Thoughts on Reflex
So last November the Reflex camera was launched to much fan fair on Kickstarter. The aim was noble, to produce a new 35mm film SLR with a bunch of innovative features. Riding the resurgent interest in film photography, the campaign quickly surpassed its funding goal raising over £131K. A very impressive feat and a real vote of confidence in the future of analogue photography. I too backed the project, albeit only for £5, as I was dubious at the time they’d ever ship their ambitious camera design, but wanted to chip in anyway.
Come July of 2018 and I finally got my reward for that £5, a tote bag. Delivered an impressive 7 months later than promised. Now Kickstarter is rather infamous for projects missing their delivery dates by sometimes ridiculous margins, but I fear my tote bag example, where an off the shelf product that simply needed to be branded and posted out taking half a year longer than promised, is rather indicative of what is likely to be a very rocky and potentially disappointing outcome for Reflex’s more enthusiastic backers.
My concern from the get-go with Reflex was that it was far too overly ambitious for a first attempt at making a camera by a team of inexperienced people. Interchangeable lens mounts, bluetooth smartphone connectivity, swappable film backs, flash and constant lights. It all sounds great, but maybe pick one of those things and make a functioning camera that can be mass produced and sold for the optimistic price of £350 and then start worrying about those other features. Trying to achieve it all from day one is a recipe for, well… failure, because I guarantee you they will drop one or more of those features or the camera will never see the light of day.
One of the main problems they are going to face will be manufacturing tolerances – well after actually finding manufacturers in the first place. You see for every deviation you make from a camera simply being a light proof box with a single hole to let in light to expose a film/sensor, you increase your complexity and chances of failure by a huge margin. If you’ve ever shot any analogue camera you’ll know light leaks can be a real problem if things have gone even slightly out of alignment, especially in a modular camera as there are multiple interfaces that must be kept perfectly aligned and sealed.
The Reflex camera introduces multiple points where light leaks can occur due to its interchangeable backs and lens mounts. It only takes one of these parts to vary slightly from spec for problems to potentially occur – and remember these things are going to be stamped out at some factory in China, not hand crafted by artisans with decades of experience in building analogue cameras in Japan, Germany or Switzerland, like most of the treasured film SLRs of yore. Even if you can avoid light leaks, any slight give between the back, body and mount that moves the focal plane and lens from being perfectly parallel to one another will result in focus shifts. Or if the lens mount is say just a hair thicker than it should be, you may lose the ability to focus to infinity.
Now Reflex isn’t the first company to ever try making a 35mm camera with interchangeable backs. Zeiss, Adox and Mamiya all tried and later abandoned cameras with interchangeable magazines many decades ago. Notably none of the major camera manufacturers ever attempted it. This alone should be a red flag – if it was ever a good idea, why didn’t it catch on during the heydays of film photography? Why was there never a Nikon or Canon pro body where you could swap films on the fly? Why did interchangeable backs remain the sole preserve of medium and large format photography?
Perhaps you think I’m being overly critical and not giving enough credit to advances in manufacturing technology that have come about over the last couple of decades, and perhaps you’re right. But yesterday I had an email from Reflex admitting that of course they had no chance of meeting their deadline for shipping this year and bizarrely announcing a whole raft of new products, including a mini lab film processor, a film scanner and a series of lenses. Apparently this is needed for economies of scale with as yet unfound manufacturing partners. Although what components will be shared between a mini lab film processor and an SLR I really have no idea. What should really worry anyone who’s invested more in this Kickstarter than the £25 for a camera strap, is that over half a year later it sounds very much like they’re still struggling to find companies to make the camera’s parts. Introducing more complexity by designing other non-trivial products is either an act of desperation or madness. Remember another Kickstarter project, the Lab Box film processor, also from last year? That was a much simpler product than what it sounds like Reflex is proposing with their mini lab and raised around half a million pounds, nearly four times what Reflex did – and even that hasn’t shipped yet nearly a year after it was promised.
Anyway I honestly hope Reflex succeeds and manages to ship some kind of camera because I don’t want to see the backers out of pocket or another negative headline about film photography. However for that to happen I think they are going to have to really reassess what they can and can’t deliver in a version 1.0 product on a shoestring budget.
I’ve exchanged some comments with Reflex on Kickstarter and they say that they’ve been planning to build out an ‘ecosystem’ under the Reflex brand since day one. But they hadn’t articulated what other products that might encompass until now for strategic reasons.
I said I thought they should be more transparent about their operations and funding, noting that the mini lab project alone is a major undertaking and going to require significant funding to come to fruition. How many people would have plunked down £500 or more for a camera if they knew it was being developed along side other complex products? Surely that’s an undisclosed and significant risk? It seems like the profits from selling these other items is intended to help fund the Reflex camera which in itself raises more questions. I imagine if you’d asked anyone at the outset of the Reflex campaign what they understood ‘ecosystem’ to mean, they probably would have said more lens mounts, branded camera straps and so on, rather than lenses, a film processor and scanner. They almost certainly wouldn’t have expected the development of multiple complex products in tandem and presumably launching before the camera they were being asked to fork over money for.
I still remain some what dubious about the claims developing these other products is going to really save them any serious money that isn’t simply going to be eaten up by more R&D, tooling and assembly costs. I guess we’ll see. If they can deliver on all their promises it will be a major boon to the film community – but there are a lot of risks, both in the design of the Reflex camera, as I note above, and in these new products. Things will be interesting to watch unfold – all I can say is that I’m glad I don’t have £350 (or more) on the line.