Laurence Von Thomas smiles from a FaceTime window on my computer screen, his excitement masking the weariness he’s surely feeling just days before the launch of his company’s Kickstarter campaign. This campaign aims to fund and launch the production of Reflex, an entirely new and modular 35mm film SLR camera. No small task, and one that we’re both itching to talk about.
“Shall I show you the camera?” he grins, reaching off-frame. When his hand comes back into view, it’s holding a silver SLR that looks much like the hundreds of classic 35mm SLRs we’ve all enjoyed for years. As he begins talking about lens mounts, interchangeable backs, and the difficulty of producing such a prototype, I’m gawking distractedly at this new machine, and it doesn’t take me long to realize that I’ve never seen a camera quite like this.
And then things get really interesting.
He points out that the Reflex he’s holding is equipped with an M42 mount lens, like those we’d find on a classic Pentax camera. In a few moments, he’s removed the lens. No big deal; this is something SLR shooters have done millions of times over the past seventy years. What happens next is far less common and almost without precedent. He removes the lens mount itself. Done via a button release and sliding mechanism, the entire lens mount panel (called the I-Plate) slides away from the bottom of the Reflex body. He reaches off-camera to grab a new mount panel (this one equipped with a Nikon F mount and Nikkor lens), and just as effortlessly slides this assembly onto the Reflex body. In the same amount of time we’d need to change a lens on any standard SLR, Laurence has converted his camera from M42 mount to Nikon F mount.
The immediate implications of this action are encouraging – we’ll be able to pair Reflex with the legacy lenses we already own, which could save money, and we’ll be able to mix and match our favorite lenses from multiple manufacturers, which could open artistic possibilities. Imagine a film camera that can use Nikon’s legendary Nikkor 105 and Pentax’s equally legendary Super Takumars. And imagine this same camera working with lenses from Olympus, Canon, and universal screw mount lenses from Zeiss and others.
But as exciting as this lens juggling is, it’s not even close to being the only reason to pay attention to Reflex. After chatting with Laurence for more than an hour it’s clear that what this prototype demonstrates in broad terms is the possibility that Reflex could combine all the best features of many classic, top-of-the-line 35mm film cameras with modern technology and the wider concepts of modularity and accessibility.
“I tried to build my dream camera.” Laurence says, specifically referencing the front-mounted shutter release button and the inclusion of his preferred AE mode. Wondering if his dream camera might be similar to the one that populates my REM sleep, I ask for more details. What he describes is pretty damn close.
At its core, Reflex is a brand new SLR film camera that distinguishes itself as the first newly-designed SLR system in over 25 years. It’s a 35mm, manual focus camera offering manual and aperture-priority shooting modes, multiple metering modes (including average and spot), a 5 volt lithium-ion battery rechargeable via USB-C, Bluetooth connectivity, a built-in flash and continuous-light-source LED, modular film backs, and the previously mentioned modular lens mount offering compatibility with Pentax K mount, Canon FD mount, Nikon F mount, Olympus OM mount, and M42 USM mount lenses.
The shutter is a vertically-traveling, metal-bladed, electronically-actuated shutter capable of speeds from 1 second to a very respectable 1/4000th of a second, plus B and T modes for long exposure work. The chassis of the production model will be made of magnesium alloy, as will its top and bottom plates. Reflex weighs approximately 490 grams (50 grams lighter than Nikon’s FM2), and with dimensions of 134mm x 74.5mm x 34mm, it’s smaller than most classic SLRs.
That’s an impressive spec sheet that essentially packs everything we love about our favorite individual classic cameras into one machine, along with impressive new tech that the makers of yesteryear could only dream of. There will naturally be those who compare this camera to older SLRs or the only major SLR still being produced, Nikon’s F6. This is fair, and I asked Laurence about it.
“We can’t compete with something like an old FM2 on price. But that we can include all of the best parts of all our favorite cameras into one camera really validated the entire product for us. We didn’t want to just take a K1000 and put new technology into it.” He says, adding offhandedly that the F6 is prohibitively expensive for most shooters, at over $2,000. Reflex is a camera for enthusiasts, and priced accordingly.
Laurence’s camera will cost £350 for “early birds” and £399 standard (approximately $460 and $525), will ship with the USM lens mount, and additional mounts will cost £35 (approximately $50). When asked why Laurence chose to ship the Reflex with the M42 mount, his answer is pragmatic. “Because it was the first universal lens, and they’re cheap. And for me the biggest joy would be if a young person would pick it up, and be able to shoot with the most accessible lenses out there.”
The mentioned modular film back system resembles those often seen in medium format cameras. These allow swapping of film mid-roll and easier loading of film, conveniences that shouldn’t be overlooked. At the time of the Kickstarter campaign’s launch, we’ve only seen a prototype of the 35mm film back. But that doesn’t mean the idea of additional format film backs isn’t being explored. “Half-frame could become something very interesting. I’d love to do this, and maybe at some point, but at the moment it’s not ready. It was in my original specs.”
His apologetic tone as he explains the failure to develop a prototype half-frame film back in time for the launch of the Kickstarter makes me laugh. Here’s a guy who’s put together a tiny team of dedicated and brilliant designers and engineers that have combined to launch a product that most of us never expected to see again. A real SLR film camera capable of pro-spec performance being developed in 2017? Someone pinch me.
So many Kickstarter projects (even those that get fully funded) seem to stall in the production phase, so the question of delivery time needs to be asked. I put it to him, “If someone backs Reflex on Wednesday, when can they expect a camera to be on their doorstep?”
Laurence answers without hesitation, and his confidence is reassuring. “August, 2018. This fits in with the overall strategy of Reflex. I think the Kickstarter that we’re presenting is an honest one.”
The idea that production cameras could be less than a year away is a fact that only further whets my appetite for what is, on paper, a truly enticing camera. The true test will come when production models are released, and you can be sure we’ll be among the first to get hands-on. Until then, I’m optimistic and impressed.
In my time talking to Laurence, he’s struck me as one of the most thoughtful and contemplative people I’ve met in business. The reverent way that he talks about the film photography community and his vision of what Reflex could and should be shows uncommon clarity. He’s taking on an incredibly daunting project, but he and his team are up to the challenge.
“There have been times where I’m like, okay, the whole project is ruined because of this one tiny thing. And there have been a few times when it’s been like, we’re stuck. We just hit a wall and I think the whole thing is over. But here we are. I think we’re on our way.”
The team have pushed, and the story of Reflex has only just begun. The promise of a new 35mm film camera is there, and the prototype I’ve seen and the specifications that Laurence has outlined hint at a camera that could be everything I want in an SLR. Time, and whether or not the project gets funded, will tell.
For more info and the chance to get your own Reflex as early as possible, check out the Kickstarter page here.