This ‘digital film roll’ promises a new lease of life for your old analog camera – but I’d stick with film

I'm Back Film 2023 attached to an Olympus SLR camera in photographer's hands
(Image credit: I'm Back)

I did a degree in photography just before digital imaging really took off in the consumer market, learning the craft using pro analog cameras; Mamiya, Bronica and Hasselblad medium format, with my own Nikon 35mm SLR in tow. I can close my eyes right now and be back there in the studio; the feel and smell of a camera's leather finish, inserting a film roll, winding the film mechanism on, the clunk of the shutter as a photo is taken. 

Not long after I graduated, however, I splurged around $1,000 / £1,000 on a shiny new Nikon D70 DSLR camera, with its 6MP APS-C sensor (showing my age there to camera nerds). I haven't really looked back since, upgrading my digital camera gear periodically over the last two decades as the technology improves, and now I'm mostly using mirrorless. 

The superior handling, image quality, convenience and speedy workflow of digital imaging in 2023 over film is unquestionable, plus the running costs of digital are so much lower. My own 35mm film SLR hasn't really had a look-in for many years, as much as I enjoy the look and feel of it. Nor have I breathed in those chemical darkroom aromas – I edit and produce at a screen instead.  

I'm exactly the kind of person that the I'm Back Film project is looking to appeal to: you can enjoy the tactile experience and look of your unloved film camera once more, with the convenience of a digital output. It's a fascinating concept that I'm in two minds about, and I need convincing.

Nostalgia with modern smarts – how I’m Back works

I'm Back is tapping into the cyclical analog trend that has been peaking in the last year. Young people are going back to film cameras to escape from the digital technology in their lives, instead embracing the tactile, imperfect and real nature of film. Pentax is bringing back film cameras, and a fixed-lens compact is the first model lined up in its Pentax Film Camera Project, backed by the infrastructure to support servicing and repairs. I can’t wait for that. 

I even stumbled across an appealing screen-less vintage camera on Instagram the other day – the Camp Snap – that's actually a digital camera that keeps you 'in the moment' and away from a screen, even though it looks just like a disposable film camera. There’s a growing wave of the old-school on the digital camera scene, too; the Nikon Zf and Zfc, and Fujifilm’s X-series of mirrorless cameras like the X-T5 have  looks that hark back to film photography days.

Now the I'm Back Film project on Kickstarter is also vying for your attention, with an offering that's unique, and much improved over its previous efforts. If you want to enjoy the tactile experience of an old analog camera without actually needing to shoot on film, I’m Back thinks it has the answer: a ‘digital film roll’.

Picture this: in place of a roll of film in your 35mm SLR camera – be it Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Contax to name a few – you instead place a film roll-shaped insert inside your camera, where the film roll would go, that has a digital imaging sensor.

It’s not a new idea – I'm Back has crowdfunded before, and has been around for seven years and now seven iterations. This latest 2023 edition is designed to work with your old 35mm film SLR, and features a 20MP Micro Four Thirds (MFT) imaging sensor.

That's much better sensor tech than the previous-gen I'm Back, but an immediate red flag for those that own a 35mm SLR is that a MFT sensor is half the size of 35mm film dimensions, otherwise known in digital imaging as full-frame. That means a 2x crop of the field of view of your chosen lens. 

That crop could be a good thing if you want to get closer to your subjects – it’s like the portrait mode of your phone versus its main camera. But I’m Back includes an additional wide-angle adaptor in the box to restore your lens’s field of view. It’s a convoluted method to keep your 50mm lens at 50mm, for example, but you don’t need to use the adaptor, if you don’t mind that lens being a 100mm equivalent instead.

It begs the question though – why MFT? The answer is cost. In order for this small startup to keep costs down, it's opted for a MFT sensor instead of pricier full-frame one; however the crowdfunding backer price on Kickstarter for a single I’m Back Film kit is still $539 / £492 (about AU$850). Ouch.

We've also seen claims that the Swiss startup failed to deliver kits to all of its backers last time around, being affected like so many businesses by component shortages during the global pandemic. Hopefully there will be a successful delivery of the 2023 version of I’m Back to all backers, because there's really nothing else like it.

GIF of the key I'm Back 2023 components

(Image credit: I'm Back)

Is I’m Back really that cool?

Most 35mm SLR cameras look the part. For instance, take the Nikon FM2 that has inspired the modern Nikon Zf and Zfc mirrorless incarnations. With the I’m Back project, I can actually use a rugged Nikon FM2, or almost any other 35mm film camera, with a digital output. It's a fascinating concept that I’d love to try out, yet it feels fundamentally flawed.

I’m Back is not just the digital film roll inside the camera – there’s an attachment to fix on the underside of the camera, much like a battery grip, that contains all the other digital parts and circuitry, including a small LCD screen and the SD memory card slot. It’s connected to the digital film roll by a ribbon and an external wire. Locked and loaded, I'm Back has an unpleasing DIY feel to it, detracting somewhat from the lovely 35mm film camera it's attached to, although in fairness, this is a more slimline version that last time around. 

I’m also unsure of the concept altogether. Do I need to make digital photos directly with my old film camera? I think if I’m going to dust off my analog camera, I'd want go all in and shoot onto film, and enjoy my old-school kit the old-school way, with the delayed gratification of seeing my pictures later down the line – the good and the bad. I don't really want to digitize my analog camera at the capture stage. Developing and digitally scanning the film later on still works for me (except that film rolls and developing costs have skyrocketed).

I'm Back Film 2023 attached to an Olympus SLR camera in photographer's hands

(Image credit: I'm Back)

Somehow it doesn't feel like I'm Back celebrates analog cameras so much as it hardwires their soul onto a digital file. If I really want the analog-type experience with a digital output, then retro mirrorless cameras that perform on another level, like the new Nikon Zf, feel a better if costlier bet. I'm still curious to give I’m Back a spin, though; who knows, the concept might work like a charm, and handle beautifully for film photography lovers. 

And part of I'm Back's appeal is that it's not permanent – the attachments are easily removed, so you can switch between actual film rolls and the digital film roll in a matter of one or two minutes. I'm still in two minds; I want to love I'm Back, but right now the feeling isn't quite there.

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Timothy Coleman
Cameras editor

Tim is the Cameras editor at TechRadar. He has enjoyed more than 15 years in the photo video industry with most of those in the world of tech journalism. During his time as Deputy Technical Editor with Amateur Photographer, as a freelancer and consequently editor at Tech Radar, Tim has developed a deeply technical knowledge and practical experience with cameras, educating others through news, reviews and features. He’s also worked in video production for Studio 44 with clients including Canon, and volunteers his spare time to consult a non-profit, diverse stories team based in Nairobi. Tim is curious, a keen creative, avid footballer and runner, and moderate flat white drinker who has lived in Kenya and believes we have much to enjoy and learn from each other.