Use Your Old SLR As A Digital Camera?

Back in the late 1990s as the digital revolution overtook photography there were abortive attempts to develop a digital upgrade for 35mm film cameras. Imagine a film cartridge with attached sensor, the idea went, which you could just drop into your trusty SLR and continue shooting digital. As it happened they never materialised and most film SLRs were consigned to the shelf. So here in 2023 it’s a surprise to find an outfit called I’m Back Film promising something very like a 35mm cartridge with an attached sensor.

The engineering challenges are non-trivial, not least that there’s no standard for distance between reel and exposure window, and there’s next-to-no space at the focal plane in a camera designed for film. They’ve solved it with a 20 megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor which gives a somewhat cropped image, and what appears to be a ribbon cable that slips between the camera back and the body to a box which screws to the bottom of the camera. It’s not entirely clear how they solve the reel-to-window distance problem, but we’re guessing the sensor can slide from side to side somehow.

It’s an impressive project and those of us who shot film back in the day can’t resist a bit of nostalgia for our old rigs, but we hope it hasn’t arrived too late. Digital SLRs are ubiquitous enough that anyone who wants one can have one, and meanwhile the revival in film use has given many photographers a fresh excuse to use their old camera the way it was originally intended. We’ll soon see whether it catches on though — the crowdsourcing campaign for the project will be starting in a few days.

Oddly this isn’t the first such project we’ve seen, though it is the first with a usable-size sensor.

42 thoughts on “Use Your Old SLR As A Digital Camera?

  1. E-Film was the first attempt way back when. The tech hasn’t really caught up with the “vision” yet. What we really need is a flexible sensor that is as thin as film to lay flat across the camera back. The image info would likely need to be either transferred wirelessly or via a microSD type card…all of that needs to fit into the space of the film canister somehow :-) I really hope that we can revive all the old cameras someday with E-Film!!!

    1. Or a replacement back that provides a little additional recess for the sensor. Ideally with the sensor able to move in the Z-direction for a couple of micrometers, much like in-body IS can do. Get a known-good lense on your camera, set it to infinity, point at high-contrast landscape, and use edge detection/contrast detection to find the focus plane. The downside is that you’ll have to replace your camera’s back plate, but other than that this should be pretty achievable.

      1. I looked at I’mback’s eu site, seems like they’ve already made devices for specific cameras (Leica M2 and Nikon F3) that look like ugly autowinders. They’ve also made digital backs for medium format cameras which seems to me like a pretty crowded market if I’m not mistaken.

        I’m here because I’d love a solution for my massive collection of vintage rangefinders and point and shoot cameras.

    2. As a kid in the 1970s I made photos by using printing paper for negatives and prints. I just got a Graflex 4×5, and what a blast to use. Digital is very nice, the silver image is love.

  2. When the transition from film to digital beganI first saw products like this to be announced. Quite a few over the years, all turned out to be vaporware.
    Now I have a mirrorless camera and therefore I can adapt every nice old lens to it, so no need for a product like this anymore.

  3. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of modifying a rear door to fit this thing. And I don’t think most 3d printers give to opacity at reasonable thickness to build an alternative carrier

  4. Really… this again?… Back in 1998 there was a company called “its just film” or “its just film stupid” (I don’t remember the exact name) that tried to do this. Some of the developers I was working with left to join that company. Clearly they failed -or- got bought out and shut down. That was about the time when the EOS Rebel line of cameras were hitting the shelves??

    Just another example of how corrupt the tech industry is. Throw away all the lenses and everything else because we are just going to make you buy it all over again. Now that its all in the landfill and no threat to the manufacturers… you might get the breakthrough tech… 20 years too late.

      1. I had a Sony A7RII with a $350 adapter for Nikon lenses. It was great for several days and then the camera started a loud buzzing sound that turning off wouldn’t stop. Had to remove battery. Returned adapter.

      1. If you’re using top-of-the-line lenses nowadays, sure. If you’re shooting on a budget, a second hand top-of-the-line vintage lense may come closer to your wishes than anything that’s affordable and new now. I’m shooting m42 lenses on a Sony mirrorless, and there’s some really special fixed lenses out there that achieve results I can’t get below 600-1000 euros. Needless to say, I didn’t have to spend over 150 euros on those lenses. YMMV, but for many purposes, using old lenses has a fine point.

        1. I know part of this is because I’m in the U.S. using an older canon 35mm dslr (The sony mirrorless cameras have stayed more expensive than the old canons I’ve been using). I have generally found that very few of the cheap vintage lenses are worth their going rate to me. They tend to work worse than a typical modern kit lens except for effects. Especially when it comes to wider angles and wider apertures. I think it may be becoming even more true for small mirrorless cameras, because a number of new cheap lenses I saw were only available for those formats now. I believe the shorter flange makes it easier to get the optics to work out, unfortunately for me. I like my OVF.

          I do have an old 135mm f2.5 that was around $30, but that focal length is one that for whatever reason lots of manufacturers did a good job with. There’s lots of popular vintage lenses in the 40-60mm range, but I used to have a $40 ‘nifty 50’ which was new, had full electronics, and better quality (though no effects) than anything similarly priced. Then I got a 45mm from Tamron for $200-250 that was one of the top lenses for any price at that focal length, and it had stabilization in addition to the normal stuff. Some of the other Tamron SP lenses have also been hard to argue against at their used prices in the U.S.

          That said, effects and specialty lenses are fine. Some such effects are things like tilt/shift or incredibly wide apertures or weird things that are still expensive to get as modern lenses. But most of them aren’t worth it without some kind of quirk you’re deliberately looking for, if you’re going to use them adapted to something else.

      2. ‘Many’ is nowhere close to ‘all’.

        When do you think anti-reflection lens coatings were invented?

        Zoom lenses have come a long way, but simple lenses remain simple and often very good.

      3. The funny little issues with old glass is what makes them unique and hugely desirable. Hundreds of thousands of photographers worldwide have now discovered the intrinsic charm and creative possibilities of using old lenses on modern digital cameras.

    1. back then it was impossible to build now it is just not by the dodgy blokes like that :D in order to build this you need a custom sensor made by someone like sony and probably a filter in front of the lens like on leica m8 as one way or another you will need to deal with the right spectrum of light

    2. Absolutely 1998 digital photo tech, combined with 1998 electronics, fit into the space of a film canister didn’t work that well. Though some professionals did use them.
      Today, my cheap-midrange phone contains four cameras as good as the Rebel or better. Some things that couldn’t be done well in 1998 can be done today.

  5. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for a viable device that uses a traditional film SLR to appear. Kodak and Nikon did it 25 years ago with a digital back that made use of the removable back feature of the F2. Based on today’s technology the device was primitive…..and expensive. As I recall, the unit sold for around $25,000. You could pay much more and get one with a color sensor vs B&W. I had one I bought off of eBay for way under a $100. Even if it required sending in your 35mm film camera to have the back modified to accept a sensor I know many would be interested. I’ve been in electronics ever since Howdy Doody was a kids staple on TV so I’ve seen the evolution. In the late 1960’s I had a Motorola IC that was part of the audio circuit for the new Motorola line of Quasar sets. My sample of the chip was a cut-away view of the TO-5 transistor case the IC was mounted in. I don’t remember the exact parts count (less than a few dozen) but it was hard to believe they got that many transistors, diodes and resistor’s in a 3/8″dia package. That being said, I’m sure it would not be hard to sell an adapter for even a $1000 or more to revive the film cameras. Just think of what we paid for early HP digital cameras with less than one-megapixel resolution. In 1990 I paid around $500 for one at Staples and thought that was remarkable.

    1. I am not sure there is much of a market, unless the adapter is cheap. A 35mm film camera converted to digital would have almost no advantage over a new digital camera other than looking cool. The lenses already can be adapted for use on a modern digital camera. The shutter, meter, and autofocus (if any) are inferior to a modern digital camera. The unique look of film would be gone.
      About the only nice thing could be a split image focusing prism for manual lenses: I miss that on my digital mirrorless camera when I use manual lenses.
      It’s not that I have anything against old cameras. I regularly use a 1938 Voigtlander. But with film.

    2. Odd that Kodak didn’t modify their own Retina 35mm camera bodies for those early digital cameras.

      I have a Retina Reflex 35mm with a couple of lenses. In the pre-smartphone era I saw a box full of 126 cameras at a thrift store, all of them different. One was a Kodak Retina 126.

      I wrote down some of the models, went home and did a bit of googling. I rushed back to the thrift store and the entire lot was gone. :( In the collection had been several collectible 126 cameras, including the very first model released, a Retina 126 SLR that was compatible with Retina 35mm SLR lenses, and other notable examples of the 126 type. Might have been examples of the few non-Kodak 126 SLR cameras in the box.

      A 126 or 110 SLR with a digital cartridge would be quite retro cool to have. There were only four 110 SLR models made, by two different companies. Minolta 110 Zoom and 110 Zoom MkII, and the Pentax Auto 110 and Auto 110 Super. The first Minolta was an odd one, shaped like a 35mm point and shoot laid on its back with the lens attached to the side. Some called it “The Flat Wonder”. The MkII was somewhat more conventional shaped and an early (1979) foray into ergonomic camera design so it could be held like a camera rather than like binoculars (or a sandwich).

      The Pentax offerings had interchangeable lenses, add-on electronic flash, and an accessory auto winder. The Super added a self timer and exposure compensation. Despite the sophistication they look like a cheap point and shoot that’s putting on airs, especially when fitted with the flash, winder, and a big lens. ;)

  6. I wonder if the scheme for this thing will wind up with the module being controlled from your cell-phone and maybe the shutter release too. Or maybe a tiny bluetooth shutter release that in case of Nikon screws onto ring around the mechanical shutter release, or the thilng sits in there and gets its esposure from the camer’a mechincal shutter, which means (gasp) you’ll have to send to send the old hulk out to be serviced.

  7. I wish it was just the ‘roll of film’ form factor, but it’s got a whole external segment that changes the form factor of the camera. Combined with the limited sensor size, it’s not a true replacement in my eyes.

  8. One attempt that got close to production had models for a few high end cameras. They had to make the thing specifically for each camera brand/model due to the varying distance between the film can and film plane.

    But they didn’t *have* to make it that way. The flex circuit could have had a section long enough to fit the longest spacing and used a row of spring contacts with a clamp held by screws. Drop in the electronics can, set the digital sensor in place, snap on the clamp and drive the screws in. That would also have made in usable in a different camera, unless they’d make it a permanent assembly that would shear off the excess flex length.

    What would be easier to make would be a digital 126, 110, or Disc cartridge. The tiny film frame size of the Disc cameras is ideal for replacing with smaller sensors that can have a higher effective resolution than the old film could have at that size.

    One way I can think of to control the digital system would be to have it continuously loop record a few frame, uncompressed video then have the light hitting the image sensor (or a dedicated light sensor) make it freeze frame and dump to a static image.

    An accelerometer could be used to control. Tilt the camera sharply left, right, forward, back, jerk left, right, up and down. Push forward, pull back. Just have to remember what each motion does, with no visual feedback. Would want motions for sleep and wake up and a full power off function that requires opening the camera to press a physical On button so tossing the camera in a bag wouldn’t end up randomly erasing all your photos.

    Last picture not good? Sharply rotate or horizontally jerk the camera to the left to select the last image, then down to delete. It should have a beeper for confirmation that it’s recognized the control motions.

    Want to delete a picture before the last one taken do 2x or more the control motions to back up. It would need to have a specific motion set to skip to the end and be ready to take a new picture.

    g_alan_e (you know the symbol) yahoo

    1. That accelerometer action is definitely going to end up sending some cameras flying :P

      Loop recording frames is going to kill your battery by the way, and is going to impose limits on shutter speed options. I think you’re better off selecting ISO and shutter speed on the sensor interface, and then just using a relatively long shutter speed on your actual mechanical shutter. That way, the sensors digital ‘shutter’ could indeed be triggered by light as you mentioned, and you’d always have a reliable actual exposure length, with minimal per-shot interaction needed.
      For the other interactions I’d still go with some physical buttons somewhere on-device, or maybe on a wireless companion thingy (be it a physicial device or a connected app).

  9. Literally ten years too late.
    There is not a lot of recent analog camera, and old ones from early 2k may suffer from the goo of death*.
    I remember my EOS100 that literally melt from the inside, putting goo everywhere and especially on the shutter.
    I was able to clean it enough to resell it before it melts again.

    * bad plasticizers used since around y2k. Canon, sigma and probably others have the issue.

  10. Am I the only one that is really bugged about all the fake pictures of the product? The red mainboard shown is some cutout of a ATX mainboard, and the other PCB, the dimensions of the components are all wrong. As is: this product doesn’t exist …

  11. I admire anyone who dares to attempt something new. Especially if it might make it possible to recycle/reuse older technology.
    On of the biggest problems with which the speed of technological developments has created new markets, is the ever growing wake of material debris occupying landfills around the world.
    Digital cameras that could produce jpegs have only been around for 30 years or so, and most of them can also now be found in landfills or on their way to third world parts extractors.
    As someone who began shooting film in the 1970s, I would love the opportunity to pop a sensor into one of my old SLRs even if it means shooting in manual mode.
    Good luck to them.

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