Did you ever hear the tragedy of
Darth Plagueis The Wise the Nishika N8000? If you haven’t you’re going to learn all about the seemingly seedy history of this camera; from fake LCD screens to telemarketing scams ahem, creativity. I’m going to share with you everything I’ve discovered about the weird, deceptive and strange history that is Nishika Ltd.
Before I get into the history of Nishika Ltd and its owners, I should tell you a bit about the camera, if you’re unfamiliar with this curious plastic beast.
About the Nishika N8000
The Nishika N8000 is a 35mm, quad-lens 3D camera, that originally sold in 1989 for $200 US dollars. If you wanted to buy one of these, you wouldn’t be able to find it at the shop. No, one of the only ways to get one was to hear a knock at your door, or by calling a number in an ad that you found in your photography magazine. The company that produced this camera did everything it could to make the N8000 seem like the next stage of photographic evolution. Even though it’s a fairly unique concept, it was far from a refined product.
The first time I came across an N800 a number of years ago, it turned out to be broken, and I wasn’t too surprised, as it was all plastic. Fast forward a couple of years and I find out these cameras are trending and going for an ungodly amount of money, broken or not.
Back in its heyday this was being promoted as a 3D camera that used regular ‘ol 35mm film. It accomplished this by taking four photos at the same time, with four separate lenses. You mail in your film and get these cool lenticular 3D prints. If you’ve ever had a special edition VHS, DVD, or blu-ray movie with that 3D effect on the cover, then you know what a lenticular print is.
Long after Nishika Ltd. went under, these quad-lens oddities started resurfacing on eBay for upwards of $500. You might be asking how we are supposed to see these 3D images now that we can’t mail away our film for special prints. The answer is by photoshopping them into GIFs. You scan your four images, chop them into individual pieces, align them and convert them into an animated GIF using the timeline feature in Photoshop.
Taking nifty photos with the Nishika N8000 is a simple matter of making sure that something is in the foreground, something in the background, and that the light is good. Being animated and tossing stuff into the air adds to that 3-dimensional effect.
I had a working model once, and I did my own photos and first impressions on it. You can find a link to that in the description of the video linked below. I ended up selling mine for a pretty penny, no regrets.
So why did they go under. This concept seems to have 90s nostalgia written all over it. Let’s find out.
Nikisha N8000 history
As far as I can tell, from my research, the advertising campaign started in July 1989.
Above left, a Popular Photography reads: “It’s new! It’s Unique, It’s right for everyone!” It exclaims. At the bottom, it lists a toll-free number you can call, or an address you can mail $5 to for an information package that is refundable with your first order. Dealer Inquiries Invited.
The other ad I found (above, right), actually shows you what the camera looks like, kinda. This one was published in American Photographer.
“After fifteen years of research, 100 patents worldwide and $50 million dollars, 3D is here. No glasses or viewers needed, use standard 35mm film, you won’t believe it. To order camera or brochure, call 1-800 blah blah, Distributorships available now.“
If you didn’t catch it, these ads are doing two things, not just selling you the camera, but selling you selling others the camera. That bit of info will be important to remember as we move on with this story.
In November 1989, Peter Kolonia of Popular Photography wrote a review of the Nishika N8000, with the title: A Born Again Nimslo. An excerpt.
The camera has a metal plate on the bottom to make it heavier, added what looked like an LCD display, and molded the top to make it seem like there was a pentaprism inside for the viewfinder. As Kolonia put it “twice as big and half the features”.
The Nishika N8000 was all plastic, had one shutter speed and three aperture settings. It took 2 AA batteries, the only job of which was to tell you if the lighting was too low.
The article goes on to say that it’s prints are actually quite neat but you will find few situations to use it in, suggesting it’ll spend more time in the closet than around your neck. Not only that but you had to mail away for your prints, and the shipping time seemed to be 2 to 3 weeks despite the claim of a 72-hour turnaround (in the US of course). Though Kolonia admitted, “The 3D effects possible with the Nishika are terrific”.
If you read this review in 1989 and still wanted one, it wasn’t easy. Waiting for a knock at the door, or calling the 1-800 number seemed to be the only ways to get one. These were not sold in stores.
As much as the review praised the prints, it tore a strip off the design, and who can blame them? Everything the company did to upgrade from the Nimslo was designed to make you think you were getting more camera than you were, and an amateur photographer wouldn’t notice most of it until it was too late.
Well, Kolonia’s mixed Popular Photography review would not go unnoticed. The hate mail poured in. Here’s one example published a few months later in February 1990 titled “Nishika: Nasty or Nice”:
The angry reader also says. “Lesson in logic: The function of a camera is to produce beautiful photographs. Anything else you say about a camera is irrelevant.”
The angry writer also seems to brag about the 3 f-stops that can be used in various lighting situations.
Man it really seems like this guy is invested in Nishika… Oh wait he was. This letter was signed by an “American 3D Independent Distributor”.
Popular Photography made no apologies for their review, saying the staff were somewhat divided on the quality of the prints but conceded that some people liked it. However “The Nishika is larger and heavier than it needs to be and is festooned with many mock features.”
To reiterate, some of these fake features include: a fake LCD screen that is just a distance scale, a grip that implies a motor drive, a prism at the top to imply a pentaprism viewfinder, a metal plate to give to heft, and two out of three contacts on the hot shoe were fake, and an implied “JC II” approved sticker, which has the initials “JBDF” which are actually the initials on the two main people involved in creating the N8000.
Waiting for the Nimslo 2?
Popular Photography says the Nimslo, the camera which many of these patents were purchased from, was a superior model, with its workable auto exposure system, and called the Nishika a “glorified box camera”. Popular photography really took the gloves off on this guy. They continue with “Who spent $50 million and 15 years of research to develop the system? Certainly not Nishika or its pyramid-style distributors…We think the clear light of your logic is somewhat compromised by your being an American independent distributor.”
In the same issue, an ex-Nimslo employee also wrote in to express their distaste.
“As an ex-Nimslo employee who maintained his communications network with his former colleagues and had an awareness of Nissei Corporation’s efforts to resurrect the Nimslo 3D system, I eagerly awaited announcement of the Nissei camera, knowing in advance that it was years late and underwhelming in its capabilities. But I must say that I wasn’t fully prepared for the piece of dreck finally announced by Popular Photography”
Yet another reader called the review a vitriolic attack, and touted the “more than 50,000 distributors of the 35mm Nishika n8000 3D camera.” The reader slams Kolonia for not mentioning that the developing technology is “American made”, or that “you must adhere to the 6-25 foot range for optimum 3D effect”, and ends the letter by suggesting that the reviewer must be upset because they were denied a distributorship.
Sounds like another Nishika seller, trying to turn the letter section into an advertising campaign.
An internet forum flame war; offline
Popular Photography responded saying they are pretty sure their reviewer was not trying to be a closet Nishika distributor.
The whole thing reads like an internet forum on a rampage. Even the president of Nishika would speak up in the letter section of the May 1990 issue:
The letter almost reads passive-aggressively taking the few things that were praised, ignoring the legitimate criticisms, correcting a price issue, and the way in which it’s distributed.
“The prices quoted in the article are also inaccurate. For the past three months our price for developing a 36-exposure roll of film (18 3D prints) has been one third less expensive than when Kolonia developed his photos.”
What an amazing nitpick by the Nishika president. Who expected a November 1989 article to predict a price drop that probably occurred after the review. If they received the letter in April, a month before this publication, that’s still put the price drop in January, up to two months after the review was published.
Nishika’s president went on to state that Popular Photography “suggests that our independent distributors are door-to-door salesmen but in fact, most of our sales are not made door to door. Our more than 60,000 enthusiastic hardworking distributors use a variety of the most modern and effective direct marketing selling techniques used by such companies as Sprint, Mary Kay Cosmetics and IBM.”
I paid close attention to the wording here, and he said most of their sales are not door to door and they have over 60,000 distributors. Well, how much do you want to bet these people had to buy the cameras upfront?
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Another review was published in Petersen’s Photographic. While this review seems a lot more neutral, there and definitely large red flags to be had.
Petersen’s Photographic reviewer Patrick Christian spends much of the time just going over the features, dimensions and how the whole process works.
“As with the now defunct Nimslo, you load the N8000 with color negative film, depress the shutter button and Nishika’s four lenses go click in unison. Send your film off to Nishika (in their prepaid mailer) and you’ll get back a set of 3 ½ by 4 ½ colour 3D prints that don’t require a viewer.”
“The brain-power factor is the second aspect of the technology, and according to Nishika President Jim Bainbridge, it’s the most critical. The N8000’s brain-power is a high-tech computer print-making system said to emulate the eye-brain coordination of human vision. High-tech printers sandwich the four transparent images under a lenticular screen. The Underside is coated with a white pigment and voila, you view prints through hundreds of minuscule rows of optical splitters in the plastic lenticular screen sandwiched to the top of the merged image prints. Through the magic of the lenticular surface, your left eye sees a slightly different view of a lenticular print than your right; thus you have viewerless 3D”
Christian admits though “it doesn’t match Nimslo’s quality…clearly this isn’t a top of the line point and shoot camera. It’s a very specialized fun bit of business”
Christian also elaborates on where to get one. That the distribution is being handled by another Henderson Nevada company, American 3D and not to rush to the local camera store, because they won’t be there. Christian ponders how unusual it is for these to be marketed by a multi-level program like Amway, and that Bainbridge, prefers the term “direct selling” and will put you in contact with the closest distributor.
At the end of this, flat-at-best review is an editor’s note that reads like a prescription medicine warning.
“Our calls to Nishika and American 3D or Bainbridge failed to turn up a camera to test (author, Christian, a long time 3D buff, bought his Nishika from a distributor) and we were about to scrap the article when a local Nishika distributor Arlene Shapiro brought one out of the blue. Arlene’s a real go-getter who told us all about the camera, left one to try and even wanted to sign us up as distributors (for obvious reasons, we had to decline). We weren’t overly impressed by the camera itself, but were quite impressed with the outstanding 3D images it produced (and that’s what Nishika is really selling-startling viewer less 3D images)”
The marketing push
Despite the small, picture-less ads in photography magazines, one of the more impressive acts of Jim Bainbridge, was recruiting celebrity Vincent Price for an instructional/promotional video. I guess because he was in a 3D movie once?
Titled “Step into the Third Dimension”, this 1989 VHS movie — with a run time of just under 20 minutes — gives you a full breakdown of how to properly create 3D photos with the N8000.
This video is filmed at three sets. Potter’s wax museum in St. Augustine, Florida, playing off his role in the 1953 classic horror, House of Wax, which was presented in 3D, an outdoor setting with a family in Cypress Gardens, Florida, and a birthday party. After an introduction, a brief history of 3D in photography, and a few dry jokes, Mr. Price shows you how to load the camera with batteries and film.
The outdoor scene serves to show how to shoot with the camera outside. They have Price in a foldable chair under a multi-coloured umbrella playing director to the family, and he explains to us how to optimize the 3D effect. At first, I wondered why he was so far away from the family until I saw the credits and realized he had a stand-in and some of the wide or rear shots probably weren’t even him.
What is going to become odd to you immediately is you apparently, you need to be 15-22 feet (5-7 meters) from the subject, so you have this family man half a mile away taking shots from the bushes like a weirdo. See below.
The promotional material is produced, the ads are published and the reviews are in. How was the Nishika N8000 received by the public?
Not well actually, because the photos immediately started fading. This time though, it was not entirely Nishika’s fault.
In 1988 Jim Bainbridge (CEO of Nishika) met with 3M (the same people that bought Ferrania) to help formulate an emulsion, and what is referred to as, a backcoat sauce for the lenticular prints.
By mid 1989 3M had created what they said was an effective and new light sensitive emulsion that could be used in combination with the backcoat sauce they had developed.
Four companies were involved in this partnership:
- The camera manufacturer, Quantronics Manufacturing Limited, owned by Daniel Fingarette.
- American 3D Limited, which was the distributor
- The print designer, LenTec Corporation
- The printer, Nishika Limited.
Bainbridge owned the last three companies.$40 million was invested into the system, and over one million of that involved the purchase of the backcoat sauce and new emulsion.
By the end of 1989, over 100,000 cameras had been sold, but the photos would start to fade within months. Nishika, not knowing what the issue was, mailed reprints after numerous complaints, but by 1990 the damage was done, and sales were down significantly.
The four companies affected by the print fading fiasco, as well as some independent distributors sued 3M for breach of “express and implied warranties”. The issue, as it turned out was the emulsion was not compatible with the backcoat sauce and that caused the images to fade. They also stated that this severely damaged the reputation of the company and its product.
A court jury found that 3M breached express and implied warranties and that 3M’s breach directly caused the harm suffered by each of the Nishika Plaintiffs. The trial court overruled 3M’s objection, and based on favourable jury findings, court rendered judgment that the Nishika Plaintiffs be awarded just under US$30 million plus pre- and post-judgment interest from 3M. 3M filed for an appeal but only succeeded in reversing the pre and post-judgment interest.
You can recover money, but you can’t recover a reputation, and people weren’t buying nearly as many cameras. The N8000, and the lesser-known, more compact N9000 were collecting dust, and around this time, Nishika was already working to recover its losses…though not in the most honest way.
Staying alive at all costs
Nishika and its related companies initiated a telemarketing campaign where they convinced their callers they had won a substantial prize ranging from cash to a brand new car. However, in order to claim the prize, winners needed to pay a one-time fee of $700. The so-called award winner almost always received a camera and/or travel voucher that contained a number of additional costs and restrictions, making it nearly impossible to use.
Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine did their own investigation and published their findings in their Jul 1992 issue.
“In March 1992 a Conroe, Texas company, MC Inc. mailed MRG coded certificates claiming “You’re guaranteed at least one of the five items below for your participation in our national promotion!” One of those certificates arrived at the home of a Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine staffer while we were working on this story. The prizes were a 1992 Chrysler LaBaron or $10,000 cash, $4000 cash, two round trip airfares to Orlando or Las Vegas, $1000 cash and a Sony 27” high resolution colour TV. When we called MC Inc. we were told we had to buy a Nishika 3D camera and some jewellery for $498 to qualify for a prize. Our staffer hung up”
They made hundreds of thousands of calls and who knows how many mail outs, but eventually the law caught up to them and they were forced to pay back US$11.3 million to those victimized by the campaign. This left Nishika, and Jim Bainbridge bankrupt.
On March 19, 1996 The Las Vegas Sun wrote:
And there you have it, the weird and sketchy history of Nishika and the N8000. I think it’s funny how its found success decades later, without making the original owners a penny in the process, that has to hurt.
American Photographer July 1989
Popular Photography July 1989, November 1989, February 1990, May 1990
Petersen’s Photographic February 1990
Price was in at least one more 3D movie – “The Mad Magician”, which was / is available on 3D blu-ray with the added bonus of a couple of Three Stooges 3D short subjects.
My absolute favorite detail was the fake JCII sticker with the owner’s initials. Thanks for bringing us this seedy bit of photographic history!
These quadders sail thru That Auction Site daily at $150 – $250 per. I suspect the same hipsters who pay full list for a Polaroid One that produces mediocre prints at a bit over $1 apiece, are Nishika buyers.
From my recollection there were actually some stores that carried these. The first time I ever saw one was at the Hunt Photo Show in Boston when they were still new and I believe I saw them at either the Hunt store or one of the other big Boston camera stores. I remember thinking it was a very cool idea but expensive for such a plastic toy camera.
Fast forward 20ish years and I actually got one of these from the Woot website in one of their famous/infamous Woot-off “bag of crap” deals!
I’m sure that the lenticular 3-D image goes back a good deal before that. As a child, in the late 60’s or so, I remember that photos of exotic animals and the like were among the free gifts that could be obtained by collecting coupons at petrol stations. I think those sort of promotions largely stopped after the 1973 oil crisis, and certainly by the time I started driving in the late 70’s. So the technology was hardly new in 1989, though presumably those ones were ink printed.
The coolest type of 3d photography is taken from a jet at 30,000 feet with a film camera using slide film. If you can get a seat with a clear window in the very front of the plane (so that the engines and wings are not in the picture) you take two pictures 1 second apart where you aim a spot on your viewfinder with say a mountaintop. When seen through a 3d viewer it is the landcape a giant whose eyes are 1000′ apart and 30,000 feet in height would see. This is what is called hyperstereo and it makes the landscape look like a miniature HO train landscape.
Sounds intriguing! Got any examples you can share?