I’m Back: A Digital Retrofit for Film Cameras
Burnin’ Rubber • by Mike Blanchard | The I’m Back digital back is one of those things that I stumbled into. Rust is all over Instagram promoting the magazine but also reveling in photography. One day, Sam Mello set me a message saying that he noticed that I like film cameras and I should check out his product, I’m Back. So I did.
I’m Back is a digital back that fits on film cameras. This is something that I (and I am sure many others) thought of as soon as digital cameras came out. But to his credit Mello actually did it it. I’m Back is the first workable piece of kit that I have seen to realize this dream. It is non-destructive and can easily be removed so the camera can shoot film again.
In the late 1970s and '80s, I was super hostile to digital because I felt that it threatened my beloved film cameras. I could see digital flat killing film, and it almost did. Today, the huge international icon Kodak is on its knees because of digital, and they invented digital cameras.
The insanely frustrating thing about digital is that no matter how up to date your new digicam is, it is obsolete the second you leave the camera store. In contrast, film cameras from the 1950s through the '90s are as good as anything produced today. Argue all you want, but tell me you would not be happy with an M3 Leica, Nikon F or Speed Graphic.
Of course, this situation is something the camera companies love. Instead of making a product that will stand the test of time, they make a product that the consumer will want and need to replace every couple of years. This is a sales department's dream. It is the planned obsolescence model. How many old digicams do you have laying around?
Part of the joy of film cameras is that they have a solid, metal mechanical feel and build quality that almost no modern cameras have. As good as they are at techno wizardry, and as “professional” as they may be touted, even the best offerings of Canon, Nikon, Sony, et. al., are plastic-fantastic, cheap-feeling things made in countries not at all known for making things of quality, precision or value.
And that is where I’m Back comes in. It gives classic 35mm film cameras another dimension. It was developed by Samuel Mello Madeiros, 53, who is Brazilian but lives in Como, Italy. Mello is a self-taught engineer, designer and photographer who started out refurbishing film cameras and turning them into luxury items by gold plating them and replacing the leatherette with exotic leathers.
The I’m Back system attaches to the back of a camera and uses a full-frame 24mmx36mm sensor that is adjustable from 2 to 20 megapixels. It will do still photos as well as video. One of the cool things is that I’m Back is intentionally designed to mimic the look of film.
Because film cameras use widely different ways of film transport and ways of closing up the body of the camera, there are adaptors for different cameras as well as a universal adaptor to fit more unusual cameras like Zenit or Alpa. I’m Back has adaptors for the following cameras: Nikon F, Nikon F2, Nikon F3, Nikon FA, Nikon EM, Nikon FG, Nikkormat EL, Nikon FM, Nikon FE, Nikon S2, Canon F1, Canon A1, Canon AE1, Canon FT, Pentax ME super, Pentax spotomatic, Pentax K1000, Praktica b200, Praktica MTL, Contax II, Contax RTS, Contax G2, Olympus OM1, Olympus OM2, Olympus OM4, Olympus OM10, Minolta Dinaxx 7000, Minolta XD series, Yashica JP, Yashica FX3, Leica M, Leica R, Diana F, Diana F mini, Ricoh.
Designer and inventor Samuel Mello Madeiros with his collection of film cameras and the digital back he designed for them.
Happily, the system is under $300. Full disclosure: I do not yet have an I’m Back so I have not been able to test it out myself, but I am so intrigued by the product that I thought many of you photo freaks out there would enjoy checking it out and hearing a bit from its inventor, Sam Mello
* * *
Tell us a little about your background in photography
Samuel Mello. I consider myself a photography lover. Since my age of 10 I started to take photos with a pinhole camera. My first camera was a Yashica ME 1 and I was 15 years old. I’m an art director and of course I was involved in photography direction in Sao Paulo, Milan and Como.
What was your inspiration to make a digital back for film cameras?
Mello. I’m a analog camera lover. I had a small collection left on my shelf. I understood that with the digital event, the analog cameras were too expensive to use and many other people with a perfect and fully functional analog camera were just throwing them away. So I said to myself, "Why can’t we give the beautiful, robust and functional analog cameras just a second chance?" There, it’s that the idea of the digital back came in.
Did you do the design and technical work yourself?
Mello. Yes all the many prototypes I did by myself. The final product is being industrialized by professional engineers and technicians.
Could you talk a little about the technical aspects of I’m Back?
Ed. In answer to this question, Mello referred me to another source, which in this context is used as his reply to my question.
Mello. The design of this product is called "Depth-of-field" (DoF) adapter. In normal digital cameras, the image from the lens is directly projected onto the sensor. So the smaller the size of the sensor, the more the image is cropped, which we call crop factor. In this DoF adapter "digital back," the image is projected onto the focusing screen. And then we use a digital camera to take a photo of this focusing screen. There is no crop factor.
I'm Back offers a sensor that provides pictures and movies of 20, 16, 12, 8, 4 or 2 mega pixels at your choice! Thanks to the focusing screen, it will always maintain the nice vintage flavor of your 35mm camera. A smart 2-inch touch-screen display is included, making the device very user-friendly. Photos and videos can be transmitted through the WiFi and can be saved in your smartphone. You can also use the display of your smartphone, to have a bigger screen and to control the camera through it.
What has been the biggest challenge in developing this technology?
Mello. Developing a device that is accessible to everybody, meaning the possibility to have a “full frame picture,” by having fun and being low cost.
Was there a film or digital look that you had as a goal?
Mello. Yes a Kodak Ektachrome 100/200 ASA.
Where did you build the prototypes, and who is making the production versions?
Mello. Prototype at my home office (I have a small workshop :-) ). The production will be done in China by selected partners and suppliers.
What are your goals for I’m Back? Are there further generations or products in the works?
Mello. The goal is to be recognized as the worldwide low-cost solution to revive the fully and perfectly functional analog cameras by turning the device hybrid (you can use film and make digital photos and videos).
Now that you have I’m Back in the hands of photographers, what have you found most interesting upon seeing their work? What has stood out for you about the photographs?
Mello. I love to see normal people who have an old analog camera left in a box or drawer from his father or grandfather, using it like a normal digital camera, and why not? ... also alternating with photographic films.
Ed. Again we quote from a letter from Mello.
My goal as a lover of photography, arts and beauty is to urge the return of the fully functioning analog photo cameras giving them a second chance to live in our digital era in an exciting, simple and accessible way!
Anyone who has an old 35 mm camera, forgotten in a closet, drawer or chest can revive the camera and capture the moments like in its original context. Those photos might be considered as imperfect or rough in our digital era, but the point here is to revive that deep and meaningful experience from the 1950s-'90s, in which a photo had to be "created“ and not only shot.
It’s far beyond the idea to shoot digital images with millions of pixels; the mission here is to capture the silent fraction of a piece of time: it’s inspiring, it’s a lifestyle, it’s spiritual.
The idea of I'm Back is to donate back this wonderful experience to everyone by making this device very low cost and user friendly. In fact, it is the only available worldwide with this features.