A Dead Photographic Format Rises From The Ashes

Sometimes we stumble upon a hack that’s not entirely new but which is still pretty exceptional. So it is with [Hèrm Hofmeyer]’s guide to recreating a film cartridge for the Kodak Disc photographic format. It’s written in 2020, but describing a project around a decade old.

The disc format was Kodak’s great hope in the 1980s, the ultimate in photographic convenience in which the film was a 16-shot circular disc in a thin cartridge. Though the cameras were at the consumer end of the market they were more sophisticated than met the eye, with the latest electronics for the time and some innovative plastic multi-element aspherical lenses. It failed in the face of better compact 35 mm cameras because the convenience of the disc wasn’t enough to make up for the relatively small negative and that few labs had the specialized printing equipment to get the best results from the format. The cameras faded from view, and the film ceased manufacture at the end of the 1990s.

The biggest hurdle to creating a Disc cartridge comes in the cartridge shells themselves. It’s solved by sourcing them second-hand from Film Rescue International, a specialist in developing expired photographic film. The stages follow the cutting of a film disc, perforating its edges, and fitting it into the cartridge. It’s an exact enough process in the pictures, and it’s worth remembering that in the real cartridges it must be done in the dark.

This is an interesting piece of work for anyone with an interest in photography, and while the Disc cameras were always a consumer snapshot camera we can see that it would appeal to those influenced by Lomography. We wish we could get our hands on a Disc cartridge, an maybe CAD up a 3D printable version to make it more accessible.

34 thoughts on “A Dead Photographic Format Rises From The Ashes

  1. The following quote from the article brought out a small audible chuckle as I reminenced for a quick moment of a tale once described to me while I was involved in the graphic films industry during what seems as if another lifetime ago.
    I my young adult career life was very consumed within the graphic arts community and my career was based on the production and technical aspects of the prepress printing trades. My specialty of interest and qualifications relied upon imaging and that of course primarily film based photomechanical processes. The central Capitol for so much of these trades was based in Rochester New York and academically the forefront of the technology and keeper of all wisdom of knowledge largely was Rochester Institute of Technology…. Of course it comes as no surprise that such a hallowed temple of grandeur that secured all given knowledge of all things imaged, processed and produced by photo exposure, chemical reaction and the physical properties of light behaviour, color theory and optical science be very heavily bequeathed and in association by none other than the Eastman Kodak Company as they are the main cornerstone and symbolic major entity of Rochester the institute and the town itself .
    Excuse the long preamble, but a well known industry personality and esteemed professor often related a story where Eastman Kodak had revolutionary found the particularly usefulness in the employ of many disabled persons. The disability of blindness was an asset because such persons were fully adept at working in complete darkness and free from light. Such production process was on the lines of the film emulsion coatings. This is where huge rolls of polyester film substrates would be coated in silver halide suspensions within emulsified gelatin would be precisely applied onto a huge continuous web of substrate in coating buildings that stretched for hundreds of yards before being rewound on take-up reels on the other side. It was incredible the amount of coated bulk rolls of raw film component being created here. Equally the consumption of high commodity precursors was astronomical!
    The use of the blind at their adaptability to work in such complete darkness was an incredible boon to the production on
    these coating lines. But the system and policy soon exposed a major flaw. A full 10 hour shift of production run was completely exposed when the lights were left on and nobody realized it because everyone on that shift was blind only.
    A major financial loss with silver being the major photo active precursor component!
    Maybe someone else might be familiar with such fable and can chime in as to the validity of such tale?

    1. Reminds me of how deaf people can be quite loud, banging cabinet doors, clomping around, dropping stuff, farting, burping. They’ve no idea of the noise because they can’t hear any of it.

    2. It seems unlikely: the coating systems currently in use perform initial setup in the light, then are completely hands-off when in the dark (with the lighting switched from an external control room). Those coaters are legacy equipment, in operation for decades.

      You can see them in action in Destin/SmarterEveryDay’s video series on the Kodak plant:

    3. I wrote all that? Yet I didn’t insert the quote that brought back memories that made me chuckle …..
      “The stages follow the cutting of a film disc, perforating its edges, and fitting it into the cartridge. It’s an exact enough process in the pictures, and it’s worth remembering that in the real cartridges it must be done in the dark.”

      1. In the ’50’s I shot Plus-X with a Leica IIIa. I had reloadable Leica cassettes, bought Plus-X in 100 foot rolls and of course loaded the cassettes in the darkroom. I came back from one job, processed the film and found it completely blank except for the leader. I had reversed the film such tha the emulsion was on the wrong side. I had to do the job over and the client was not too happy about it.

      2. Working in film and location movies for years, you get accustomed to loading film in the dark. I still have a “Film Bag” for loading movie film into the camera. While shooting stills with a split frame Olympus 35, (72 frames on a 36 cartridge) I loaded my own cassettes the same way . And of course, the Olympus had available an adapter for bulk 50 foot rolls. We burned a lot of film in those days. Back in 1968, we started using a VHS camera mounted above the BNCR Mitchell so we didn’t need to wait a day for the “Dailies” .

        (Mitchell NC/BNC (“Newsreel Camera”/”Blimped Newsreel Camera”) – Improved model designed to run quietly for production sound-shooting, introduced in 1932. This camera became the de facto standard for Hollywood production for the greater part of the 20th century.)

          1. Well, perhaps it was Sony (It was crappy video so…)
            The worst was the sound. Without post production, all sound sucks.
            It could have been the Sony DV-2400 in 1967
            The producers had cash.

  2. Disc film looks like the perfect format to make a digital cartridge. The film frame size is a good match for some digital imaging sensors. There’s enough room in the cartridge for electronics and batteries. The catch is controlling it and interfacing with the Disc cameras.

    1. Such has been said of making a universal “35mm,” digital film cartridge to make useful of 35mm slr film cameras.
      Only thing close to that is propreitary digital camera backs such as found on limited medium format film cameras.

      1. The packaging concerns make a 35mm concerted non-viable: at the very least you would need to eliminate the pressure plate (permanent camera mod) to fit the CMOs sensor, as film is only a few micrometres thick and sensors are not, and fitting all the batteries and processing electronics into the volume of a film cartridge is likely not possible with current hardware (see: the volume of even the most compact full-frame cameras vs. the volume of a 135 cartridge). And even if you solve both of those, the plkane of the sensor will be offset from the plane of the film (because of the filter stack and cover glass mandatory for a sensor), so focus will be incorrect.

        This is why the handful of ‘digital backs’ for 35mm cameras (e.g. the Kodak DCS series) came with a dedicated modified camera, stuck far out and below the camera replacing the film door entirely, and used sub-full-frame sensors in order to insert the sensor plane – or modified the ‘film gate’ to accommodate the sensor stack. They were not convertible back to film.

        That does not apply for the disc film cartridges, as the film plane is backset, the sensor required is small, and there is copious volume available for the single-chip solutions capable of directly driving a common 1/1.2″ sensor.

        1. Funny you should mention the DCS modified cameras from Kodak. Yes, whopping two or three mega pixels and PCMCIA cartridges to interface image to a proprietary imaging work station. We worked with the implementation of such system. If I recall it was part of a package from A.P. Leaf Systems.
          What I seem to remember the most about this proprietary journalistic editorial system was the huge price tag attached to it in the way of licensing and the mandatory yearly service contract!
          This system was just as clumsy as photogs out in the field souping their own film in a light proof bag and film canister and subsequently scanning the negs and transmitting fax over the wireline. Both presented equally poor image quality. Despite the leaf being first generation image.
          Man! We really were on the very edge of technology. Those camera back systems were clunky and the interfaces were very prone to corruption and it was a slow cumbersome ordeal. They never used the same camera either. I remember the Canon yet all journalist were using Nikon. Then they would change up again. I actually have a DCS in storage somewhere.. It looks cool but that’s about it. I fried it with makeshift battery pack and never was able to locate schematic .
          Wow! Another lifetime ago or so it seems. Sorry to monopolize and stray off topic.

        2. There have been a couple of attempts at a digital 35mm “film”. One almost made it to production, had a sensor the full size of the film frame, and didn’t require modifying the camera. The difficulty was every camera manufacturer had their own ideas on exactly how far from the edge of the frame to place the film cartridge. So the company making the digital device had to obtain one of every camera model they intended to sell their product for, and manufacture the part connecting the sensor to the rest of it specific for each camera model.

          They were over thinking it. I would’ve designed it with a flex circuit and a connector in the cartridge with a lot of length. To set it up, open the connector clamp and insert the cartridge. Fit the sensor in so that the flex fits into the the cartridge connector. Close the clamp. It’s custom adjusted for that camera.

          But not thinking of such a universal fitting method, they gave up on it as being too costly.

          Now there’s this outfit, claiming to have solved the issue with a flexible sensor that pulls out of the cartridge. http://www.re35.net/

          What would be possible, and likely easiest, is a 110 or 126 digital cartridge. There were two quite high end models of 110 camera and 3 or 4 models of 126 SLR. Kodak made a 126 SLR that had their Retina 35mm SLR lens mount, though not all functions of all the lenses were supported. A tiny OLED display could shine through the image number window on the back to provide some basic info like the picture number.

    2. I worked for Kodak on the disk camera in the 1970’s. There were a lot of clever features and hidden capabilities in the format.

      The black center hub of the disk was magnetic; you could record and playback one track of data on it. This was used to store the time, date, customer, and descriptions of the photos.

      Since the negative was so small, the printers used scanners to digitize the image. They were then digitally processed to improve the printed images.

      We experimented with using the film for write-once digital storage. We could store about 600k of data on it (more than floppy disks at the time). There were hopes that it could be used to distribute software for video games etc.

      1. Jim D*** who I think was involved in this project was two years ahead of me in high school. I bought a disk camera when they came out. loved it and used it a lot. It fit in a shirt pocket which was the attraction. I sent Jim a letter commending him for the project and sharing my delight with the system.

        I’ve kept in infrequent touch with him since then, via his sister who was a classmate of mine. I may have been confused about this, but I think they understood at the time that the resolution of the film wasn’t going to be quite up to what might have been expected but thought that Kodak would somehow improve it enough. I’ve still got the 4×6 prints which the system produced. they look like grainy ektachrome.

        the system was wonderful for all times when you wanted a record but didn’t want to fire up the Nikon.

        1. I built test equipment for the production lines of “the Project”, as it was called, before it was announced. Even many of the engineers (including and especially a lowly co-op EE student like me) were entirely in the dark about what we were building the test equipment for. One thing I worked on was a flatness tester for the film rail, the plastic part the film sat against waiting to be exposed. Later, after it was announced, worked in manufacturing engineering, and wrote the first repair manual for the boards coming off the solder lines. IIRC the disk camera boards were all thru-hold parts. We later got surface mount placers and wave solder machines for the instant camera board lines. Kodak was (according to the mfg. engineers) the third electronics manufacturing organization in the US to use surface-mount parts in consumer products.

          What you heard about the film is true, or at least was rumored to be so at the time. What I heard is that the T-grain technology was developed because the existing silver halide emulsions were too grainy for reasonable image quality with a negative that tiny. So they improved the technology, which made the professional 35mm films better, too.

          Unfortunately the disc camera flopped. It was an attempt to repeat the successes of 126 and 110 film, which were both miniaturizations of what had come before. But the image quality was too bad, you couldn’t fit as many negatives on a disc as on a roll, and the cameras were expensive for such medium-quality images ($60-70 in 1982, $185-$215 today.) The electronics were innovative–lithium batteries, and automatic electronic flash, aperture, and shutter speed. I used to have a little packet of the brushed-metal shutter pushbuttons, probably around here somewhere.

  3. Doh ! I forget to include the quote that so jogged my memory and brought about my fond thoughts of irony and humor….
    The quote :
    “The stages follow the cutting of a film disc, perforating its edges, and fitting it into the cartridge. It’s an exact enough process in the pictures, and it’s worth remembering that in the real cartridges it must be done in the dark.”

  4. The disc has two main limitations, first the image was quite small , but the main limitation was the poor positioning of the film with plastic parts, the image had a great risk to be out of focus. The problem was worst than with 126 (bigger image )
    Same positionning problem with super 8 movies.
    Single Super 8 and Double Super 8 ( Pathé Webo) were better the film was positionned by mettalic parts.
    It is quite strange than Kodak was able to produce very good film with a good resolution and persevere in degrading it with plastic positionning.

  5. I worked at Kodak during the time this format was developed. The manufacture of the film cartridges was amazing. Bulk raw materials(plastic pellets, film stock, etc.) were fed in the front end of the line, and finished cartridges came out the back. All the parts were held in oriented state in guides, and there was essentially no interstage inventory, as the entire system ran at a synchronized rate. Very lean for the time.

    We had a problem with pressure sensitivity of the emulsions, and when the exposed cartridges were run through postal cancellation machines, the pressure would cause artifacts on the emulsion. A tremendous effort was made to reduce the pressure sensitivity of the film without success. The answer was eventually very simple. The mailer was made to “pop” in thickness when the cartridge was put in for mailing, and it was too thick to go through the cancellation machines and went to the hand cancellation line where there was no problem.

    The tiny negative required significant improvements in the emulsions, but it still was not enough to yield images with the image quality needed. When these improvements were moved to the 35mm formats, it resulted in dramatic improvements in image quality.

    I haven’t heard the lights on story, but the silver wouldn’t be lost. We recycled essentially all of the silver that did not go out in product. Huge quantities were used. I used to watch the armored semitrailers bringing silver into the plant from my office.

  6. Back in the 1980s I bought my Mom a Disc camera. She still has it somewhere. It really didn’t take any better pictures than Kodak 110 film so after one or 2 times of use, it just was left in a drawer. Cool technology, but the pictures weren’t all that impressive. Advantix was my favourite of all the film cameras for ease of use. I loved the pano shots!

  7. I spoke with a retired executive from a European film manufacturer about disc film. He told me there were many poorly-designed disc cameras that gave the format a bad reputation. The specifications and tolerances were so tight that the slightest deviation made the film-advance malfunction. I remember my own attempts at using a high quality Minolta disc camera and it seemed to mis-feed frequently. I can only imagine how frustrating a low-end camera would have been.

  8. Just as an aside it seems to me that today if someone wants to work with photographic film that the first thing they should invest in (aside from the obvious) is a good pair of night-vision goggles (infrared), that way you could work in a dark room that actually remains dark all the time you work.

    1. Yes, 15
      I was miffed when I found that they were going to have an odd number of exposures.

      If they had been an even number of exposures, the cameras could have easily been stereo pairs, as well an ordinary.

  9. It’s really a too small negative for me, but the link for Film rescue international gave me the idea to search for film acceleration, and after a lot of reading incredibly precise forum posts on photrio.com, I did a try and it’s incredible :

    develop a colour film in B & W chemistry, then rehalogenating bleach, then develop in colour C-41, it’s kind of magical to see, in daylight, the colours appear.

    Did it on a 35 mm film to try, but next is 8 x 10 ” !

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