World’s First Universal Camera?

Now here is a remarkable Kickstarter project: world’s first truly universal camera by Mercury Camera. They call it “a modular, open camera system capable of shooting any format (medium and large format film, digital, Instax…) and using any lens.” The claim is bold. They promise to produce the first universally modular camera. Snake oil? Too good to be true? Yes there are scams on Kickstarter, but good thing with Kickstarter is if a project doesn’t get funded you don’t owe anyone a single cent. These Mercury guys might be onto something.

Illustrative side view of a Mercury showing one possible configuration. Note, most Kickstarter rewards don't include the lens / shutter, strap, rangefinder or film back. | Kickstarter / Mercury Camera
Illustrative side view of a Mercury showing one possible configuration. Note, most Kickstarter rewards don’t include the lens / shutter, strap, rangefinder or film back. | Kickstarter / Mercury Camera
What if you could shoot old Polaroid film, Fujifilm’s current Instax version, huge medium format negatives, large sheet film, and digital, all with the same camera?

What if that camera could take any of the hundreds of lenses that have been produced over the past century and longer?

What if that camera were light, portable, and inexpensive? And what if it could be easily reconfigured and adapted to do just about anything? Welcome to the Mercury.

Bold, isn’t it. Kind of a universal adapter…

Through a complex arrangement of adapters and modules, the Mercury camera is designed to take just about any lens and pair it to just about any film or digital format for which a camera back exists. The main components of the Mercury are the Front, which supports the lens stack, including focus spacers and mount adapters, and the Back, which attaches to the various film holders, packs, or digital backs.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Mercury is that it promises to give photographers significantly more control with formats that are normally very restrictive.

The main challenge? The Mercury is designed to work primarily with medium and large format optics. DSLR lens adapters are coming for Canon and Nikon, but these lenses do not contain shutters (since DSLRs put the shutter in the camera). Modern DSLR lenses also don’t have aperture rings, so implementing an aperture control system would be necessary.

Check out the sample images on the Kickstarter page, taken with a Mercury prototype and different film backs. Here’s one:

Mercury prototype on Ilford HP5+ sheet film (4x5) | Kickstarter / Mercury Camera
Mercury prototype on Ilford HP5+ sheet film (4×5) | Kickstarter / Mercury Camera

Who is this camera for? In Mercury’s own words:

  • Anyone of any experience level who wants to get back to manual controls and rediscover photography (or discover it for the first time). We will produce a series of videos and fun suggestions for the many things you can do with your Mercury (hint: just about anything available in the world of photography). We think that this camera is more fun to use than any other camera out there.
  • Photographers who wish to shoot true medium format (up to 6x9cm) or large format (4×5”) for the absolute highest quality, but who also want their camera to be light, portable, and inexpensive. Few cameras exist that can shoot such huge negatives, and they all weigh so much that you wouldn’t want to bring them very many places with you.
  • Connoisseurs of wide angle photography. The best wide angle lenses are true wide angles, not retrofocus lenses. Unfortunately, SLR-style cameras and most digital cameras can only accept retrofocus lenses. The Mercury is thin enough to accept legendary true wide angle lenses that were previously only usable on extremely expensive technical cameras.
  • Tinkerers who want a camera that is fully modular and can be modified to suit their needs, whatever they may be. This is the ultimate camera for experimentation and design. The community wants your ideas; we all benefit when new Mercury parts are designed and shared.
  • Photographers who want to free their components from proprietary camera systems. Use your Hasselblad lenses on an Instax camera, unlock the larger image circle of your Mamiya or Pentax 6×7 lenses, use a nineteenth century lens with a Hasselblad back, etc. Just about any combination is possible with the Mercury.
  • Anyone who wants to contribute to a fully open, non-corporate camera system designed (mechanically and conceptually) for the future.
  • Anyone who wants to shoot instant film (Polaroid/Impossible Project or Fuji Instax) but is tired of those horrible, fully automatic, flash-driven cameras that take such lousy photos. The Mercury is, without a doubt, the best camera for instant photography, allowing you to choose whatever lens is best for your style (super wide angle, portrait lens, etc.), have fully manual control over how your photograph is taken, and still retain the option of changing to other formats without having to lug around a completely different camera.

Snake oil? Let know what you think.

  • OneCut

    Ever heard of ALPA or Dayi? This is old hat. The key issue is if it will be cheaper than a Dayi.

    • Isn’t ALPA a proprietary system. Yes there is a limited Phase One alliance.

      Thanks for the DaYii hint though, wasn’t aware of it. And there is Gaoersi and Fotoman. All similar, all from China. So Mercury Camera doesn’t reinvent the wheel, they reinterpret it.

      • OneCut

        Hi Dan,
        Yes ALPA is proprietary probably because that makes money and also once you design a robust modular frame & interface you probably end up proprietary anyway. So it will be interesting to see if Mercury can deliver us the same proposition at an attractive price point and workable.
        DaYii, Fotoman and Gaoersi are all good solutions but still quite expensive relative to the quality they offer.
        As Zach says below, there are a lot of us interested in modular and customisable solutions. I for one would love to use my Mamiya 7 lenses on a Polaroid back!
        Watching with interest.

        • zhorton

          Mamiya 7 lenses on a Polaroid back is definitely something the Mercury could do, it would just require engineering the lens mount. And the electronic features of the lens wouldn’t work. But could it be mounted and shoot on Polaroid film? Absolutely! These crazy recipes are what this project is all about! Thanks for your comment!

  • Koko Futzer

    snake oil

    I don’t mean the concept (still think that could be snake oil tho) but the market that this could be possibly be targeted to: a whole 21 people? maybe 27 with heave marketing..
    Why am I so skeptical?
    Look at computers: the most modular gadget out there and yet numbers don’t lie: it’s Apple or Dell ready-made machines that sell by truckloads while the custom-built ones are a dismal small percentage.
    To the tinkerer, enthusiast and purist this is a dream (not) come true, for the rest of population (99%) does not even register on the radar…
    Sad but that’s how it is.

  • zhorton

    Hi folks, Zach Horton from the Mercury project here. Koko is right that customizable, modular gadgets have a tiny market share compared to purpose built machines by huge corporations. Nonetheless, the analog revival has shown that the passionate few can really make a difference. If we work at it as a community, unlikely products without huge mass appeal (but great appeal to those who know how to make use of them) can still be made. I don’t yet know if this will reach enough people to fund the project or not, but I’m great encouraged by the tremendous messages I’ve received from folks who have been wanting something like this forever. For many, just having a camera that can shoot Instax Mini and Instax Wide with a high quality lenses is reason enough! Others want a camera that can shoot 6×9 and/or 4×5, but want a compact and light camera. Others want to adapt crazy lenses to various formats. If it is successful, the Mercury will be able to do all of these things and many more I can’t even imagine yet, as it will be a very active, innovative community.

    And yes, the Mercury is a lot cheaper than the systems you mention, as well as lighter and, obviously capable of things they aren’t (like Instax, shooting both medium and large format, etc.). Those are cools cameras, though! The Mercury is just aimed at a bigger, if more elusive pie: bringing camera gear into the hands of photographers themselves. Dan says it well: we reinterpret the wheel. By doing as many different things as possible, we make new combinations possible. I think that’s particularly important in the current state of photography. For me, at least, it was time to bring back the joy of experimentation…

  • ‘Who is this camera for?’

    for me the question would be, for what photograph is this camera for?

    This should be the main question – if taking photographs is not just the
    fun of using the tools (I know, what I am talking about:-) )

    The Mercury can shoot analog. Others can do that too. I don’t shoot
    analog any more. I still have 4×5″ film holders, loaded with TMax400
    but I will never use it any more.

    Today there is only one analog film of interest for me: the new55.net
    project for 4×5″ instant film. But I could not decide to invest 75$ for 5
    sheets of film.

    For me the Mercury is an adapter to adapt lenses, analog or digital back and a focus unit with/without shutter. Is it a camera?

    There are many open questions for me:

    you say: ‘The Mercury is extremely light for maximum portability.’

    If you want to shoot MF or even LF lenses, the weight of the lenses is,
    what counts. Plus the weight of the back adapter and film holder.

    what is the shortest LF focal length, that can be mounted? Wide angle LF
    lenses are huge (and expensive) and heavy and as they are true wide
    angle lenses, the rear part of the lens is as big as the front part!

    why should I shoot LF without the possibility to shift and tilt?

    why should I use the Mercury for my Hasselblad lenses instead of using a
    cheap Hasselblad body (only a few hundred $)? I need the film holder
    anyway.

    how do you focus MF lenses with a MF film holder?

    how do you focus LF lenses without a ground glass (heavy!)

    why should I shoot that lady in the picture above on 4×5″, what is the
    advantage? How do you focus precisely. If the focus is not perfect, the
    LF is useless

    if you want to shoot stills or landscape, than means static objects, you may be better off with stitching multi row images.

    you say: …accept legendary true wide angle lenses
    that were previously only usable on extremely expensive technical
    cameras.

    wrong, my Sinar P was about 600 €, almost my cheapest camera. You get
    very cheap wooden light!! 4×5″ cameras. Field cameras are very small,
    when not in use.

    you say: Photographers who wish to shoot true medium format (up
    to 6x9cm) or large format (4×5”) for the absolute highest quality

    With my set up, as described below, I get between 100 and 400 MPixel images.

    For my personal use I have the ideal solution for all described situations.

    I can use all lenses made for 24×36 full format, for Medium Format and
    for large format (4×5″), the use of FF lenses on a FF body is obvious

    for the use of MF lenses I use the Rhinocam as adapter and I get 6x6cm wide digital images (stitched!)

    for the use of MF lenses for MF analog I would buy a cheap Hasselblad body (but I don’t need one today)

    for the use of LF lenses I use the Rhinocam on a 4×5″ body (Sinar P and Gandolfi)
    (stitched!) and have all possible movements of the large format (but not
    wider than 100m focal length)

    A few examples of my described set up

    Sinar P: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dierktopp/albums/72157641670093123

    Gandolfi (field camera): https://www.flickr.com/photos/dierktopp/albums/72157641081324295

    Hasselblad lenses: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dierktopp/albums/72157634801332367

    regards

    dierk

    • Impressive, excellent insights Dierk, thanks for sharing.

      Guess the Mercury guys should hire you for product development!