I was approached by Adam Ferriss, a Los Angeles based artist (check out his tumblr!), about some tips and tricks for circuit bending digital cameras. His work with algorithmic image processing produces images that bear a striking resemblance to those produced by my prepared digital cameras. The photography lab he runs at a college in LA was downsizing their inventory and getting rid of some antiquated FujiFilm FinePix s9000 cameras, and rather than throw them out, Adam decided to hang on to the lot and experiment with circuit bending them.
These things are beasts: fixed zoom point and shoot cameras with the look and feel of a DLSR but without any of the manual controls and flexibility. No wonder they were getting rid of these things!
In exchange for a couple of the less functional cameras, I agreed to help Adam by documenting my deconstruction process. Bonus for you since, now I’m publishing the documentation for public consumption.
Disclaimer: If you’re going to attempt to prepare/modify/circuit bend/disassemble any electronic device, be aware that you are placing yourself at risk of serious injury or death from electric shock; electronic devices may be irreversibly damaged or destroyed (for what it’s worth, it goes without saying that all warranties will be void); if any loss of property or injury occurs, it will be solely your responsibility.
Before opening up the camera, there are a few items we need to have on hand.
- Precision Screwdrivers
- Spare batteries or external power supply (the s9000 uses a 5V supply or 4x AA batteries)
- A bag or containers to place screws and other bits in
- A note book and camera for documenting
- Anti-static wrist band
You’ll also need to do the following to prepare your camera.
- Remove batteries
- Remove the memory card(s)
- Put on and ground the anti static wristband
Now we can begin.
Removing the Screws:
Remove all exterior screws. Like all devices, there are screws in places you wouldn’t think to look. Start with the bottoms, then move to the sides, open all compartments and look for those hidden ones.
Once these are out of the way, you should be able to remove the assembly with the shutter release button and the power and other operation mode switches. Be careful not to pull too hard, like I did, and pull the ribbon connector out of its socket. Fortunately, mine didn’t tear, but you may not be so lucky!
There are still a few screws to be removed before you can open the back panel of the camera. Both of these were revealed by removing the shutter release assembly. One is right next to the strap loop, and the other is just below the flash assembly.
With these two screws out of the way, you should be able to gently coax the back panel off until you encounter some resistance from a couple of pairs of wires. The red and black wires running from the hot shoe attach to a board on the main body via a connector. There’s a speaker on two black wires that attaches to another part of the circuit board via a similar connector. Disconnect these two and the back panel should open like an oven door.
Now that we’ve partially disassembled the camera, and exposed some nice looking innards, we need to figure out if it still works. You can either use the AA batteries or a 5V power supply with a 4.0mm x 1.7mm connector. I used to do a lot of testing for Voltaic Systems and have one of their solar rechargeable V60 batteries around for powering my small electronics projects. Make sure that the main ribbon connectors from the back panel and the shutter release assembly are in place (the speaker and hot shoe wires don’t matter), then power up your camera and turn it on. (hint: check that the battery and memory card doors are closed!)
What’s Inside: Poking About
Now that we have the camera partially disassembled and still working, we can have a look at some of the components inside to see where a good place to start bending would be. Upon first glance, you’ll notice that all the parts are SUPER tiny smd. This is quite a let down, but exactly what you can expect with more contemporary devices. In fact, if you’re opening up cameras released today, you’ll probably find that most all the connections on the integrated circuits are actually underneath the chips and not via pins as with older style ICs!
So what can we mess with? There’s an Analog Devices chip (AD9996) that I can’t seem to locate the datasheet for. There’s something similar to it, the AD9995, which is a 12-bit CCD signal processor. You’ll notice too that there’s a thick connector with lots of contacts. This is the CCD connection (go figure it’s so close to the signal processor).
I actually went a few steps further in deconstructing this camera and found that further disassembling made the system unstable. So, for now, you shouldn’t have to take the camera apart any further to tweek its brains.
How do I mess with it?
Since the pins and connections on this board are so tiny, I am hesitant to solder anything to it. One technique I always go to first is using a saliva moistened finger to poke the sensitive parts and see if anything happens. For capturing, you have two choices: movie or still. You can set the quality settings however you like. If you haven’t already inserted a memory card, now would be a good time.
Other strategies for altering the image is to use a small probe to short circuit adjacent pins on the CCD connector. I found that the right hand side of the connector worked best, and that the series of little smd ICs to the left of the AD9996 gave similar results. When I get in there with a soldering iron to draw out some of those points, I’ll be starting with the ICs and using very fine magnet wire.
So here are a few preliminary images.
I’ll be sharing more of my findings on my year-long glitch-a-day project,Year of the Glitch.
Just uploaded 100+ new images to the DCP Series. This series is still well underway and is branching out into other cameras. Updates to the Olympus PIC series will be ready soon.
Be sure to check out the new additions to the Glitch Textiles project as well. There are currently nine blankets in the collection so far, each featuring a pattern woven directly from an image generated with the prepared cameras of the DCP Series and Year of the Glitch project.
Plus, three new blankets just arrived! The images DCP 02802 and DCP 02803 are from Year of the Glitch post #66 from March 7th. The third was created from an image made with a prepared Olympus C-840L digital camera, a gift from artist notendo (Jeff Donaldson).
Images and information about three cameras used in recent Year of the Glitch posts and the DCP Series are now public. The Kodak DC280, DC215, and DC200/210, have played a key role in my exploration of hardware and software based image generation/corruption. In the near future, these pages will be updated with more detailed information about specific techniques and circuits involved in creating the variety of images found in both the YOTG project and DCP Series.
Kodak DC 280
Kodak DC 200/210
Kodak DC 215
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From a prepared Kodak DC215 1 megapixel digital camera.
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From a prepared Kodak DC215 1 megapixel digital camera.
Meditations on chemical and digital photographic processes
In non-digital photography—the “capture” of images through exposure—a moment in time is sublimated into a successive process of chemical mediations. These translations are obscured in the resulting photographic image except to the skilled who can recognize certain chemical techniques for enhancement or manipulation. The deception of the photographic image lies in the obfuscation of technique—texture is an illusion resulting from light playing off surfaces or through objects. In painting, the technique, because it always produces a certain texture, becomes integral to the perception of the work and its content. Perhaps it is because painting must transcend or reconcile with its deception, and that it is not simply an image, that distinguishes it from photographic image making—the subject or referent is simulated through the illusion of light created through the application of paint on a surface, where in photography it is a photo-chemical impression upon physical material, a literal play of light upon surfaces. The digital images from the DCP Series complicate this issue of texture and technique. They exhibit a richness in detail, where the technique of manipulating the electronics of the camera asserts itself as simulated texture within the image, not in such a way as to reclaim that domain of texture occupied by painting but to draw attention to the fact that it—the digital image itself—is almost pure simulation, that there are many imperceptible layers of mediation involved in the production of the digital image which remove it from its referent.
The referent in the DCP Series images is the process of digital photography revealed through intervening with the physical hardware during image capture. Here the illusion of texture arises from the play of data through algorithms; light, and therefore exposure, is amputated from the digital photographic process. Where the mediations separating the real from the simulated within non-digital photography involve photo-chemical transformations of materials via exposure and development, the mediations involved in the creation of the digital images in the DCP Series involve complicated algorithms which are made visible through the intervention of wires intersecting processes by connecting points on the circuit boards which were never intended to meet. Though the specifics of the tools and methods involved in both practices are radically different, because digital photography evolved from non-digital photography, there exists not only an overlap but a discontinuity between the two. By scrutinizing work produced at the limits of each practice, and attempting to locate the essence of one within the other, the possibility of creating new forms arises.
Locating the analog of the physical process of manipulating the circuits of digital cameras in the photographic process poses an interesting set of problems. That the image of film based photography exists in a physical domain and the image of the digital era exists as a data set corresponding to the charges stored in vast arrays of microscopic capacitors already complicates any attempt to unite the domains of digital and photo-chemical image making. The translation of light to a data set makes the digital camera an all in one image making machine; you don’t need to have a photo lab to produce images. Data acquisition and storage; data read back and software interpretation of data; and output to the monitor replace the processes of exposing and developing film and then exposing and developing photographic paper. Algorithms and silicon replace film, paper and chemical baths.
Parallels to the process of intervening in the electronics of the camera can be found in chemically processing unexposed film. Created completely in the darkroom through the application of different chemicals directly on the film emulsion, the resulting images circumvent the need to expose film to light. This raises the question of whether a photographic image requires the exposure of film at all, or whether its development takes precedence in the creation of photographic images.
Man Ray’s photograms alter our perception of the processes that define photography by discarding not only film, but the lens and the camera altogether. By inserting physical objects between light and photographic paper to create images, the mechanism of the camera—the voyeur’s perspective onto the world—is circumvented. In the digital domain, instead of adding objects to photographic paper, the addition of objects to the circuitry—alligator clips and wires—circumvents the cameras inherent image capturing capabilities. However, because the process of modifying the cameras used in the DCP Series overrides the process of exposure, the Rayogram still falls short as a suitable analogy with which to locate the resultant digital images within the context of traditional photography.
Is it still possible to have a photograph without any of the mediums being exposed to light?
If images produced by developing unexposed, but chemically manipulated positive film or photographic paper (chemigram) can still fall under the umbrella of photography, then we have shifted the emphasis of photography from the subject, light, and exposure, to the chemical process of development which may not even involve light (except in the mediation of the electromagnetic forces responsible for chemical reactions). To develop a single frame of unexposed (positive) film and/or an unexposed sheet of photographic paper would exemplify this process. The question is now: where can we locate the notion of development within the practice of digital photography?
Inside the prepared digital camera, the element typically exposed to light in the production of an image, the CCD, is bypassed and the electronics responsible for interpreting its signals and writing them to a digital storage medium are manipulated to produce the image. The process of data acquisition, processing and storage is akin to exposing film to light, and developing its negative. When the data is read back, it is interpreted by decompression algorithms and presented on a screen. With this software, the data set that describes the image can be manipulated using any number of mathematical operations. This whole process of generating data and interpreting it as an image could of course be emulated within software, but the result would involve neither the mechanisms of exposure nor development in any traditional sense and thus the result could not be considered photographic. Digital images produced within the camera occupy this interstitial zone between photography and algorithmically generated imagery, because the tools involved are designed to focus light, expose a surface and record the resulting data. Perhaps by circumventing the process of exposure, the images produced by these prepared cameras cannot be considered photographic in any traditional sense.
It is still tempting to identify the process of creating these images with photography. The shutter release is still involved; however, the act of initiating an exposure is abstracted, initiating a Rube Goldbergesque chain of pre-programmed instructions, where photons generate electrical signals which are quantized and stored as data points. After the intervening processes employed in the production of the DCP Series, the digital camera thinks it’s taking an exposure but the paths from the CCD to the recording device have been severely compromised. By bypassing the CCD electronics, we intercept the digital processes of “development”—analog to digital conversion, compression algorithms, etc.— and dump our redirected electrons onto what would in film photography been the exposed and developed negative: the flash memory card. It’s like taking a picture with the shutter mechanism disabled and afterwards bathing the film in a cocktail of different chemicals; you trigger the mechanics of an exposure but what happens in the treatment of the “film” is what we’re concerned with. You could almost discard the camera altogether, except that in the digital camera the translation of the image from CCD to storage medium—what would otherwise be from film to developed negative and then to photograph paper etc.—is dependent upon the system of components and short-circuits that have no algorithmic equivalent, they escape the type of emulation that would allow us to forget about the physical object altogether.
No doubt, this whole process is, in the end, digital, but perhaps there is hope that it is actually a possibility to contextualize it within the domain of photography and not simply relegate it to the domain of digital image production. It may be that by preparing poloroid cameras so that the film is physically damaged while it is being pulled through the mechanisms, we find the closest parallels to these images in the DCP Series.
As a final note, this whole exercise of attempting locating this work within the tradition of photography is necessary because it is not based in emulation. The act of using a digital camera locates the resulting image within the practice of photography. The question then is if altering the electronics of the camera is a photographic process, does it have a precedent from previous photographic traditions and if so in which specific stage of the whole process can we find the closest similarities? Of course, I’m also interested in how this obscures the definition of photography—whether digital or film-based—and also whether there are other practices that have touched upon this problem of “what is photography?”. So that the traditionalists may understand the images and the process in terms of what they already know, we can refer back to those artists who are chemically manipulating unexposed film and developing the results. Though the analogy is not a perfect match, the form of photography discovered and exploited in the production of the DCP Series is the digital age’s answer to those artists.
Luis Nadeau, Encyclopedia of Printing, Photographic and Photomechanical Processes New Brunswick, NJ (Atelier Luis Nadeau), 1989, and the related website, photoconservation.com
Gordon Baldwin, Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms Los Angeles and London (J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the British Museum Press), 1991