Film Photography

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

(Originally published 30 November 2016.) 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 15 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.

px625ab

I 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. One or the other of these batteries fit into most of my old cameras.

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. Most of them offer a lot of exposure latitude. Fujicolor 200 is my favorite, and it offers several stops of exposure latitude. I’ve used black-and-white 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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8 thoughts on “Go ahead and use alkaline or silver-oxide batteries in your old film cameras that were designed for mercury batteries

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    I guarantee as a transparency shooter, and a professional that has been judging transparencies on the light table for 40 years, this battery swap rarely gives good exposure for what transparency needs. It can be off just enough, altho OK if you are shooting a spread of exposures for a scene, starting with the meter reading.

    I am told by repair people, that there ARE some cameras that have voltage stabilizing circuitry in it where shooting a 1.5 volt battery in a 1.35 system, would still result in good metering, but which camera these are are only legend for me, I wish someone would make up a list! I believe I was told one of the Pentax screw mount cameras does this…

    With the advent of modern chromgenic color negatives film, they always improve with a slight over-exposure anyway, so shooting an asa 200 film at 160 or so will always result in a highly useable result, even with meter variations.

    Jim if you’re getting 3 months out of Wein air cell, I’m electing you battery “King”! I’m lucky to get 3 weeks!

    • I am quite sure that my advice is bollocks for professionals. But for this blog’s audience, which is probably 80+% hobbyists, it works fine because of the exposure latitude of most negative film!

  2. Did you every have or write about a Kodak Medalist? I had one once in the early 1960s. It was used by a Navy photographer during WWII. I developed photos from its large negative myself in my college darkroom. Those were the old days. Seems my fading memory is it had some kind of Ektar lens. Wish I still had it, of course. Currently working on learning the photo possibilities on iPhone 13 PRO MAX. Would enjoy reading comments on both these image catchers.

  3. Batteries+ sells a Renata 1.55 volt 387S button battery that has a rubber gasket around the outside. It fits perfectly in the Pentax Spotmatic and the meters work great with them. They are not expensive.

    • I remember buying one of those for the Spotmatic SP I used to own. One of the things I like about the Spotmatic F is that it takes a more easily found battery.

  4. David Winskill says:

    Thanks for the most sensible and clear article i have ever read about vintage cameras and batteries!

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