Nikon Patent Shows a Digital Back That Turns 35mm Film SLRs Into DSLRs

Whoa… Big news on the camera patent scouting front today: Nikon appears to be tinkering with the idea with creating a special 35mm SLR replacement back that would turn a film camera into a digital camera!

Japanese blog Egami spotted the patent (No. 2012-242615), filed by Nikon in May 2011 but published just last week, which shows a back cover that replaces the factory one found on old SLR cameras.

Precise adjustment of the “film plane” would be critical for such a device, so it apparently features a mechanism to manually adjust how far into the camera body the digital sensor extends by turning a screw.

Such a device may one day allow old and beloved 35mm SLRs to be transformed into digital cameras using an easily reversible process.

In the future, you might be able to use your beloved film SLRs for digital photography

While digital backs are already common for medium format cameras — and can be made for large format cameras for the price of a house — the concept hasn’t yet made its way into the 35mm world.

On April Fools Day last year, German design company Rogge & Pott pranked the photo world by announcing a product too good to be true: the Re-35, a special cartridge that captures digital photos on any ordinary 35mm camera without any hardware adjustments.

While that would certainly be the Holy Grail of 35mm analog-to-digital conversion — for both photographers and the company behind the product — Nikon’s patent would still be a revolutionary first step toward the same end.

The downside to Nikon’s method would be that the backs would be far from universal; each one would have to be specially made for specific camera models or lines.

This concept is actually similar to how DSLRs first came into the world. The world’s first commercially available DSLR, the Kodak DCS 100, was simply a 35mm film Nikon F3 that had been modified and turned into a digital camera.

Update: Commenter Knut points out that Leica tried a similar idea with the Digital Modul R for the R8 and R9 cameras. It was discontinued in 2007.

Image credit: Nikon FG-20 by ToastyKen

  • MD

    To be fair, a great BW film like PanF or Acros will get you even closer, and while I love black and white, it’s a pretty big limitation for the majority of photographers out there.

  • Robert

    My D40 is really only a stand-in until Nikon makes the “digital FE” I really want. (No, the D600 is too big and too heavy. And too $$$.)

    But if I could covert the actual FE into a digi-cam — that would be a marvelous thing.

  • Robert

    Probably right. Unfortunately.

  • Robert

    The issue is operational convenience.

    The operation of SLRs hit a peak of utility and convenience somewhere 1970-1985, roughly speaking. By contrast, the modern DSLR is ram-jammed full of “marketing features” which just get in the way.

    I am so sick and tired of “press this button and twirl the thumbwheel before the button times out,” as well as hunting through separate nested menus for really basic controls.

    All you need is a top-side shutter speed dial (with B or T, and an aperture priority AUTO setting), an f/stop ring on the lens with click stops, an over/under meter indicator in the viewfinder, and — you’re done. My 1965 Pentax Spotmatic is easier to use than my Nikon D40 in this regard.

    Everything else is fussing that just gets in the way of picture taking.

  • Vlad

    Ok, let’s say they figured out the distance and batteries. What about the camera controls?

  • Sahaja

    Build in a wireless link of some kind and you can use your smartphone for chimping and the controls.

  • Steven

    I would love nothing more than to pull my two Nikon FEs out of moth balls and get them up and running again. My D70 & D80 are a pain in the nexk to operate. Too many bells & missiles.

  • ManualNikon

    I think it would be great to be able to give new life to the Nikon series and give us a chance to control the variables manually. That is the reason the file 35 mm camera’s were so much fun and creative.

  • Rosemary

    Seriously? I can focus much faster than an auto focus and besides, I *know* where I want to focus but the camera doesn’t. Also, making changes to shutter speed and f stop is practically instantaneous with an “old” camera, but needs a series of button presses with a DSLR. I have been wishing for this invention ever since the invention of digital. I’ll never go back to film for a number of reasons, but once this invention is within my price range, I’ll jump onto it like a duck on a junebug.


    Agreed…the quality of DSLRs is only as good as their plastic. “Old school’ film SLRs are solid and made of metal (where it counts).

  • hughcw

    i’m sure they would be reasonably priced, given all the 35mm film cameras over large format cameras still in circulation, I still have my own 4 Nikon Bodies F2a, FM, F301 & F401, and i’m just waiting…c’mon Nikon get the R&D guys on the case.

  • macyourday

    You betcha. 35 years with manual cameras (digital for only 7) and getting the right exposure and focus point is still so slow and fiddly with automatics. Camera says no. Nothing like grabbing an aperture ring or speed dial or focus ring that isn’t going to fight back with its own choice(s) or interpretation of the scene.

  • macyourday

    Yay for Ftb’s. An affordable back is something to dream of. Stupid giant plastic cameras that suck power. Could you cope without instant replay? How would you set ISO? Maybe I should get that A1 now.

  • macyourday

    Exactly. I don’t need micro speed or aperture adjustments. Trying to shoot manual, even with a semi pro, is so slow. Trying to take a shot in hurry means relying on say, program mode and hope the metering doesn’t screw you.

  • Blasthoff

    Hold on to your F3’s!

  • ginkax

    I’ve own a Nikon F2, FM, FE, Canon F1, Canon A1 and assortment of lens that go with these cameras and I can attest to the built quality of these cameras and lens, the image quality would be immaculate compare to some plasticky drop break lens they made today. I’m reluctant to sell these fine camera for this reason alone. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time hope they can market it.

  • Gonzo

    Oh Muck Fee… yesssss, for my Canon A1 puhleeeeeezzzzzz!!?!!?!!?!!???