Converting Film Camera to Digital the Hard Way

[Robin] is a hobby photographer with some very nice old film camera gear. But who has the money or patience for developing film these days? (Well, lots of people, especially artists, but that’s a different Hackaday article.) So to update his old gear without breaking the bank, he glommed a Sony Nex digital camera onto the back of a nice old Nikon, and documented the process for us.

A friend of mine once said, “never underestimate what a good engineer can do with a file and patience.” [Robin]’s hack essentially consists of grinding the Sony’s CMOS sensor to fit exactly where the film plane would be in the old Nikon. For him, this meant relocating the IR filter glass, because it wouldn’t fit with the shutter, and then slowly and accurately trimming down the edges of the CMOS sensor’s retaining frame until it was just right.

The donor camera was apparently cut up and attached to the back of the camera. There are a bunch of photos of that work on his blog as well.

Of course, we’ve seen this done before, and we’re sure to see it again. There are just too many great old film cameras out there gathering dust because film is inconvenient for small-format snapshots. But when you want to do something truly photographically amazing, there’s still a reason to get your fingers wet with film chemistry, in our opinion.

30 thoughts on “Converting Film Camera to Digital the Hard Way

    1. It is actually not too bad to hold with the MD11 motor drive fitted which has a handle on the right side. I agree on the aesthetics. This project needs people with better electronic skills than me. If the (not required) Nex shutter could be removed the rest of the guts would fit in a neat package? With a 3D printed camera back, some rejiging of the Nex guts and a Nex shutter switch near the Nikon button, it could be a sweet setup. That is why this hack is on Hackaday. I need you geniuses to help me improve on this prototype. It is actually a really fun, versatile camera that can shoot in RGB colour, or Infrared off the bare sensor (with over 2 stops more light), or revert back to a film camera with a spare back. It can use lenses from the 1960’s to today’s. Only downside is hearing the horrid clunk of the Nex before the sweet click of the Nikon. RG.

    1. I have an NEX-5n and a bunch of Canon lenses I use on it, and I can tell you why: the NEXs look like toys. A Nikon mechanical body with a NEX grafted onto it looks like… a professional instrument with a toy grafted onto it.

      1. So don’t buy an NEX? There are literally dozens of cameras to choose from.

        Also, lenses this old don’t hold a candle to current gear. Not even close. In absolutely every measurable way. AR coatings, resolution, barrel distortion, edge softness, chromatic abberations, you name it; the glass is better and ground more precisely, the coatings are better, the designs are better with complex aspherical elements, etc. A modern kit lens will outperform almost anything Canon and Nikon made 30 years ago.

        35mm film just isn’t that high resolution. The top ISO100 films were around 60-65 lines per mm and that’s roughly 8mp. That resolution plunges dramatically as ISO goes up, because the film grain increases in size. Meanwhile, resolution doesn’t change much as ISO increases on a digital camera; you just get more noise.

        We have cameras that are smaller than 35mm frames, producing image captures 2-3x that, and the lenses today need to keep up with that.

        1. I totally get the NEX, those are excellent ergonomic and reasonably priced cameras.
          This hack however was as I suspected purely for the Hipster points ;-) (which I somewhat understand as an owner of Cherry Trail hdmi stick stuffed into Powerbook case, but couldnt get non standard res LCD to work so a failed project).

        2. With a grain of salt, I will take that.

          I have compared my 40-year-old Canon FD 50mm 1:1.8 SC lens with the modern version of it. The two produce indistinguishable images, and BOTH have clearly better contrast than the 18-55 mm kit lens Canon sells. I suspect they’re actually using the same optics today for that lens that they did in 1976. The only detectable difference? The 1976 model is STIFF. You can’t jiggle the focus enough to misalign the optics. Sadly, not so for the modern lens. I’m guessing the slop is due to the autofocus mechanism.

        3. Haha. Kit lenses are crap, now and then. There is a lot of very good old glass out ther that has not changed significantly in the past 25-30 years. For example, my Nikon 200mm f4 micro, came out in 1993 and still considered the best macro lens ever made. They still make it: http://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-products/product/camera-lenses/af-micro-nikkor-200mm-f%252f4d-if-ed.html

          When I worked at Laika we had pretty much bought out every NOS Nikon manual lens on earth and used those on 5dIIs. Older lenses are great.

      1. Not butchered. It can still shoot film with the spare camera door I have. It also converts from RGB colour to Infrared with the removable filter sitting behind the SLR mirror – not sure the DSLR’s do that yet without an external IR filter that knocks the stuffing out of your shutter speed. More info on the Infrared benefit of this camera at http://xovercameras.blogspot.com.au But thanks of all the comments good and bad – enjoying them immensely.

        1. The IR filter on sensors is, as you know since you removed it yourself, fixed to the sensor. So no, DSLRs cannot take infrared pictures without removing this, which also removes your antialiasing. Also, since an IR filter absorbs virtually all of the infrared energy passing through it, it is not possible to make a filter that counteracts the IR filter. The best they can hope for is to cut all OTHER light coming in even more than the IR filter cuts the IR. And that doesn’t just knock the stuffing out of your shutter speed – it makes about a 10-12 f-stop reduction in the light.

          There ARE a number of video cameras that have a lever that flips the IR filter out of the path. They are able to do this because their sensors are much smaller than APS-C, but I’ve never seen this feature on a large-sensor camera.

          1. Some dslrs have really crappy ir cut filters and you can put a ir filter over the lens and get it images with long exposure times. I just sent my old 5d mark I in and had the ir cut replaced with a quartz cover.

          2. Okay, I won’t argue with what works. So is the old 5d going to be relegated to IR-only? Or will you put an IR cut filter on it to shoot normally?

            Back when they made Ektachrome IR, it was a false-color film, with the (relatively) deep IR showing up as red, the near IR showing up as green, and visible light showing up as blue. The recommendation with that film was to use a No. 2 red filter to eliminate the visible blue and green light, which would otherwise dominate the scene. Of course it’s not at all like that with a digital sensor. Best of luck with your experiments. For me, DSLRs aren’t quite cheap enough yet for me to be using sandpaper or files anywhere near the sensors!

          3. Since the sensor has a clear window it is sensitive to near-uv to near-ir now so I can do anything in that area. Add a IR cut filter for visible, IR filter (I use 850nm) or win the lottery and find a UV capable lens and filter to do UV stuff. I found a guy who can do the camera mod while retaining the ultrasonic cleaner on the sensor, which is nice. Bad thing about this mod is I have to focus IR in live view since you cant see though the viewfinder with a IR filter on the lens. My main camera is a 5DIII. The prices on a 5dii have really dropped big time, especially since the IV came out.

            I did do the IR mod on my old Pentax K10D, there is an article on here about it. I wont recommend it though, I ended up with some dust between the filter and the sensor.

            All the B&W stuff in this album was shot in IR with the 5DII: https://www.facebook.com/pg/lumonicphoto/photos/?tab=album&album_id=326365377732831

    1. Don’t mention the vintage style Nikon DF either!

      Seriously though, fun hack. Well executed because he didn’t damage the Nikon (Unlike the Fake Leica 2 conversion) and he has infinity focus (Unlike the Leica M4 conversion) And it’s still more interesting to have in your hands than a Nikon D3400, which is the closest OEM equivalent of this camera, technologically speaking.

  1. I remember, more than a decade ago, reading in Popular Mechanics or Popular Science about a company that was working on a digital film cartridge to fit 35mm cameras. The blurb said it was in development, but I never heard that it became a commercial product. Which is sad, because I had an old Pentax SLR (so old, more than 40 years old now, its internal light sensor still used a mercury battery, and a camera shop I talked to said it was too old to convert to silver cells) with a few nice lenses that I wanted to convert into digital.

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