January 10, 2022
Benedict Brain meets John Quantick, the Mr Fixit of film cameras, to learn more about the art and craft of caring for your analog gear
Enter Black on white, a camera repair shop in Bristol, is like stepping into Aladdin’s cave filled with photographic gadgets. A photographic paradise. Shelves are stacked with old film cameras in various states of repair and devices to measure this and adjust that. Owner and camera wizard John Quantick is at the store, located in one of the trendiest areas of town, fixing cameras for over 30 years.
His main focus is on repairing and restoring film rather than digital cameras, although he also works on digital cameras. As you’d expect, his business has seen some downturns as digital photography has taken hold, however, in recent years he’s become increasingly busy, especially with young people coming through his doors. eager to experience the “real” image making process.
Older punters also reappear, returning to the good old days of cinema. I’m here for advice on how to maintain and care for a film camera, what to look for when buying a used camera, and to learn more about John’s process for establishing the condition of the camera and how he goes about the repair process.
When a camera arrives, John must first establish what condition it is in and has some basic principles to follow. The first is the shutter. “I especially want to know if the shutter works”, explains John. “I want to know what blinds go off and establish what shutter speeds do. I have a machine – a shutter speed tester – that tells me exactly what the blinds are doing and if the shutter speeds are accurate.
The shutter is often pulled out, which is usually due to lubrication or its lack. As a camera ages, the lubricant dries out and the blinds drift, affecting the accuracy of speeds. Once I have access to the blinds mechanism, I can properly lubricate and then adjust the blinds and speeds to be correct. This is mainly due to age and there is not much you can do to prevent it other than having it serviced regularly. Fabric blinds are the worst for drift speeds because they stretch.
The whole process of a functional test is to eliminate unknowns and the next step for John is to determine if the lens mount is square and aligned with the film plane, which can lead to focusing issues. on point. “Most often this is not the case on older film cameras,” reveals John, who adds, “It’s probably because the camera fell or wobbled with big lenses attached. .
I use a dial indicator to determine if it’s off and if so I can stall it easily. We’re only talking about microns in alignment, but even these very small amounts can show up with parts of the image appearing oddly soft. On older cameras, the front alignment is almost always wrong.’ Using a light box, John will also establish the accuracy of the camera’s light meter if there is one in the camera.
Finally, John checks the lens. “I use a collimator,” John explains, looking down the barrel of the camera. “I look at whether the lens is in focus or if it’s the body that’s off, and then I work on the net in between. I’m just trying to establish whether a sharp image is forming on the film plane and I wonder if things are clear or not.
If there is still a problem and I know that the image on the film plane is good, I can assume that the problem could be with the rangefinder. I’m going to check the rangefinder; it is a separate reflex system with the mirror and the screen and over time things drift here too. It’s about eliminating and isolating problems.
Secondary pitfalls to avoid
John is very hesitant to buy used equipment online without having the opportunity to see it first. ‘It’s 50-50…it’s a dangerous area, you just don’t know the status of what you’re looking at; a lot of problems are hidden, so it’s really hit and miss. Looking around thrift and charity shops as well as flea markets and garage sales is a much better idea.
John tells me the first thing to look at is the shutter. “A simple audio test at a shutter speed of about a second should give you an idea of how well the shutter works, as does the ‘feel’ of the winding mechanism,” says John. Of course, visual inspection is also essential. “Look through the viewfinder and see what it looks like at infinity because everything is set back from infinity,” says John.
“Also look for mold and corrosion, especially in the battery case. Batteries left in cameras for a long time leak, and the acid that seeps in can severely degrade the wiring, deep in the camera, causing all sorts of problems. Fortunately, most older film cameras are primarily mechanical, so complex electrical systems etc. are less of a problem. Finally, a full functional test, to establish the parameters mentioned in this feature, will give you peace of mind that the lens alignment, shutter speeds and light meters are all working, and will set you back £30.
John’s top tips for maintaining your film camera
Properly dry your camera in a dry, open place. Do not leave it in your camera bag, especially if it has been wet and/or cold. Fungi really thrive in dark, airless conditions like a bag, and the moisture from condensation feeds the spores. By leaving your camera in the bag, you are essentially creating the perfect conditions for mushroom growth.
To sweep up
Use a makeup brush such as a soft blush brush to gently remove dust and heavy sand so they don’t scratch the lens. A blower brush can also be useful for this. Don’t be tempted to blow with your mouth as saliva can easily end up on the camera or lens, causing damage. Makeup brushes are widely available and inexpensive.
It sounds obvious, but one of the best ways to care for and maintain your film camera is to use a strap to prevent you from accidentally dropping it. If you’re going for the ‘hipster movie shooter vibe’, there are plenty of cool strings to choose from, and again, many are reasonably priced. A decent padded bag is also essential.
John suggests that the best way to protect the front of the lens is to use a simple UV filter. Keep the rear lens cap on (well, both really) so dust doesn’t collect and fall into the camera (especially true for digital cameras with sensors). Try to change as few objectives on the field as possible; and if necessary, find a place sheltered from the wind.
If you won’t be using your film camera for an extended period of time, remove the batteries to avoid corrosion issues if acid begins to leak in. Leave the shutter in the released position to relieve shutter stress. Finally, disconnect the lens and use the body and lens caps to store it; it is also a good practice on long trips to relieve the lens mount.
John Quantick started repairing cameras at 18. He spent a few years in London learning medium format before returning to Bristol in the 1980s where he worked at Pelling and Cross for about 4 years working on professional material. In 1987 John opened his Black on White camera repair shop and it is still going strong today. See www.bonwcameras.co.uk.
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