7.20.2018

Digitalesque: The Kodak Advantix Preview

It's 2018 - Picture your typical consumer taking snapshot photos today on both their every day outings and special moments. In the vast majority of cases, their tool of choice is a smartphone, and the typical post-photo tendency is often to look at the screen of the phone to see how the image came out, should it need to be taken again.

Now let's dial the clock back a bit shall we?  Nine years to be exact to 2009.  The Smartphone is certainly present, but its still largely in its infancy, while the more common flip phones are often used for taking rudimentary digital snap shots in a pinch.  However, a more established tool of choice is the digital consumer camera, often offering up a healthy zoom and an inflated megapixel count.  These are typically the tag along of many a consumer who wants to be able to take photos that may be worthy of printing.  And, just as today, the typical post-photo tendency is often to look at the screen on the back of the camera to see how the image came out, should it need to be taken again.

Now let's dial the clock back just ONE more time. Going back another nine years brings us to the year 2000. The consumer smartphone is little more than a dream in its designer's mind, while the digital consumer camera prevalent in 2009 is largely in its own infancy, with 2 or 3 megapixel sensors offering up paltry image quality hardly suitable for keepsake printing or enlarging.  In this era, just 18 years removed from our present landscape, film is still king, offered readily across a range of retail outlets. Minilabs are found in nearly every shopping center and general big box store, and the majority of the photos taken by your every day consumers are done on a variety of compact film cameras.

However, unlike 2009 and 2018, the typical post-photo tendency is NOT to look at the screen on the back of the camera to see how the image came out since no such screen existed, leaving the consumer to wait until the film was developed to see how an image came out.

But for one very odd exception...


From the front, the Advantix Preview looks largely in line with many similar compact cameras of the era, offering a modest zoom on a rather slow lens primarily for taking snapshots. 

Released in the year 2000, the Kodak Advantix Preview can be described as many things: a digital camera that wasn't, a bizarre bridge of two worlds, or a poorly executed hybrid concept for which demand never really existed.  For a handful of us film-happy dreamers, it can be considered as a foundation for a future which could have conceivably existed, but which never came to be.


In short, it is a APS format film camera that offers a "preview" glimpse of the last image taken by way of a small LCD screen, and allows the user to designate at the time how many prints of this image should be printed.  Do 4 people want a copy of that last group shot?  Okay, lets choose to print this one four times.  Did Uncle Arnold blink at the wrong time in that first try?  Okay, lets choose not to print that one, and try another shot!

The concept has some merit, but also poses some perils as well.  It works in reverse to a camera like the Fuji Instax Square that captures a digital image and allows the user to elect to print it to the Instax film medium.  In the case of the Instax, if you don't like the photo, you can simply erase it and try again.  In the case of the Advantix Preview, the image is captured to film regardless. You are only making the call on whether the negative created makes it to print, and if so, electing a quantity.

There is also no removable media upon which the "digital" image is recorded at all, with the non-film image being routed separately through the viewfinder using a half-silvered mirror. Some opine that the image visible on the screen of the Advantix Preview is really not digital at all in the sense that we know it, and is simply a display of sort of buffer, something akin to the LCD viewfinder image one sees on an older camcorder.  Regardless of how the "magic" of this camera is fully accomplished, the last image taken is always the only one available to view.  And it seems the last image taken on a roll is rewound before any option exists to preview it at all.  From a technical standpoint, this makes some sense since the quantity aspect was to be recorded on a magnetic strip on the film itself.



From the back however, the Advantix Preview looks far more like a typical early digital camera, particularly given the APS camera's bottom loading film door.  You could perhaps call this the Harvey Dent of cameras. 

As a result, the usage as intended winds up being limited for the very consumers for whom it was intended. Should you suddenly remember that Grandma wanted a couple extra photos of her grandbaby with the dog like that shot you took 4 frames ago, you will have to wait for later and order separate reprints.  Should there be some sudden drama between your son and his prom date a few days later, you can't cancel the 8 prints you ordered from that front porch photo when all was still bliss.


With all of the limited discussion of the Advantix Preview largely focused upon its unusual usage and hybrid features, the actual features of the Kodak Advantix preview as a film camera are often overlooked.  Specification wise, the Advantix preview is pretty typical of mid-grade consumer film cameras of the time. It sports a 25-65mm lens that opens only to f/4.3 on the short end and a dismal f/10.4 on the longer end of the focal range. Shutter speeds, automatically selected, range from 1/2 second to 1/400, and minimum focusing distance is about 2 feet.  The interface outside of the preview aspect is fairly typical of the genre, with the camera defaulting to an auto-flash mode, and allowing limited controls to flash and photo settings.  I generally stuck with the spot focus mode with flash forced off for most of my trial roll.


But otherwise, the Preview is very atypical from the typical point and shoot of the era with the preview function that admittedly is something of a post-view.  In today's world where everyday photos are so often shared via text messages and social media, it can be a bit tough to immediately recollect just what the world of 18 years ago was like, which honestly makes a camera like the Advantix Preview a bit of an enigma in today's context.  But search your now distant memories and review the above timeline, and you may be able to see where Kodak was trying to go with this, in trying to maximize the advantage of the new APS format, and deliver a photo taking experience for film shooting consumers that would be appreciated in a way that other mediums weren't able to offer. 


The APS format was only about 4 years old at the time, and was still the topic of a marketing blitz by camera and film manufacturers.  Meanwhile, digital photography was making its first encroachment on the consumer market.  With Kodak standing much to lose from their very recent investment in the new format from the inroads of digital imaging, the Advantix Preview could be touted as a way to try to offer some advantage to film, given that few at the time expected the digital mediums to make the inroads they would in such a rapid fashion, sharply reducing consumer film usage, and finally decimating APS as an active film format. 


As a collector's item, the Advantix Preview hardly equates with such classics like an original Kodak Brownie or first generation Polaroid SX-70 as an item that ultimately wound up launching a vast new world of photography.  Rather, it feels like an dead-end outlier of sorts, comparable to photographic deviants like the Traid Fotron and the Fotochrome.  Yet unlike these oddballs, it is still quite easy to pick up an Advantix Preview and fire off a roll or two of still pretty plentiful APS film. 


And photographically, the Advantix Preview surprised me in that it performed better than I expected.  Though its images never elicited much in a way of a wow factor with me, this camera still managed to deliver shot after shot, focusing just as hoped in some tricky situations, and reliably letting me know if it couldn't handle the close focusing distances presented before it as I strove to push it beyond its boundaries.  Negatives from the camera that were home developed looked sharp and well exposed, even on stale Kodak Advantix 200 film.


In presenting these photos, I tried where possible to record as many of the "previews" as I could on a mobile phone camera (the irony!) before it was overwritten by the next shot, to offer some sort of comparison between the pseudo-digital results and the actual images committed to film.  In most cases, the exposure recording of the on-screen version of the images falls remarkably close to the image "written" to film. 



First shot taken on the Advantix Preview and we are off to a great start, even if my developing method caused a light leak on this frame only. 


With a measurably smaller negative size than 35mm, and a particularly slow lens, most shots taken on the Advantix Preview will not have especially shallow depth of field.  Despite a bit of blur to the backdrop, it is still pretty close to being in focus as well.


A somewhat closer subject distance on the near part of the waterfall still renders the distance with only a bit of blur. 


In addition to the preview image visible on the LCD screen, one of three icons will be shaded in green to denote the general focusing distance.  Here, a focusing distance of about 8-10 feet can be interpolated.  The camera itself did just this, as desired with this scene as well, and the final film image is pretty faithful to that shown on the screen.






A near focus shot, as depicted by the icon admittedly looks a bit blurred on the screen, but in reality is quite sharp.  I have to wonder how many close focused shots may have never made it to print from being rejected based upon the preview on the LCD.




With little in the way of exposure tools and a slow lens, this shot was a gamble that almost paid off.  Considering the specs, it actually came out better than expected.




One of the few examples I've seen in my years of photography where my haste may have led to a telling confirmation.  Quickly snapping a photo from roadside of the flowers a few feet away, I missed that the camera lens was a bit obscured by the blurry weeds in the near view.  Comparing the film and screen versions, I note that this obstruction is in different places in the frame, thus validating that the screen version is recorded through the viewfinder.




For a second time, the LCD's rendition seems a bit fuzzy compared to the film version.  Also interesting is how the highlights tend to wash out on the LCD but look natural on film.




A third and final confirmation of some discrepancy between focus on film and "digital" versions.  On the LCD, the leaves near top right appear to be in focus, while the film version fortunately has the near flowers in proper focus, and those same leaves are indistinct. 





My only bit of playing with the flash was this shot.  Interestingly, the red laser image that was the fixation of the two cats, while barely discernible on the film scan appears to vanish on the LCD version. 




Sunny landscapes appear quite similar between versions.  Note how the APS frame includes more image area than that of the LCD preview. 






Shadow details, while often limited in the film rendition are often mired in darkness on the screen version.  The film certainly shows a better dynamic range. 




Grain on the APS film was most evident in shots with large expanses of fairly even color, leaving a rather ruddy appearance. 


Once you learn to trust the focus confirmation light that your closely focused subject is good, you become less concerned with the sometimes fuzzy rendering of the LCD.



The last shot, which I was no able to to compare to the screen.  Generally a very good result on the small negative. 

With a still attainable price tag, a novel and unorthodox interface among film cameras, and the availability of expired APS film still pretty plentiful on a certain auction site, I certainly wouldn't say that a Kodak Advantix Preview is the worst way to spend one's disposable income. It quite plainly has no equal out there, and may one day become a prized and rare collectible in much the same way as surviving examples other electronics of the last 40 years that were dumped en masse.

Or perhaps one day, a famous young celebrity will discover this camera and appear on video promoting how much they love taking film photos on it, causing its value to skyrocket and leading to surge in demand, and causing the APS film lines to fire back up to accommodate the surge in demand.

Regardless, the years that have followed since the introduction of the Advantix Preview have occasionally seen a host of ideas, some sincere, others more prank-like in nature that manage to marry digital and film into a single consumer market platform through the use of special inserts or backs to allow use of either medium.  And while these concepts have largely quelled in recent years, to date, the Kodak Advantix Preview has been the closest concept to simultaneously yielding a film and digital type image from the same photograph in a consumer based camera.

It is certainly an interesting PREVIEW into what could have been.

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