If you want to take up film photography right now, you’ll almost certainly have to buy a second-hand (or third-hand) camera, or put a hurting on your bank accounts. New film cameras are either junk, or they cost thousands of dollars, and even used (newer) film camera prices are creeping up. It’s far less easy than you’d think to get an esoteric camera.
Popular models like the Nikon FE2 are now at around $200-300 for a good example, and the cult Contax T2—a 35mm compact rangefinder—is getting close to $2K. The good news is that this is mostly driven by fashion and looks. If you pick a less trendy model, it will be much more affordable. Older cameras are also mostly mechanical, so if you pick the right one, you can repair it yourself. It’s the best way into a fascinating hobby.
That’s general advice you can get anywhere, though. In this post, and at least a couple more to come, I’m going to find, buy, and fix up a 35mm SLR camera, showing you how I did it along the way, step by step.
What we’re buying: 35mm SLR
For this project, we’re going to find a 35mm SLR from the 1970s or 1980s. Automated, compact 35mm point-and-shoots might be more attractive when it comes to ease of use, but based on my reading, they tend to be harder to repair and easier to break. Some compacts, like the Olympus Trip 35, sold so many units that it’s still practical (and affordable) to buy two and turn them into one working camera. With 10 million units sold over 17 years, there are a lot of spares still locked up in attics and garages.
The very best option, for repairs and parts, seems to be a professional-grade 35mm SLR. These were built to be repaired, and for some, you can still find NOS (new old stock) parts on eBay. These photographer-minded models were generally built to a higher standard, and so less likely to fail in the first place. They were also designed with repair in mind, and you can often find detailed schematics and repair manuals scanned on the internet. Here’s a set for Olympus cameras, for example.
The downside of pro-level cameras is that, while some of the parts may be cheap, even non-functioning camera bodies can be expensive. Check before you invest, as some camera bodies can still fetch a few hundred dollars. On the bright side, it validates the enthusiasm in these models, but it can be irksome if you’re not a collector.
We’re also limiting our pool to 1970s and 1980s cameras. Look for stuff before this, and the materials and moving parts get too old and esoteric. Look after this, and there are too many electronics to worry about, at least for a supposedly fun side project. The late 70s to early 80s is the sweet spot for well-built mechanical cameras, with simple enough electronics for at-home repairs. But really, we want to avoid electronic problems wherever possible, as we’ll see later.
Choosing a camera
Maybe you have a camera model in mind already, a camera you’ve coveted since you were young. Now you can afford it! Or perhaps you want the same model you used years ago. If you own a Nikon DSLR, then you should pick a Nikon film SLR because the lenses will be compatible to some extent. It’s why I also recommend buying a 10-year-old DSLR.
Otherwise, stick to popular brands. While the variety of film camera companies is worth celebrating, mainstream cameras were more numerous, their lines and models a bit more consistent, and so you’re more likely to find help and documentation on the web. iFixit’s list of camera repair guides includes Nikon, Minolta, Olympus, and Canon, for starters. Do some research, and set up alerts on your favorite local classified ad sites. I prefer classified ads to Ebay, and if possible I like to be able to check the camera before buying. But in this case, as long as you can get a good description of the model and known faults, you’re good.
Don’t be turned off by listings that openly describe a camera as “Broken” or even “Parts only.” I’ve found that sellers tend to be a lot more open about the faults of broken cameras then attic-divers who sell a camera as-is without much testing or knowledge. Also, you may find cameras from the 1970s that are cosmetically mint, but don’t work. If the price is right, these may be worth a punt. And if you get some experience fixing up old cameras, these can be repaired and sold on at a good profit.
Once you’ve narrowed your selection, do a bit of research on the models. I found a sweet-looking Minolta X-700, but it had a common fault that can only be repaired by replacing a capacitor. For you, that might be the perfect repair, but I prefer mechanical work to soldering on a board. Try to pick something you’ll enjoy working on.
And try to avoid all but the most basic electronic work. Many cameras from this era had analog circuits, some were digital.All of them are a pain to repair, or even to diagnose, in my opinion. At best, you may be able to swap in a circuit board from a second donor body, or switch in some smaller components (like resistors and capacitors). Generally, though, you can’t know if an electrical issue is one thing, or many things, until you get it open.
Which brings us to another tip. Sometimes broken cameras are sold off in lots. You might get a couple of identical bodies — perfect for cannibalization — and often there will be lenses and other accessories thrown in. These can be a great bet, and sometimes the cameras will actually work perfectly. On the other hand, the seller likely won’t know what’s wrong with the cameras, if anything.
Most of the tools you already have are good for camera repair, but you’ll need at least two specialist tools. One is a set of small JIS, or Japanese Industrial Standard screwdrivers. These are cross-head screwdrivers, but the tips have a different profile to Phillips screwdrivers. If you use a Phillips screwdriver with a JIS screw, you risk damaging the screw and stripping the cross. JIS screwdrivers can safely be used with Phillips screws, however. You can pick up a set of JIS Drivers set of JIS drivers at the iFixit store. Or you can find JIS sizes 000, 00, 0, and 1 inside the Mako, Manta, and Pro Tech Toolkits.
You will also need some kind of pin wrench, to open rings and disks, and tweezers of various kinds to maneuver tiny screws and other components (we sell a few of those, too). For an excellent, in-depth look at the tools needed for camera repair, check out this article by Richard Haw.
My Olympus OM-2n
I already have a both digital and film Nikon bodies, and a few old lenses, so the sensible route would be to buy Nikon again for lens compatibility. But for this article I picked up an Olympus OM-2n, manufactured from 1979 to 1984. The OM-2n is a very compact (even for today) body, with some automations and excellent, easy-to-use controls. I’ve always liked Olympus cameras, and luckily, I found a near-mint example for just €35, or around $38. The seller said that the light meter and other electronics worked fine. The problem was the film winder and/or shutter release, both of which are stuck.
Repair guides and support for Olympus digital cameras.View Device
I Googled the model and the problem, and saw several immediate solutions. One was a mis-aligned spring inside. The other was simply failing to press a “reset” button after inserting new batteries. We’ll get to the diagnosis in the next installment, but for now, here are a few shots of the OM-2n with its top and bottom plates removed, so you can see the kind of thing you’re getting yourself into.
At this stage, I have no idea if this repair is even possible, but it’s already a fun, relatively affordable investigative project—with the bonus that I have an excuse to buy new tools. Next post, we’ll open up the camera and see what kind of job we’ve got ahead of us.