Classic Leica Film Camera Turns Digital

While there’s still a market for older analog devices such as vinyl records, clocks, and vacuum-tube-powered radio transmitters, a large fraction of these things have become largely digital over the years. There is a certain feel to older devices though which some prefer over their newer, digital counterparts. This is true of the camera world as well, where some still take pictures on film and develop in darkrooms, but if this is too much of a hassle, yet you still appreciate older analog cameras, then this Leica film camera converted to digital might just attract your focus.

This modification comes in two varieties for users with slightly different preferences. One uses a Sony NEX-5 sensor which clips onto the camera and preserves almost all of the inner workings, and the aesthetic, of the original. This sensor isn’t full-frame though, so if that’s a requirement the second option is one with an A7 sensor which requires extensive camera modification (but still preserves the original rangefinder, an almost $700 part even today). Each one has taken care of all of the new digital workings without a screen, with the original film advance, shutters, and other HIDs of their time modified for the new digital world.

The finish of these cameras is exceptional, with every detail considered. The plans aren’t open source, but we have a hard time taking issue with that for the artistry this particular build. This is a modification done to a lot of cameras, but seldom with so much attention paid to the “feel” of the original camera.

Thanks to [Johannes] for the tip!

36 thoughts on “Classic Leica Film Camera Turns Digital

      1. Well, one could pick a completely broken camera with good lens and adapt that to a digital camera, instead of modifying a working camera to digitize it.

        And why would anyone turn a fine film camera into yet another point-and-shoot?

      2. It’s not that simple though. A digital sensor doesn’t work like film – the angle of incidence of the light changes the response. Transplanting the sensor (and software) from another camera will cause vignetting and contrast issues. It doesn’t work right until you change the firmware to compensate, and this will only work if the lens has a fixed focal length etc. because there’s no sensors to tell the firmware what’s going on with a manual lens.

    1. Came for this oh so predictable comment. I come across classic kit all the time at garage sales and auctions selling for pennies. I have a ton of stuff sitting on shelves waiting for me to ‘stick a pi in it’.

      Buy it and restore it and do us all a blog or video. Seriously. Contribute.

      Someone did more than sit back and complain about other peoples projects.

    2. This is not the mona lisa. Over 200000 were made. I’m sure at least a few will sit pristine and unused for their only function on shelves somewhere around the world

      1. True enough. You see them vastly over-priced due to the collector market and those who just like them a lot. But there are vast numbers of them in the wild and owned by photographers. You should see the prices for xxx. Making something cool out of one is not going to hurt anyone. You should see the Alpa market. The Switar’s are basically cinema lenses. But they have been dropping in price just like Leicas. The next generation is likely to have no interest.

    1. I wonder if this concept could be executed with Russian FED’s or Zorki’s; those lenses certainly aren’t junk and the base camera is much less expensive, making the package more accessible.

      1. My thoughts exactly. The Zorki 4 series for example were made in quantity (2+ million), were cheap and used Leica’s M39 lens mount, so have access to an extensive range of quality lenses.

  1. What somebody really needs to make is a digital sensor and associated support and recording hardware and power supply into the form factor of camera film (35mm, 120, whatever), that way you could convert your analogue camera into digital without any modifications.

    1. It was tried with 35mm but the rock upon which it sank was that the spacing between the slot in the side of the film can and the location where the film is exposed is not at all standard.

      What was needed for it was a bit of DIY adjustability. I would’ve made it with a section of flex circuit with a length of bare traces and corresponding contacts on the sensor. Install the sensor then the digital can so the flex lays atop the end of the sensor. The final step would be to close a lever/cover to clamp the two securely together. An arrangement much like the way flex circuits for laptop keyboard and other parts connect, but with non-critical insertion depth.

      What would be far easier would be a digital 126 or 110 cartridge. There were some pretty high end 126 cameras. Kodak made an SLR 126 that used their Retina SLR lenses, though not all features of some lenses would work. At least one other company made a 126 SLR. Some of the early 110 cameras were very nicely made, such as the Minolta 110 Zoom SLR.

      Look up the Micro 110 Camera. It was smaller than the 110 film cartridge. It clipped onto the front of the cartridge with an extension to the side to engage the film take up spool. The “viewfinder” was just an open plastic square that flipped up on top. One of those with a digital 110 cartridge would be fun. Dunno why a 126 version was never made.

      1. When I rode my bicycle coast to coast in 1976 I took a relatively advanced Minolta 110 camera along. The need for weird format batteries and of course the tiny 110 film format was regrettable. When I took a similar 4000 mile tour in 1981 I took a 35mm camera (Canon AE-1, zoom lens) and the results were excellent. (K64 or self-developed Panatomic-X slide film.) I don’t think 110 is a format that deserves resurrection, except for hacking purposes. Even the shittiest 110-size sensor is going to outperform 110 film, FWIW.

        1. I have a small collection of old cameras. Among them I have a Kiev 303, which uses even smaller cartridges than 110 film, but frame size is still the same…

          And yes, you are right about the sensor being better than film. Especially if you consider that typical 35mm film had resolution of about 5 megapixels. And resolution is inverse proportional to film sensitivity. OTOH film has higher dynamic range…

      2. I actually have a Micro 110 camera, and it would be easily adaptable, but with the plastic lens, no way to change focus, plastic “viewfinder” it would just be for a laugh, an adapter for a “good” camera would me more worthy of the effort.

    2. Actually it is done for some medium-format (IIRC) cameras. One removes the back that usually holds fimp and puts in a module with sensor, then plugs a cable between it and the connector for external flash…

  2. Leica developed the digital module R for the SLR R8 and R9 cameras. Replaced the
    film back with a 10.3 megapixel sensor and it is good. And able to put the film back on if desired. A wonderful way to go digital and retain those great R lenses and bodies.

    1. I still have two R8 bodies and 12 lenses. All along I was hoping for digital R10? Today I am using these super lenses on my Canon cameras via adapters bought Leitex. Still miss the feeling of my R8

  3. From a hacker’s perspective, this is merely OK. From an real engineer’s perspective, the effort could be better utilized by building a DIY but high performance film scanner. Developing film isn’t that hard, but scanning is, and the scans you get from most non-bespoke photolabs are junk. Shouldn’t be that hard, especially since I have a couple of orphaned “Windows XP required” scanners rotting in the junk box.

  4. Nice to get the vintage Leica lenses putting their image circle onto a digital sensor, but given the physical depth of the individual recessed pixels vs. a lens that’s aming to hit a flat film plane from the width of its rear element, what percentage of photons heading for the film plane actually get read and what’s the resulting image quality actually like?

  5. Leicas are pretty close to point-and-shoot, a favourite among the Cartier-Bresson followers albeit requiring some experience on the part of the user to set aperture, shutter, and focus. If you knew your camera well, and had sufficient experience, you could set exposure without a lightmeter, and pre-focus your lens. That’s what street photographers aspired to – to be able to take photos without making a big production of it, and spoiling the subjects’ actions when they become aware of being photographed*

    Sunny day, using ISO100 film? 1/125 @ f8.

    I couldn’t afford a Leica then or now, I had to be content with a nice Ricoh with rangefinder focus, a handheld lightmeter, and weird shutter speeds. 1/300? Really?

    *Can’t do that these days, you’ll be reported to the police

  6. I looked into a digital back for my Mamiya RB67. About $20K for the Mamiya Leaf. There’s a kickstarter for “I’m Back”, a low-cost, low-spec digital back+adapter to “breathe life into old cameras”

  7. In the early days of digital cameras, there was a conversion kit made for SLR 35mm cameras. The electronics were the same size as the 35mm film cannister and fit in the same location. The sensor was placed where the film would be exposed. The conversion didn’t change the camera. It never took off as the resolution was only at best 1.2. No one back then really wants to change to digital with a lower resolution, so it failed.

    1. I remember huuuuge early days digital backs that cost an arm and a leg and a kidney. I also remember something being more in the early days of mass market digitals rather than early early days of the mavica etc. however, as I remember it, not sure if it had just become available then or when I first heard about it, but the point and shoots were available at 3 megapixels and 5 or 6 megapixel sensors had already been announced for availability in 6 months or so. So 1.2 megapixel was a very sad sack effort for the 35mm world, a sensor, no matter high quality that was way behind state of the art in point and shoots. Unfortunately it seemed that due to it not selling, it put the kibosh on similar products that might have offered decent image quality at 5 or 6 MP later. Heck I’d still stick 5 or 6 MP in an SLR now.

  8. Did any of the commenters actually read the original blog post? It’s a bit verbose, but IMHO the conversion PDFs linked in the Instructions section include some pretty impressive hackery.

    1. I have to agree. This build is impressive:

      * Do you know how tiny a lot of the components both of the old and the new camera are? Taking that into account and looking at the end result (look at the PDF’s), this build is awesome, so much time must have been spent to come to such a high quality result
      * This is the only analog to digital conversion that I know of that actually uses a full frame sensor. Most use tiny sensors
      * This is the only example I have seen of a modern full frame camera taken apart and the sensor with electronics being repurposed for another application
      * The guy 3D designed a complete new chassis/housing in the original shape of the Leica to fit all the new components.

  9. .no matter the camera film or digital body and lens film… The final image is always the photographers skills. That is essential for the street photographer, the more basic and pre-set the better… The release click must be instant because the brain is faster than the shutter, at least for me.

  10. The effort in making this project a reality is immense. There are a lot of custom 3d printed parts here which I can imagine took a lot of troubleshooting and iteration to perfect. While part of me thinks it’s a bit bonkers to spend an exorbitant amount of time retrofitting a leica m3 to digital, I have to applaud the efforts taken to complete this and make this functional. The sony dials were even repurposed. I was expecting just shutter button functionality. I can imagine other people have dabbled with the idea of a film-leica digital conversion, tried, and gave up. Hats off to finishing the project and seeing it all the way through. The end results look very well constructed. Nice job Ollie!

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