Previous news story    Next news story

Faded dream: blogger looks back at the failure of the Silicon Film project

By Richard Butler on Aug 20, 2013 at 14:54 GMT

In the early days of digital photography a small American company, Imagek, started developing a digital sensor module that could be installed in film SLRs. The idea still generates excitement today, more than ten years after the company (by then named Silicon Film) failed. Photographer and blogger Olivier Duong has taken a look back at the promise and disappointment of the Silicon Film dream.

Silicon Film - an idea that still spurs the imagination.

Duong has collected images from the time, including some from dpreview.com and Imaging Resource's contemporary coverage of the company's initial EFS-1 model. Based around a roughly 1" sensor, giving a ~2.6x crop factor, the system offered a 1.3MP camera that could store up to 24 images on its internal memory and promised up to 300 images per battery change. Even back in 2000 (around a year after the idea was first touted), Phil Askey was expressing doubts about the company's ability to deliver.

Dpreview.com covered the story when Silicon Film originally promised to launch the EFS-1 and was one of the few sites to publish a full-resolution sample from a prototype example.

Duong says he hopes someone would attempt a crowd-sourced version (which, in turns out, someone is), overlooking the many potential problems and still wanting one, despite the drawbacks of the system, many of which were identified by Askey at the time.

The lack of battery space, the need to open the camera to change ISO, White Balance or any other image setting, and the need to indicate a crop in the viewfinder if anything less than a full frame sensor is used, are all difficult to get around, especially considering that this had to work in more than one model of camera. And that made the large assumption that many modern photographers would be willing to live without a rear LCD to check their images.

For a still-more detailed look at the challenges of creating a digital insert for existing film SLRs, read forum regular Joseph Wisniewski's posts about the physical challenges faced and the economics of why it's probably simpler to go out and buy a D600/EOS 6D, rather than wait for someone to breathe life back into your F6/EOS-1V.

Comments

Total comments: 173
12
micahmedia
By micahmedia (8 months ago)

There's no advantage for Nikon shooters, since a D3 is more advanced than any film body they ever made. And they've continued to raise the bar on newer models.

In Canonland however, there was the EOS/Elan 7 and EOS 3. Where the hell is eye controlled AF today?! Way to drop the ball down a well Canon. The one feature working is the only thing that would ever make me switch brands. Everything else is the same.

Comment edited 6 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
JordanAT
By JordanAT (8 months ago)

Perhaps, but there are still things I like on my F4s over my D3. I'm still a little disappointed that Nikon never made a replacement digital back (of any quality) for those cameras.

0 upvotes
Ferling
By Ferling (8 months ago)

While I can understand the negative comments with some users in regards to digital today. In 2000, there was still a huge film user base, and this would have been viewed as a novel, "endless film" toy and seen some sales. I would have loved to try this out and keep the T90, T70 and FTBn going. I have a lot of FD glass that could use some new life, and would most likely get one just for that reason.

0 upvotes
Erik Magnuson
By Erik Magnuson (8 months ago)

It was never for the FTb class camera, only for those newer cameras that supported full communicating data backs. If you don't have any way to coordinate the shutter and the sensor, then you end up with hacks that compromise quality or handling. For example, to control noise you need to reset/clear the sensor just before the exposure starts.

1 upvote
Ferling
By Ferling (8 months ago)

Erik. You are correct on the FTb. The T90 would be doable. I still shoot film with it, or simply take it out and cycle the shutter on occasion -they have a history of going bad if left sitting in a box. Which reminds me.. :)

0 upvotes
mattmtl
By mattmtl (8 months ago)

When the rare urge strikes to haul out the old Nikon F or FE2, I can still get film for it. Most obvious and cost-effective solution to this particular problem (if that's the right word for it).

To have any hope at all, IMO this sort of project would need to ship modules that can replace the entire door assembly, adding an LCD and controls for ISO, WB etc. along with battery and SD compartments.

Anyone considering it would be well advised to start by supporting cameras with hingeless doors + bottom plates that come clean off the body, e.g. the F. Perhaps a talented and clever person could hack together something like this now, but to me it sounds like a hobby, not a viable business.

But a one-size-fits-all solution that sits in the film carriage, relying on an external device for playback, control, and maybe even storage? I just don't see the appeal.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
4 upvotes
sigala1
By sigala1 (8 months ago)

The cheapest entry-level DSLR is going to be a lot more practical than the most expensive "professional" film DSLR with this insert.

5 upvotes
Jon Stern
By Jon Stern (8 months ago)

That is true today, but it wasn't back then. When Silicon Film started, a DSLR was about US$40,000!

1 upvote
psn
By psn (8 months ago)

This concept is not really all about practicality, is it?

0 upvotes
kaiser soze
By kaiser soze (8 months ago)

If you go back fifteen years, this probably seemed like a good way to take advantage of a high-quality SLR camera. I think it is difficult today judge the sensibility of this approach fifteen or so years ago. But I think that by 2003, ten years ago, it should have been apparent that it just wasn't that good of an idea. Presently, something superficially similar but different probably does make sense. The lens cameras or whatever they are called, that Sony is coming out with and that we've seen the pictures over the past week or so, is interesting, and useful. The natural evolution of this approach is to separate the lens from the sensor and shutter. In fact, this approach that Sony is taking won't come into its own until this is done. But what if there is a module with a sensor, shutter and lens mount to accept your existing lens collection, that mates with a range of smart phones? To me, this makes very good sense.

0 upvotes
nunatak
By nunatak (8 months ago)

Nikon patents revive the dream of a digital back for film SLRs

http://www.dpreview.com/news/2012/12/19/Nikon-patents-mechanism-for-mounting-and-aligning-sensor-in-film-slr

1 upvote
forpetessake
By forpetessake (8 months ago)

It was clear to even the most dimwitted individual with a science degree that this was an absolutely unworkable and stupid idea. The only reason for the existence of that project was to fleece the investors. Investing in such projects usually summarized as 3F: family, friends, and fools. Amazing how many investors are in the third category.

2 upvotes
Nexguy
By Nexguy (8 months ago)

Sir, as right as you may be, you come across like a pompous boor.

10 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (8 months ago)

He is right, yes. And the investors cannot have been all that bright. It was an obvious flop.

1 upvote
Jon Stern
By Jon Stern (8 months ago)

I have both a science degree and a Ph.D. in electronics and I can tell you that you don't know what you are talking about.

The approach was very workable thanks to the efforts of a team of very smart individuals. One of these individuals kept one of the prototypes and used it regularly for several years until he bought a DSLR to replace it.

7 upvotes
rsf3127
By rsf3127 (8 months ago)

putting the sensor and a battery inside a filma camera is not that difficult.
I would also manage to attatch a cellphone to the back of the camera and make it a LCD linked wirelessly or wiredly to the digital back.
Then I coud switch iso, wb and all the stuff on the lcd screen.

0 upvotes
tkbslc
By tkbslc (8 months ago)

If you really think it is not difficult, then you should build one.

0 upvotes
Erik Magnuson
By Erik Magnuson (8 months ago)

It's not difficult -- for a small, low performance sensor.

0 upvotes
hansh4
By hansh4 (8 months ago)

still an great idea with potential

1 upvote
Mikhail Tal
By Mikhail Tal (8 months ago)

"an great idea?"?

4 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (8 months ago)

It was never a great idea, not even a good idea. I wonder if it evan should be called an idea.

2 upvotes
cknapp61
By cknapp61 (8 months ago)

The article states..."the lack of battery space, the need to open the camera to change ISO, White Balance or any other image setting, and the need to indicate a crop in the viewfinder if anything less than a full frame sensor is used, are all difficult to get around"..

Really, in 2013? One could not design the device to accept NFC inputs from a smartphone to adjust ISO,WB etc., and use the smartphone as a "review screen" via wi-fi? As for indicating crop factors, easy fix, since many of our film cameras have removable focus screens like the Nikon F1, etc.

It is a curse being smart and good looking, unfortunately, I am mostly broke financially...as MeaLoaf says..."Two outta three ain't bad....".

Comment edited 38 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Erik Magnuson
By Erik Magnuson (8 months ago)

One, your NFC has to work through the metal camera back and it will add regulatory compliance costs. Two, you run into volume vs. price vs. development cost issues put integrate NFC.. Three, mask the screen more than just a little and metering (which works off the screen) will be way off. If it were easy, it might have been done.

0 upvotes
cknapp61
By cknapp61 (8 months ago)

I did not say "mask off the screen", I said "replace the focus screen", of course the replacement screen would allow all light to pass through, it would just have an outline (yellow perhaps) of the cropped area). I understand the high cost/low volume/hobbyist relationship for such a project today, but I bet there are quite a few of us who would consider this option.

I would love to have a digital option for my recently CLA'd Kodak Retina IIIc Rangefinder (very compact, quiet, and a piece of art to look at) with the three Schenieder lenses I have for it.

0 upvotes
Erik Magnuson
By Erik Magnuson (8 months ago)

A outline turns your center-weighted meter into pure averaging. Even worse, the meter is influenced by light outside of the image area. Either way your big viewfinder is now effectively much smaller and less accurate.

A Retina would be poor choice for such an implementation. Masking the VF would be difficult and unless you have a big-C, it's already tiny and dim. Putting a bright, shiny digital sensor near a lens that's not coated to handle those reflections is also problematic. At least the Retina's count down interlock means you can handle buffer limits reasonably. For the number of times you'd actually use it, simply shooting film and having it scanned is a digital option you still have.

0 upvotes
Jon Stern
By Jon Stern (8 months ago)

EFS-1 was to ship with a custom transfer made be Letraset than allowed crop marks to be added to the focusing screen. We even had a special holder that would correctly align the two.

0 upvotes
nunatak
By nunatak (8 months ago)

It's still a good idea for those folk who enjoy the novelty of shooting classic film gear. It presents them with another opportunity to rant why film is much better.

The bigger question is why stuff newer generation technology into a decades old product — unless it's strictly for show?

0 upvotes
groucher
By groucher (8 months ago)

Simple. Modern DSLRs are stuffed with gimmicks that either keep the gear heads happy or help newbies t0 get the exposure right, or both. If this idea could be made to work with a high res sensor (unlikely) I'd gladly put one in my compact lightweight Nikon FM and leave my bloated D800 at home. I have no need of face recognition (can do that myself), scene selections, in-camera processing, rear display screens or 99% of the rest of the guff that's shoved onto modern cameras. The FM had three pieces of information in the viewfinder - shutter speed, aperture and exposure indication LEDs. The only other thing you need in a modern camera is ISO setting. Shoot RAW and sort everything else out where it should be done - on a computer. Simple, quick and requires minimal photographic knowledge.

Comment edited 55 seconds after posting
3 upvotes
Erik Magnuson
By Erik Magnuson (8 months ago)

Most important would be a "ready for next shot" light (on DSLRs, implemented as a buffer count.) There would be no automatic interlock as you get when you hit the end of a roll of film and taking shots that were never recorded would be pretty annoying.

0 upvotes
AbrasiveReducer
By AbrasiveReducer (8 months ago)

I thought it was a cool idea at the time but back then I wasn't aware of how poorly a lot of "film" lenses, especially wide angles perform with a digital sensor. True, on an interchangeable lens camera you could get a new lens but if you have to buy new stuff, might as well just get a digital camera.

1 upvote
fakuryu
By fakuryu (8 months ago)

It seems that you haven't used a Super Takumar yet :)

2 upvotes
JordanAT
By JordanAT (8 months ago)

Which is kind of an amazing statement given the actual quality of photos taken with film like TechPan, with a resolving power of 200pl/mm and those "poor" quality Nikkors I used back in the 80s and 90s. There are still things on my D3 which suck compared to my F4s.

0 upvotes
G Davidson
By G Davidson (8 months ago)

I actually think this is still an idea with potential, even if the appeal is not so wide. There are some beautiful, simple, not to mention affordable film cameras out there, in many ways as cameras surpassing their digitized descendants.

It would need a better crop factor, presumably modern high ISO and great auto white balance. Also, achieving perfect focus might be a challenge with the risk of back-focus. Aside from that all the disadvantages listed are features of film and just by being digital it's much more convenient to use with those old cameras.

As far as economics goes, no I don't think it makes too much sense unless you absolutely love using those cameras. But after all, who collects digital watches?

0 upvotes
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

Any analogies to current attempt to design a phone that can fit inside a traditional DSLR? Or, to frame and focus the matter more precisely, make a camera that stands a chance to compete with phones?

That aside, the problem of building or selling a digital sensor to fit into an old camera body is that the device might cost more than a new digital body, and there can't be any more than a few thousand souls would would find it worth the bother. Retro for the sake of retro is a regressive goal.

0 upvotes
mikiev
By mikiev (8 months ago)

Good to see links to some of Joseph Wisniewski's posts.

I always read his posts, if I see them in a thread.

1 upvote
mikiev
By mikiev (8 months ago)

EDIT: I'm glad I haven't tried to follow all his posts, over the years - as it shows he currently has 33,768 of them. :)

1 upvote
Marty4650
By Marty4650 (8 months ago)

The idea of replacing the guts of a camera makes about as much sense as driving a 40 year old car forever and just swapping out engines every few years. Yes, you get a new engine, but everything else is still old. You really want new upholstery and new tires too. And it might be nice to have those new features like air conditioning, cruise control or power brakes too.

It may seem counter intuitive, but the most practical and cost efficient way to own a camera is to use it for five years or so, then throw it away and buy a better one.

A digital camera is an integrated system. All the parts work together, and all require upgrades if you want the best that current technology offers.

Modular systems have been tried before, and they usually fail in the marketplace. (Think Ricoh GXR).

0 upvotes
JordanAT
By JordanAT (8 months ago)

You should take better care of your car, you know. I still have the Nikkors I shot with 30 years ago, and they're still pretty darned good.

1 upvote
CharlesGordon
By CharlesGordon (8 months ago)

I like the idea of being able to stuff this into the smaller cameras that were far more common in the film days. Although, in the past couple years there seems to be an awakening that some of us just want the bigger sensor, not the bigger body.

0 upvotes
Marty4650
By Marty4650 (8 months ago)

It's hard to imagine a FF camera as small as an Olympus XA or Rollei 35. Yet both were FF cameras.

The problem is that digital components of cameras just take more internal room than the space taken up by a spool of film. You now need a rather large battery, an electronic circuit board, a memory card slot, an AF and IS device, etc.

The film camera could be a lot smaller because it was basically just a box with a lens on one side and a film path on the other.

3 upvotes
Gerard Hoffnung
By Gerard Hoffnung (8 months ago)

Good comment. I still have my XA. I used to motorcycle tour a lot and it was a great little camera for that. Pocketable, excellent image quality and totally reliable. Sometimes, I still miss film.

1 upvote
Rob Bernhard
By Rob Bernhard (8 months ago)

[[Yet both were FF cameras. ]]

From my memory of these cameras, the film did not lie flat, which was the key to their design. Until someone introduces a curved digital sensor, dreams of a full-frame XA are simply that: dreams.

0 upvotes
Erik Magnuson
By Erik Magnuson (8 months ago)

Film was flat in both XA and Rollei. The main reason they could be so small was that the lenses could be small because film still works with large angle off-axis rays.

1 upvote
NetMage
By NetMage (8 months ago)

Compare the volume of an iPhone or iPod Touch to a (even tiny) 35mm film camera - the Sony RX1 shows there is room to design tiny full frame digital cameras, but it is still difficult until someone makes much thinner sensors that handle off-axis rays better.

0 upvotes
iAPX
By iAPX (8 months ago)

I don't see the point, as we now have great digital cameras, that are built around digital sensors, including dust removal/avoiding by different integrated technologies. They are extremly different when you are looking in-depth at the technologies involved, even if the body seems to have the same format (for SLRs).

If you want to shoot film, use a film camera (F4s for me, could be anything you like), but if you shoot digital you'd better have a digital SLR that's designed around digital sensor, not a film camera with a digital sensor.

0 upvotes
kkardster
By kkardster (8 months ago)

You couldn't really change the ISO in the film days without opening the back [and replacing the film], so no loss of functionality there.

1 upvote
jkoch2
By jkoch2 (8 months ago)

My dearest used to open camera backs all the time, in order to see how the pictures came out. Well, this sure prevented any bad pictures! The rest where all unsurpassed images of polar bears in snow storms eating marshmallows.

3 upvotes
AlpCns2
By AlpCns2 (8 months ago)

Absolutely brilliant idea. I remember how disappointed I was when it never materialized. With today's bluetooth technology (transfer the images and device control/settings to a smartphone; keep the device as barebones and cheap as possible) this could be a incredibly smart and flexible solution for those that love their film cameras. I'd buy a bunch for my film bodies in a heartbeat. Even if they were quite expensive.

0 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (8 months ago)

Film bodies look and function different. The digital insets needs to be tailor made. The inset also have to be some micrometer thin. It has to simulate film movement for many cameras. Forget the cameras with fast loading of film. The inset needs to know when the image is taken. The sensor are has to be at least APS-C, better FF to work well with the view finder. You will not get sensor based auto focus. If the camera brakes you are probably toast. There is no coupling of the ISO setting. The camera will probably not have the ISO 12800 that the inset is capable of in the first place. Yeah right - a bluetooth tethered phone. How it makes the camera more user friendly! How do you plan to trigger the camera from the phone? And hold the combination?

0 upvotes
NetMage
By NetMage (8 months ago)

ISO-less sensors don't need setting.

The digital module would have to emulate a film cartridge with moving sprockets and a millimeter thin sensor - impractical even today.

If the body breaks, it breaks - that is no different than a digital camera. Except you can probably get a cheap replacement and move the sensor to it.

0 upvotes
Cariboou
By Cariboou (8 months ago)

I think only Nikon and Canon can make a projects about this, I like still use my old Nikon F2a that still sleeping in the closet

0 upvotes
DanielFjall
By DanielFjall (8 months ago)

Kickstarter!

2 upvotes
Kim Letkeman
By Kim Letkeman (8 months ago)

A long time ago I pined for digital film for my Pentax film dSLR ... but it is only recently that the tech to make it work extremely well has become ubiquitous. Storing to an SD card with wireless transmission to a laptop, table or phone for instant preview would be pretty amazing. And of course an FF version of the fake film canister for portraiture and street, an APSC or m4/3 version for wildlife and a 1" version for that mega reach fun we all crave. Drool ....

0 upvotes
Franka T.L.
By Franka T.L. (8 months ago)

Oh I do remember that one, even back then I have my doubt, and even today I simply do not see why it made much sense. But in a fashion, the concept is already fulfilled in the form of the Medium Format Digital Backs. One must also take into account of then digital camera and how they were vs how they are today. A very fond dream but that's what it was , really, only a dream and wishful thinking.

1 upvote
wil eelsing
By wil eelsing (8 months ago)

Alas, poor Silicon Film! I knew him, Horatio: a project
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
I actually held on to my Canon F1 kit until 2004, hoping that one day this project would fly. If somebody would come up with a reliable and affordable version I'd buy a second-hand (third,fourth?) all-manual Nikon FM or Olympus OM-1 system the very same day, just for good ol' times sake.

0 upvotes
BJN
By BJN (8 months ago)

Film and a scanner are the best way to do the time warp and still get digital images.

0 upvotes
mikiev
By mikiev (8 months ago)

And its telling how much a pain in the butt negative/slide scanning is = people would much rather throw money at a digital back for their favorite film SLR. :)

0 upvotes
Gesture
By Gesture (8 months ago)

We don't even have APS-C/Full frame digital SLRs with the capacity to "upgrade" the sensor.

0 upvotes
Colin Stuart
By Colin Stuart (8 months ago)

Yes we do it's called getting a new camera

4 upvotes
Andy Crowe
By Andy Crowe (8 months ago)

There are plenty of medium format cameras that offer that capability, we probably don't see it in APS and FF DSLR cameras because it would add too much extra cost to these relatively cheap cameras.

0 upvotes
Franka T.L.
By Franka T.L. (8 months ago)

Actually we do have, its called Ricoh GXR, you have the body, the sensor / mount unit in the form of the M mount module, and then you put on whatever lens you have.

But seriously the concept of a modular small format camera is nothing new , Rollei try that in their old 2000 / 3000 series. That same concept is perhaps even easier today to implement in a small format. The problem is not the technology, its the Mfrs, market, and yes, us the customers. We all want that modular and modularity for sure, but serious how many are willing to put up with the fact that to do that one must also put up with the sie, the bulk, the weight, and no less the cost. I've heard enough of comments especially among the mirrorless user ( goto any of their forum ) about this or that being not light or not compact and how its not right to do it etc etc ...

1 upvote
iAPX
By iAPX (8 months ago)

Ricoh GXR is not a camera with upgradeable sensor, it's a battery+display+controls back that you mount on different cpu+sensor+lens :)

You are keeping the same battery+controls+display, the low-tech part of the camera, and change what's expensive (cpu+sensor+lens), still it cost you nearly as much as a new camera for each "module"

1 upvote
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (8 months ago)

If you like the GXR, its of course a good camera for you. But -- I fail to see that its a good idea. The modules are really digital cameras. But without user interface. So, they cannot be used separately. I think its a way to fool oneself. "I am not buying new cameras all the time, just new modules".

0 upvotes
Jogger
By Jogger (8 months ago)

This actually did happen in the form of digital backs for MF cameras.

1 upvote
zodiacfml
By zodiacfml (8 months ago)

Right. I never thought changing ISO or WB on the device would kill this idea since WB or ISO is not necessary to change if the file format is RAW.

The killer, I think, it's just physically impossible to retain the original back/appearance to fit everything and secondly the economics.

Yet, what if you could put all the battery, electronics on an external brick and with high speed data cable connected to the installed sensor? It's ugly and cumbersome but some people would be willing.

0 upvotes
Mark B.
By Mark B. (8 months ago)

WB can be adjusted with raw, but ISO cannot.

0 upvotes
zodiacfml
By zodiacfml (8 months ago)

I meant, you only have one ISO for film and that didn't stop people in the day to take nice pictures. Besides from my quick comment above, Auto ISO can be set on the digital back which I realize as I type it.

0 upvotes
NetMage
By NetMage (8 months ago)

@Mark B. You may want to catch up with the present :)

ISO-less sensors are here, and they don't need ISO changing - you just set the ISO you want to use on the meter to adjust exposure, take the RAW picture, and post process to a pleasing rendition. No need to set ISO on the sensor at all.

Comment edited 33 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Mark B.
By Mark B. (8 months ago)

ISO-less sensors are not on any of the Canon DSLRs I use, nor to my knowledge are on any of the newest ones either. So, there's nothing to catch up on.

0 upvotes
Digital Imaging Technician
By Digital Imaging Technician (8 months ago)

The dream is still alive... Just two weeks ago the DigiPod was presented. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/digipod
I personally don't think there's anything interesting about these ideas if the device isn't full frame. I believe there will be too many technical obstacles. It's probably doomed to be forever vaporware.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 13 minutes after posting
1 upvote
BJN
By BJN (8 months ago)

Someday, a reasonable insert may be possible to service a nostalgic niche market attracted to a severely limited retrofit. But not the Digipod as described. It's nice that crowdfunding can confirm or dash a developer's dreams before investor's funds are put at risk.

1 upvote
Biowizard
By Biowizard (8 months ago)

The funny thing is, with today's technology (which of course has come a LONG way since then), this might be doable. Using low-energy WiFi or BlueTooth to connect/control the device while in-camera, for example. And of course, a full frame sensor. I'd love to get some more life out of my OM-1 and Contax S2 and film is such an expensive way to go these days ...

Brian

1 upvote
ET2
By ET2 (8 months ago)

The link in the article details all the reasons why it won't work

http://www.dpreview.com/forums/post/34942605

3 upvotes
Mark B.
By Mark B. (8 months ago)

The drawbacks outweighed the advantages many years ago. Now it would just be a novelty with a very tiny market, which of course will make it a very expensive toy.

3 upvotes
Jon Stern
By Jon Stern (8 months ago)

ET2, it's a pity that most of those criticisms are incorrect.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 173
12