Picking up a film camera exchanges modern performance for aesthetics — but what if film cameras could house modern autofocus systems? MiNT, a company known for rebuilding vintage instant film and new instant film cameras, is developing a 35mm film camera with an autofocus technology too new for even mirrorless cameras. In an update on the MiNT35 camera still under development, founder Gary Ho said that the upcoming camera will use a LiDAR autofocus system.
LiDAR is a tool that measures distance by timing how long it takes light rays to bounce off an object. Like sonar only with light instead of sound, LiDAR quickly measures the distance between an object and the camera. Of course, measuring the distance from the camera to an object is precisely what an autofocus system needs.
LiDAR is a technology that’s too new to exist inside current mirrorless cameras — though there have been several rumors of companies working on such a system, including Panasonic and Sony. LiDAR autofocus does, however, already exist inside some smartphones. The technology arrived on iPhones in 2020, a change that Apple said allowed the iPhone 12 Pro to focus 6x faster in low light.
MiNT first shared that a 35mm camera is under development in September 2022. While the company carries a following for its instant film cameras and remakes, it had not previously worked with the 35mm format.
Building a brand new 35mm film camera in 2023, of course, comes with a long list of challenges —one of them being that MiNT found that the parts for traditional film autofocus systems were no longer available. Instead of scrapping the whole project, the team set out to develop a new autofocus system for the upcoming camera.
“To our surprise and delight, the latest tests revealed that our lidar-based approach outperformed all the outdated methods — a truly thrilling and rewarding outcome after the tremendous effort we invested in making it work,” Ho wrote in the project’s latest update. “The best thing about using lidar is its accuracy and impressive range capabilities. This is particularly useful in large apertures, where the depth-of-field requires precise focusing. Plus, it’s safe to use.”
The use of LiDAR does, however, come with a downside. MiNT says that the LiDar system does come with a higher cost. While few, existing LiDAR systems also offer clues as to other limitations of the technology. DJI, for example, has a LiDAR rangefinder accessory that enables autofocus on manual lenses on the R3 gimbal system. However, the DJI accessory is limited to a 14-meter (45.9 feet) detection range and half that for detecting humans, which limits its use on telephoto lenses. The module also has to be recalibrated for each lens.
The MiNT35 camera, according to earlier updates, will be a compact camera with a fixed lens, which, like its use on the iPhone, should make LiDAR’s calibration and distance limitations non-issues. MiNT hasn’t shared an official launch date for the in-progress camera but noted that the AF module is close to completion.
We’ve reviewed several MiNT cameras over the years. And this has to be one of the most revolutionary things that we’ve seen. Lots of other cameras are using phase detection or contrast detection with refusing to change to more innovative and modern methods. But MiNT doesn’t play by the same rules or politics as the Japanese camera manufacturers. To that end, they can afford to be far more innovative.