When I talked to Mitchell Feinberg recently he mentioned that he owned the world’s largest non-scanning color sensor array, something he created so that he could continue to shoot 8×10 film without Polaroid. Normally I avoid anything to do with equipment but this sounded interesting.
APE: Tell me why you created the 8×10 digital capture back and how it works?
Mitchell: When I look back, three years ago, it was crazy that I even tried to do this: design and manufacture the world’s largest color capture back, large enough to cover the 8” x 10” format, so that I could continue to shoot like my glass plate-carrying brethren a hundred years ago.
It was a race against the clock, or, specifically, a race to see if my stocks of 8×10 Polaroid would run out before the back was completed. In the early months of investigation most of my evenings were spent on meandering Internet searches. Months more were spent deciphering unintelligible technical papers. The few companies with the right technical expertise were eventually identified, but it was extremely difficult to be taken seriously. The experience felt like working at a call center, making unsolicited calls for storm windows. Eventually, one firm was convinced, and, after over a year of difficult design work, a first prototype was delivered in February 2010. The first production model was delivered about 9 months later.
The Maxback, as it has been named (the Brontoback, Velocicaptor and Back Scratch Fever were rejected), is the largest non-scanning color digital back in the world, with a capture area of over 8×10 inches. The largest commercially available color digital camera backs are about 4.5 x 6cm in size. It attaches without modification to a Sinar, and delivers high quality interim captures in under 30 seconds.
I use the back while I am working. Once I am happy with a photo, I flip off the back and then shoot a couple of sheets. In this way, I have the quality of 8×10 film, and the immediacy of digital capture. Crazy, right?
Well, the idea is not that crazy but I’m guessing the cost was astronomical. I shouldn’t ask but can you give me an idea on that?
The development and production of two backs (I wanted to have a spare) was equal to the cost of a good size house – before the housing crash. I know it sounds insane, but the financials on it are not so bad: I used to shoot on average 7.5 Polaroids per photo, and I shoot between 400 to 500 images a year. That’s at least 3000 Polaroids. At 15 bucks a pop. Or about 50K per year, minimum. Polaroid was at one point my highest single cost. I am depreciating the back, charging clients for its use, and I was eligible for the technology investment credit. I also took out a loan based on the projected income from the back, so I did not have a huge hit on my bank account. It is certainly not a fantastic rate of return, but the back is designed to last a very long time, so it should generate a strong profit over the long term (And that is not including the all-important photo-related issue that my clients love receiving 8×10 film).
The engineers and I discussed selling them, but no one wanted to bother with customer sales and support. I think there are maybe a dozen of so photographers who might have the desire and resources to buy one or two (I have two, so that I have a spare handy). This means we would not sell enough to start a proper production line, and it would be tricky to order small quantities from the sensor foundry, not to mention the main boards and other critical parts. It’s straightforward to make prototypes and hundreds of units, but five is a difficult number from a production/manpower standpoint.
We never set a unit price, but it would be in the low six figures. Anyone purchasing a device for that kind of money would expect excellent tech support, which implies that we would need to have backup devices ready in case there was an equipment failure. That would be costly. If I had an order tomorrow for ten of them, we could probably move forward with it, but it does not make much financial sense to pursue sales on a one-off basis.