative, but I would argue that a photographer of average abilities using an entry level mirrorless camera – with no electronic viewfinder and no flash shoe, paired with a 18-55 (or 16-50) kit zoom – is probably worse off than the user of a smartphone in most situations.
What about film?
So far, digital photography has been about ease of use, convenience, and speed.
Film could not fight in the same category. Film photography requires more technical knowledge, it’s a cumbersome process, and it’s slow. Today, you shoot with film by choice, because you love the old film cameras, because you love having a piece of film in your hands, because you love the technical challenge, because you love the way images taken with film will look.
To some extent, conventional digital cameras are following their film predecessors, and have started leaving the mass market. They’re already in a niche, still large, but shrinking. Five or ten years from now, as the smartphones will have kept improving, the niche will be much smaller, inhabited by photographers who love to be in control of the technical characteristics of their images, and refuse to be deprived of that control by a smartphone.
Admittedly, film photography is an even smaller niche. But I don’t see it shrinking anymore. As smartphones become better at delivering pictures automatically, as digital cameras become the domain of perfectionists, a minority will look at film photography as the ultimate refuge for spontaneity and authenticity.
Mirrorless cameras have made us familiar with the concept of mounting old manual focus lenses manufactured many decades ago on a modern camera. A little known fact is that Canon’s T90 (their top of the line manual focus SLR in the eighties) can work in a full featured semi-automatic mode with Pentax screw mount AND Nikon F lenses, thanks to adapters which were at some point sold by Canon themselves.
How is it even possible?
The Canon FD mount has one of the shortest flange to film distances of all 35mm SLRs at 42mm. On the other hand, the Nikon F flange distance is one of the longest, at 46.5mm (source: Wikipedia – Flange focal distance). The “universal” 42mm screw mount (used by Asahi Pentax and the East German offspring of Zeiss until the mid seventies) is close to the Nikon’s flange distance at 45.6mm. Therefore, if a lens mount adapter can be made less than 4.5 mm thick, it will be possible to mount a Nikon lens on a Canon camera without losing the ability to focus to the infinite (and 3.6mm is the right thickness for a 42mm screw mount adapter).
The difficult part of course is to transmit aperture information to and from the lens – but if the camera is designed to work – at least in one specific mode – without having to exchange information with the lens (semi-automatic exposure with stopped down metering and no aperture pre-selection, for instance), a very simple lens mount converter will be able to do the job.
Such adapters can be found on eBay for less than $10.00 (recent Chinese manufacturing). More surprisingly, it appears that Canon used to sell Canon branded, made in Japan adapters in the sixties (source: Cameraquest, Pacificrim).
42mm screw mount lenses
I recently found one of those 42mm screw mount to FD adapters, (it does not look like the genuine Canon item shown in the picture below, but it’s made in Japan) and decided to test it with a Pentax Super Takumar 35mm F/2 on a Canon T90.
The T90 is an interesting camera – while it does not offer a true semi-automatic metering mode at full aperture with Canon’s native FD lenses, it simply has to be set to stopped down metering to gain a fully functional semi-automatic exposure mode, non only with Canon FD and FL lenses, but also with “adapted” screw mount lenses.
The main mission of a lens mount adapter is to position the guest lens (the Pentax 35 mm f/2 in our case) so that its flange will sit at precisely 45.6mm from the film plane – as if it was mounted on an Asahi Pentax camera.
The converter does not provides any mechanical linkage between the adapted lens and the camera, and it has no mechanism to force the lens to stop down to the pre-selected aperture when the photographer presses the shutter release. Therefore, it can only work with lenses with no automatic aperture pre-selection, or lenses where the aperture pre-selection can be switched off to force the lens to always keep the iris at the value shown on the aperture ring.
Not all 42mm screw mount lenses are created equal
Lenses deprived of such a switch can only be operated at their maximum aperture – which makes them mostly unusable. Lenses (such as the Fujinon screw mount lenses) designed to support full aperture metering add another constraint – they typically use a non-standard derivative of the 42mm lens mount (with a protruding pin in the case of the Fujinon) and can not be physically mounted on this adapter (I tried).
Nikon has been using the same F bayonet layout for 60 years, but had to go through many iterations of its lens mount to stay current (support of through the lens metering (TTL), introduction of program modes, of matrix metering, and many variants of autofocus).
Genuine and Canon-branded Nikon AI to FD adapters are rare and very expensive (I saw one selling for $150.00 on eBay under the name “MC-N Lens Mount Converter”). I bought a Chinese one, for a fraction of the cost.
Being devoid of any aperture transmission mechanism, the converter is compatible with any Nikon lens AI, AIS, AF, AF-D lens, and I don’t see why it could not also accept pre-AI lenses.
Does it work?
Yes. With the right adapter, a 42mm Screw Mount lens set in “manual” (no aperture pre-selection) will work on the T90 the same way a Canon FL lens (set in “manual”) would.
screw the adapter on the lens
Mount the lens on the Canon T90
Set the lens to “M”
push the stopped down metering lever
turn the camera ON
set the Exposure Mode to “T” (for shutter priority exposure)
turn the aperture ring or the control wheel (controlling the shutter speed) to adjust the exposure as if it was a Canon FL lens used stopped down (the “OP” message on the viewfinder’s LED panel means “Open the iris”, “CL” stands for “close the iris” and “oo” for “you nailed it”.
Of course, you operate stopped down – but it’s not so much of an issue:
the viewfinder of the T90 is very bright and the matt screen very fine, you can focus accurately up to f/8 if you shoot outside on a sunny day,
photographers are unlikely to mount slow lenses on the camera, or to shoot at F/16. They will most probably use the converters to mount old and ultra-luminous lenses on the T90, for the bokeh, and for the way the pictures shot with old lenses look.
With screw mount lenses, the T90 is as easy to use as any other semi auto camera, and exposure seems accurate (I obtained the same recommended aperture with the Pentax lens, the FL and the FD lenses, and on a Nikon camera I used as a benchmark).
With Nikon lenses, I observed multiple issues: with some lenses, the aperture ring of the lens does not seem to control the aperture, and with some lenses, the exposure is off (1 to 1 1/2 stop) compared with FD, FL or Pentax screw mount lenses. I suspect it’s because the lever controlling the aperture on a Nikon lens is normally pushed to the preselected aperture by a spring loaded lever on a Nikon camera’s body. With this adapter, the spring loaded lever is missing.
Does it make sense?
Owners of 42 mm screw mount lens with manual preselection don’t have many options if they want to use their lens “natively” on modern cameras: Pentax stopped selling screw mount cameras in 1975, Fujica at the end of the seventies, and Cosina briefly sold a Voigtlander Bessaflex SLR in small volumes at the beginning of this century. Nothing recent or widely available. The best they can do is use adapters, to mount their lens on Pentax K SLRs and dSLRs, or of course on many mirrorless cameras. In that perspective, if you’re a T90 enthusiast and still own a few very good 42mm lenses it could make sense to look for a 42mm to FD adapter.
I’m less convinced it makes sense for owners of old Nikon lenses to mount them on a T90. Nikon lenses don’t like to be mounted on an adapter that does not control their aperture lever. And if you have old Nikkor lenses that you love, there is no shortage of good film and digital Nikon cameras which still accept them, and will offer full aperture metering and more auto exposure options than an adapted lens on the T90 .
Other Canon bodies
Any Canon body which can operate stopped down with Canon FL lenses can in theory work with the 42mm screw mount or the Nikon F adapter.
Canon AV-1: being an “aperture priority auto exposure camera, it works stopped down with Canon FL lenses and adapted screw mount lenses.
Canon FT: a semi-automatic camera operating natively with FL lenses, it also works with adapted screw mount lenses.
This blog had been using the same WordPress theme since the beginning, in 2009.
A change was overdue. Today, it’s been upgraded to a new theme, Isola. Clean, simple, more smartphone and tablet friendly, with more room for content. The menu and widgets are now tucked behind a button in the top bar. I also paid a few extra dollars to have the ads removed.
Nothing else is changing. If you love taking pictures, if you love old cameras, we’re in the same frame of mind and you’re welcome.