I recently had the opportunity to chat with Raffaello Palandri about the camera he and his company are making. The PONF camera promises to be the camera for every photographer; a highly customizable, modular design offering interchangeable backs for 35mm film and digital sensors in both APS-C and full-frame formats. The camera will also use open-source software, be an “Internet of Things” connected device, and be compatible with an assortment of lens mounts. Sounds pretty good, right?
The idea of a camera that can easily shoot both digital images and images on film is an interesting one, if not totally unique (Hasselblad and others have made super-expensive cameras with these kinds of interchangeable backs for years). But after my hour-long chat with Raffaello and PONF Marketing and Communication Director Katherine Phipps, I’m more excited about the PONF than I expected to be.
What is it?
Anticipated specs of the PONF camera look pretty noteworthy in this developmental phase of its existence. It’s a single lens reflex or mirrorless design (presumably dependent on whether we’re shooting digital or film at the time). The lens mount is chosen by the user. Raffaello tells me the initial offering uses the M42 universal screw mount with the option of fitting Sony E or Alpha mount (and more in time).
Partnerships with brands like Sony and Gossen have provided key components. The digital backs will be fitted with Sony CMOS sensors and offered in both APS-C (24.3 MP) and full-frame (36.4 / 24.3 MP) formats. These digital backs also bring a 7″ TFT touch screen and a 0.5 or 0.7 inch M-OLED electronic viewfinder.
The film back is a fully manual full-frame back using the standard 35mm film cartridge.
Other talking points that Raffaello and Katherine touched upon – that additional backs are coming to accommodate instant film, 120 film, and large format sheet film, that the cameras will be almost entirely hand-assembled and of high quality, and that a medium format digital sensor back could be produced at a third the cost of current similar imaging products.
Words with the team
A skeptic at heart, I asked the obvious questions. “Where is the PONF camera in its development timeline? When will the camera be available to purchase? How much will it cost?”
Raffaello, “We’re close to a working prototype. About funding, we will not be running any crowd-funding campaign. In my opinion the main road is making something that is good, and if you use half of your money to make a crowd-funding campaign often you lose a lot of good money you could have used to improve your idea.”
“The idea is that as soon as we have a prototype and we know that there are no problems, we are going to start a pre-sale campaign. And we are going to tell people that we believe in our product and we are delivering something, so you’re not financing an idea but you’re buying a product.”
“For pricing, the answer is quite easy, and hold on to your chair. If everything goes according to plan, and at the moment everything is going according to the plans,” he smiles as he says this, “the camera could be on sale within the third quarter of this year.”
“The base camera will be less than $900, and you will get the body, with the lens mount you want, and the digital APS-C sensor back, and the film back.”
Importantly, at this point Katherine pointed out the range of planned customization that will be available when a customer orders their camera. She likened it to configuring a computer.
“So the base model might come with the APS-C sensor, and from there, say someone who is a wedding photographer might want to go to the full-frame sensor, or add a battery grip, […] so users can actually create an ergonomic experience that’s unique to them.”
Anticipating the question that I suspect some photographers and hobbyists will wonder, I asked Raffaello, “What’s the point? Why make a hybrid film and digital camera?”
“Why not?” Raffaello replied with a laugh. “Why not? Today you are using old film cameras. And of course these are really good mechanical cameras. But you’re not part of something that is growing with you, and you aren’t in charge of what you’re using.”
“Those big guys. They’re nice, they make wonderful cameras. But are those cameras really yours? When you buy a Sony or Canon camera, can you say you have done anything to decide what you get in your model? No. In my personal opinion, what people care about today is they want to be in control. They want to get control of what they have in their hands. And we want them to understand we are making something that they can be part of.”
“Film photography is something that needs to be preserved; its culture, its emotion. We don’t want to just sell a product. Forgive me if I’m too passionate about that, maybe it’s my Italian nature. But start thinking about a camera that you’d like to have with you. […] Do you want a wooden grip, do you want a metal grip, do you want something else – let’s speak about that. And we can probably try to do that.”
Katherine added, “I think people could be easily convinced. If you’re not going to use this camera with film, there are so many innovative functions within the digital ecosystem; that it’s an internet of things connected camera, that there’s post-processing within the device. I don’t disagree that it’s going to be difficult for the mass-market to wrap their head around the film and digital concept.”
Why it matters
The PONF camera is an interesting proposition. It’s a new type of camera forwarding radical new ideas while staying true to the roots of photography. It promises an affordable and advanced solution for those of us who want to shoot both film and digital. It’s being made by a company that seems intent on allowing photographers to design and buy the camera they want. All of this has no real precedent, and if nothing else, I think the PONF camera deserves a chance to show what it can be.
The people at PONF have a real challenge ahead of them – to build a camera that satisfies the often cantankerous and fragmented crowd of photo geeks. If the build quality is there, if the fit and finish is high, if the technology is as impressive as it sounds, the PONF camera could be a winner.
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I would buy a modular camera. As long as the quality of the body and mounts are as good as – say Fuji XF – or better; Hasselblad… Then it would be a dream come true. As long as I can use my Leica M, Hasselblad, Olympus lenses – great. Why not?! I hope it works out for them. If it’s good looking – I would be really really tempted to reduce the amount of gear I have… Wait – no. False alarm.