2015 November 13th     Tech   Camera


Cameras are complex machines.  Even the digital ones still have a number of moving parts.

Sooner or later, you may want to know how to maintain these devices.  

Or, maybe you'll think it sounds boring, and not worth doing.  I used to think that, too. 

Then one day I got a roll of film back from the lab, and every picture on the roll had a mysterious black object that shouldn't have been there.  As you can see in the picture, something went wrong for sure.    It was in the same place on every picture, so it didn't happen at the lab.

Friday the 13th bad luck?  Not quite.   Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking it had somethin' to do with, uhhh...

                  .... not doing any maintenance on the camera this season.

Now let's talk about how to keep your camera working.


I assume no responsibility if you wreck your camera,  haze up your lenses, dissolve grommets, washers, and whatsits, or otherwise make a mess.

A Quick Note

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In This Article

Start Simple

The Workspace

Basic Tools

Oil And Grease For Cameras

Basic Maintenance


Start Simple

Camera maintenance begins with inspection. 

Yep, just an inspection.  Nothin' fancy.

Simple inspection might have prevented the debacle of having a whole roll of 120 come back with a mysterious black shape in every frame. 

You know, the mysterious black shape we just saw a minute ago.

In fact, a simple "pre-flight inspection" can prevent a whole bunch of film-wasting mishaps. 

It's equally important for digital cameras.  Many problems can be avoided by simply inspecting and testing your camera before you need to go out on a photo shoot with it.   Go over it with a cleaning kit like this one, and you're all set.

This sounds so obvious, I know.  And yet, very few people even bother to do this.  Who wants to spend time looking their camera over for pieces of lint?  We're all too busy to do that, right?

There is always the possibility of some freak occurrence that would still happen even if you do a pre-flight inspection.  Such as:  I might have gotten the one film roll (in the whole warehouse) that had a torn piece of paper embedded in the roll.  And maybe that paper fell out of the roll when I loaded the film into the camera, and lodged itself in the lens path. 

Inspect anyway.

Check the optical paths for obstructions.  (Bold text... sort of a reminder-to-self, that.)

Check the film-winder mechanism.  Did anything fall into it?

Check the shutter.  Do the speeds look right?  You should get a feel for the gross differences:  a 1/200th shutter should not act like a 1/30th shutter.

If you want to get really fancy-- OK, it's not that fancy-- have a roll of test film that you don't care about.  Run it through the camera in the light, and watch how it advances.  Make sure it advances a full frame each time.  This is the time to look for slippage, not after you get back a roll that's doubled in 50% of the pictures and you can't go back and re-take them.

So, to conclude this section:  inspect your camera.  You may not need any tools for this, but it helps to have a basic cleaning kit and maybe a can of compressed-gas duster, just to clear out dust and debris as you go.  

The Workspace

In addition to providing a solid work surface, a good workspace should help you avoid losing tiny, difficult-to-replace camera parts.  Even for basic maintenance, you will sooner or later find yourself working with something that wants to roll off the table and insta-teleport to the Land of Crooked Gnomes Who Deal In Rare Camera Fasteners.  

Even larger objects sometimes do this.  I think they have something analogous to a DeBroglie wavelength.  But instead, it's like a Land of Crooked Gnomes wavelength.  What I'm saying is that there's some non-zero probability that even a battleship could insta-teleport there.

But whatever, let's talk about the workspace some more. An ultra-lightweight foldup table in a poorly-lit room is not the ideal place to work with precision parts.  A more solid table, desk, or workbench, is better.

Pro Tip:  If you're even somewhat handy, consider nailing a couple of thin boards around the edges of your work table.  They should provide a lip maybe 1/2" tall, all around the edge of the table, to keep small camera parts from rolling off.  (It won't stop parts bouncing off the table.)

It helps if the work area is well-lit.    I don't have one of these magnifier visors, but often I wish that I did.   It is very distracting to have to keep adjusting a pair of reading glasses, adjusting a cheap rickety desk lamp, and working on stuff at the same time.

It is preferable if you don't also serve dinner at the work table (or work at the dinner table), because I can pretty much guarantee your camera stuff is going to want to stay on that table for a while.  As in, whenever you're not using it to take pictures.   Meaning your spouse will probably get tired of your camera hobby, rather quickly.

In a future article we'll look at some easy workbench ideas, but this workbench looks pretty darned good for a pre-made.  I've used one very similar to it, so I think this would be a good choice.  And your spouse will thank you.  (Say...  what a great idea for a Christmas gift....)

Basic Tools

Cameras are precision machines, so they usually have precision fasteners. 

For basic maintenance you don't need a whole shop full of tools, but there are a few common ones you should have.  You'll be able to use most of them for electronics and other stuff, too.

Get a screwdriver set that has a large variety of bitsThe screwdriver tip has to be a close fit in the fastener slot.  When they slop around is when you start to strip out fastener heads... fast. 

It's better to ruin a cheap screwdriver bit than a hard-to-find fastener with some unknown thread pitch.  Because of this, you may feel you're better off having forty sets of economy jeweler's screwdrivers.  Even so, there will be many times you'll wish you also had a set of Starretts.  Quality screwdrivers seem to fit stuff better, because they are machined better and they don't have any sketchy plating or coatings that mess with the tolerances.

Make absolutely sure you have at least one set of these, which are Japanese Industry Standard.  Many cameras have fasteners of this type.  I've used so many different screwdrivers, obtained almost at random over the years, and I never knew what these were called.  I just knew that certain screwdrivers seemed to fit better, and I never knew why.  So yep, get these for certain. 

Of all the tools you could have for camera repair, screwdrivers are probably the one that requires the most variants.  Camera manufacturers seemed to relish the idea of using fasteners that fit only one camera.  The Japanese cameras of the 1970's and 80's probably were mostly standard, but if you ever have to work on earlier cameras, or ones made in USA or Europe, then expect to need a wider variety of screwdrivers.

Tweezers.  You need tweezers for camera maintenance.  As usual, you get what you pay for. It wouldn't hurt to have some wooden tweezers or polymer-tipped ones so you don't mar finishes and what-not.  

Tweezers are almost like screwdrivers, in that it helps to have a very wide selection.  I have only a couple types, but ten or thirty-seven types would be nice.

Needle-nose pliers:  every toolbox needs a set of these.

Spanner wrenches:  lenses are often held in place with a collar.  That collar has two slots at 180 degrees from one another.  The proper way to loosen these collars is with a lens spanner wrench.  Even a cheap one is 100 times better than using the wrong tool.  Using the wrong tool for this particular job is the surest way to put a big ol' scratch in something (maybe even you).

If have your own machine shop, you could make your own precision spanners.  I don't have that, so it's gonna be the cheap stuff.

Oil And Grease For Cameras

First of all, most newer cameras do not need any oil or grease.  These have already been applied at the factory.   It's much more important to keep these modern cameras and lenses clean.   A simple bulb duster should be in every camera toolkit.

Film cameras are a little different, usually.  They may require some oil, grease, or both.   Cameras with big hinges and gears will definitely benefit from these.  I'm thinking of medium and large format here.  It seems the older the camera, the more mechanical it is.  A better term might be "more fixable in your garage".    Metal and wood, the way it should be.

Some of us are inclined to want to spray everything down with WD-40 or PB Blaster.  We are from a world where most anything can be fixed by some magical petroleum distillates in a can.  And that's OK by me;  both of these are fine products.  And no, they didn't pay me to say that.  (I wish.)

Our favorite approach may work great on lawnmowers and that sort of thing.  However, be cautious what you spray on a camera.  When these products are needed for camera work, you'll be wanting to apply them with droppers, cotton swabs, toothpicks.... or precision oilers

Whatever you do, keep oil away from lenses;  it could haze the inside elements.  (Capillary action.)  Oil in the wrong places can cause a buildup of dust.  This is not something you want on aperture blades or shutters.   Many cameras have been gummed-up and even rendered inoperable from over-application of oil and grease.

The wrong kind of oil can cause drag, slowing down shutter leaves or mechanisms.  Or, an oil could be too thin, leading to excessive wear because the part actually required a heavier grade of oil. 

Some products can also dissolve stuff that shouldn't be dissolved. 

Bottom line:  what's OK for a door hinge might not be OK for a leaf shutter that has to open and close again in 1/250th of a second.

Generally if you want to oil something in or on a camera, you would probably do well with a tube of this, or a container of this.  Or, maybe even the old standby, 3-In-One.

Where you have big metal rails or slides, as on a large format camera, you'll probably want to use grease.  A regular axle grease or a marine grease would work plenty well, but for cameras you might prefer this kind.

This can also be helpful if you have an aluminum tripod;  aluminum has a tendency to gall.   (If you shoot in the winter at all, try this stuff.)  This should be part of your camera maintenance. 

Picture trying to set up a tripod that's all galled up... when your fingers are cold, the light is fading, and it's the greatest sunset you've seen all year.  (Who could have expected such a scenario...?)

Checking the basics.  Dust?  Random crud in the optical path?
Shutter working OK?

Inspect the light seals while you're at it.

I can see right now the viewfinder would benefit from a cotton swab and some isopropyl.

Basic Maintenance

Digital cameras can work for many years without any maintenance on your part, except maybe a pre-shoot inspection and the occasional sensor cleaning. 

A film camera might have already been around for thirty years or more.  A little periodic maintenance can help.

After using film cameras for decades (and still using decades-old film cameras), here's a list of what I seem to do most often:

- Checking lenses for haze, fungus, and oil
- Cleaning lens filters
- Inspecting parts for wear, galling, or breakage
- Checking for battery corrosion
- Cleaning dust and crud out of the film-transport areas
- Inspecting and sometimes replacing light seals
- Checking shutter speeds and light metering
- Checking for loose fasteners, pins, etc.

When you go to check shutter speeds, you'll also find out if the shutter is working at all.   Metal shutters can have a trace of rust or grime you can't even see, but it will prevent the shutter from working properly.  (This stuff works great for unsticking leaf shutters.)

Maybe we'll tackle some advanced maintenance issues in another article, but the ones here represent most of what you'll probably encounter.  Just looking for these things will keep you busy enough each season.


This has been an introduction to camera maintenance. 

The most important piece of maintenance is to inspect your camera before each photo shoot.   This is true for both digital and film.

Beyond that, the typical camera may have seven or eight things to address.  Look for these before you go out and take pictures, not afterward (the way I did this year.)

With a basic set of tools and some patience, you can keep your vintage film camera working for many years... and hopefully, delivering the pictures of a lifetime.  The extra care sure beats getting back a roll of messed-up film and wondering what happened.

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