Photography

Go ahead and use alkaline or silver-oxide batteries in your old film cameras that were designed for mercury batteries

If the battery fits, I use it. That’s my rule of thumb with my film cameras.

It is now, anyway. When I started collecting cameras again ten years ago I used to get wrapped around the pole over getting the battery just right. I’d read the warnings all over the Internet: you’ll get good exposures only when you use a battery with the voltage the camera expects.

Many old cameras were designed to take mercury cells for the steady voltages they held right up until the day they lost charge. But mercury cells were banned thirty years ago. Alkaline and silver-oxide cells are often available in the same sizes, but they have higher voltages. And in alkaline cells the voltage drops steadily under use. All of this is said to throw the camera’s exposures off a little.

At first, my solution was to buy Wein cell zinc-air batteries. They deliver a steady 1.35 volts, the voltage a lot of old cameras expect. Unfortunately, they last only a few months, where alkaline and silver-oxide cells can last years. And Wein cells cost more.

A couple times when I couldn’t get a battery of the right size, such as for my Yashica Electro 35 GSN, I bought a device that adapts an available battery. Such adapters sometimes even contain “bridge” circuitry to deliver the voltage the camera expects. But adapters can be pricey.

px625abI soon tired of bleeding cash on batteries. Amazon sells batteries in bulk for good prices, so I bought a bunch of alkaline PX625 and LR44 batteries there. Most of my old cameras take one or the other of these batteries.

I’ve never had a lick of trouble with these batteries. My cameras return good exposures all the time.

Crucially, I almost always shoot negative films, which offer a lot of exposure latitude. Fujicolor 200 is my favorite, and it looks good when underexposed up to one stop or overexposed up to three stops. When I shoot black and white, I reach for Kodak Tri-X a lot, which yields usable results when misexposed by up to three stops in either direction. That’s more than enough to make up for any exposure challenges these batteries’ different voltages create.

Some of my cameras contain bridge circuitry to correct battery voltage. I turn to those cameras when I want to shoot slide film, which requires precise exposure.

But like I said, I shoot mostly negative film. So when a new-to-me old camera lands in my hands, I just drop in a battery that fits and get busy shooting.

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16 thoughts on “Go ahead and use alkaline or silver-oxide batteries in your old film cameras that were designed for mercury batteries

  1. Jim,
    One other way to use old film cameras, especially those that have no meter, is to use your smart phone as a light meter. There are a number of apps (free or inexpensive) that will work. I use one called “Light Meter” (free). It can be used as either a incident or reflective meter. In addition, when measuring reflected light it can be used as a spot meter.

    Peter

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  2. Hello Jim, interesting article. I have just bought an adapter with a bridge circuit to take 386 silver oxide batteries. Previously I used to use hearing aid cells, when I checked my OM1 the battery had started leaking, (just caught it in time) my fault I guess for not removing it. The adapter was £18 – $22, not too bad as I have 3 cameras that it will fit.

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  3. bodegabayf2 says:

    I used to worry about finding proper batteries as well. Now, I use the “Grey Theory” too. Insert battery that fits, shoot and have fun.

    Like you, I keep a quantity of the 44s and 625s handy, along with the rubber grommets to go around 1.5v cells for my Spotmatics and the 6-volt battery that feeds my Contax RX. I also always have a bunch of AA batteries for my Nikon F4 and Nikon Speedlights.

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    • Yep. Fretting over batteries robbed me of some of the fun. Just using a battery that fits makes this so much easier.

      I have one rubber grommet for my Spotmatics, it was one of the adapters I purchased. I don’t remember it costing much, thankfully.

      The Nikkormat you sent me takes a 4LR44, but IIRC one was already in there when you sent it. That’s the only camera I’ve used that takes that battery.

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  4. Christopher Smith says:

    I tend to use hearing aid batteries which are usually are 1.4v to replace the 1.35v
    where needed rather that the 1.5v ones, but most of my cameras take the 1.5v ones which are cheaper.

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  5. I always shake my head when i hear of people spending big money to calibrate meters to use alkaline/SO batteries. I’ve done at least two back to back metering tests with match needle cameras using a wein cell and a plain old alkaline. Guess what the results were? I know for a fact it didn’t make a bit of difference in a SRT102 and my Rollei 35T.

    I used to be very concerned with metering every shot when i first started shooting film. Now I just follow the Sunny 16 rule in summer and Cloudy 5.6 for winter here in Indiana. :)

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    • Yeah, I’ve read of people who spend money on those calibrations. I suppose that if I was going to rely on a particular camera for my living, I might look at it. But this hobbyist doesn’t need it.

      I think getting comfortable with using sunny 16 is my next hurdle to jump. I know how to use it, but I feel better when a meter tells me what settings to choose. I will be able to shoot more cameras in more places if I just learn how to read the light myself.

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      • It’s like riding a bike, you have to practice and expect to fall down a few times. I still second guess myself in the tricky lighting towards sundown and in shadow but i’m not very far off. I removed my training wheels (enough with the bike analogies) and stopped carrying a meter spring this year.

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  6. Ehhh, the more slide film I shoot the more I worry about things like an accurate meter. However, all the cameras I use these days have a bridge circuit built in so an overage doesn’t affect the reading at all. Thank God I found Pentax and stuck with them!

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