There have been many unique camera designs over the years, but few as ambitious as the PONF Camera system. Announced in early 2018 while many camera manufacturers were beginning to look to mirrorless technologies and the future of digital photography, the team behind the PONF Camera project were looking for a way to bring the past into the present and combine the best of digital photography and film photography into one simple, open, and fully modular camera system.
What is the PONF Camera Project?
The PONF (short for ‘Photography on Film’) Multi-back Camera was designed to be a modular camera system that allows the photographer to quickly customize their camera, switching between digital and film photography on the fly by simply swapping out the ‘camera backs’.
What the creators of the project envisioned was a way to allow photographers interested in a modern digital camera to be able to also use their same equipment for traditional film photography, and in the process grow the analogue photography community by introducing new photographers to the world of film and by bringing back more experienced photographers who had moved on to digital.
However, it wasn’t just the digital-to-film flexibility that had photography insiders chattering when the project was announced. The team that began the project wanted to make a system that was accessible and open for users and collaborators alike. They chose open-source software and readily available components such as Linux and Raspberry Pi to run the camera, and even the decision to use the M42 universal screw mount for the lenses on the initial prototypes of the system was made based on the fact that the short flange distance of the M42 mount would ensure compatibility with most modern lens systems moving forward.
According to the founders, the decision to create an open project was about the advancement of not only this project, but photography as a whole:
“We decided to make the Project as an Open one, because we are convinced that sharing knowledge, experience, ideas, and time is the only way to improve what we love: photography. We are open to everyone’s cooperation: individuals, companies, academia, universities, R&D public and private institutions. We hope that everyone who is involved in film photography, and photography at large, of course, will decide to come and help us, bringing its unique contribution of knowledge.”
The PONF Camera Specifications
The original working prototypes of the PONF Multi-back Camera System were built with three options for backs: a film back that worked with standard 35mm film cartridge, and digital backs in full frame (36.4 MP) and APS-C (24.3 MP) formats, both of which relied on Sony CMOS sensors and incorporated a 5-inch touchscreen and electronic viewfinder.
Though the development team chose the most common formats for their initial models, they planned to develop additional backs for instant, 120, and large format film photography, and medium format for digital photography.
The production models were planned to be fully custom, built by hand to the exact specifications of the buyer, including everything from color, finish, accessories, and the camera backs desired.
Is the PONF Multi-back Camera Project Dead?
There was a lot of hype surrounding the PONF Camera project upon its announcement way back in 2018, but like many interesting ideas for the next big invention, it seems as though the project might have fizzled out.
Our research found several profiles across various platforms that are connected to the PONF Multi-back Camera Project, and in each case, activity has seen a steep drop since the end of 2018 with virtually no activity in the past year or more. Two examples can be seen in the official Instagram page, which has been dormant since September 2018 and the project’s Facebook page which has a post from as recently as March 2020, though the last update to specifically mention the PONF Multi-back Camera system was posted in November 2018.
While we hope that the project is still out there waiting to be brought back to life, it seems at the moment that PONF’s days are all but over.
The Team Behind the Camera with Unlimited Formats
Though it looks like the project may have come to an end, the ambitious international team members responsible for the PONF Camera project—which together had over 100 years of collective technical and creative experience in the photography industry—deserve credit and recognition for attempting such a bold undertaking. Led by founder Raffaello Palandri, the team consisted of Vincent Bihler, who was responsible for developing the interchangeable camera backs, Katherine Phipps, who directed the marketing and communications for the project, and Gregg McNeill, the resident expert in vintage and digital photography and video.
So, What Alternatives Do Hopeful Digital+Film Photographers Have Now?
You may not be able to get your hands on a modular Multi-back camera from PONF, but that doesn’t mean your dreams of living in a world where you can shoot both digital and film are over.
If you love the look of film but want to keep using your digital camera, there are plenty of great presets and tutorials for how to get that signature ‘film look’ from your digital photos.
For digital-native photographers looking to dip their toes into film photography, there are some fantastic film cameras that can be picked up for cheap from local photography stores—and you may even be able to find one that will work with your current collection of lenses, either natively or through one of the many adaptors available online.