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

  • facebook-60700799

    I’m wondering about the price, it might be SUPER EXPENSIVE!

  • Kieran Grasby

    GIMME! I Carry my D40 with me everywhere, but my FM2 would very quickly take it’s place if it was affordable (digital) to do so.

  • Matthew Neumann

    I don’t see how there’s any point for this. Why would you want to turn an outdated 35mm camera into a digital camera when you can buy a modern full-frame DSLR with a 35mm sensor. Digital backs make sense for formats larger than 35mm, but I just dont see the sense in this..

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Wouldn’t this kill the sales of the D600 and 6D though?

  • Robert D

    Because the cameras are smaller and lighter? More discrete? Much easier to manual focus with? Should I go on?

  • Ryan Werner

    Actually and old idea. There was a company building this, I believe, back in 2004.

  • Duke Shin

    I remember someone’s dad having the gigantic Kodak digital back thing… He had a little backpack with a cable and everything.

  • Knut

    Leica allready did this ages ago. Check out the Digital Module R. Not a huge hit.

  • Michael Rasmussen

    If that would fit my OM-1 from 1978…heaven.

  • Kieran Grasby

    Much nicer for using manually, very photography focussed, wonderfully built

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks Knut. We’ve added a note to the end of the post.

  • suǝddıʃıɥԀ ǝʞıW

    But why whould you want manual focus? For nostalgic reasons? I can’t really see a reason to go back to manual focus all of a sudden. Surely, there are certain situations that more or less demand it, but that’s only for a small percentage of the shots.

  • Guest

    Um, wasn’t that only for Lecia models R8 and R9?

  • Knut

    You’re welcome. It actually wasn’t a bad idea, but the DMR just wasn’t good enough ( I still have mine though…) This could be cool if Nikon decides to take it further.

  • Knut

    That’s right.

  • John Milleker

    Step 1. Ban film photography from your contests, Step 2. Build a digital back for film cameras, Step 3. Profit!

  • kyoshinikon

    I WANT!

  • 3ric15

    Turn my pristine Nikon F into a DSLR? Nah…

  • Volkan Ersoy

    Do it Nikon! And bring all those robust, compact, stylish FM, FE, FA series back! See how likes of Fuji, Olympus, Canon, and even Leika will cry!

  • Nathan Blaney

    For plenty of people, I think, its not “going back to” manual focus. Some people (myself included) didn’t touch an autofocus camera until long after they were common. More of just a doing what you’re used to sort of thing.

  • Philip Han

    Are you actually kidding me?

    Even my 7D can’t focus anywhere nearly as fast and accurately as me. I can see something and estimate distance before I can even point my camera in the direction. And now especially more than ever that I have a split focus screen in it.

    I have an array of SLRs and rangefinders and lenses begging for a digital back like this. For now they’ll still be happily chewing on film.

  • Mijonju

    did you look into silicon films? patent by fuji now

  • Scott Hutchison

    Just make it!

  • AW

    Sorry, I doubt your claim.

  • ninpou_kobanashi

    You could keep getting new backs for the same camera? New year, new back.

  • JA

    all depends on what jobs you shoot mike

  • gonzalo iglesias

    I have a leica r8, but the module is very expensive

  • MD

    For a lot of people, it’s as much about *making* the photograph as *having* it. This is why so many people use old equipment in the face of new technology. As an owner of vintage and modern equipment I can assure you the experience is nowhere near equivalent.

    The only drawback is that modern DSLRs beat the pants off 35mm in terms of image quality. If this disparity were able to be rectified, I think there would be a ton of happy campers out there…and I’d be one of them.

  • Mike

    If that’s a CHEAP solution for a full frame sensor- then I’m in.
    I really loved shooting with my Zenits and really only got a digital because film got hard to find around here. And I hate the APSC format.

  • Ugly Old Man

    I have a Nikon Pronea and I heard at one point Kodak had modified some with a into DSLR’s but they were hideously expensive. I still have the Pronea and Lenses so…

  • Jeg Bernardo

    Brilliant! Got OM-1, F2, EM, and F65

  • szfofa

    maybe cause R8’s are no where near as ubiquitous as old Nikons. The R series in general wasn’t a “hit”. Just like Leica’s digi slr now.

  • John Densky

    20 plus years of full-time photojournalism and i still manual focus.

  • Werner

    I remember that I’ve seen a SLR with a digital back in 1997. If my memory doesn’t fail, it was a Minolta, and in fact Minolta had a digital back for the Minolta 9000 called SB-90, but apparently sold only in Japan. It could have been also a Minolta RD-175, which is basically not a standard 35mm-SLR but used the same lenses. This is the kind of patents you will think “it’s patended already”.

    On the first impression it looks as a great idea, but the more I think about the more I believe this is neither fish nor fowl. It would be better to bring back the beloved features from old SLR (e.g. split screen focus indicator) to modern cameras.

  • tttulio

    Best idea Nikon had for ages.

  • Richard Ford

    I wouldn’t insult my FM3a, or my EM’s by putting such a contraption inside or on it.


    obviously this should’ve been made million years ago. great it’s coming.

  • Fray Guillermo

    I don’t believe it. I’m sure this is a fake. And, in the unprobably case of being true, I’m sure it will be VERY expensive.

  • Bua

    IF the sensor is cheap and full frame, then I will try and replace my 60D sensor with it…. ;)

  • ctwphoto

    I agree. I had been having so many focusing issues with my AF lenses, I sold them all and got manual focus lenses (for all my Nikons). They’re solid lenses that can take a beating and I have the control of what is focused. And yes, manual focus can actually be VERY fast with practice.

  • Alan Dove

    Am I the only one who thinks this is probably a pre-emptive patent? Nikon’s business is selling new cameras. Someone selling a device that retrofits old ones would compete with them. By patenting such a device, they can block others from selling it. It’s a pretty common strategy these days.

  • Kamil

    Digital backs are very popular in medium format because the actual camera bodies are designed to have interchangeable backs (film, polaroid, digital). This provides some head room for the designers of digital backs to place their sensor at the correct distance to the lens since the focal plane is somewhere inside the digital back.

    In 35mm cameras, the film is the actual focal plane which means that any detector, such as a digital sensor, will be out of focus if it doesn’t touch the film rails (sorry if it’s not the correct term) or protrudes further towards the shutter.

    In my understanding, this is the main problem when trying to design a full frame add-on sensor for conventional 35 mm film cameras. Imagine your silicon sensor stack being pressed against the metal rails in the same way as film was. You bump the camera and the sensor might be gone. Nikon’s drawing above indicates that the sensor is actually situated behind a glass element which is significantly larger that the sensor itself. Together with the adjusting screws it’s obvious that the glass element would have to protrude towards the shutter and therefore be no larger than the actual 24 mm x 36 mm opening in the camera body.

    As a result we’re talking again about a crop sensor as in the older Kodak or Leica digital backs. I don’t see the point of having an old film body equipped with a crop sensor especially when FF DSLRs are becoming more and more affordable and the company’s old lenses can even be used on their new cameras. You could even get a mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor, adapt the old nikon glass and be more compact than an SLR.

  • Choen Lee

    I remember being involved in an on-line discussion about digital films around the new millenium…

  • Ian Boys

    I would buy one NOW

  • Richard Nicholson

    I still have my old Canon Ftb, which has an awesome focusing prism aid in the center spot, which you ~can~ get only with the most expensive Canon DSLR’s. I shoot a lot of low-light live band stuff and lemme tell ya, autofocus sucks in low light situations. Most of the time I just turn it off.
    If I could make that 35 year old warhorse digital, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I have a great 135mm f2.5 lens that is sharp as a tack and it just sits gathering dust now.

  • PhillyPhil

    Like taking the motor out of an old Jag and replacing it with a rubber band.

  • Paul Langmead

    A sheet of optical glass will shift the film plane back, much like to one found in the Hasselblad Polaroid backs.

    That’s a small problem really…

    Also, this has already been done by Leica, in the digital Modul R for the R8/9 released some time around 2004

  • Paul Langmead

    I strongly disagree, No digital I’ve used even comes close to film. If you really believe this, then you simply haven’t had access to real scanners.

    The medium format backs are getting there, but still in a different league. Especially when compared with other medium format film cameras.

  • Paul Langmead

    If you’re happy with these disposables then fine, but I personally find them to be rubbish… and I’m sure I’m not alone.

    There is a market for this, whether it’s big enough to profit from is another question.

  • MD

    I’ve scanned 35mm Ektar (arguably the finest, sharpest negative film there is) on a $20k Flextight. Sure, you can get a 96MP file from an 8000 dpi scan, but anything past 3200 is basically just capturing your film grain in higher detail. The returns diminish greatly after that. A good 5DII file will easily kick its butt. It’s like saying that vinyl is higher fidelity than CDs because you think the clicks and pops are “supposed” to be there.

    Of course, medium and large format still blow digital away (at least any digital I can afford), and that’s why I still use them exclusively for my personal work. But that’s not what we’re discussing.