Saturday, April 20, 2019

Using Vintage Cameras. Some Tips to Follow.

So, you have acquired a bunch of old film cameras from an estate, an attic, or some basement.  Perhaps you know their history of ownership, or perhaps you are totally clueless when and where they came from and how they were stored, and for how long.   You are curious about using them again.  Before you start, five  main factors have to be addressed when using older cameras that might have been sitting unused for a lengthy period of time.

  1. Shutters
  2. Light-tightness
  3. Batteries (if needed)
  4. Film
  5. Overall condition

The old Kodak ball-bearing shutters seem to
last forever!

1Shutters.  Shutters might be as simple as a sector shutter found on a box camera, or as complex as a focal-plane shutter on a single lens reflex camera.  Any camera that hasn't been used in a long while, especially those with between the lens leaf shutters, may need some TLC to get them working acceptably.  Sometimes all that is needed is to repeatedly fire the shutter at a moderate setting, and work the slower shutter speeds in gradually until the shutter appears to be working appropriately.  On  medium-format folding cameras, you can usually unscrew a front lens element to reach the aperture blades  and the shutter,  and a drop of lighter fluid (Ronsonol) or white naphtha will help get things moving. Remember that old rule -- DON'T FORCE ANYTHING!   Brute force will often render a camera useless.  Look for repair examples online, as many people have encountered the same problems, and there may be a step-by-step repair guide available.  Cameras that have sat unused for many years can't be expected to suddenly be fired up without some hesitation.

 SLRs with focal plane shutters are usually very reliable, but some models that have rubberized silk curtains in the shutter may have problems as they are now getting upwards of 60 years old. I have seen Exaktas with the rubberized curtains in tatters.  In contrast, the focal-plane shutters of 100-year old Graflex large-format SLRs are often just fine.  It all depends on the storage conditions and usage history of the camera. The 35mm SLRs with copal-square shutters are typically less prone to problems over time.  However, if a camera requires batteries for the shutter to function, that provides another avenue of failure. See Number 3.
Cloth focal plane shutter, Asahiflex

This is a lovely Nikon SP rangefinder...

with a hole in the shutter! Caused by leaving it in the sun with
the f/16 aperture allowing the sun to burn hole through it.

Bellows need to be checked on all folding cameras.

2. Light-tightness.  Light-tightness is important, or you'll have light leaks on your film.  Bellows cameras should be examined for pinholes.   Shine an LED light into the bellows area in a dark room and see if you can detect any pinholes. Black electrical tape can cover holes in bellows, but it's only a temporary fix. You can dab some black liquid rubber (sold for coating tool handles) or black fabric paint into the bellows material to fix small pinholes.  While I have never done a bellows replacement, there are people that make replacement bellows for old folding cameras and large format view cameras.  If you like origami, you might try to tackle it yourself, as there are online resources for DIY bellows.

Cameras with foam in the seals should be checked and the foam replaced if it has hardened or turned into a gummy mess! You can buy adhesive-backed felt or black foam at craft stores, and the thinner the material the better.  Black electrical tape can cover gaps in the back of a camera, but avoid it if possible. Black gaffer's tape is preferable, as it does not leave a sticky residue.  Light seal material for the backs of cameras can easily be made from adhesive backed black felt or thin black foam from the craft store.  Some old cameras merely need a strip of black yarn in a groove. Remove old gummy foam with lighter fluid on the end of a cotton swab and a toothpick, scraping the material away.   Make sure you cover the shutter or lens with a small piece of cardboard taped over the film gate while the back of the camera is open. You don't want residue or tools in there.

3. Batteries. Batteries are often the culprit in preventing the use of some older cameras.  Many cameras from the 60s and 70s used mercury cells, which are no longer sold.  The PX-625, for example, was used in many 35mm cameras and light meters,  and supplied a constant 1.35v.   The modern replacement is a PX-625A or LR-9.  Using modern-day cells provide 1.5 volts, which in many cameras, will give inaccurate meter readings.  PX-27 cells delivered 5.6 V, and the modern replacement is a PX-27A or 4LR43, which delivers 6v. With color print or b&w film, you can usually be “close enough” in your exposure that the voltage difference is not significant. You can use the zinc-air hearing aid batteries to use the camera meters, or, better yet, if the camera is going to be used a lot, C.R.I.S. (online) sells an adapter that allows the use of silver batteries.  Their MR-9 adapter might seem pricey, but if you buy one, you can really extend the life of these older, fine cameras.  It also pays to buy the LR-44 1.5v cells online in bulk.  There are other oddball battery types from the past that have no current alkaline or lithium equivalent.   You may have to clean battery contacts that have become oxidized or corroded.  A pencil eraser may not be enough to clean the contacts.  A swab dipped in vinegar and rubbed on the contacts will loosen the crud.  Wipe off the vinegar with another swab and clean with isopropyl alcohol.
With the X-700 and related models, a dead capacitor will incapacitate
the camera, even with new batteries.

A film haul from 2007. I wish I had saved the Minolta 16 film!

4. Film.  35mm film isn't a problem, but many old cameras use sizes no longer being manufactured - 828, 116, 620, 616, 126 etc.  You can sometimes use 120 in 620 roll-film cameras, as the films are the same size, only the spools are slightly different.  How you do it depends on the camera.  Most people re-spool 120 onto 620 spools, and some cameras allow 120 spools in the supply chamber, but 620 for the take-up spool.   120 film is easily purchased at a real camera store or online, and 620 (respooled) can be found at the Film Photography Project online store.  The FPP Store also sells the Camerahack adapters for roll-film cameras, allowing you to use 120 in a 122 film camera,  35mm in a 126 cartridge, etc.  There are no manufacturers currently making 126 film, 127 film, APS film, or Kodak Disc film.  Lomography and the FPP Store are currently selling 110 film, so there is a mini-resurgence in 110 shooting.  If you are relegated to shooting old, outdated film in your camera, remember that most films lose a stop of effective sensitivity every decade.  So, that roll of 400 ISO Kodak Max from 2009 is now rated at ISO 200. Black and white slow to moderate speed films age far better.  I have shot 40 year old Verichrome Pan in box cameras with good results.  Panatomic-X that expired in the 1980s works great now at ISO 25. However,  high-speed color films do not fare as well.

Typical Graflex RB - it may work fine, but look for one that
takes currently available film sizes!

Polaroid Cameras - at this point I will suggest to only obtain Polaroid 600-series and Time-Zero series (as in the SX-70) cameras.  Any old pre-packfilm cameras are going to be doorstops, and now that Fuji is no longer making the pack film, cameras such as the Polaroid Land 100 and up are not going to be usable. Kodak Instant cameras (not Instamatic) have been filmless for over 20 years. Polaroid Swingers are objects of curiosity, and not usable.  Cameras such as the Polaroid 80A are not usable.

5. Overall condition
. I have had hundreds of old cameras pass through my hands over the years. It's always unfortunate to see an example of some rare camera beset with grime and crud, mold, cigarette smoke, or rust.  Sometimes it may just need a good exterior cleaning.  However, a camera with lots of dents, mold, and oxidation may indicate that it not worth your time.  It might have been rescued from a lake, a flooded basement, or maybe it was carried off by a tornado.

Other potential problems are fungus growing on lenses, corroded battery contacts, mildew on the camera leather, and of course, user unfamiliarity with a camera.  Sometimes not knowing how something works will leave you feeling like it's broken, but in reality, you may just need to know more about the camera.  Mike Butkus has manuals available online and they can be a great help!  Google is also your friend when it comes to these things.  Don't be afraid to search for help that way -- you'll be surprised at how many sources of information are out there.

This Ermanox was a rare find and cleaned up well

Exterior cleaning -- I use a soft rag with isopropyl alcohol to clean the exterior.  Large cotton-tipped swabs are also useful for hard to reach spots, such as around knobs and dials.  Tape residue or other gooey substances can be removed with "Goof-Off".  An old soft toothbrush is useful for "scrubbing" the leatherette.  For mold on the camera body or on the lens, vinegar or windex can be used to clean the surface.  Old dirty Bakelite can be scrubbed with a paste of baking soda and a soft toothbrush, and rinsed off with water. For old cameras with real leather on the body or with leather cases, you can use Lexol, a leather cleaning solution easily found in the hardware store.  Rub it in with a soft cloth in an inconspicuous spot first to see how it affects the item you are cleaning.

Lastly -- sometimes a camera is just plain broken and not worth fixing, or perhaps it's no longer usable because the film isn't available.  Many old metal-bodied Polaroid cameras fall into the latter category. The classic and even not-so-classic cameras are sometimes art objects on their own, and can be used to decorate, or to create something useful from them.  I have seen Kodak Brownies with their flash units turned into night lights.  The distinctive appearance of old film cameras are something that today's look-alike digital models just don't have.

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