Unlike the digital camera market, which is saturated with brand new products and the support network needed to fix them, film cameras can be rare and precious and expensive to fix. That’s why it’s important for all film photographers, from the most casual point-and-shoot lover to the dedicated hoarder of rare Leicas, to know how to look after and maintain their gear.
Here are a few basic tips to help you understand how to store, clean, and fix (if need be) your beautiful, old camera.
Cleanliness is next to godliness
Most of my gear has been obtained from secondhand shops, boot fairs and eBay. While these places are often the cheapest places to buy film camera bodies and lenses, it’s rare to find gear that has been stored and maintained correctly. The older the camera the greater the chance that it’s been mishandled or improperly stored at some point in its life. It’s best practice, therefore, to give the camera or lens a thorough inspection and cleaning immediately when it arrives.
Having the proper gear to do the job is essential. Cameras have lots of nooks and grannies, and unmentionable gunk often accumulates in these tiny places. Around the dials on the top of the body, surrounding the viewfinder, and on the leatherette – think of all those hands that have gripped, sweated, and smeared on your new toy. Eurgh! Luckily, decades of dirt can be easily cleaned away with nothing more than soapy water, lens cleaner, a pack of cotton buds (Q-tips), and two or three microfibre cloths (both damp and dry).
Start by dipping one microfibre cloth in a little bit of soapy water (simple soap is fine), and use it to wipe off any visible grime you can see on the camera body. If your camera has a built-in lens, leave it until last (think of it as doing the windows of your car last – you don’t want to have to clean the same area twice). If you’re cleaning an SLR, remove the lens and be careful not to get any water inside the body of the camera. It’s best to carefully clean the reflex mirror with a dry microfibre cloth. DOn’t touch the focusing screen up top with anything, simply use an air blower to blow the dust away. Lastly, clean the external lens mount and then fit a body cap to keep things protected while we clean the rest of the body – we don’t want any liquids getting inside that mirror box.
For the first cleaning of the external body, you don’t want the cloth to be soaking wet, just damp. Patience, good lighting, and cleaning a small portion at a time are all keys to success. After the initial once-over, go in with the cotton buds, dipped in a bit of soapy water (you can also use isopropyl alcohol or lighter fluid, everyone has a preference) to get into all the tiny nooks and crannies. A toothbrush is also helpful for reaching the hardest and finest areas (think the knurling of an ISO dial, where plenty of dirt can hide).
The inside of a camera can also suffer if not stored and cleaned properly – the main offender being the foam light seals that line the camera back door. These degrade over time, and can turn into a crumbly, sticky mess that can be a real pain to clean and replace. It’s worth looking at the light seals inside any camera you’re buying, if possible, to save yourself extra work further down the line.
If need be, old light seals can be removed with a scraper tool (something plastic is best, or a wooden cuticle stick with a wedge end), then the glue residue can be removed with alcohol on a cotton bud. SLR mirrors sometimes have a mirror bumper (a pad of foam lining the upper edge of the mirror box) to dampen mirror slap, and it’s worth checking to see if this is intact too.
New light seal kits can be bought online inexpensively – Nik & Trick sell replacement foam kits for a lot of the more common models and sellers on eBay supply these as well. They’re usually of the pre-cut, peel and stick variety, but the ease of replacement of light seals is dependent on your model of camera – some are easier than others!
[Editor’s Note – the photo below is horrific and this method of cleaning should not be tried at home, or anywhere.]
Once the body looks a bit cleaner, start on the exterior components of the lens. Clean the aperture and focus rings with a cotton bud dipped in soapy water and squeezed out – you don’t want any fluid to get inside the lens at all. Be careful around painted marking – soapy water shouldn’t harm anything, but rubbing alcohol can actually dull or completely strip paint from certain models.
Now we’re ready to clean the glass. Use a clean cotton bud dipped in lens cleaner fluid to gently clean the lens glass. Start in the center and swirl outward. Try to keep from getting any cleaner on the outermost edge of the glass, as it can sometimes spread to the outside edge of cemented elements and seep where it’s not supposed to go. This is an exercise in patience – go slowly, and be sure to get both the front and rear elements of the lens, as dust can accumulate everywhere.
If all this scrubbing sounds a bit much for you, or you simply don’t have time, it’s worth finding a local camera repair shop that offers CLA service (clean, lube and adjust). In the UK, my go-to is Miles Whitehead, and I’d recommend him to anyone having camera troubles!
Once your collection has expanded past a single body and one or two lenses, it’s worth looking into the best way to store your gear. Cameras and lenses need to be stored in a dry, cool environment (sorry, Floridians) to avoid damage to the seals, and to stop fungus growing inside lenses. Ever picked up an old camera and smelled a musty aroma? That’s mould, my chum, and you want to avoid it as much as you can.
Ideally, cameras should be stored in a climate-controlled room with low humidity, away from direct sunlight, and inside an enclosure that protects them from dust. For displayed collections, the best solution is a glass case. For user cameras, the most common (and easiest) solution is to store your gear in a relatively small, sealed container and to throw a few moisture absorbing silica packets inside. This should absorb much of the extra moisture in the contained space. Replace the packets as needed and the camera will last forever.
Most shooters probably already have the ideal storage solution already – your camera bag! A nice, padded bag or backpack is perfectly suited to hold multiple bodies and lenses, so why not use it? As long as your bag isn’t damp or dusty or dirty, put your gear in a bag and then into a closet in your living space. Just like you, cameras and lenses don’t want to live their lives in a basement or attic where temperatures and moisture levels are uncomfortable. If your everyday camera bag accumulates rainwater and dust, buy a bag specifically for storage and never take it our of the house.
Remember to store lenses with both lens caps on and sitting upright when not on the camera. This way the lens will be safe from dust and the lubricant in the focusing mechanisms will stay where it’s supposed to, rather than migrate onto the aperture blades. When lenses are stored attached to a camera, make sure the caps are on as well – sunlight passing through the lens can act like a magnifying glass and burn a hole into shutter curtains.
As for camera bodies, if you have body caps, use them! They’ll stop dust getting into the body itself. Remember to remove batteries from any camera bodies you’ll be storing for more than a few weeks to avoid battery leakage, corrosion of electrical contacts, or unwanted battery depletion.
For most cameras it’s best to store them with shutters uncocked. This reduces stress on tension springs, curtains, and gears inside the camera body which can lead to shutter speeds becoming inaccurate. Of course there are certain exceptions – check your individual camera manual for advice on whether or not to store cameras with shutters cocked or relaxed.
You should also consider proper storage of your film stocks. After all, there’s no point buying expensive rolls of Velvia and letting them get ruined in a hot car glove box. All film rolls will have an expiry date – this is the date before which a manufacturer recommends using the film to achieve optimal (and predictable) results. Know these dates and stack your film with the freshest rolls on the bottom.
Personally, I store everything that’s not dollar-store film (sorry, Agfa Vista 200) in the salad crisper drawer of my fridge. Refrigerated film lasts much longer than film stored at room temperature – just make sure you acclimatise it properly before loading it into your camera. Thirty minutes at room temperature should be fine.
If you have a huge stock of film you want to use for years to come, you may also want to freeze your film in a frost-free freezer – just be sure to thaw them before use. Bear in mind that many 120 roll films are stored in foil packages, which don’t keep humidity out. You may want to keep 120 rolls in a plastic container, to keep the moisture out (another use for those handy little silica packets).
Inevitably a camera will break, or we will find a deal on a gorgeous but malfunctioning camera that’s simply too good to pass up. In some cases it’s even advisable to buy a slightly damaged or broken camera in order to get a great deal (as long as it can be fixed).
The simplest repairs are cosmetic repairs or replacement of simple parts – leatherette replacement, swapping a broken nameplate for one that’s intact, battery cover replacements, things like that. These uncomplicated repairs are easy, and can even be therapeutic relaxation for those of us with busy lives. We spent a few months live-streaming simple repairs, which you can find on YouTube. The basic principals can carry you through easy jobs like cleaning oily aperture blades, replacing capacitors, etc.
You’ll also need decent tools. Buy a good set of precision screwdrivers, a precision knife kit, a silicon repair mat with parts holders, a fine set of tweezers, and (believe it or not) dental tools. In addition, get some rubber stoppers to remove circular objects (such as lens bezels) and a lens spanner tool.
With good tools, patience, and ample pauses to refocus and center the mind when things go awry, it’s easy for even the most ham-handed among us to repair and improve these old cameras. When repairs are too complicated it’s best to simply pass the job off to a professional. There are still plenty of excellent repair shops operating today, and many that specifically focus on individual brands or models.
With a little time and love, these small steps can ensure your beloved gear will last for many years to come. Do you have any additional tips for maintaining camera gear? Let us know in the comments!