It’s been a busy few weeks in the analogue photography crowd funding world and the most recent entrant – the ELBAFLEX 35mm SLR from Ihagee – has polarised the community.
Half the film photography community is split, with those on one side welcoming another new camera manufacturer into the fold and those on the other deriding the camera as nothing more than an expensive and technically inferior reskin of the Kiev 19M – a camera with numerous quality control issues and not a shred of a connection to the Ihagee brand (most famous for its over-engineered but gorgeous EXAKTA/EXACTA cameras).
On a personal level, I heartily welcome new entrants to the film camera hardware space, but I don’t mind saying that initial news of the ELBAFLEX left me feeling a little cold.
Actually, let me rephrase: it left me feeling concerned that the gates had been opened for simplistic camera hardware to be brought to market as a cash-in to take advantage of good will and a real need for new cameras.
In a world where we have become used to film cameras as technically mature products from equally mature organisations, accepting what appears to be a hobbled late Soviet-era camera for the same price as a Nikon FM3A isn’t the easiest thing to do.
Combining the evocative language of the campaign with such a small financial target and short funding goal, one could be forgiven for thinking that the folks behind the ELBAFLEX are actually engaged in a marketing / positioning ploy, rather than creating a sustainable camera manufacturing operation.
To say that something doesn’t feel right is a bit of an understatement.
Wanting to address both my concerns and those of the community, I spoke with Stefan Immes, Managing Director of Ihagee to try and understand a little more behind the ELBAFLEX. The results of that conversation are a little further below but first, let’s take a look into Ihagee itself.
Ihagee (ee-hah-geh) was founded in 1912 but absorbed by Pentacon in 1970. It has remained dormant as an actual standalone manufacturer since then, so it’s no secret that it is a resurrected brand name. It’s also not a secret that the company has been brought back to life by the same team behind the re-establishment of Meyer Optik Görlitz.
But this isn’t really strange.
Trading, mothballing and bringing “dead” brand names back to life isn’t new, nor is it limited to the photographic industry. Brand names are traded by companies like baseball cards and very few historically rich brands can be traced back to their roots by way of a single, primary ownership.
Contax, whose first joint venture involved an alignment with Pentax, then Yashica, who were in turn purchased and mothballed by Kyocera.
Voigtlander, who were sold to Carl Zeiss, then Rollei, then Plusfoto, then Ringfoto (who continue to sell Voigtlander products manufactured under licence by Cosina in Japan).
Hasselblad, who were majority Japanese owned from 2003 to 2011, then 100% owned by a German venture capital until 2015 and now count a minority stake from DJI (the drone people) *1.
Polaroid, whose history is such a mess I’m not even going to address it here. Read this instead.
The point is this: when it comes to camera brand names, very little is what it seems these days – and I haven’t even touched on those A&F clothes you might be wearing right now, that Coach gear you’re carrying around or, the Dunhill, Panerai, Cartier or IWC watches you’ve been promising yourself “one day” for that milestone birthday…
…any way, I digress.
From conjecture to truth
A few days after the Ihagee campaign was released I was contacted by a PR firm claiming to represent the company. A cursory check and yes, it was the same firm used by Meyer Optik Görlitz – no surprise but so far so good. I arranged to speak with Dr. Stefan Immes, creator of the ELBAFLEX and the man behind Meyer Optik Görlitz.
Just so you know, Stefan prefers ‘Stefan’, not ‘Dr’, or ‘Herr Doktor’. As he says, “I came into this world without it and I’ll be leaving with out it!”
As I mentioned above, I wanted to talk with Stefan about the resurrection of the Ihagee brand and the ELBAFLEX. Specifically, I wanted to try and address some of my own concerns with the project, as well as address some of the …pragmatism… being voiced by the film photography community.
What follows below is the result of that conversation. It’s been edited it for flow and includes clarification from Stefan, where I missed out or fudged my notes as we were speaking.
Here we go.
EM: Hi Stefan, let’s start at the very beginning: tell me about your reasons for bringing the ELBAFLEX to market.
SI: I think that photography has become less and less an art or trade where you were taking pictures and showing what was really out there; showing life in its purest way.
These days people are photoshopped over and over and over again until they’re nothing like the person that was standing in front of the camera. You see the original model, the “RAW” photograph and the finished result…there’s no relationship.
One of my role models for this “photographic purity” is Edward Quinn. Just take a look at his pictures from the south of France in the 1950’s; Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and others. They’re there with all their imperfections and a reality that you don’t really find that easily today, where it’s removed in the name of an artificial perfection.
There are two quotes which ground me photographically. Both are credited to Henri Cartier-Bresson and read:
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
“We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.”
If you want to buy a new film camera today your options are limited. You can buy a Leica if you have the money, and on the other end of the scale, you can buy a Holga. There are a few other new cameras in between but there’s no real choice if you want to buy a new, manual 35mm SLR camera. Nikon have (to all intents an purposes), stopped making film cameras, even though you can still buy an F6 for several thousand dollars.
Of course, there is the second hand market but in my experience, buying second hand can be fraught with problems; and as a potential buyer, my preference is to simply buy something new (with a guarantee). It makes more sense for me than to me.
So, to answer your question, I wanted to create a camera for people in the same position as me; something well made and reliable that could be easily purchased with ongoing warranty and repair built-in.
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EM: So you see the ELBAFLEX as what, exactly? From the materials provided so far, it looks like an expensive rebadge of something with a less than stellar reputation.
SI: I think this was my mistake. I have said previously that the outward appearance of the camera was inspired by the Kiev 19M but we have not been as clear as we should have been on what exactly the camera is.
I’ll try to explain.
It’s important to be clear that many factories simply don’t have tooling to make cameras any more. And creating new tooling to make a frame, body, components and outer shells is expensive, especially as you need to consider scale, which itself should be considered as two parts, or realities: what was and what is.
If we look back, old camera factories were created to generate components and components-of-components in huge volumes. Running those factories – even starting the machinery – required a minimum production run in order to balance the cost of raw materials and operating cost with the final sale price of what was being produced. Testing was expensive!
Obviously, the film camera industry today is much smaller than it once was, so running these huge factories doesn’t make sense for film cameras. I don’t believe we (Ihagee) will see the same volumes. *2
To understand and overcome this challenge of needing to manufacture at a smaller scale while controlling cost, we decided to create a team is based in both Germany and Ukraine. On the German side, we have the product designers, engineering team, support team and second level quality control – collectively still very small. On the Ukrainian side, we have an entire department of around 20 people. They are former Arsenal employees and cover design, engineering, first level quality control and production.
We still have some supplier tooling to complete, which will allow our suppliers to manufacture the parts we need. Even at the smaller scales we’re aiming for, this tooling and the materials are still an expensive aspect of the project but that is the choice we made in order to build to the specifications we are demanding for the final build.
EM: …and you’re refurbishing Kiev 19Ms there?
SI: No. The camera looks like a Kiev 19M because we have access to the tooling to make the outer shell of that camera through our Ukrainian team. The outward familiarity is simply that: familiarity.
We have redesigned the shutter, upgrading the materials and some additional parts to eliminate some of the engineering flaws present in the Kiev 19M. The mirror box has also been changed to improve the way the transport and braking works and the camera has a completely new internal frame (that the components mount into).
We decided to exclude the meter from our camera. While a meter would be useful to some, it’s my personal experience that it’s not completely necessary and that many, many film photographers either choose not to shoot with the assistance of a meter, or will have a phone app / hand held meter to take a quick reading or simply shoot based on Sunny 16 and their own gut feelings.
It might seem a little indulgent for me to say this but it’s such a nice camera! At 600 grams it’s not light at all and adding the small wooden grip has really helped the ergonomics. We went through so many designs for that small but important component but I think we’ve perfected it now.
EM: Understood. So if I understand you, you’re using the external shell for the Kiev 19M because you still have access to tooling and can create them brand new…and we’re essentially seeing a new camera inside? Has there been any temptation to reach for the parts bin?
SI: Hahaha, no no, no parts bin. The camera and parts are new; and the design (internal and external) has been refined. We don’t have the funds to create brand new tooling for everything and to be fair, why would we? The cost is so prohibitively expensive, the camera would never see the light of day.
What we have with the ELBAFLEX is a camera design for which we have the tooling and suppliers; you could also that the platform. We looked at the flaws of the original camera and improved them. For example, the shutter has a tendency to create problems, so we changed the materials used in its construction. The mirror is very loud and has a hard stop; and the foam that was used as a hard brake would often come apart and find its way into the shutter. This would in turn cause shutter problems, so design and material changes were done.
The original body is heavy and excuse my openness, relatively ugly, with an awful finish. We have the tools for the three body parts, top, bottom and main section, which means we can create a new housing plus the wooden grip and premium leather finish to help express the internal changes that cannot be seen. It is a bit like good food: you don’t only want it to taste good; your eyes want to enjoy it, too.
EM: I’d like to talk about cost. Why not look at alternative manufacturing options for prototyping / casting / pressing / creating the final components? The initial price of the camera is higher than many people expected for the functionality they see they’re getting. In addition, the $1500 price tag you note on your Kickstarter campaign is hard to swallow. Can the camera be a commercial success at this price?
SI: There are certain engineering tolerances we want to achieve and maintain; and we know how to to that with traditional manufacturing techniques from the various Meyer lens projects over the past few years.
The price were selling at right now on Kickstarter is practically at cost, which involves much more than just running the machines and putting the cameras together: we’ve also factored in the funds required to maintain cooperation of the teams in Germany and Ukraine, as well as the new tooling we require, creation and support of our repair centre to name a few.
The second thing about the price is that I really believe that the ELBAFLEX is going to be a niche product. Outside of the Kickstarter, we have accounted for production volumes of only a few dozen a year! Looking at the reaction from the community I know we need to look at this now and address it.
If we are able to create a system of regular production with ongoing demand, where we were not making everything by hand, then the price for a post-Kickstarter ELBAFLEX would be a bit cheaper than what we have already stated.
EM: You mentioned Meyer again. What exactly is the relationship there?
IS: The connection is me – I’m organising the teams. They are two different organisations best described as difference racehorses from the same stable.
The decision to keep them a little bit separate was intentional from the start. There is some collaboration, which is focused around helping the ELBAFLEX team learn from the projects Meyer has completed already and continues to work on.
The other way round, there is also quite a bit of experience from the ELBAFLEX team that we’re already building into Meyer. So far, Meyer has only recreated older lens designs using modern components and materials. I say “only” but that’s an understatement considering the work that has gone into them! Anyway, ELBAFLEX is currently helping Meyer understand the challenges and tricks to creating a completely new product. Something that we will be doing in the future under the Meyer brand – that’s all I can say about that right now.
EM: What’s next? How much does the Kickstarter campaign help with your ability to deliver the product? It’s apparent that you have some infrastructure in place now, so what happens if the campaign doesn’t fund?
SI: Yes, we have come a certain way to opening full production but the campaign is critical for use to be able to reach a critical mass. We’re asking for what we need to “get over the bump” and begin production, as well as help secure our German repair facility.
If the campaign doesn’t fund, it will be very disappointing and I would like to think that we will still produce a small amount of cameras and fall very much back into that niche I told you about.
Naturally, I don’t want that to happen.
Through ELBAFLEX and Ihagee we want to build a different community of both cameras and lenses. Something that the first camera will help to start.
Excuse me for a second, I’m currently occupied eating my hat.
I’ll be the first to admit that my initial thoughts on Ihagee, the ELBAFLEX and Stefan’s intentions were wrong…and gladly so.
The ELBAFLEX may not be the camera many of us were expecting but it’s certainly not the camera many of us have assumed we will be getting. My analogy to Stefan was of someone building a new car engine and only having the option of using a newly made but 30 year old design shell to wrap around it*3. Perhaps it’s not the best analogy but it works for me.
At this moment in time I’m not 100% sure the project will be fully funded before its deadline and I don’t know what if any options exist to extend the deadline after that point. My heart is hoping that it’ll all go through in the end but my head is telling me there’s a lot of work that Stefan and his team need to do in order to clarify the current message.
Making the campaign materials clear as to why the ELBAFLEX resembles the Kiev 19M is crucial in my opinion. As is making a distinction between the historic Ihagee company and what the new company is aiming to do.
Perhaps some of this has been lost in translation.
Connecting historical excellence and innovation with a new camera that appears to be the antithesis of that message isn’t exactly a recipe for success, so my advice to Stefan, Ihagee and anyone else who is listening is this:
- Refine your story and tell us about the brand and connect your relevant experience with Meyer.
- Talk about the brand in the same evocative terms you are but use that as a basis of what you are trying to achieve, not what the old brand means for to the new ELBAFLEX.
- Clearly and distinctly describe the camera – new internals, low-volume by-hand construction, existing shell, not a “parts-bin CLA”, etc.
- Talk to us about how the ELBAFLEX fills the growing need for new film cameras.
- Understand that most people who will buy this camera are likely to be existing analogue shooters. Talk to us in our language – you’re not trying to convince most backers to come to the medium, we’re already here.
- Give us options.
Those are my two cents.
Thanks for reading,
An update and one more thing
Since starting to write this article, I have had a number of further conversations with Stefan and want to state for the record that he has been open in his communications and possesses a desire to provide further clarity to both the campaign and pricing. What this means for the campaign remains to be seen but I for one feel confident that this is a company trying to bring something they fully believe in. I wanted to get that out there.
Also, I’d like to share one of the funnier comments I came across about the project. It went along the lines of “they can’t even spell the name of their most famous camera right”. It was in reference to both Exakta/Exacta brand names and I found it funny that someone writing a disparaging comment wouldn’t take the time out to do a bit of research. That’s the internet for you, I guess.
*1: DJI apparently purchased a majority stake in Hasselblad in 2017 but that rumour has neither been confirmed or denied. Get your side of the story by asking your local Hasselblad repair center their parts situation and make your own call from there 😉
*2: This discussion of production scale is also something that was discussed in this week’s excellent Kodakery podcast with Joshua Coon and Matt Stoffel.
*3: The analogy was actually “taking a 2018 BMW flat six but only being able to wrap it with the body of a Mk1 Golf” but I don’t want to come across as a car nerd and a film nerd.
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