Rise of the Frankencam



When I was a child, a friend of my dad’s, a boxing photographer named Ed, one of the cigar-chomping bulldogs you saw in the movies resting the beds of their Speed Graphic’s on the canvas, gave me one of his old cameras, a Burke and James 4×5 Speed Press. I used it as a camera and, by mounting it on a stand that my father rigged up, a darkroom enlarger. You could switch out its lenses, lens boards and backs for different optics and film sizes. Ed had also “hacked” it, literally, with a hack saw and soldering iron, adding his own levers so he could feel the focus and f-stops without taking his eye off of the action in the ring.

Now, after decades of subservience to the lords of Nikon and Canon, who locked us into their predictable products as surely as MacDonalds imprinted our DNAs with Big Macs, the serfs have crashed the gate of the castle: cameras are again hackable.

Photo buffs and professionals alike are hacking the firmware, the computer programs that control their Canons, Nikons and Panasonics, to do extraordinary things. Nowhere has this been more successful than with Panasonic Lumixes. In 2010, a Russian named Vitaliy Kiselev hacked the Panasonic Lumix GH1 to make it switchable to international video formats, use cheaper third-party batteries and make the video quality much much better, rivaling cameras costing ten times as much. Kiselev offered his hack for free, and in the spirit of the open source software community that gave us the makings of Google Android and much of the important software on the web, camera nerds and photographers took the Kiselev hacks and made them even better.

I bought a GH1 and 2010 and tried to hack it. It didn’t work. Panasonic, without comment, locked out out intruders, understandable in part because they didn’t want punters who screwed up the hacks and “bricked” their cameras (made them as useful for photography as a brick) to send them back on warranty. I was stuck for months with a very good but not brilliant camera. But Kisselev came back swinging, breaking the Panasonic code and hacking Panasonic’s new model, the GH2, which I also bought. The new hacks are named Lenin and Stalin (Putin may have to wait). Now I own two brilliant performers, today selling for less that US$1000 with lens. Some say, with data rates in excess of 100 megabits per second (normal consumer cameras run at about 17) this little-camera-that-could now approaches the quality of the Red cameras that shoot major feature films. Hackers have added time lapse and fast motion and an ISO speed of 12,800, useful for Noir-style nightime photography. Yes it is a bit grainy, but not so much more than my old film fave Tri-X, which was only rated at 400. In the past few months I have used my GH2 to shoot two short documentaries and a TV commercial that aired worldwide, not to mention lots of still photos, sometimes under impossible lighting conditions.


lytro cameraPhotography has gone from the optical-chemical model to the light-digital model, what is called computational photography where the potions are mixed on computers instead of  large vats. A new camera called the Lytro, which looks like an oversized lipstick case, has no settings and no focus adjustments. In fact you can change the focus to, say, blur out something in the background after you have taken the picture. It does so by capturing an entire “light field,” “the light traveling in every direction through every point in space.”  I don’t pretend to understand what this means, but translating “light field” information into pictures involves processing power that not long ago only possible on a supercomputer.  Now it is smaller than your pinkie. Film and standard digital cameras cannot record a light field

For the past couple of years, HDR or high dynamic range photography has been the rage. A camera takes several pictures and software sifts through their pixels to find the best ones and combine them to create a picture that can show details in bright areas as well as shadows. HDR is now included with the iPhone and available for Android.

MIT has gone further, experimenting with a camera that shoots movies at a trillion frames a second. At that speed it can slow down a laser beam that clips along at one foot per nanosecond so you can actually see it move. Best for home movies of a REAL hypeactive child.

They are also working on lensless cameras that can peep around corners through the use of laser beams. The thought of that feature on a mobile phone is as spooky as anything from the pen of Mary Shelley.

“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein-more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” – Victor Frankenstein