Film Isn't Dead - Bring a Vintage Camera Back to Life

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While I am fully immersed in the awesome world of digital photography and editing, I continue to shoot film. I have a collection of vintage cameras - many from the early 1900's - and am working to put black and white film through as many of them as I can.

Vintage Cameras and a Fondness for Film: The B&H Photography Podcast

B&H Photo Video is the largest independent retailer of its kind in the USA and they have one of the top rated photography podcasts out there.  I had the opportunity to be a guest on the podcast and talk about vintage cameras.

Click on the B&H Photography Podcast logo and have a listen!

As a follow up to the podcast, I have outlined below some of my key learnings on how to put film through a vintage camera. 

New Photos from Vintage Cameras

Here are some photos taken with a few of the cameras in my collection. The images are shown first and then a photo of the camera that was used:

  Circa 1915 Folding Ensign 2 ¼ B

  Circa 1945 Kodak Jiffy Six-20 Series II

  Circa 1938 Kodak Baby Brownie

  Circa 1929 Vest Pocket Kodak Model B

  1960 Mamiya C330

  1926 ANSCO No 1A folding bed camera

  1980 Minolta XD11

How to Bring a Vintage Camera Back to Life

Here are some things to look for when buying a vintage camera or using one that you already own:

Is the camera clean? When it comes to vintage cameras, to some extent you can judge a book by its cover. If the camera exterior appears in good shape, no dents etc, then there is a better chance that the internal mechanism and lens are good.

Look at the lens. Is there any mildew or mold? If there is and you are looking at buying a relatively inexpensive camera (a Kodak box brownie for $15), you might just want to look at the next camera. If you are looking to use a camera you already own – one handed down in the family – and there is something on the lens, then it is cleaning time (more on that below).

Try the shutter. Open up the camera as if you were loading film and look through the camera to the shutter. Point the lens to a light (not too bright) and actuate the shutter multiple times. You should see the shutter opening and closing. Many basic vintage cameras had a single shutter speed of around 1/40 or 1/50 second and they might slow down a bit over the decades. It should be easy to tell whether a shutter is around 1/40 second or something significantly slower. If the camera has multiple shutter speeds, test them all out. If the shutter is opening and closing in a crisp manner and in a fraction of a second, the shutter is probably good to go.

Check for light leaks in the body or bellows. Back to the concept of judging a book by its cover, if a box camera looks in good shape, has no dents, opens and closes smoothly, then it probably doesn’t have any light leaks. Not the same for bellow cameras. The way to test these cameras is to extend the bellows, take the camera back off, place a flashlight into the bellows and, in a dark space, move the light around and look for any pinhole light leaks. A small flashlight that can be fully inserted is going to do a better job than the light on your cell phone. Pinholes can be effectively sealed using liquid electrical tape (sold in many hardware, DIY stores - see the photo below). Apply a thin coat using a toothpick, let it dry and add additional coats as required. Larger holes in bellows are a problem: it might be that the camera is now relegated to being a great looking display item.

Clean the lens and the rest of the camera. Blow any dust off the lens and wipe gently with a brush or microfiber cloth. Do this on the inside and outside of the lens. If the outer surfaces of the lens are still dirty – including any mold or mildew - then use some lens cleaning fluid. Don’t put the fluid directly on the lens but instead onto a cloth and clean in a gentle circular fashion. I use pre-moistened Zeiss lens wipes. If the lens has multiple pieces of glass and it is dirty between them, then it might be best to first search the internet on how to take apart the particular lens. If you think this is beyond your expertise, consider using the lens as is (dirt might actually enhance the vintage look of your image) or consider paying someone to clean it for you. Clean the camera: blow out dust and wipe the outside with a damp cloth.

Check the red window. Many vintage cameras that used roll film have a little red window on the back. This allows you to see the markings on the paper backing of the film which guide you when advancing the film. The backing paper has multiple sets of numbers on it. Taking 120 film cameras as an example, if the camera is designed to take square images (nominally 6cm x 6 cm or 2 ¼ inch by 2 ¼), then the red window would be in the centre of the camera back and it would line up with numbers 1 to 12 on the film backing paper. If the camera took smaller images (6 cm by 4.5 cm) then the red window would be on the left side and line up with a set of numbers from 1 to 16. Similarly for cameras that take larger negatives the window would be on the other side. If the camera’s red window is loose or has fallen out and you have it, then you can simply glue it back in place. Most glues will work – I use white craft glue. If the window is missing, you can cut a new window from a sheet of red plastic. A good source is the plastic presentation covers sold in stationary stores. The material and shade of red are not critical.

Get some film. If your vintage camera takes 35mm film cassettes or 120 roll film then you are in luck because both can still be easily purchased. 620 film was another very popular film stock back in the day. Introduced in the 1930’s, it is the same size as 120 film but the spools are smaller. This film is no longer commercially made but you have three options for using a 620 film camera. The first is you can buy 620 film from a specialty shop. It is expensive because they are likely hand-spooling 120 film stock onto 620 spools. Still this might be a good way to start especially if you need as second 620 spool. All roll films need an empty take-up spool. The second way to shoot with a 620 film camera is to trim the ends of 620 spools so that they fit into the camera. This works well for some people and cameras but not so well for others. The third option is to respool 120 film onto 620 spools in a light-tight changing bag or in a totally dark room. I respool film in a changing bag and, with some practice, I can now respool two rolls in about 10 minutes.  --  There were also film stocks that were smaller than 120. They are not made anymore but you can modify 120 film to work. A very popular small film format was 127. Kodak introduce it in 1912 along with the "Vest Pocket Kodak" folding camera. This was a compact alternative to larger portable cameras that used 120 film. I have a Vest Pocket Kodak Model B, it is 2.5 by 5 inches and 1 inch thick and it is a beauty. I cut 120 film using a cigar cutter that has with one of the two blades dulled so only one is cutting (see the photo below). I then respool it in a changing bag onto 127 spools. You can also buy 127 film for a premium.  --  There are multiple film stocks that were bigger / wider than 120. This includes Kodak 116 and 130 film and Ansco 6A and 6B film. It is really hard to find any film this wide but you can modify 120 spools to fit. As shown in the photo below, an easy option is to use a plastic plug that is sold as a dry wall anchor. Trim the plug as required and push it into the end of a 120 spool. This works but the narrower 120 will not lie flat against the pressure plate in the camera and a portion of your negative will likely be out of focus. If you are looking to buy a vintage camera you might want to stay away from ones with larger film stock.  --  For most vintage cameras, it is probably best to start with a lower ISO film (80 or 100 ISO) and decide if that works for your camera. Many vintage cameras have no adjustments to aperture and /or shutter speed and the film ISO is an important decision. (Most "standard" film a hundred years ago was 25 to 50 ISO and the standard speeds increased over the decades.) Other cameras have functionality to vary the speed and / or aperture and this opens up more options for film speed.

Take some photos! Vintage camera instruction manuals tend to be concise and fun period pieces to read. You can probably find the manual you need on the internet and IMHO it is worth the time. If there are exposure adjustments that can be made then there will be guidance such as the Sunny 16 Rule or other ways to estimate exposure without a light meter. Levers, tabs and dials will be explained.

Have fun bringing a vintage camera back to life!

Do you Recognize these People?

I found a Roll of Film that is Maybe 60 Years Old

I found a 60 year old roll of film in a camera I bought! I felt I owed it to the photographer before me to get the film developed. I sent it off to Film Rescue International and they were able to recover all 8 images from the film. Does anyone know who these folks are? The camera is a Vest Pocket Kodak Model B and I purchased it in late 2019 on eBay from a reseller based in the USA (New England maybe). I emailed them about the film but never heard back. Looks like I have more digging to do.

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