Stop Trying To Turn Film Cameras Into Digital Cameras

Stop Trying To Turn Film Cameras Into Digital Cameras

816 460 James Tocchio

Why are people obsessed with the idea of converting a film camera to digital?

On April Fool’s Day in 2011, a German design company launched a website to promote a fake product called the Re35. The Re35 was ostensibly a module the size of a film canister with a flexible digital sensor that could be loaded into any film camera. The product would let film photographers use their film cameras to make digital pictures. The Re35 was nothing more than a render. It wasn’t real. I wish we could go back to those days.

In 2016, a Swiss company crowd-funded a product called I’m Back, which was a large, boxy thing that you could attach to the back of many film cameras. It had a digital sensor connected to a focusing screen which fit onto the film plane behind a film camera’s shutter. I don’t actually recall if this product was successfully funded, because it looked (to me) like a terrible idea and I never wrote about it, nor followed its progress. But they again crowdfunded various versions of I’m back in 2017 and 2018 as well.

A couple of years later they launched a new Kickstarter campaign for the I’m Back 35, an improved digital back for 35mm film cameras that cost $350. This time it successfully raised just under $500,000.

I’ve never used one, nor have I met anyone who has. But the product was covered in all of the biggest photo and tech websites and magazines. It got a lot of publicity and coincidentally lots of people bought in. I suspect this has less to do with the product being amazing and more to do with the fact that the Kickstarter campaign was put together by a Kickstarter campaign marketing company that has successfully completed Kickstarter projects with a cumulative value of over $460 Million. They obviously know how to write a press release.

From my seat, the I’m Back 35 records pretty terrible photos. The creators say it makes images that fall somewhere “between film and digital.” Or, as people not invested in the thing’s success might describe them, bad digital photos. It’s also an enormous and unwieldy ganglion hanging grotesquely from the back of your otherwise pretty and functional film camera. Win win?

Just a few months ago the world was blessed with another new option for shooting your film cameras without film. It’s called the DiGi Swap, and it allows film camera users to strap their cell phone into a massive plastic adapter and hang the whole package off the back of their beautiful film camera. The DiGi Swap (which costs $185) squeezes a low-quality lens and projection screen in between your cell phone’s camera lens and the film plane of your film camera. There’s a dedicated app that costs $50, and this app detects when the camera’s shutter opens (I guess) and then records onto your phone whatever image it sees through your film camera’s lens.

The wonderful intermediary lens of the DiGi Swap adds a healthy dose of distortion and softness to the images made through your Leica M6 and its old, boring Summicron.

Finally, we film camera shooters can use our obsolete $6,000 film camera and lens in a way that just makes sense. We can achieve the look of $30 Holga and store those images onto our phones.

I’m not typically one to stand on my soap box and proclaim my opinion as truth, but these digital conversion products are terrible. They miss the point of film cameras entirely. We film camera likers like film cameras for two main reasons: the film, and the camera. We like the look of images made on film and the process of making them. We like the film cameras themselves because they’re fun to use, exciting to collect and to own, and because they put us into a community that’s usually much more inclusive and supportive than the digital photography community is (or was, for sure, a handful of years ago).

These film-to-digital products make no sense. They take away the film and ruin the camera. And we just don’t need them.

If you want a film camera, buy a film camera, buy some film, and help support the people in that industry. If you want a digital camera that feels nice to use, there are plenty of options out there. Leica’s Q2 is one, and less expensive offerings come from Fujifilm’s X series, and the Ricoh GR digitals are virtually identical in form and function to their old film ancestors. Or pick both, film and digital, and enjoy each for their own merits.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • I fantasized about something like this in the 2000s because I missed the form factor of traditional SLRs when doing digital photography. But the introduction of the Fuji X series (for me) answered that call much more neatly. Even if this tech were desirable to me, I’d want it to be a full frame sensor. What would be the point otherwise?

  • I remember Re35. I was fooled (for a moment). But what if such a thing existed, with the quality of full-frame digital? It could be just another alternative – should I load some Tri-X, Ektar or Re35? It might pull some old 35mm cameras out of the closet and actually lead to an increase in film usage. Maybe.

    • You’re right that the Re35 would be great, because it wouldn’t change the form factor or usage of the camera at all, and because we can imagine the sensor to perform beautifully. But as we see from the actual products which have come out, this idea is not a good one.

  • Michael Laptev May 19, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    These film-to-digital products make no sense, but the Re35 would … if it was real. Please, inventors and investors of this world, make it happen! 🙏

  • Kristian Nielsen May 19, 2022 at 3:29 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Shoot film if you want film – shoot digital if you want digital!

    • If you want to shoot film shoot film, if you want digital, shoot digital. If you want both shoot both what’s the problem with that. I’ve been using the fugifilm mini evo and couldn’t be happier. I’ve been photographing for 50 years. Use what works best for the project.

  • TL:DR, it is not only adapting digital, but digital with the response of film.
    There are parts in the world where film is getting so hard to get. I think I will have to give up ColorPlus 200 as it is costing four or five dollars less than Portra 160, so from now on it will be professional films for me. My point is that, according to the trend, some parts of the non-developed world will have no access to film. These ideas would be a last resource to still able to get images from fully operative cameras. But is a compromise at best. I have a Fujifilm X100S, it has profiles made by the technicians that worked in the real Fujifilm films, I understand the colors are closer to the ideal they foresaw without the limits of film but although beautiful I feel there is still a bit of that feeling of a Bayer sensor watching more than what eyes see, and as so the memories have a subtle hint of machine interpretation of reality. I have a Sigma DP2 too, the first generation. I feel it is very similar to the film experience, from serious aspects as how colors shift when underexposed or overexposed, the look of a detailed picture without looking sharpened, the depth of colors, to a bit comical ones like the poor battery life limiting the use of the camera to fewer photos like carrying a film camera with a roll of 36 exposures. But its technology never got to mature, it had poor dynamic range. If one of those projects would succeed I think with a mature sigma sensor with color profiles similar to what Fujifilm has done, would be a kind of unobtanium. The answer simply would be to try to get enough film consumers to make it less niche.

  • What’s wrong with just adapting film-era glass to a modern mirrorless digicam, like I do currently with FD-mount glass on an E-M5 MFT body, or even running early-era EF-mount or A-mount natively on an EF-mount or A-mount DSLR/SLT? If anything, that would be more practical than trying to slap a digital sensor in a film cam body.

    • I agree. Adapting a digital back to a 35mm film camera, except where the design is integral as with the Leica digital back for its last R cameras, only produces a Frankenstein hybrid, but the results are dependent upon the lenses. So why not just simply use legacy glass with an adapter on modern digital bodies? Simple really. Some people rave about the results, but not me. There are too many compromises, and if one wants the nostalgic look of older lenses, simply carry on using a film camera.

    • 100 percent agree, I have a fugi GFX 50R, and I use vintage pentax 645 medium format manual lenses. This combined with fugis beautiful film simulators and color accuracy gets amazing looking images that require almost no editing, just like film. I love my pentax 645A 120 macro, it works beautifully on the gfx, and although its 30 plus years old it was a great lens then and it still is. Plus fugis new 120 macro would cost literally 10x more.

  • You can of course get digital backs for some modern medium format cameras, and apparently they are quite good, but those cameras have removable backs anyway. This on the other hand is a silly idea, but inventors are inventors, and the usefulness of their ideas is not always apparent to others!

  • Gadget epoch 😉

  • I’m afraid that film photography is now out of reach for the average consumer. So the era of shooting on film for the average consumer is definitely over. What’s left is nostalgia. Just as chloride or silver bromide-based emulsions replaced the old noble techniques of printing photographs in their day, digital chips are now replacing photographic film. It is also necessary to think about the ecological impact caused by the use of chemicals in the processing of photographic film and paper, their disposal in the waste stream and the relatively large amount of water consumed in the process of developing, fixing and washing. To think that in some parts of the world there is a complete lack of drinking water… My conscience will not allow me to develop films.
    The changing consumer preferences for taking, sharing and storing images must also be taken into account. The fact that future generations won’t know what their ancestors looked and lived like is not due to digitization, but to a change in people’s thinking and behavior.
    Photography is drawing with light, it is a creative process, whether it is snapshot, documentary, portrait, landscape or fine art photography. Lenses, cameras and recording media are just tools for us in this sense. It took me quite a long time to accept this change, but then I found the undeniable advantages of digital photography, which brought me freedom, simplification of the creative process but also new possibilities. It’s all about changing your mindset in the first place.
    Of course, the number of people who are newly finding the magic of analog photography, or who are unwilling or unable to shift – going against the tide of time, in fact – is tempting many companies to exploit the commercial potential of this market segment. I think it’s a road that leads nowhere. Film cameras are getting older, they are getting worn out, and the people who can fix them are also getting fewer and fewer. Not to mention the utter lack of spare parts.
    It’s already obvious that film stock has become a commodity for snobs. At its current prices, you can’t really think otherwise. And it’s also the medium used by some filmmakers in the cinema industry. That’s all.

    • Petr, you make good points, but ignore the numbers. How many film photographers are actually out there? Not many.
      Their environmental impact? So minimal it can’t even be calculated.

      Compared to the amount of water needed to make ONE cotton shirt? Film photography is not even close.

      And chemicals are much more earth-friendly than in Days of Yore. And there are easy ways to safely recycle fixer.

      Spare parts? My film cameras will outlast any digital “camera” out there. And the prints I make in the darkroom will be around a hundred years from now
      for my ancestors to find in the bottom of an old trunk.

      • Walt Livingston May 22, 2022 at 2:46 pm

        I gotta disagree here, too. I decided to forwgo an RB67 because a slew of online posts suggested that parts and service could prove difficult-to-impossible.

        • I owned an RB67. Never had a problem.
          I know several photographers here in Portland, Oregon who use them regularly without issue.
          Great camera. Go for it!

          The only film cameras to steer clear of are later models with lots of electronics that can fail, like Contax T(s) and Ricoh GR(s).
          The pricey point & shooters that the celebrities go for.

          Any solid Olympus OM1, Rolleiflex TLR, Hasselblad, or pre M5 Leica should give you a lifetime of enjoyment with skilled repairpeople around to help.

      • TheHumanity OfLife May 29, 2022 at 1:07 pm

        You still can purchase film, chemicals, & photo paper products? Where?

    • Digital cameras also negatively impact the environment. People can see water going down the drain when they develop a roll of film, so they think about that. But they don’t think of the heavy metals in their digital cameras, the energy needed to store digital waste, or the difficulty in recycling “outdated” digital cameras.

      Digital cameras are constantly being updated and made obsolete, and the resale and reuse market for old digital cameras is small. The creation of these cameras is using up materials right now. On the flip side, the oldest 35 mm film camera I regularly use was made 60+ years ago, while the newest was made ~25 years ago. There’s a reason “reuse” is the second of the four Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle, rot). Reusing is better than recycling, environmentally speaking.

      And speaking of recycling, so much technology “recycling” is dumped into the Global South, where it seeps into their ground water and thus their drinking water.

      Electronic waste is a huge problem, and it’s one the photography community seems to ignore in favor of a strawman argument about water–water that apparently only exists for film photos.

      • The root of the problem isn’t digital, per se, but rather a consumer culture that accepts some notion of built-in obsolescence and insists on pursuing the newest and brightest shiny bauble. This is not a new phenomena – it dates back in its modern form to the USA of the 1950s. It affected the world of film cameras, which i grew up in, much as it does digital. The key difference is not the existence of the phenomena, but its intensity. I shoot digital, and i do it on cameras that are over a decade old and that i bought second-hand. I stopped shooting film when i realized that film photography was 100% dependent on the existence of one of the most damaging industries on the planet – the livestock industry. Eighty per cent of the worlds arable land being utilized to produce just 18% of the world’s protein requirements… and all film uses gelatin. It’s not just a ‘water… water…’ ‘strawman argument’ when a technology simply cannot exist without also producing analogous catastrophic harms that you attribute to digital.

    • Lot’s of arguments one way or the other. The kicker for me on film was the realization that it was inconsistent with… my politics. Eighty per cent of the world’s arable land is recruited by an industry that produces 18% of the world’s protein (for human consumption). Nothing contentious about those numbers – it is what it is. That industry contributes disproportionately, therefore, to a host of global problems ranging from climate change to desertification, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, antibiotic resistance, deforestation, eutrophication of waterways, depletion of aquifers, etcetera – in short, the usual existential suspects. Film and photographic paper are produced as a ‘byproduct’ of that industry. Until the photographic industry finds a way to not use gelatin, my film cameras will just look pretty and gather dust.

  • Well… digital backs are a thing, if we think about phase one’s modules, or the modern Hasselblad one for the V system that can also be used as a camera. But the thing is that those backs are designed for modular camera, an the first digital backs created by Kodak were awful, the digital back for the Leica r8 is a good example of a digital back for a 35mm camera, or take the modern backs for medium formats… these are just dumb.

  • Correct.

  • I have both film and digital cameras and use them depending on what I am going to shoot and what I feel like doing. I have to say though that this year it has been a bugger to get fresh film in 35 mm has been hard to get or impossible. Portra either 160 or 400 is next to impossible to find. Same with Extar. Or Velvia. I did buy some Extachrome, but at 20 bucks a roll. Color Plus, Ultramax, very hard to get. I did find some Fuji 200 and 400 but at double what I normally pay. Black and white I did find. I hope this is an indication that business is so good Kodak and Fuji are just out, and not that these makers are not going to supply in the future. 120 seems to be around in color but have not had a 120 body for quite sometime. I might buy one just to play with the larger format in film for the first time in 20 years.

  • I’m working on a film back that can attach the rear display of my digital camera. Please send me money

  • One more time, the title here is very right.
    Analog camera is analog camera. Digital camera is digital camera.
    When I want film I use film camera, and when I want digital I use digital camera.
    What about car, you want to make a vintage car an actual car ? 😉
    It’s nice to try.
    But in this world there are many needs of use of money for better use ?
    One more time an interesting article.

  • Joe shoots resurrected cameras May 21, 2022 at 4:36 pm

    Digital photographers and filmmakers have been using old lenses for years to make their images better, it seems they’ll go to any length except putting in the extra effort to shoot film. There’s a guy that has been working on a digital cartridge for super 8 cameras too. I wouldn’t mind so much if one didn’t have to “modify” (ie: ruin) the camera to use it. If there was some sort of cartridge that could just be dropped in hassle-free then I wouldn’t mind so much, but damaging a perfectly good film camera to turn it into a digital camera is sacrilege and should be cause for summary execution.

  • TestShoot (@testshoot) May 22, 2022 at 12:09 pm

    The novelty of adaptation will always be there. How many people using 12K Cinema cameras are adapting old film lenses? Well Hasselblad did this the right way. H series can use film. The 907 can be placed on older film bodies. Even Mamiya-PhaseOne-Leaf-Credo modular box cameras have and continue to do so. If you come in at with that mindset, you can see why maybe people in other formats might be interested as well. Sometimes it’s about the love of that particular camera it’s lenses, it’s ergonomics and the way that the whole thing functions. I miss the “ka-THUNK!” sound of big heavy mechanical shutters.

  • Converting a film camera to digital or digital to film makes no sense to me. Good cameras in both formats are easy to find and relatively inexpensive. I recently resuscitated a Minolta hsti and I have a Nikon D3100. Film and processing is expensive but film has a certain appeal for some. If you just have to hold a picture in your hand the instax format may be the answer. But whatever keep shooting.

  • I couldn’t disagree more. We are at the dawn of digi-ana hybrids, and are bound to see some wacky, wretched experiments and failures just as in the early days of aviation. I would LOVE to have small, flexible inserts the size of 35mm cassette, or 126 cartridge, 110, 120, 620…imagine the new WORKING lives that would be possible for cameras that are currently nothing but collector’s shelf curios. Imagine the motivation for programmers to develop emulations for all the old film stocks. Kodachrome 64, panatomic-x and Ektar 25 to name a couple of my old favorites. Right now they are unsatisfactory but I would never suggest stifling innovation.

  • Jonathan Richard McEntire May 23, 2022 at 8:50 am

    So… Let me get this straight, you don’t take issue with digital lofi, you simply don’t like the look of some of the “adapters” that make normal film cameras “bulky” and aesthetically unpleasing?

    That’s a pretty poor reason to tell other people what they should be doing with their hobby. It screams of “I don’t like it, so everyone should stop doing it even though it actually doesn’t effect me in any appreciable way”.

    I find that position to be counter to very soul of creative photography. Some of the best looking pieces I’ve seen were shot on contraptions that could beat be described as “rube goldbergian” in nature. I often find myself thinking up ways of connecting unrelated camera bits I have to produce something unique. Yes, using a cell phone adapter on your 35mm camera is a fairly shallow version of this, but it’s also keeping those cameras in use and getting people that have only ever used a smartphone camera to think about aperture/shutter speed/iso/etc and how those things can be manually used to enhance their photos without the need to worry about actual film.

    Ask yourself, is this really a problem that needed a whole article, or is it just a problem in your mind that triggers more angst than you are comfortable admitting to?

    • Thanks for commenting. I don’t think it triggers angst. I said everything I meant in the opinion piece above. But it’s just an opinion. These adapters are dumb and they ruin the film camera. In addition to eliminating all of the best aspects of using a film camera, they also take terrible photos due to the introduction of inferior lens elements and focusing screens. They lack the nostalgic charm of early digitals (which I only mention because you mentioned them – I don’t personally chase any nostalgic aesthetic in my shots. The articles you may be referencing were probably written by my other writers). These adapters are just a bad idea poorly implemented, and they’re expensive and frivolous.

      I don’t think that my opinion is relevant to the contraptions you’ve made. Yours are probably great. I love contraptions – when they’re effective and create something greater than the sum of their parts. These products ain’t it.

      As for deserving a full article – well, this article was, what, 500 words? My usual articles are 2,000+ words. It got some good conversations going and it was a popular post. And again, it’s an opinon post. We accept guest author submissions as well, so if you’d like to write up a counter-argument and share some of the camera/lens combinations that you mentioned you’ve used to shoot unique shots we would love to hear about it and see them! Feel free to write to me anytime! Thanks again.

      • James, it is a shame that the poster commented in what is an all too common manner today – cancel culture. No opinion is acceptable if it disagrees with their own. Whatever happened to the good old “I may not agree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it”. Sadly, this attitude respects no international boundaries, we see it everywhere, and in a worse case scenario it even leads to violence.

        • I reject the way you’ve framed your response. The term “Cancel Culture” is a tool that’s being used to devastating effect to stamp out speech that is meant to elevate voices that have been marginalized in the past, to protect people from sexual abusers, etc. If you can’t see the hypocrisy of people who use the term turning around to boycott Disney because they stand up for gay kids in Florida, then I’m not sure what to tell you.

          The answer to speech you disagree with is more speech. For example, a country singer uses the ‘N word.’ People responded by criticizing him and some promoters decided to cancel his concerts. This is free expression. In any case, that singer is doing fine. In fact if you look around you’ll see that most ‘victims’ of ‘cancel culture’ are…

  • As somebody who uses an RB67 for fun, I use a Dora Goodman CineZone adapter with my phone. When I’m in an action shot setting (AKA taking shots of people whitewater rafting) or just wanting to test something really quick, I have enjoyed my adapter. It does lose a lot of brightness and clarity, but the usefulness cannot be denied. I have not used these less specialized/highly marketed 35mm versions, but I imagine they would be just as valuable in the same settings. I can’t afford to shell out thousands of dollars for a medium format digital camera, so I shall remain happy with the advancements provided.

  • If shooting with a big plastic device Frankensteined to the back of your 35mm camera floats your boat, have at it! The world needs all kinds of people.

    I will be shooting with my analog film cameras in the analog way as long as film is available. I have hedged my bets a bit with adapted and native manual focus lenses on my mirrorless camera. That gives a more than acceptable simulation of the old time shooting experience.

    However… when someone does invent a 35mm cartridge sized device with a pull out full frame sensor to drop in the back of my old Minolta… I’ll be first in line.

  • In my opinion, the best way to accomplish a film-to-digital conversion is to adapt vintage film-era lenses to modern digital cameras. That’s the best way to get that film look people are after if they don’t actually want to shoot film through a film camera with those same lenses.

  • Feels a bit like a hate post. I’m actually looking to convert my gramps his camera to a digital one. As a memento that’s actually usable instead of just collecting dust.

    It’s not about the quality. It’s the fun of the project and sort of reliving the good memories.

    It’s also a great educational tool for my kids, but if I need a good quality picture, I’ll grab my DSLR. Sometimes it’s not about the quality or the clunkyness of a solotion. There are probably dozens of good reasons why to convert them. (learning, mementos, fashion, the nostalgia experience without the additional costs of film these days).

    Maybe reform your post to: It’s not a good idea for image quality and don’t do it for the hype.

  • I just don’t like that my film camera is sitting around collecting dust. It’s not necessarily the quality that is most important or instant cameras would have stayed dead. For me it is the feel of the camera. And instant gratification. I just want to have a use for my old Minolta and my lenses.

  • I would love an adaptor that would replace film with a full frame digital sensor. For me its not about shooting film because I want to shoot film, its about using my collection of cameras. I would like one that will fit a bottom loading Barnack, my Trip 35, my Minox 35 and my Pen FT.

    Leitz and Hasselblad have managed to make sensor backs for their cameras

  • I can’t believe you were motivated enough to write an entire blog post but here I am replying! Obviously enough people want to be a part of the conversion process, to relive some nostalgia with an old cam in a new way or they want to feel like their specific creative vision is being engineered with these products. Why not let people pursue their own artistic vision instead of belittling or trying to convince them it’s not the “correct” vision?

    These products don’t speak to me either but if someone is motivated enough to buy a film camera or dust it off, then buy a digital converter, and that ultimately helps keep them motivated to take pictures then I think the world is richer for it.

    • I don’t have any problem with people doing whatever they want. But making a perfectly good film camera into a terrible digital camera is foolish. It’s like drilling five holes into a bagel and mounting it onto the wheel hub of a Honda. It’s never going to get you down the road.

    • I am totally with you, Chris, no camera is hurt in the process (I’m talking about the I’m Back MF), it’s a completely reversable process, so no big deal. I stopped being a “purist” a long time ago. If I don’t like something I don’t buy it but I don’t thrash people who have an idea, follow it through and come up with a product. Those are not big companies but just a single person.

  • My wish is very simple; to be able to use my fabulous Nikonos wide angle lenses again. The Nikonos Nikkor15mm lens was a cracker and I don’t care for the camera, just o use these fabulous underwater lenses again. (Although the Nikonos V was almost indestructable) – one tough camera.

  • I bought in and just received my digital back for Kiev-88. I have to admit, the product is very poorly build and doesn’t even fit to being properly attached to the camera body. Their video says one has to use a tape (!!!) to attach the ‘converter’ to the camera 🤷🏻‍♂️ It was very stupid of me to take part in the whole thing, I guess – but I couldn’t even expect each poor quality…

  • Sorry, but this was a rather disappointing article that seemed to be more about your conceited bias than an actual look at the subject.

    You are correct that these devices are quite lacking. However, that is the result of the rather small niche market limiting potential sales, not because it’s a bad idea. These devices are targeted at folks who 1) already have put a lot of money into film cameras and 2) want to move to digital but are held back by the need to replace their equipment. A quality device of this type would make buying old film cameras a viable option for more photographers, but is not going to be a prevalent trend. Perhaps this is why you detest them though, as it would raise the value of older film cameras that you would rather see continue to decline in value in the digital age?

    My father-in-law has a really nice old camera and lenses from a company that no longer makes cameras. There is no digital (or even other brand of film) camera that accepts the lenses. So, if he could pay $500 for a decent digital censor package to mount in it, he would be able to move into the digital world fairly cheaply and with a camera he is familiar with. Sure, it won’t have all the bells and whistles of a modern DSLR or mirrorless camera, but he’s a hobbyist who doesn’t need that. He’s just can’t spend the money required for film to shoot like he used to, and it’s nice to know you’ve got some good shots before leaving that spot you’ve saved up to visit once in your life.

  • What’s wrong with those that just want to play with old cameras and yearn for a drop-in digital cartridge? To each his own. Let people enjoy photography as they see fit.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio