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Photography enthusiasts, take note: there’s a new camera in production that will soon allow you to instantly switch between digital and film formats with a single device. The Mercury camera, billed as the world’s first universal camera by its creators, will do just that and much more. The camera system can not only shoot in both digital and film formats, but will also allow its users to create photographs in virtually all available formats — from 35mm, to medium format film, to medium format digital and even Polaroid instant film. In addition to its format flexibility, the Mercury stands apart from other camera systems in that it can accommodate any type of lens, making it a truly adaptable picture-making tool.

A completely modular system, it is extensible in nearly every way, and will remain compatible with emerging technology well into the future, as well as technology from the entire history of photography,” the company’s Kickstarter page states. Following a successful crowdsourcing campaign that raised more than its $50,000 goal, Mercury Works, the company behind the creation, can now pay off the developmental costs incurred during research and development.  

“We celebrated the Fourth of July with camera independence, in the form of the Mercury, generously funded by our wonderful backers on Kickstarter,” stated a July 6 post on the company’s official blog.  “The Mercury, in its fullest sense as a community and publicly available camera system, will now become a reality!”

Image courtesy of Mercury Works

Image courtesy of Mercury Works

From Hobby to Business: Making the Mercury a Reality

The Mercury camera is the brainchild of filmmaker and media and literature scholar Zach Horton, who began to develop the camera as a personal project before realizing the value it could bring to other photography enthusiasts. “I started Mercury Works when I felt it was time to expand my own quest to make the perfect large negative travel camera into something an entire community could be involved with,” said Horton via email. “I wanted others to be able to make use of a universal camera.”

In the process of developing the camera, which took Horton two years from conception to execution, two main obstacles arose. The first challenge, according to Horton, was creating a full helical focusing unit out of plastic — a challenge resolved through both trial and error and the 3D printing expertise of robotics engineer Andrew Duerner, who joined Horton’s project to provide engineering support. “Helicoids are a screw-type mechanism that pistons the lens in and out,” Duerner said via email. “Making this work using 3D printing was a challenge, but the design is robust and has good functionality for the Mercury camera.”

The second challenge involved creating a device capable of accepting multiple film formats. This was resolved by creating a fully modular device, meaning that rather than creating a single-piece, fully integrated device, the Mercury was designed to contain a number of modules that fit together, allowing for limitless reconfiguration and versatility.

“The camera can be grown larger for certain types of lenses, or shrunk to a ‘pancake’ for other types,” says Horton. By creating a modular camera system, the Mercury can also be upgraded to allow for future film and lens formats as they become available, making it “future proof.” Additionally, the Mercury system allows “designers and tinkerers” to create custom modules to add additional photographic capabilities to the system – something traditional cameras simply cannot do.

An Open-Sourced Photographic Community Poised for the Future

As stated on the team’s Kickstarter page, the Mercury camera system is ideal for photographers of all levels, with a keen eye on analog enthusiasts. “For many people who have grown up in an ubiquitously digital world, the analog holds the promise of something different, or the unexpected and unpredictable,” says Horton. “It is not only something organic and non-sterile, but also something for experimentation, and experimenting makes photography fun again.”

The individual modules on the Mercury are all open-source, meaning photographers can use free computer-aided design programs like Sketch Up! or Tinkercad to custom create pieces that suit a particular need, and share these designs with the Mercury community. Still, Horton, who counts large format 4×5 film as his preferred film format doesn’t expect the Mercury to usurp brand name competitors, or become the new gold standard in photographic hardware.

In fact, the inventor is still a fan of his technological predecessors, and believes there are still a number of great cameras – both from the past and present – that are excellent photographic tools. “The Mercury is for the unconventional, creative photographer who wants to experiment with new combinations, who wants to shoot huge 6×9 or large format negatives, but who doesn’t want to lug around a huge, heavy camera.”

Rather than putting traditional camera companies out of business, Horton instead hopes to create a non-corporate, open community for photographers to design the tools necessary to create beautiful photographs. “We do certainly hope that the Mercury will set a new standard for open hardware systems and community development. Photography has been in the hands of a relatively few corporations for a long time.”

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