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.
If you collect and use old film cameras, one day it’s going to happen: film will tear during winding or rewinding, or a wind lever will become hopelessly stuck. Your film will be trapped inside the camera. If you open the camera, some of the film will be ruined.
Such are the vagaries of old cameras. It happens to me from time to time, including recently. After shooting the last frame on a roll of expired Tri-X in my Yashica-12, the winder got stuck before the last of the film wound onto the takeup spool. Another time, while rewinding a roll of Kentmere 100 in my Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK, the film tore. Some of the film was on the takeup spool and the rest was inside the 35mm film cartridge.
Times like these call for a dark bag, also known as a changing bag. This bag is black and double lined so no light can get in.
You unzip it to reveal the inner bag, and then you unzip that. Then put the whole camera in the bag and zip both zippers. Then stick your arms through the armholes. Feel around for the camera until you’ve grasped it. Then you can open the camera and, entirely by feel, extract the film.
If the film tore, you’ll want to put some sort of light-tight can or box in there to spool the film into. For 35mm, some brands come in a black plastic can — save a couple of them, as they’re perfect for this. Label the can “Loose Film, Open in Darkness” and send it off to your lab. They should be able to handle that without much trouble.
Otherwise, you should be able to hand-roll 120 film onto the takeup spool, or (tediously) turn the spindle on 35mm film to draw the film back into the cartridge.
Buy a dark bag here or here or here. They’re not that expensive, really, and can sure save your bacon when something goes wrong with an old camera.
When you want to use an old manual camera, you need to set exposure yourself. Exposure is essentially the amount of light that reaches the film when you press the shutter button. Too much or too little light, and you won’t get a good image.
You need to set two settings:
Aperture, or f stop, which is the size of the hole the light passes through. This is a number like 1.4, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22. The smaller the number, the bigger the hole.
Shutter speed, which is how long to let the light pass through. Your camera will have shutter speeds like 500, 250, 125, 60, 30, 15; or maybe 200, 100, 50, 25. That’s the fraction of a second the shutter will pass light onto the film. 200 is 1/200 second.
But I’m going to give you two easy shortcuts: use the Sunny 16 rule, or use a light-meter application on your phone.
There’s a lot to know about exposure. But if you experiment using these shortcuts, I’ll bet you’ll learn a lot about exposure on your own!
The Sunny 16 rule
On a sunny day, you’ll get a good enough exposure when you set the f stop to 16, and the shutter to the inverse of your film’s ISO. If you’re using ISO 200 film, set the shutter to 1/200 or close to it.
If the day isn’t sunny, you can still use the Sunny 16 rule. Just change the f stop according to this table.
Very bright sun
Dark with sharp edges
Soft around the edges
Until I got the hang of Sunny 16, I printed this table and taped it to the back of my manual cameras.
Your film’s ISO might not line up perfectly with your shutter’s speeds. Sometimes you can fudge it and be okay. For example, if your film’s ISO is 125, the 1/100 shutter speed is close enough. For ISO 200 film, a 1/250 shutter is close enough.
Most color negative films tolerate a lot of overexposure. Notice how the shutter-speed scale on the camera pictured above is 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/300? If you’re shooting a common ISO 200 color film like Fujicolor 200 or Kodak Gold 200, there’s no shutter speed close to 1/200 for Sunny 16 shooting. What I’d do is use 1/100. This will overexpose the film, but the film can take it. It will look great.
Or just choose a film with an ISO that is close to an available shutter speed on your camera. For the camera pictured above, you could choose something like Kodak T-Max 100, an ISO 100 film, and shoot at 1/100.
Light meter apps
Your other choice is to download a light meter app to your phone. I have an iPhone and I use myLightMeter. I paid for the Pro version, but there’s also a free version that works just as well.
Most of these apps work similarly: tell it what ISO your film is, aim your phone at your subject, and tap the Measure button. The app will give you an entire range of f/stop and shutter-speed settings that will give you a good exposure.
In the screen shot, the f stops don’t line up perfectly with the shutter speeds for the scene I metered. Close enough is good enough — most films don’t require exact exposure settings to get a good image. As long as you’re close to one of the settings the meter gives you, you’ll be all right. Based on the meter readings in the screen shot, if my camera has 1/250 as a shutter speed I’d choose f/8 and it would work well enough. On the camera pictured above, I have 1/300, so I’d use that.
Many cameras let you set the aperture anywhere between f stops. If yours does, you can choose a shutter speed your camera supports and then set f stop according to the meter. For example, say your camera has a shutter setting of 1/100. On the meter screen shot, the dot to the right of 1/125 will be about 1/100. Notice that dot is about 2/3 of the way between f/11 and f/16. Set your camera’s f stop about 2/3 of the way between f/11 and f/16.
From time to time someone will leave a comment on one of my camera reviews saying, “I just got one of these cameras. How do you set exposure on it?” I’ve answered that question enough times that I’ve decided to write this post, which I can just link to from now on.
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.
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.
Recently I told you how to assess a camera’s condition, first by checking basic features and then by checking advanced features. Now I’m going to tell you about the most powerful tool in your camera-inspection arsenal, especially when it comes to all- (or mostly-) electronic cameras: your smartphone.
That’s right. Because wherever you get a good signal, you can research the camera.
I didn’t do that at the counter of my local camera shop, where I was hot to buy this Minolta Maxxum 7000. It wasn’t until I took it home and shot a roll of film in it that I learned it suffered from a very common Maxxum 7000 fault: a failed magnet in the autoexposure system. When it goes, the camera shoots only at its smallest aperture. To test it, drop a battery in, go into low light (but not so low you can’t see the camera well), look down at the lens, and fire. In low-ish light the camera should select a wide aperture. If you see a tiny aperture as the shutter fires, the Maxxum has this problem.
I had a great mobile signal while I stood at that counter. A quick search for “Maxxum 7000 fault” could have spared me the disappointment.
As electronics crept into cameras, so did intractable problems. That’s not to say used electronic film cameras are inherently a bad deal. I own several that just keep on trucking. But when they do fail, they can appear to be functioning properly. More than once I’ve happily shot an entire roll only to find every shot spoiled by some internal gremlin. I’ve owned two Canon EOS Rebel-series cameras, for example, with failing or failed shutters. It’s the number one problem these cameras develop. But the camera sounds like it’s working as you shoot it. (Tip: look at the shutter curtain. If there’s any goo on it, or an arc of marks, the shutter is failing or has failed.)
Sometimes the failure is as subtle as a brick to the forehead. My aunt Maxine gave me her Minolta X-700 kit a long time ago, and I managed to shoot one roll of film before its most common failure happened: a rogue capacitor breathed its last. When that happens, the winder locks tight. My friend Alice later gave me her X-700, which had already suffered the same fate. This can be repaired with a new capacitor, but it’s major surgery and expensive to have done. Such is the case with most failures in electronic cameras.
Yet it’s not just electronic cameras that have quirks and common failure points.
The fully manual Kodak Retina Reflex series has a quirk: the mirror stays up after you press the shutter button. You see black in the viewfinder until you wind, which raises the mirror again. If you come upon one of these and find you can’t see through the viewfinder, if you don’t know this you will think the camera is broken.
The Argus A-series cameras and some of the Kodak Pony-series cameras have collapsible lens barrels. They don’t work right unless the barrel is extended.
And many folding Kodak Retina cameras might appear to be broken, the winder being stuck. But when the frame counter atop the camera counts town to zero, the camera locks the winder. Moving the frame counter off zero frees the winder.
For many cameras, you can find the original manual online as a free download. The best and best-known site is butkus.org, but there are others. It can be a little tricky to read a manual on your phone, but it can mean the difference between not buying a camera because the winder’s stuck, or getting a good bargain because you learn that moving the frame counter off zero frees that winder up.
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The point is that many cameras have quirks, common issues, and known failure points. And others have gone here before you. They like to write about their woes with old cameras, either in their blogs or in the photography forums. A quick Internet search often reveals all.
And now you have a complete camera-evaluation toolkit. First check fundamental functions. Then test advanced features. Finally, research the camera’s quirks and known failure points. If you do these things, you’ll greatly reduce the risk of bringing home a dud.
Recently I shared how to check an old film camera’s fundamental functions so you don’t end up buying junk. (Read it here, if you missed it.) But many cameras offer features beyond those fundamentals. They can be broken too.
A couple years ago I found a Minolta SR-T 202 at an antique shop. A 50mm f/1.4 MD Rokkor-X lens was attached. What luck! These are great cameras, and a 50/1.4 is always a prize.
But there I stood in the middle of a dimly lit shop 60 miles from home. What problems would this camera have, and could I negotiate a price that would make me willing to take them on?
First I checked the fundamentals, which I described in part 1 of this series. That all checked out. So I moved on to the camera’s advanced features. Here are the things I checked:
Remove the battery cover, if there is one. When there’s no battery cover, the camera is all mechanical. Cameras that take a battery have some level of electronics, even if it’s just an onboard light meter. Without the proper battery you won’t be able to check some or all of its functions, depending on how much of the camera is electronically controlled.
I don’t know about where you live, but where I live Walgreens and CVS are on every other corner, and they have a surprisingly extensive battery selection. For a camera I really, really want, I’ll duck out and buy a battery.
Many battery covers have a slot that fits a nickel or a penny, so grab one out of your back pocket and unscrew it. Alternatively, there might be knurling on the cover that lets you grip it with your fingertips. Or you might find a tab you press in that lets you pull the cover back. Ideally, the cover removes easily and the inside is free of leaky-battery corrosion. If the cover is jammed shut, there’s probably corrosion. I’ve had good luck cleaning up a little corrosion (I use a dab of vinegar and fine steel wool), but my experience has been that a lot of corrosion means the camera’s electronics won’t work.
Check the camera’s focusing. The camera either focuses manually or automatically.
On manual-focus viewfinder cameras, you guess how far away your subject is and twist the aperture ring until that number of feet or meters lines up with the focusing mark. There’s no good way to check accuracy in the field, short of carrying an accessory rangefinder everywhere you go.
But if the camera has a built-in rangefinder, use it to check focusing accuracy. The rangefinder might be inside the viewfinder or it might be in a separate window near the viewfinder. Look for the “patch” in the center, which should be bright enough for you to see the image inside it. Aim the camera at something a known distance away. Turn the focusing ring until the image in the rangefinder patch lines up with the image in the viewfinder. Check the distance selected on the focusing ring and see if it matches the actual distance.
You can do the same on a manual-focus 35mm SLR. Twist the focus ring until the image in the viewfinder’s split screen lines up, or the microprism ring stops shimmering.
On autofocus cameras, see if there’s a manual-focus mode and try the tips above. If there’s no manual mode, you’ll have to roll the dice that focus is accurate. Fortunately, of the dozens upon dozens of cameras I’ve bought in over 40 years, only one or two were significantly off.
Check the light meter, if there is one. Look through the viewfinder. If you see a needle or an LED/LCD panel, there’s an onboard meter. A few cameras place the meter needle on the camera body instead.
Some meters need power and others don’t. Selenium light meters are photosensitive on their own and need no battery. Look for a bubbled plastic patch on the camera’s face or around the lens.
Cadmium sulfide (CdS) and silicon meters need batteries to work. Some cameras place CdS meters on the body. Many cameras embed these meters inside the body
For a powered meter, the camera must be on for you to check it. Some cameras, like the Pentax K1000, are always on. Others have an on switch or button, and still others require you to activate the meter by pulling back the winder lever a little or pressing the shutter button partway.
There are so many ways cameras show exposure settings in the viewfinder that I can’t explain them all here. Many cameras use some sort of needle system: when the needle lines up with a mark or a notch, you have good exposure. Other cameras use LED or LCD displays.
Download a light-meter app to your smartphone. Read light on a subject with the app and the camera, making either shutter speed or aperture match on both. Do this for a few different aperture and shutter speed combinations to see if the meter consistently agrees. A consistently wrong meter is still usable. My Yashica Lynx 14e above is consistently off by a full stop. I just adjust as I shoot. It works beautifully.
A busted or inaccurate meter doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. The meter on that otherwise all-manual SR-T 202 was quite dead. I dropped in some film anyway and metered with an app on my phone. I prefer a working meter, but I still had a fine time with the SR-T. That camera had a bigger problem my initial inspection missed: a pinhole in the shutter curtain that left a bright spot on many photos. That disappointed me far more than the inactive meter did.
The more electronics on a camera, however, the more likely its manual exposure settings are buried in counterintuitive menus. And some cameras lack manual exposure settings altogether. A busted meter renders them useless.
Check the motorized winder, if there is one. For this, you must have a battery. But then this is as simple as turning the camera on and pressing the shutter button. If it doesn’t wind, or if the winder sounds sick, move on.
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Speaking of all- or mostly-electronic cameras, they present special challenges in field inspection. They can be broken in surprising ways that you might not be able to detect without putting a roll of film through them. In the final part of this series I’ll share how you can predict the problems a camera might have.
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