Thursday, June 03, 2021

Spinning Discs and Submarines

This was Kodak's top-of-the-line Disc camera in 1982. The 8000 added a few features over its cheaper stablemates...

Yes, I know it's an Akula. I didn't have a tiny Typhoon.
The cheaper Disc cameras could shoot pretty quickly, at least in a world where motor drive was kind of a novelty. A quick shooter could probably get two shutter presses a second just by poking the button. The 8000 added a selector switch on the front. Leave it in semiauto "●" mode and it worked like a regular shutter button. Slide it into burst "●●●" mode and it'd shoot three frames a second for as long as you held the button down... or at least for the five seconds it took to use up a 15-frame disc.

It has a sliding switch that moves a converter in front of the fixed-focus 12.5mm f/2.8 lens, for head-and-shoulders portraits & closeups. I don't know what that does to the focal length, but given that the basic lens had a field of view roughly equivalent to a 40mm lens on a 35mm camera, it was probably something in the 80mm range. The distance info on the inside of the camera's folding cover says it's to be used for shooting anything from one-and-a-half to four feet; anything farther uses the regular lens. It's spring loaded and poking a little button will retract it. If you close the cover, a little nubbin on the inside of the cover will trip the button and retract the lens automatically. On this old camera, deploying the closeup lens sounded like opening a creaky screen door.

The Disc 8000 also had a very modern looking digital display in the lid. That's an LCD travel alarm clock. That's right, the LCD display does not involve any camera functions. It's not a a frame counter or anything; it's not even connected to the camera proper. It's just an LCD travel alarm clock in the folding plastic cover. LCD clocks were very modern in 1982.

Normally in the camera world, the more money you spend, the more "professional" features you get and the more manual control you have over camera functions, but not with the Disc line. The 8000 retailed for $142.95... nearly four hundred bucks in today's money ...but you had zero manual control over the camera. The camera decided whether or not you needed flash, picked an aperture, and chose between 1/100th or 1/200th shutter speeds, and it did this on the el-cheapo Disc 4000 the same as the top of the line 8000. All you got for better than double the MSRP was a full-auto button, a sliding plastic closeup lens, a travel alarm clock, and a brushed gold tone finish.

The film discs dropped in the back. Close the camera back, lock the latch down, and it whirred to the first frame, ready to go.

While the thicker Disc film was more likely to lie flat in the focal plane than the film in contemporary 110-format, and could theoretically deliver sharper photos than the 110, getting good prints out of it depended on your local minilab having bought new, more expensive printers, and most of them didn't. Printed with existing equipment, Disc photos looked like grainy ass, even at 3"x5" size. Printing bigger from the tiny negatives was hopeless.

All that above makes this passage from The Hunt for Red October especially lulzy.

Spy writers were briefly enamored with the Discs, because the cameras were so flat, plus the negatives were almost exactly the same size as the 16mm ones used in the classic Minox spy cameras.

Still, the passage as described by Clancy above is kinda implausible. For starters, there's no easy way for MI6 to have processed just part of a disc and leave a couple negatives for the CIA to process. I mean, you could cut the disc apart in a dark bag, but how do you know what's on what frame at that point? Hoping for a lot of detail from these images, especially blown up to 10"x10" (?) prints as described later in the book is bordering on wishful thinking.

The LCD travel alarm clock is how you know it's high-tech. The brushed gold-tone finish is how you know it's high-end.

The Disc cameras were only in production for some six years at Kodak. Disc's role in the photo ecosystem was largely usurped by the almost equally short-lived APS format, which was in turn replaced by digital photography.

As a final indignity for loyal disc shooters, the Kodak cameras as sold on the US market, even the expensive 8000, do not have user-replaceable batteries. These days they're mostly just curiosities, an excuse to order one as a photo prop when you find yourself chortling over a passage in a Clancy novel you hadn't read in a long time...