Fellow photographer Robert Stinson and I were musing on the phone recently about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film cameras so they could make digital photos.
It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.
Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot of money, and it all still worked fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5,000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cartridge with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?
It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles. Why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?
Today we see more attempts at the concept from companies like PSEUDO, I’m Back and Frankencamera (although RE-35 was a branding experiment and April Fool’s joke) and I wish them luck.
Some readers might argue that I could simply shoot film and have it scanned to make it digital. But if you’ve looked over the landscape of photography, you’ll see that this avenue is rapidly disappearing. Fewer stores stock film, even fewer can process it and new film becomes increasingly expensive as the selection dwindles. I have many old cameras that take film that’s been out of production for years, if not decades.
Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would using old cameras even be of interest in 2018? Answer: For the same reason lomography has its niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own homes here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.
As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp, since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era, can create images with unique and engaging character. Fellow photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.
I love this idea, and not just for 35mm.
My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras of various formats sitting around, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format conventional film camera making a 4.5- x 2.5-inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4- x 5-inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully, open up another artistic avenue for my work.