The Mercury Project: the answer’s yes, now what’s your question?
If you’re reading this then you’ve probably already come across Mercury Works’ Universal Camera project, currently steaming towards a modest $50,000 goal on Kickstarter.
When I first came across the project I was intrigued to say the least. So, when the opportunity arose to connect with Zach Horton, mastermind behind the project, I jumped at the chance to pick up the phone and ruin his Saturday night.
Zach’s given me permission to publish some previously tucked away images of the camera and various lens and film back configurations, so get settled in, this isn’t simply a rehash of their Kickstarter page.
What exactly is the Mercury?
The simple but somewhat unhelpful answer is that it’s pretty much whatever kind of camera you want it to be – some exceptions aside.
The more sensible answer is that it’s a lightweight universal camera platform, which allows the user to create a camera specific to his or her requirements using medium or large format lenses, and film ranging from Fuji Instax Mini all the way up to 4×5 (for the moment)…oh, and it’s also compatible with film and digital backs from Mamiya, Hasselblad and Leaf, to name a few.
It almost sounds too good to be true. Have a look at the short video below for a quick intro. It’ll describe the concept better than I can:
But it’s not all Lego if you don’t want it to be. The basic Mercury combination takes the form of a compact travel camera capable of using a large format lens and roll film back from 6×6 to 6×9. As Zach says:
“…many people – most people in fact – will use the components to create a camera based on three criteria; it takes large negatives, is light and is portable. They’ll adapt their favorite lens to it and never (or rarely) change the configuration. That’s great, that’s what I want.”
Expanding out from this basic example, the sky is really the limit. You can see further examples on their Kickstarter project page but it really boils down to this: want to swap out the 6×7+ film back for one from your Mamiya RB, or Hasselblad? Go ahead.
Want to shoot Fuji Instax Mini, or Instax Wide? Sure, no problem.
Want to add 4×5 film backs into the mix? You got it.
An impossible project?
Speaking of instant film, this is where things get interesting. Zach and his team have already completed modelling and testing both Fuji Instax Mini and Instax Wide film backs to add to the growing list of media options.
New55 film is supported through an appropriate back and Zach told me that I was also allowed to share a rather recent nugget with you too…
Work has just been completed on a Polaroid 600 module. Yes, that means you can shoot not only Polaroid 600 film but also the wonderful film stocks made by the lovely people at the Impossible Project.
So, who is Zach Horton? It’s probably better if I let the man tell you himself:
“I’m 36 and in academia. When I was in high school I was the editor of the school paper and did a lot of shooting on BW film, it was right at the cusp of the digital take over of photography.”
“I learned to shoot on film and went on to be a film maker and shot both film (in Super 8, 16mm and 35mm) and digital for my projects. Later, when I started grad school I came back to still photography. I didn’t have much free time, so shot digital at first but my inevitable experimentation brought me back to film.”
“As a photographer I try to match the format and technology I use to the subject at hand. That said, my heart is clearly in the analog world and I see the Mercury project as being directly influenced by the analog Renaissance we’ve seen these past few years.”
“In today’s digital world film is exciting and inspiring. It’s something you can experiment with and test. It has so many factors you can play with – development techniques, processing chemicals, new and old stocks.”
“New (film) photographers are enthused by film not just because of the look but also because it allows them to try something where the results are not predetermined. That’s the ethos with the Mercury: to be able to bridge the world of the past with the current moment and future.”
“Almost every camera I’ve used is limited in some way and it got me thinking, what if we had something Open Source? What if we had a platform that was centralised where we could design, refine and make parts cheaply, then allow people who used it to expand and build on it?”
The quest for a universal camera
The Mercury started two and a half years ago as a personal pet project. Zach set about trying to make the perfect camera…the ultimate camera…for himself and no-one else.
It started as project built in metal for 6×9 and whilst each iteration was lighter and more refined than the last, Zach says:
“I got deeper into camera design and at some point I realised that to make it really light and flexible, it had to be made of plastic. I tried a variety of methods before settling on a mixed material, mixed method approach. I went from my initial design in aluminium to injection moulded plastic and 3D printed parts.”
All this was still a personal project until Zach’s “lightbulb moment” a year ago. Up to this point, Zach was really only building something for himself. It was something to serve his own needs but he realised that his creation was also something that the user/creator community could really innovate.
It should be made public.
Built for public consumption
Whilst Zach’s pragmatic approach to creating a modular system for himself provided an ideal base, making the switch from a personal project to one that would need to be scaled up for public use resulted in new challenges that had to be considered and dealt with.
“We’ve been careful to learn from the challenges faced by other projects over the past few years and to ensure that the materials and manufacturing techniques we’ve explored will scale without adversely affecting quality. We want to build something that’s flexible and robust. This isn’t a camera we expect to be assembled once and then never changed, so all of the parts need to be able to withstand a lot of bolting, unbolting, knocks and scrapes but still remain entirely useable and light tight.”
“Using a mixed material and manufacturing approach we can ensure the tolerances we need are met and that we get the dimensional fit we need. We’ve learned that injection moulding is not a great method for creating threads and helicoids, we’ve also found that whilst cheap and quick to print, PLA doesn’t offer what we need for our production model – to name a few of the things that have been learned since switching focus.”
“That doesn’t mean that people can’t use these methods or materials when extending the Mercury themselves, that’s their choice. But for us, we have a responsibility to deliver a working product that’s hardened for every day use. It’s not a tripod queen that will be kept in a foam-lined case; were building it to be thrown into a backpack and hiked with. That’s a totally different mode of thinking.”
So what exactly does it do?
Universal really means universal. Consider a combination, any combination, of lenses and formats, the Mercury is designed to work with them.
“We’ve tested SO MANY lenses, backs and components. I started the project with large format lenses in mind. Wide, non-retrofocus lenses, not the kinds we see today in medium format cameras.”
“We actually tested 50+ separate lenses…maybe 54? I’ve lost track! That’s tested and calibrated – each lens we’ve tested so far has a dedicated focus scale and DoF scale which is mounted to the helicoid when the lens is in use. Including the Mamiya 645 line, Hasselblad V-mount, Pentacon 6, Pentax 645 and Pentax 67 lenses…well, if we counted all of those, we’d probably be up in the 200’s as far as compatible lenses go!”
The basic configuration is designed to take Graflex 23 film backs for medium format roll film. The team has Fuji Instax Mini and Instax Wide compatible backs for the 23 mount. Interestingly, they’ve also recently finished designing and creating the Fuji Instax Wide mount for Graflock compatible 4×5 cameras.
“The Graflex 23 mount was never designed to be adapted to any other format, so taking the basic design and adapting it to both Instax Mini and Instax Wide was a challenge. That said, they’re two formats I really enjoy shooting, and I wanted to make sure we covered them before launch.”
To use an analogy that Zach will probable balk at, the Mercury is like the ultimate build your own burger of cameras (sorry).
Using a combination of risers and format adapting plates, one simply just “stacks” up the front and back of the camera to shift the film plane forward or back to match the requirements of the lens and photographic medium.
Everything moves in 10-20mm increments so to attach a 23 back, there’s one riser, a different one for 4×5 and more for instant film. Each riser is pared with the medium, so you’ll always hit focus with your lens and format combination.
There are multiple focus and framing options available, too.
Photographers can use the supplied viewfinder to compose a frame. For specific lenses third party viewfinder can also be used. Focus is achieved in one of three ways: zone focusing using the provided focus scale on the helicoid, through the use of an external rangefinder then transferring the distance to the helicoid), or a ground glass option for the more detail oriented amongst us.
For heavy lenses (I’m talking about the Kodak Aero Ektar specifically), there are special lens blocks which will be provided for purchase. These enhanced components will also incorporate tripod mounts to provide better balance for the camera and reduce stress on the body.
Barrel lenses, lenses such as the Aero Ektar and medium format lenses without in-lens shutters will need to use a dedicated shutter such as the Ilex 3 or 4.
Longer lenses requiring 250-300mm and longer bellows draw may have balance issues but these are all areas Zach and his team are working on as we speak. As Zach says:
“…we haven’t hit the limit yet. I’m not sure exactly what the camera can’t do but you’d definitely not use it for sports, birding or wildlife photography…well, you might! Extremely large lenses would be limiting but we’re working on it, and personally I’d like to see what could be achieved using the 6×7 or 6×9 format with zone focusing for street photography!”
Open source: in the community’s hands
If you paid attention to Mercury’s Kickstarter page, you’ll have noticed the term “Open Source” pop up a couple of times. What exactly does this mean?
Zach says, “Open source and similar communities are something I’ve studied and researched extensively for my work and we absolutely need to embrace the approach with Mercury. We have a platform which covers pretty much every possible use case but there will inevitably be a few people that will want to take it further. They’ll want to take the design to places we can’t see right now.”
“Subject to actually hitting our Kickstarter goal and being able to proceed with the project, we’ll be making all the designs available online as part of our Mercury Community. If people want to modify our front riser to include tilt and rise or even bellows, we want to see that and we want to work with them to build it out.”
“The camera HAS to be modular for people to be able to do this. We want to make Mercury open source so that tinkerers have a place to start with. Each module has an input and output side. These have to remain the same in order ensure the dimensional fit we need but what lies between is really up to the community!”
“We want to create a community which, having the capacity to modify the base design, has a place to extend the camera. If someone has a design but can’t print it, no problem, we’ll take care of that. We want to create an infinitely extensible library of parts and if needed, we’ll do the tooling and manufacture build them to the tolerances we need.”
“Our vision is of centralised community that feeds back on designs. One where we work with designers to refine parts and processes; and create a marketplace to offer these products to others. There’s a rather high barrier to entry with some of the modifications we’re developing and we want to try and give access to the mod community so that they can play and tinker to their heart’s content.”
“The core of the Mercury is the community but it’s a bit difficult at the moment because there is really no individual community fit for us right now. Sure, there are photography communities and film photography communities but we exist somewhere between tinkerers, collectors, established photographers and the Lomography crowd.”
“Ultimately we need people to use the camera and then start pushing it forward. We can help bring it together, create a team and then work as a collective to see how far we can really go with it.”
Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of this project. BIG FAN. It came from the desire of one man to create something for himself that didn’t exist.
It’s not an idea that came off the back of a business plan, it’s just one man’s desire to build something for himself, which has taken on a life of its own. Even now, Zach talks only about covering his costs and using any surplus to invest in further development.
If you’ve read this far and still find that you “don’t get it”, or can’t escape from the idea that you’re being asked to invest ~$150 in a lump of plastic, then I guess that it’s not for you.
That said, for me and everyone else whose eyes light up at the thought of an adaptable, affordable multi format camera, this might well be our holy grail.
I hope you’ll give a thought to backing it.
If you are planning, shooting or otherwise putting together your own film photography exhibition, or assisting someone who is, we’d love to hear from you and feature your work here on EMULSIVE. By the same measure, we’d love to talk about your film photography related projects, business, activity, or events and help spread the word.
Please let us know in the comments below, or drop us a line using our contact page. Looking forward to hearing from you.