Collecting Cameras

Repairing bellows pinholes in folding cameras

A common malady among old folding cameras is pinholes in the corners of the bellows. These little holes will leak light onto your film. Some photographers embrace the look, but I’m not one of them.

I learned a simple way to repair bellows pinholes from Mike Connealy’s blog. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will last a good long while and let you shoot with an otherwise functional old folder.

To check for pinholes, take the camera into a dark room, open the back, and shine a very bright flashlight around inside the bellows. I did this with my recently acquired Ansco Viking Readyset, and it lit up like a Christmas tree. Light came through every single corner.

I use a small, very bright LED flashlight that I bought from Amazon here. It fits inside a bellows with a little room to spare, so I can move the flashlight around and get into the bellows’ far reaches.

You can repair the pinholes with black fabric paint. I use Tulip brand, which I buy from Amazon here. The bottle’s tiny tip works great for applying a couple drops of paint to a pinhole. Just make sure the pinhole is completely covered.

I’m not great at fine work, mostly because I’m impatient with it. As you can see below, I globbed too much fabric paint on some of the pinholes. The paint I use has a gloss finish that makes my sloppy work very noticeable on the matte bellows. If you are careful with the paint, you will get a more cosmetically pleasing repair. Tulip also makes this paint with a matte finish.

After you apply the paint, keep the camera open and let it dry for at least four hours. I generally let it dry overnight. Then take the camera back into a dark room with a flashlight and make sure you didn’t miss any holes.

Fabric paint is flexible and hardy. The bottle says the stuff is machine washable! You will be able to open and close the camera a number of times without cracking the paint. I’m sure that the paint will eventually wear out, but cameras I repaired this way several years ago are still light tight.

A bottle of fabric paint lasts a very long time. My bottle is five years old now. I’ve repaired about a half-dozen old folders with it and the bottle is still 99% full. With the cap screwed on tight, this paint doesn’t dry out in the bottle.

The best repair is to replace the bellows entirely, but you can’t order fresh bellows from the factory anymore. A vanishingly small number of people make custom bellows — I know only of Jurgen Kreckel and Sandeha Lynch. Jurgen fits his custom bellows as part of his complete repair service for folding cameras. Sanheda will send you instructions so you can fit his bellows yourself, but offers bellows only for a few Agfa and Agfa-made Ansco cameras. Fortunately, he makes bellows for the Ansco Viking cameras for £48 plus postage, if I ever want to fully restore my Viking Readyset.

You have to decide whether an old folder you own is worth that investment. Meanwhile, a little black fabric paint will cover your pinholes and let you use your camera.

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Collecting Cameras

Sooner or later your cameras will break

I got out my Nikon F3 earlier this year, as it is one of my very favorite cameras and I wanted use it just for the pleasure.


To my disappointment, I found it to be not working — the winder was stuck, and the meter wasn’t reading.

Whatever is causing these failures is going to be beyond my meager repair abilities. I boxed up the F3 and sent it to International Camera Technicians for evaluation. They charge $50 to figure out what’s wrong with your camera and what it will cost to repair it. If you then have them do the work, they apply that fee to the repair charge. I hope to hear from them soon.

So it goes with old photographic gear — sooner or later, it will break. It’s why I’ve started to learn basic repair skills. I replaced the light seals on this very F3 myself a couple years ago.

Finding my F3 on the fritz led me to test every camera I own for proper functioning. Now that I’ve thinned the herd to about 25 cameras, it was a pleasant afternoon’s task.

I discovered metering problems in five of my cameras. The meters in both my Olympus OM-1 and my Olympus XA were reading several stops off. The meter in my Yashica Lynx 14e is one stop off (but I’ve known that for years). The meters in my Nikon F2AS and in my Pentax Spotmatic F had both gone all jumpy.

I also found that the winder on my Nikon F2A sometimes gets stuck mid-wind, but if you back off the pressure and try again you can finish winding just fine. This was disappointing, as I has Sover Wong, the premier Nikon F2 repairperson, overhaul the camera a couple years ago. I’ll test this camera with film soon to see if the condition persists.

Finally, my Sears KSX-P is dead. I bought it only last year, immediately put two rolls of film through it, and then set it aside in my camera cabinet. I can’t fathom what would cause it to not respond at all now.

That’s how it seems to go with old cameras. I’ve never had one fail under use. They always malfunction or die while sitting on the shelf.

I’ve already had the Spotmatic F repaired; I wrote about it here. I had the OM-1 repaired, too; a post about it is coming on Monday. I chose to test the Olympus XA with film — it actually has two meters, one to power the viewfinder needle and another that sets exposure, and one meter can go south while the other works. A post about this test is scheduled for early May. I hope to have the F3 back soon, and will share my test roll with you as soon as I have scans.

Next, I will send the F2AS out to have its meter repaired. I will use Sover Wong, but I’m bracing for impact, because his service is expensive. Also, his wait list is currently two full years.

I’m on the fence about the Lynx 14e. I’ve not shot it since completing Operation Thin the Herd. It’s either time for that camera to find its new owner, or to go to Mark Hama for repair.

The KSX-P also has me on the fence. It is a surprisingly pleasant camera to use, which is why I kept it. On the other hand, it’s worth essentially nothing. Perhaps Garry’s Camera can do it, as he lists other Sears SLRs on his site. Perhaps this camera should just go into the trash.

Now is the time to have your broken cameras repaired, and your working cameras overhauled, so they might last. The men (it seems always to be men) who repair old cameras are no longer young. I know of no young pups learning the film-camera repair business.

One day, when our old gear breaks, that will be that.

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Collecting Cameras

Deep inside my Nikon F2A

Sover Wong photo

When my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year, I told her that I wanted to send my Nikon F2A to Sover Wong for an overhaul. Sover is the world’s premier Nikon F2 repairman. The overhaul was expensive, but when my camera returned it was factory clean and functioned like new.

Nikon F2

This F2A joined my collection in 2013 as an incredibly generous donation from a reader. He enjoyed my blog and my SLR adventures, and wondered whether I was F2 material. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” he said to me. I loved using this camera — turns out I was chosen.

The “A” in F2A means that my camera comes with the DP-11 metering “head.” That’s the black contraption atop the camera with “Nikon” spelled out in white letters. The prism and meter are inside. Nikon made a number of other F2 models with different letter suffixes; each used a different head.

My DP-11’s meter was never quite right, so when the same reader gave me a beautiful F2AS already overhauled by Sover Wong, I turned to it and left the F2A on a shelf. But I knew I’d eventually send it to Sover. I just didn’t know it would take me seven years to get around to it!

When Sover put my F2A on his workbench, he first tested it and emailed me his findings. The meter was off by about a stop. The shutter was reasonably accurate at 1/125 sec and below, but not at faster speeds. The top two speeds didn’t work at all. Sover set to work, emailing me photographs every step of the way. He disassembled and cleaned everything, installed new foam seals and bumpers, put in new CdS metering cells, calibrated the meter, calibrated the shutter, lubricated the works, and made sure things like the frame counter, the timer, and the depth-of-field preview button worked right. He even installed fresh batteries. He did all of this work in just a few hours.

When the F2A arrived, it was clean — if it weren’t for the bit of brassing it had picked up from its years of use, you would have thought it was new. It even smelled new, thanks probably to the scent of the lubricant he used. I put a roll of Ilford FP4+ into it straightaway and took it on a photo walk. Every control felt solid and snappy. My F2A was in okay shape before I sent it to him; the controls were solid before the overhaul. But after the overhaul, they were all noticeably more crisp and precise.

I developed that roll of FP4+ today (by which I mean the day I am writing this, Nov. 13), so I’ll have images to show soon!

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Film Photography

When you shoot old gear, you have to expect it will develop faults sooner or later

Nikon F3, 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Superia Venus 800

I took my Nikon F3 along on a trip to Chicago with Margaret early this month. I shot two rolls of color and one of black and white in it. The color rolls are back from the processor and immediately upon opening the files my heart sank.

Dollars to doughnuts my F3’s light seals have failed. This red streak appears in direct proportion to how long it was since I made the previous photo. A photo made quickly after a previous photo didn’t leave enough time for light to sneak past the failed seal.

I’m going to try to replace the seals myself. I’ve never done it before, but I’ve read instructions and it looks tedious but totally within my skills. A set of seals with instructions were just $12 on eBay (here). Many thanks to everyone who has “bought me a coffee” with the button at the bottom of each post for your part in buying those seals!

This makes me realize, however, that I should send my F3 out for CLA (clean, lube, and adjustment). This is one of my go-to cameras — indeed, it’s the only camera I’d keep if I could keep only one. I want it to work reliably for the long haul. The friend who donated the F3 to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras suggested Blue Moon Camera and Machine for the CLA, and so that is where it will go.

Several cameras are in my CLA/repair queue. First up: my Nikon F2A, which has had a fussy meter for as long as I’ve owned it. It’ll go to Sover Wong in the UK. Eric Hendrickson will eventually get both my Pentax KM, which I dropped and damaged the last time I used it, and and my Pentax ME-F, which has an inaccurate meter. I also want to send my Yashica Lynx 14e to Mark Hama to give it an overhaul and correct its meter, which is a stop off.

I have also received a Pentax ME Super and a Kodak Retina IIa from a reader, both of which minor issues. I’ll put test rolls through both as soon as I can, but I’ll be shocked if I don’t enjoy them and want to keep them. They’ll end up in the CLA queue too. The Pentax will go to Eric Hendrickson but the Retina will go to Chris Sherlock in New Zealand.

Finally, my sister-in-law gave me the Kodak Retina Reflex III that had been her father’s. My initial inspection shows that it basically works, though the meter is hit or miss. I’ll eventually put a test roll through it. If it functions well enough mechanically, I’ll send it to Chris Sherlock for overhaul in honor of the family connection.

Readers left lots of great suggestions about where to send cameras for CLAs and repairs in this post.

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Film Photography

Using Sunny 16 to check your camera’s meter

Something might not be right with the meter on my black Olympus OM-1. I’ve taken it out lately on some bright days and the exposure settings that give me that horizontal needle in the viewfinder aren’t agreeing with the Sunny 16 rule.

Olympus OM-1

I’ve said for years that I want to get better at reading the light with my eyes and setting exposure manually. It would let me shoot any non-metered camera in my collection without having to fumble with an external meter. But it also alerts me when one of my old cameras’ meters might not be accurate anymore.

I expect most photographers who learn this skill start with Sunny 16. I did, and I have it down well enough. I’ve even occasionally adapted it down to f/8 as the resulting faster shutter speeds are sometimes useful. (See Mike Eckman’s useful article on his “Outdoor Eight Rule” here for a dead-simple related technique.)

My OM-1’s meter doesn’t appear to be so far off that the good exposure latitude of the Kodak ColorPlus film inside shouldn’t cover it. I’m relying on the meter to see what happens.

But it’s very nice to know that I can sanity check any camera’s meter against Sunny 16 and adjust my shooting accordingly — even “go commando” and ignore the meter if I must.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Sunny 16 rule, here it is. Most negative films, both black and white and color, have enough margin to give you a usable image with these settings.

First, set the shutter to about the inverse of your film’s ISO. So for ISO 100, set the shutter to 1/100 or 1/125, whichever one your camera has. For ISO 200, it’s 1/200 or 1/250. For ISO 400, I don’t know a camera that has 1/400 so go with 1/500. Close enough is good enough.

On a normal sunny day where you see distinct shadows, set the aperture to f/16. On a cloudy day when the shadows soften, go with f/11. On a heavily cloudy day when the shadows are barely visible, use f/8. When it’s overcast enough there are no visible shadows, use f/5.6. A final tip: if the sun is blazingly bright and glaring, go with f/22 if you have it.

If you learn this well enough, you too can easily sanity check the meter on any camera you own. Set the ISO to 100, gauge the light and guess the shutter speed you should use at f/16, and then:

  • On a full manual camera, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed according to the Sunny 16 rule and see where the exposure indicator lines up. If all’s well it should indicate close to proper exposure.
  • On an aperture priority camera, set the aperture to f/16 and see what shutter speed the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to 1/100 on a sunny day, 1/50 on a cloudy day, 1/25 on a heavily cloudy day, and down from there.
  • On a shutter priority camera, set the shutter according to the Sunny 16 rule and see what aperture the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to f/16 on a sunny day, f/11 on a cloudy day, and on from there.

Sunny 16 isn’t exact science. When I say “close” above, I mean within a stop or maybe even two of correct exposure. But if you set your camera to 1/100 and f/16 on a sunny day and the camera indicates strong over- or under-exposure, either you have a bad battery or your meter is faulty.

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Collecting Cameras

The most expensive free camera ever


Old Camera Rule No. 1: never force anything that seems to be stuck. But I was so sure that I knew better this time. The result: a broken battery door.

This Pentax ME F is a gift to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras. It came with a 35-70mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax AF Zoom lens that, because focus motors were in the lens itself, made this kit the first mass-produced autofocus 35mm SLR. It’s a historic camera, and until that moment mine had been in mint condition.

After I finished beating myself up for my stupidity, I bought a non-functional ME F on eBay. When it arrived I robbed it of its battery door. It’s easy: remove the three screws that secure the bottom plate and there it is. You need first remove a tiny metal clip and then the door lifts right out. I repeated the procedure on the minty ME F and then swapped in the good door.

Before I could screw the bottom plate back on I accidentally bumped the battery-door release button, a tiny piece of black plastic, and knocked it off. That revealed the ittiest-bittiest, teeniest-tiniest spring I’ve ever seen. I picked up the button with my fat fingers and gently lowered it over that spring. I must have nicked that spring, as it vanished instantly. It was there, and then it simply wasn’t. I spent a few fruitless minutes searching for it.

But no worries: the parts camera’s spring was still intact. This time I used fine needle-nose pliers to remove the button, gently grasp that spring, and gently set it in place in the good camera.

But as I released the pliers, that spring instantly disappeared as well. I didn’t even see it go. As I stared right at it, it suddenly wasn’t there. I sat dumbfounded for a minute. Then I spent an hour combing my desk, the surrounding furniture, and the floor.

I had no luck. I know those springs have to be here somewhere, but I don’t know what else I can do to find them. So I went back on eBay and bought yet another ME F for parts. It arrived last week. I haven’t mustered the courage yet to try again with that tiny spring.

Maybe I should send both cameras off to premier Pentax repairman Eric Hendrickson and have him set that infernal spring. The meter needs calibrated anyway. Maybe he’ll buy both of my parts cameras to reduce my bill!