I’ll never forget the day that I met the man who owns Contax. Not a Contax camera, but the brand itself. I was at the Leica Store in Boston covering the launch of a new Leica and he happened to be there, too. When I introduced myself as the founder of Casual Photophile, he surprised me by knowing my work. He grabbed my arm and ushered me to a secluded alcove where he dropped the news.
“Do you know who I am? I own Contax, you know. I own the brand.” He glanced around the room surreptitiously, a wary prey on alert for the sinister agents of industrial espionage. He looked at me again, deadly serious, and said, “Trust me. You’re going to see a new Contax camera in less than six months.”
He showed me some 3D renders of a brand new, compact Contax camera on his iPhone. They looked… okay. Kind of dull, possibly produced in Adobe Animate by someone with vague notions of how to use a gradient tool. Certainly not up to world- or even town-class standards, and definitely not the sort of concept or mockup that a serious design firm would ever release for public consumption.
“Doesn’t Zeiss own the rights to the Contax name?” I asked innocently.
“No. I do. Trust me. We will have a new Contax in six months.” He blinked and nodded with supreme confidence, before adding (I presume for good measure), “I’ll be buying Alpa within the year, too. You’d be smart to get good with them now.”
That was six years ago. To my knowledge, Contax is still owned by Zeiss and a new Contax camera never materialized. Alpa, the legendary Swiss camera maker, is owned by Swiss firm Capaul & Weber, and not the guy that I met at the Leica event in Boston in 2016.
I never learned what he meant in suggesting that I’d “be smart to get good with [Alpa].” That’s always confused me.
The whole encounter reeked of bluster from someone who desperately wished to be perceived (by me, a stranger?) as a savvy businessman. He may be one. How should I know? His Instagram account had collected 70,000 followers, and that’s not a small number. But I don’t think it justifies the lie that you own Contax.
Anyway, it taught me to take people’s claims with a grain or two of salt.
In the years since, I’ve heard dozens of people in the film photography community claim that they would make a new, premium, high quality film camera. I’ve cheered them on and gotten excited along with my readers and friends. I’ve interviewed the well-meaning people attached to these projects, and helped them spread the word. I’ve even backed Kickstarter campaigns with my own money, in an effort to fund the damn things.
But making things is hard. And making expensive, high tech things (like cameras) is almost impossible. None of the proposed cameras that I’ve covered in news posts or backed with my own money exist today.
So, for the past five years or so, whenever someone talks about making a new film camera, I truly wish them all the luck in the world, but I don’t get too excited.
And then I get this email from my friends at MiNT Camera.
A New Challenger Approaches!
MiNT Camera are really good at what they do. And what they do is make cameras, and accessories to make cameras better.
They specialize in instant cameras for use with Polaroid and Fuji Instax film, and they skew toward quality. Their cameras offer things that are hard to find in the instant camera market – creative control, glass lenses, true manual adjustments, etc. And their cameras are very good! The MiNT SLR670 is probably the best camera in the world for shooting Polaroid film. They’ve made TLRs for Instax film, control modules for old Polaroid cameras, a manual rangefinder instant camera…
Suffice to say that in this day and age, MiNT cameras are about as good an instant camera as one can buy. (I’ve written a handful of reviews about their cameras, which you can find here.)
I mention all of this to let you know that MiNT is serious. They’re not producing junk. The cameras are pricey, but they’re good. And the owner of MiNT, a person named Gary who I’ve had the pleasure to chat with from time to time, is serious about making products for people who love cameras and photography. And they do it quietly and effectively. They work to create things that we photographers actually want, and they do it without bluster or self-aggrandizement. Sort of the opposite of that guy who claimed to own Contax many years ago.
So, if I were to let myself dream that anyone could possibly make a new, premium, compact 35mm film camera, that someone might be MiNT.
Hopes and Dreams
“Hi James, Hope all is well. We’re dipping our toes into […] developing a compact [35mm] camera.”
The email came in with little fanfare, its feet firmly planted on the ground and its head well under the clouds. The email launched me to a landing page on MiNT’s website, which outlined the reasoning behind development of a new 35mm compact film camera, the potential obstacles, and what the company needs in order to make this new camera a reality.
Later, I asked Gary, the founder of MiNT, for a few words about the proposed camera. Gracious as always, he chatted with me about the company’s plans and what he personally wants in a MiNT 35mm film compact. And it sounds like he wants exactly what most of us want.
This list is typical of the many people who say that they plan to make a compact 35mm film camera in the modern era. It’s the wish list, the hopes and dreams of us all. It’s the kind of list that has, in the past, inevitably generated from me the knee-jerk reaction, “Never gonna happen.”
Thing is, if anyone can do it, I think MiNT can. What’s most encouraging, to me, is that I’ve seen the prototype. The camera exists, at least in some capacity. It’s not vaporware. It’s real.
Now, naturally, I can’t share those images with you. And I even share the anecdote with reticence. I don’t want to paint MiNT into a corner or put undue pressure on Gary. But I share the story because it’s important. It builds faith and trust that this goal, a real, honest-to-goodness premium compact 35mm film camera in the 2020s, is achievable.
Of course, the hurdles are as great for MiNT, a small company, as they have been for Canon, Nikon, and Leica (the only major companies who were still producing film cameras post-2010). A small user base. High development and production cost. Supply chain difficulties. Canon and Nikon got out of the game at different times over the last decade. Leica only makes two film cameras, and they’ve been teasing a new, more affordable film camera for years (still haven’t seen it…).
To develop a film camera takes a lot of money and expertise. And the amount of potential buyers, though certainly higher than it was ten years ago, is relatively small. For these reasons, any new camera will need to be expensive for it to make any sort of business sense (though Gary has commented that the price of their camera would indeed be lower than the current price of premium compact film cameras).
Think about it from any direction, and MiNT (or anyone who decides to make a new film camera today) have quite a challenging road ahead.
I asked Gary and my other contact at MiNT just what they need for this to be successful, what will push this hypothetical 35mm film compact camera out of the realm of hopes and dreams and into photographers’ hands.
“We need to gather enough followers through the blog and if enough people support it, it will definitely turn into reality.
The only reason that this might work is the supportive community. That’s the only reason. What we need right now is sheer determination and support from you to get this unthinkable project off the ground.
In the end, it’s all about community support.”
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