Buying, Repairing, and Using Vintage Cameras
This page contains notes from Dallas Makerspace members based on their experiences buying and repairing vintage cameras. We thought it might be helpful or interesting to others to share our experiences. Keep in mind we're not experts on photography, cameras, camera repair, or film processing. Most of what's here, We've learned through trial and error or from talking to others with more experience. If you're interested, the most important thing is to jump in and try it. Buy an inexpensive camera, try to get it working, put some film in it, and see what happens. The results may surprise you!
Note: in a strict sense, we're not really talking about "restoring" vintage cameras to their original, factory issued condition. What we're interested in is least-cost methods of making these old cameras functional again so they can be used to take photos. Some of the techniques described are very different from those required to restore a vintage camera and might make a restoration expert cringe in horror. So if you're trying to restore a camera for the purpose of increasing its resale value or selling it to a collector, this probably isn't the document you should be reading. But if you're a photographer interested in a low cost way to start shooting with vintage cameras, read on!
Steve Rainwater - My interest in vintage cameras started after my wife and I began going to estate sales. I found a very interesting but non-functional old camera for $2. My plan was to break it down for parts to use in a project I was working on. Once I got the camera home, I began researching it and discovered it was an Italian Bencini Comet S 127 format camera. I became so interested that I took it to a Dallas Personal Robotics Group meeting where we disassembled it, cleaned it, and got it working again. None of us knew anything about camera repair but we work on all sorts of other machines and a cameras is just a machine for making art, so we figured; how hard could it be? After further research, I found a source for 127 film and began shooting photos with it. I was hooked and have been collecting and repairing vintage cameras ever since.
Where to Get Inexpensive Vintage Cameras
- Estate Sales - this is the best source for vintage cameras I've found. If you live in an area like Dallas/Fort Worth there can be several dozen estate sales every week. My wife and I usually select two or three every Saturday morning. I look for things like cameras, tools, scrap metal, and old books. Not every sale has cameras but many do. Determine your budget before you go and stick to it. I chose to spend only $10 or less per camera and I've only exceeded that once. I paid $12 for a rare Argus C.
- eBay - it's very easy to get vintage cameras of almost any make and model on eBay but expect to pay more. My experience is that you'll usually pay about three times the price you'd get at an estate sale, plus shipping. So a $5 estate sale camera will go for $20 on eBay ($15 + $5 shipping). But it's still a pretty good option if you really want a specific model. You might go to estate sales for years and never see a Bencini Comet S but you can buy one on eBay almost any day of the week.
- Pawn shops - I've looked but never found anything interesting in pawn shops.
- Antique shops - My experience is that everything in antique shops is extremely over priced. Expect to pay $100 for a $5 estate sale camera.
- Camera Shows - you can get vintage cameras here but they're likely to be quite pricey. I've been to a few shows and looked but never bought anything.
What to Look for When Buying a Vintage Camera
- Check the red frame counter window first thing to determine if there is film in the camera. If there is, ignore any steps below that might expose the film such as operating the shutter or opening the camera. You may want to remove the film and develop it. (yes, really. "found images" have become there own genre of art).
- Can you see through the viewfinder?
- Does lens appear dirty or hazy?
- Can you unlock and open the camera?
- Is the camera dirty inside or outside?
- If the camera has a bellows, can you expand it without it turning to dust?
- Does the shutter mechanism work?
- Does the film advance winder work?
- Can you focus the camera?
- Do shutter speed, aperture, and other controls work?
- Are there any accessories? (e.g. original box, instructions, lens, lens caps, flash units, etc.)
- Does the camera include a take up reel? (very important when you're starting out!)
- Is the camera designed to be repaired?
You don't necessarily care if the answer is yes or no to the above questions. But the answers will give you a hint at how much work will be involved in getting the camera functional again. That last question can be very important. Many inexpensive cameras were not designed to be repaired. For example, the shutter assembly may be permanently sealed inside a chamber that is riveted to the camera frame in way that prevents non-destructive removal. Non-repairable cameras will either work or not but there's not much you can do when they don't work.
Expect surprises. Even cameras that look perfectly functional may not shoot usable photos. Old lubricant frequently hardens and becomes sticky, slowing shutter speeds enough to over-expose film. There are often light leaks that you can't detect from a casual inspection. And some cameras never worked well even when they were new. Age is unlikely to improve them.
Researching your Camera
Once you've obtained a vintage camera, you'll want to research it online. You can often find scanned instruction manuals or repair manuals. (incidentally, if you were lucky enough to get a printed manual of some kind with your vintage camera, be sure to scan it and put it online to help out other collectors!) Very popular vintage cameras may have entire websites devoted to restoring and using them. Here are a few good resources to get you started:
- Camera-Wiki - A very extensive encyclopedia of vintage cameras
- Flickr groups - discussion as well as photos of old cameras
- Photo.net classic cameras forum - discussion about old cameras
- onetwoseven.org.uk - great source for info on 127 format cameras
- Google - don't forget Google, search for your make/model
Cleaning the Camera
Most old cameras that you'll find at a estate sales are covered with decades worth of dust. At least one of mine appeared to have been buried in the backyard for a few years - it had dried mud inside and out. Here's what I usually do to clean up an old camera.
- Blow off any loose dirt and dust with compressed air, inside and out.
- Clean off remaining dirt and dust from the body with a damp cloth and Windex.
- Be careful not to get Windex or ammonia based cleaners on the lens as it could damage the coating.
- Be careful not to get leather coverings too damp as they sometimes used water-based glues which may dissolve
- Usually, you can clean viewfinder optics and mirrors with Windex as they are not coated
- Don't attempt to clean the black, back side of mirrors as the old mirroring can very easily be worn off. In most cases, you should avoid even touching the backside of the mirror.
- Clean the lens with distilled water or, if necessary, try using a Q-Tip dipped in denatured alcohol.
- I sometimes use metal polish on the machined metal bodies to restore the finish
- Use a solvent (e.g. acetone, alcohol, naphtha, etc.) on a Q-Tip to clean old lubricants off of moving parts
- Avoid getting the solvent on the lens, mirror, or body!
- For stuck focusing rings, try running the tip of a toothpick dipped in solvent around the threads
I'm by no means an expert on this subject but I've found the following online articles helpful.
- Photoethnography.com Cleaning Classic Cameras - includes links to repair tips, and sources for chemicals and tools.
- DeviantArt post - very detailed description of cleaning methods good for vintage cameras
- How to Restore a Antique Camera, by Kodak - A short article from Kodak with tips on cleaning up old cameras
Useful Tools and Materials
- Permatex Black Silicone adhesive sealant - This is a thick, black sealant usually sold in automotive stores. It can be handy for closing up light leaks. In some cases, it can be used to seal old bellows but it can be a little stiff once cured.
- Gardner Bender Liquid Electrical Tape - This stuff cures into a thin, black, stretchy substance similar to electrical tape. It's great for sealing light leaks in flexible bellows.
- Permatex White Lithium Grease - I use this as a lubricant for focusing and shutter mechanisms. Never, never, never use an oil based lubricant such as WD40. It will outgas and coat the lens with yucky goo.
- Acetone, alcohol, nail polish remover, or any other solvent - most old cameras will have dried up, sticky lubricant in the focusing and shutter mechanisms. On some cameras, the old lubricant is so hard, the camera simply won't function at all. Use a strong solvent to clean it out but be very careful not to get the solvent on the lens because it can damage the coating.
- Q-Tips - handy for cleaning tiny viewfinders
- Toothpics - I like to use toothpicks to apply solvent. Dipping the toothpick in the solvent allows you to apply a very small, carefully controlled amount where you need it.
- A set of precision JIS screw drivers - Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) screws are common on camera equipment made in Japan. They look like America Phillips / cross-point screws but using a Phillips screw driver on a JIS screw can easily damage it. Search on eBay or Amazon for JIS screwdriver and you'll find plenty of inexpensive sets.
- Assortment of precision screw drivers - A good assortment of slot and cross-point precision screw drivers is indispensable. You can find them online or at most electronics and tools stores.
- A spanner wrench - if you plan to disassemble lenses, you'll eventually need a spanner wrench. One with interchangeable blades is ideal. Some lenses need slotted spanner blades, smaller fittings on cameras sometimes require pointed blades. These can be found online at eBay or Amazon. Higher end tool stores might also stock them.
- Needle nose pliers - get the smallest ones you can find.
Where to get Film
Once you've got the camera working, you'll want to get film for it. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Many film formats are quite rare now. Here some suggestions:
Efke R100 BW - The only readily obtainable 127 film manufactured as such today is from efke in Croatia. Efke R100 black and white film can be purchased online through B&H and is fairly inexpensive. One nice thing about it is that Efke uses what amounts to a vintage manufacturing process to avoid modern patents on film production. The R100 film is almost identical to film made in the 1950s and produces very vintage-looking photos.
Bluefire Murano 160 - If you want color 127 film, this is your best option. It's made in very small production runs by Bluefire in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It can be developed using the common C-41 processing. The film starts out life as Kodak Porta NC 160, which is then cut down to 127 size and a 127 paper backing is added before rewinding it onto 127 spools. You can buy this film direct from Bluefire, though it is often out of stock.
Respool 35mm - Some people respool 35mm film onto 127 reels. 35mm film is significantly smaller than 127 and the image will be exposed over the entire frame, including the sprocket holes. The sprocket hole effect is actually appealing to some photographers, so this may be an attractive options if you want that sort of look.
Do-it-yourself - The only other option I'm aware of is to buy a larger format film like 120, cut it down to size, and respool it onto 127 reels. I've never tried this myself but I've heard that it can be done using do-it-yourself equipment.
828 film is the same basic size as modern 35mm film but without sprocket holes. Like 127, 828 has become a relatively rare format. The only options I'm currently aware of is cut down and respooled Kodak Porta NC 160 color film, which is available online through B&H. You could also respool some 35mm film yourself if you like the sprocket-hole look.
620 format is basically the same as 120 except for a slightly different and incompatible spool size. If you're patient enough and have the proper equipment, you can rewind 120 film on to 620 spools. Fortunately, though, you can also buy ready to go 620 film from the major manufacturers. Options include Fujichrome Velvia 100 positive film, Kodak T-MAX 100 BW, Kodak T-MAX 400, Kodak Tri-X Pan 400 BW, Kodak E100G Ektachrome positive, and a few others. You can purchase most of these online through B&H
120 format is still fairly common fortunately, so you should be able to find a fairly wide selection of this format at any well-stocked local camera store. Online providers such as B&H will also stock a good selection.
Subminiature formats (e.g. 110, 16mm, Minox, Hit)
Your choices are limited to expired film, cutting and packing your own cassettes, or using a reloading service. Expired Konica and Agfa 110 film can be obtained from Frugal Photographer. For precut film that can be reloaded into various subminiature camera formats, try Goat Hill Photo. If you'd like someone else to do the hard part, try Tim Verthein's Minolta 16 Service, they can reload your Minolta 16 Cassette with new C-41 film.
Processing the Film
I used to process my own black and white 35mm film years ago but I don't have access to the equipment currently. I hope to start developing my own film again at some point but for now I'm having it processed commercially. My strategy is to process the negatives and then scan the film directly. I generally don't have photographic prints made unless I plan to exhibit a particular photo.
There are several film labs in the DFW area that are still willing to process old film formats such as 127 and 620 but the one I prefer is The Color Lab. They're very friendly and willing to try processing just about any film you can come up with. They'll always try to return the empty reels too, which are like gold for vintage camera users. They are also ready to try processing vintage BW film too. They successfully developed a roll of exposed 620 film found in a 1938 Kodak Six-20 box camera.
The Color Lab, Inc.
4442 Lawnview Ave.
Dallas, TX 75227
Here are a few examples of film processed at The Color Lab
One thing The Color Lab and other local film labs can't do is process vintage color film that needs the discontinued C-22 process. Kodak discontinued the manufacture of C-22 process film and the chemicals needed to process it in 1974 (when it was replaced by the C-41 process). There are now only about five commercial processing options in the world for C-22. Three of them are in North America. I have personal experience with Film Rescue and can recommend them. You can also find reviews online describing what you can expect. Pricing for any of these is likely to run about $20 to $40 for a roll of film depending on print/scan options.
- Rocky Mountain Film Lab - They predict 6 to 12 months turnaround time. They provide both prints and a CD of images scanned from the negatives.
- Rapid Photo - Clarks Summit, PA - They claim about 8 week turnaround. However, reviews also indicate they print the film and then scan the prints, so you'll need to scan the negatives yourself to get the best quality images.
- Film Rescue International - Reasonable pricing and each image is individually processed by humans for best results. They scan from the negative, not the print. They run about 10 process types in date-based cycles, so once you submit film, you have to wait for the next processing cycle to occur. Also, there is no charge if they find no recoverable images on a roll of film, which is nice insurance if you think there's a chance you have an unexposed roll.
Can you process C-22 film yourself? In theory, yes but it won't be easy. The process requires using relatively dangerous chemicals that may not be easily obtainable. Further, if you mix the chemicals and use the process as documented, it probably won't work on film that's 40+ years old. The commercial labs have developed their own special processes that work on very old C-22 film and these processes are not the same as the original C-22 process.
It's also worth noting that recovering color images from 40 year old C-22 color film is unlikely under any conditions. The processing used by the labs mentioned above will result in a black and white image. Here's a typical example. This is a frame Kodacolor C-22 film found inside a Kodak Brownie Flashmite 20 camera obtained at an estate sale.
- shooting tips (tape over film counter window)
- How to scan the processed film (e.g. get custom glass plate cut)