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Stalking the Digi-Film Hybrid

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Several years ago a photo innovation that essentially went nowhere was a viewfinder on a single-lens reflex camera that didn't blink during exposure.

Until I started regularly using my Leica and Mamiya rangefinder cameras, I pretty much had become used to the momentary blindness that occurs in an SLR when the reflex mirror rises to let light coming through the lens onto the film plane in order to make a picture. By contrast, rangefinder systems never blink, no matter how long the exposure may be, because we actually never look through a rangefinder camera's lens as we do with an SLR. Instead we sight through a viewfinder that uses two separate views of a subject to find the range of focus to then render it sharply via converging images.

Committed Leica users, for example – especially photojournalists – will tell you this allows them to know immediately whether they have captured the moment – or just missed it.

Still, given the comparative yawn that greeted the no-blink SLR viewing screen, one assumes that few people viewed this change as necessary. Nikon, Canon and others are still cranking out conventional SLR's with their flapping mirrors and temporary blindspots.

An SLR that doesn't blink – ie: an SLR that performs like a rangefinder camera – would be an example of two camera systems being brought together by new technology. In the current debate over the film versus digital photography, in which excellent arguments can be made for each, it may be time to do a little high tech marrying here as well. I think someone should take seriously the notion of a 35mm film camera that also shoots digital – identically and simultaneously.

Think of the advantages. The immediate feeback of a digital camera ["Jeez, I didn't notice that light pole coming out of Jason's head"] combined with the archival and retrieval advantages of conventional film. For the professional photographer, from photojournalist to fashion shooter, there also would be the reassuring redundancy of making pictures simultaneously in two separate media. ["Frank, the lab just ate your Ektachrome." "No sweat, I can download the digital take onto my hard drive."]

I like to think of this as the photo equivalent of nature's redundancy: why living things have two of just about everything needed to survive – lungs, kidneys, eyes, ears, ovaries, testicles, etc., etc.

Currently, the closest serious photographers can come to this kind of redundancy is with digital and film backs for the same camera. Many medium format systems, like those from Hasselblad and Mamiya, function like this, as do 4x5 view cameras.

But what these systems gain in redundancy they lose in immediacy. That is: it's impossible to make a film and digital image at the same time – no problem when doing still life or some landscape work, but a big problem when shooting live models or breaking news.

Will such a film-digital hybrid camera ever appear?

Actually, it has already, but in an unlikely quarter.

A short while ago, Kodak unveiled the Advantix Preview Camera – one of its small point and shoot Advanced Photo System cameras aimed at holding onto an amateur market turned off by more confusing point and shoots, and drawn to digital. Instead of just making film pictures (on really tiny, tiny negatives) the Advantix Preview, also stores a digital file of the last shot taken – a nifty way to let the user know if his or her just-made image is a keeper.

Now Kodak has gone an important step further, unveiling at the recent Photo Marketing Association trade show a prototype of the Advantix Preview's successor, the Advantix Easy Share, arguably the first-ever film-digital hybrid camera.

Reportedly set to sell at a very affordable $200 by year's end, the camera is expected to feature a medium zoom lens, a pop-up flash and, most important, the ability to record up to 75 digital images made while the camera simultaneously takes the same image on regular APS film. The camera accomplishes this bit of magic via a beam-splitter in the viewfinder that simultaneously sends the image to the film and to a tiny CCD imager. An internal memory crammed into the camera's small body will store the images unless and until they are intentionally erased, downloaded or overwritten by new images once the camera reaches its 75 digi-pic maximum.

In addition, the tiny P&S will be offered with Kodak's unique docking station and software that allows for almost effortless downloading of electronic images to a home computer.

Thus the consumer will have the advantage of an e-pic (albeit suited mainly for web use or small prints) as well as a film negative of the identical image that can be made into higher quality, longer lasting prints, to be used by themselves or for scans. Caveat: this still is APS, offering the tiniest negatives since those in the old Minox spy cameras. So don't expect any printed images over 4x6 or 5x7 to be worth a damn. But, hey, it's a snapshot camera.

One amateur photo mag calls Kodak's new Easy Share camera "either a daring or reckless leap into uncharted territory." But in fact I am hard-pressed to see anything reckless about it. Consider:

– It's cheap; only 200 bucks.

– It's aimed at non-techie amateurs, arguably the largest cohort of the camera-using public.

– It'll be easy to use and will provide a previously unavailable benefit [identical digital and film pictures.]

Oh, and one other thing:

– It's way cool.

Cooler, in my view, than under-powered digicams, coupled with MP3 players, or tiny Polaroid cameras offering "fun" snapshots the size of Band-Aids.

What is more intriguing is whether such a breakthrough in photo technology can make the leap from the amateur to professional market – a wide gulf requiring a huge commitment in very expensive R&D.

But it is as gulf that I think is worth leaping.

I assume such a pro-level hybrid camera would have to be in 35mm, if for no other reason than to appeal to the widest pro and serious amateur market possible. I have no idea whether this hybrid system would best be suited to SLR or RF cameras. My suspicion is that it would be easier to do in rangefinder, but would be more saleable in SLR, by far the more popular 35mm system.

Such a hybrid camera could all but do away with Polaroid proofing and the always looming possibility, especially during an intense portrait shoot, that your subject's best expression was made earlier on a proof, not later on film. [Of course, this is just what bankrupt Polaroid Corp. needs right now.]

Finally, if my surmise is correct: that this hybrid technology would work easier with non-SLR systems [ie: with viewfinder point and shoots or with real rangefinder cameras] maybe it will be time to dust off the design for that non-blinking SLR viewing screen and incorporate it into a camera that will lead all of us further into the 21st century.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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Frank Van Riper Archive:

There But For The Grace...

Making Book(s)

The Muralist

Digital Proofing

A Leica for the 21st Century

Mamiya's Drop-Dead Digital