Film Camera Maintenance
June 21, 2014 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I start a darkroom class next week, and want to get my cameras up to snuff before then. They haven't been used in decades, and have been sitting in a pile in a bag on a dusty shelf in the meantime. The models are: two Minolta SRT101s (likely from the 1970s), one Mamiya MSX1000 (also likely from the 1970s), and one Franke & Heidecke Braunshweig Compur-Rapid Heidoscop-Anastigmat 1:2.8 (likely from the 1950s, though not sure).

I would prefer to be able to clean them, do any maintenance or repairs, purchase any replacement parts or accessories necessary, and get them into reasonable working order before experimenting much with taking pictures with them (for scheduling reasons and to minimize frustration).

What does checking, cleaning, repairing, maintaining, equipping, and using these cameras involve? Can you give me any background on these cameras (in terms of their reputation, uses, etc)? As you can probably tell from my questions and descriptions, I'm a photography novice! I do, however, want to do as much of this work myself as possible.
posted by rue72 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
One thing to consider with old film cameras is that the black foam around the back film closure may have deteriorated over time and might not provide a good light seal. You can tell if the foam is gummy and not springing back. One way to test this would be to have a piece of unexposed film in it and to bring the camera into direct sunlight, and then to develop the film. It's a pretty easy diy fix; there are many kits and adhesive-backed foam pieces for sale on eBay.

Also, look up lens fungus, and check your lenses.
posted by suedehead at 10:50 AM on June 21, 2014

They might not need ANY maintenance - as long as you're aware that the shutter speeds are likely to run SLOW (giving MORE exposure than calculated). Check the seals to make sure they're still light-tight, watch the shutters run to see that they seem to be in the ballpark of the nominal times and you might be good to go.

If you DO have troubles, well, 35mm film cameras are so cheap now that that it might be easier to find a $10 charity-shop camera that works than to spend the time and effort to try to tune up an existing camera.

(PS: As it happens, there are good databases around that make the (Franke & Heidecke) Rollei trivially easy to date:
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 11:06 AM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I understand (and share) your desire to do it yourself, but camera maintenance isn't something you can learn in the week before your course starts. You can easily damage parts that can be difficult to replace, ruin film, etc. I'd inspect the foam as suedehead mentions, choose the body with the best sealing/least deterioration, and use that while you send off your others to CLA. MeMail me if you want recommendations— it might be around $50-100 per body.

One thing you will almost certainly need is new batteries in the Minoltas, but they use a 1.35v #625 mercury cell. The current alkaline 625s are 1.5v and will throw off the meter. Use a zinc-air replacement like this instead.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:10 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

As much as it sucks/seems counterintuitive, if cost is at at all an issue you might be ahead buying a fairly recent film camera instead of dealing with this. Like a canon rebel(yep, they make film ones), or a nikon NX or f4/f5.

These are often REALLY RIDICULOUS CHEAP used. I got a canon EOS 850 with the old, higher quality metal mount 50mm lens for... $14 at a thrift store.

Every one of those cameras will need a CLA if you want it to work reliably. The mirrors can shatter from the foam around them deteriorating. Bits of foam can fly off and jam things up/slow them down. The solidified grease on things can cause stuff like the shutter unevenly sticking as it closes and always taking 2 seconds to completely close.

My SRT101 still works pretty much perfectly, but i have no idea for how long. My pentax k1000 and other cameras about that age are midway through some proper foam disintegration and such though. And i'm suspicious about the minolta leaking light from the viewfinder, in around the mirror...

That said, you could do what i do and have a camera that's new enough that you know basically 100% for sure it's going to work perfectly, and then a few other cameras just for screwing around. I have a big pile of old film cameras i only use the cheapest drugstore film with.

I also echo others in don't bother trying to lube and adjust them yourself. That's hard. Like working on watches. Either pay someone to do it, or accept them as they are.
posted by emptythought at 12:32 PM on June 21, 2014

Yeah, emptythought has a good point -- although some old cameras in good condition can work surprisingly well.

Essentially, you want to make sure that the meter is right, that the shutter speed is accurate, that there are no light leaks, that (in the SLRs) the mirror swings out of the way correctly. You want to check the cloth shutters to make sure that there are no holes burnt in it (that's pretty rare, though). You want to shoot it at multiple shutter speeds and make sure that the shutter speeds sound different - maybe even (carefully) with the film back open, so you can see the cloth shutter in action. You might want to test out the meter with fresh batteries and compare it against another camera's meter - is it showing the right EV value? Ideally you'd take a series of photos with a given aperture and shutter speed and compare it against a camera with an accurate shutter speed. Is the viewfinder clear and clean? Is the split-focusing ring working well? etc.

Other than that, a camera body is a pretty simple light-sealed box; When you press the shutter, the mirror swings up, the cloth shutter opens, the cloth shutter closes, the mirror swings down.
posted by suedehead at 1:55 PM on June 21, 2014

You can get the Minolta-SRT101 service manual here.

But really, I would inspect all the seals, clean out the dust, and make sure the shutter fires and the film advance works, and run a roll of film through before trying any DIY maintenance or having a CLA done. If I were you, I'd spend the time shooting first to figure out what your favorite camera is, and then spring for either a newer body or a CLA if there are any issues.

I have a bunch of film cameras, ranging from a couple of cheap (less than $100) Canonets to a Hasselblad--the Hasselblad I will absolutely send to a professional for maintenance, but when I've had issues with my Canonet, I'll try to fix it myself.

I'm kind of echoing emptythought here, but you might want to consider buying an inexpensive film body that you know works properly to start. Trying to learn the basics of exposure on a camera that might not have precise shutter timing, for example, would be difficult.

Another issue is that the light meters might not be working or inaccurate, and I don't think the Rollei has a meter in it, does it? You could easily spend over $100 on a used handheld incident light meter.
posted by inertia at 10:28 AM on June 23, 2014

Thanks everyone, for the suggestions on how to check the cameras for basic/common problems.

If I buy a film camera for this class and as a starter-camera for learning photography, what kinds of cameras should I look for, where should I look for them, and what kind of budget should I be looking at? I looked up the ones that emptythought recommended at a couple of stores online (thanks for the recs), but there was a huge range in price and there were so many model years that I wasn't really sure how to narrow things down?

I'm confused at the idea of buying a used film camera, because won't that camera be as likely to have problems (and the same problems) as the ones I already have?
posted by rue72 at 10:49 AM on June 23, 2014

I'm confused at the idea of buying a used film camera, because won't that camera be as likely to have problems (and the same problems) as the ones I already have?

Sometimes old used film cameras work perfectly fine, but sometimes it's much cheaper to just replace an inexpensive old film camera with one that's functional.

It's a little hard to recommend a camera without knowing what type of camera you are interested in and what size film you want to be shooting. You could buy a used camera from a place like, with a six-month warranty. For example if you want a 35mm SLR, a Canon AE1 would set you back $65 + a 50mm lens for $47.

I like my Canonet because it was a super cheap way for me to see if I liked shooting with a rangefinder.
posted by inertia at 9:26 AM on June 24, 2014

It's a little hard to recommend a camera without knowing what type of camera you are interested in and what size film you want to be shooting.

Oh, sorry, forgot to include that -- I have been thinking 35mm, and a film SLR with manual focus. For the class, I'm going to be shooting both B&W and color, but my focus right now is on B&W, and I'm hoping to eventually learn hand-tinting.

What I most want to photograph are models/diorama/miniatures that I build, and inside fish tanks. However, I assume that both of those kinds of photography are probably too advanced for me at the moment; they're likely to require me to know more about lenses than I do, I think? For now, I'm mostly aiming to have a functional camera that I can depend on and grow with.

Too bad, though, that it turns out that I don't get to take these other cameras apart and put them back together again (while feeling productive and like I wasn't just needlessly destroying cameras). Was really looking forward to that!
posted by rue72 at 9:53 AM on June 24, 2014

I would definitely check out the Canon AE1 then, they're inexpensive and the lenses (Canon FD mount) are inexpensive and easy to find. For photographing miniatures, you could look into a macro lens, like this one: for $72.

There's nothing wrong with the Canon Rebel series, if that's how you want to go. They take the newer EOS mount lenses which are more expensive, and have lots of bells and whistles like different automated shooting modes and autofocus, which it sounds like you aren't interested in. Personally, I found the Rebel to be cumbersome when trying to shoot in manual mode, so that's something to keep in mind.

By the way, I am not saying Canon is the best and only brand of camera out there, it's just the brand I have the most experience with.

You might be interested to experiment with pinhole cameras, you could definitely build your own and take it apart and tinker with it.

Anyway, hope this helps!
posted by inertia at 10:23 AM on June 24, 2014

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