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Art Deco Cameras

Simple Guide to the successful use of a Vintage Camera

Vintage Cameras

Vintage Cameras

It is not always fully appreciated that vintage cameras are capable of producing stunning images if a few simple rules are followed. I am referring in particular to cameras made before 1950 but the guide can also help with using later models. Follow the simple rules below and be amazed at the quality of the images. Check out the images produced by these vintage cameras in my Photo Gallery.

Check the Camera

Check for Light leaks

Vintage cameras generally don't have foam light seals but watch out for the following:-

Clean the glass and mirrors

Set the camera to Time(T) or Bulb(B) mode and look through the lens from the film plane. If there are blemishes, dust or haze then the lens(es) will need cleaning. This may be a relatively simple task of cleaning both sides of a meniscus lens with cotton buds and your favourite glass cleaner. However, the shutter will often get in the way. Put the camera in Time(T) or Bulb(B) mode and clean through the aperture opening. Where there are two lenses or a plain glass covering at the front, then the front of the camera, or the back lens, will have to be removed. You can prise off the fronts of many box cameras. This will allow cleaning of the lenses and viewfinder glass and mirrors. If the camera has three lenses, a more comprehensive strip down will be required. Always take photographs at each stage of strip down to facilitate correct rebuild. Especially, note which way round the meniscus lenses are before removing them (usually, concave towards the aperture). Note that small blemishes won't affect the image but general haze will lead to low contrast images.

Check Shutter Speeds

Its worth checking the shutter speed of a vintage camera because it can change with age. I have had shutters running both slow and fast. Slow is not as much of a problem as fast because your film will be overexposed and modern film can take care of that. Knowledge of the actual shutter speed will help with exposure. Here's how you can measure the shutter speed of a camera. If you find this difficult, just scour the internet for ballpark figures of similar cameras.

Measure the f-number of the Aperture

The f-number of a lens is not always quoted on the camera or in the documentation. Knowledge of the f-number will be helpful for calculating exposure. Use the internet to get ballpark figures. Check out how to measure the f-number of a lens here.

Check Focus

This is the most difficult. Most vintage cameras are fixed focus so there is nothing to do. However, there are a few where adjustment is possible. In these cases, put some translucent material or ground glass on the film plane, set the focus at infinity and view a distant object. Adjust as necessary. See how to Check the Focus here.

Using the Camera

Read the Manual

Find a copy of the manual and read it carefully. Re-read until you understand the issues. Many old cameras operate in very similar manner to each other, but some are pretty counter-intuitive or even downright bizarre. Having a copy of the original manual and actually taking the time to read it can save an awful lot of time and aggravation getting a camera up and running. Just one thing to look out for. Be sceptical about the exposure suggestions in camera manuals. These were generally written for low ISO film. Try this Camera Manual site.

Getting Film for your camera

Cameras take a variety of film formats. The most common available films are 120, 127 and 35mm. If you want something other than those then you will need to adjust the camera to fit the film or adjust the film to fit the camera. Remember to keep any old film spools, backing papers, packs or cartridges that you may find in an old camera. They may be useful in the future when you want to cut down available film to produce the right format for the camera. Check out my page on Film Formats and how to source them. Also, check out my page on choosing film for your vintage camera.

Protect film from unwanted light

The most important thing to do is to cover the red window. Modern films are sensitive to red light and your film will be fogged by bright light if you don't do this. Only lift the covering in subdued light to wind to the next frame. I would also recommend keeping the camera in a bag when not actually shooting. This is because, if there are small light leaks or pinholes in the bellows, the fogging effect will be kept to a minimum.

Getting Correct Exposure

Getting the correct exposure is not be as important as you may think. Negative film has a lot of latitude for incorrect exposure. Most film can be overexposed by 3 stops (8 times) or underexposed by 1 stop (half light) and still give useable results. Kodak Portra has a documented range of -2 to +5 stops and still give a useable image. But hey, do the best you can. Consult my Sunny-16 page to see how you can take pictures without the use of an exposure meter. Where cameras have little or no adjustment, the only control you have is the film ISO. Use the Snapshot-Performance calculator to choose the best ISO for the lighting conditions you will be using. Be sceptical about the exposure suggestions in camera manuals. These were generally written for low ISO film.

Image sharpness

The sharpness of the image you get depends on three things:_

The quality of a lens does not change much with time. If the lens was of good quality when it was made, then as long as the lens is clean it will produce just as good images even 100 years later.

Obviously the accuracy of the lens focus will affect sharpness. If the focus is adjustable then try to get as close as possible to the correct focus. See how to Check and Adjust the Focus here.

By using a small aperture (large F number), the chance of getting good focus is increased. This is because higher F numbers give a greater depth of field. With a wider depth of field, it is more likely that your subject will be in the zone of acceptable focus. Check out my page on Depth of Field.

Exposure in Artificial Light

For many scenes using artificial lighting, the light level is predictable so that exposure can often be determined, with reasonable accuracy, from tabulated values. The tabulated exposure values work well for negative film which has a lot of latitude. However, when a camera is used in 'Timed' mode, the normal relationship between shutter speed and aperture breaks down. Use my calculator to find the estimated time required for an exposure under different lighting conditions.

Use a Tripod for slower speeds

Vintage cameras typically have shutter speeds below 1/100s. As the shutter speed is slow, it is advisable to use a tripod to get clear shake free images. However, holding it against a wall or other solid object would work as well. For quick snapshots, hold it firmly against your body or head.

Zone Focussing

Many vintage cameras have limited focussing ability and many are fixed focus. Get to know the zone that will be in focus for the camera and move to get the subject in that zone. For cameras that do allow focussing, it's a good idea to find out the depth of field for any focus setting. Use my Depth of Field Calculator to ensure your subject and surroundings will be in focus.

Wind on Before Taking Image

The accepted practice (seen in most manuals) is to wind on the film to the next exposure immediately after you take a shot, to avoid double exposure. For most vintage cameras (pre-1950) I disagree with this. Vintage cameras will have quite a bit of dust inside and if it has bellows, they will probably be disintegrating somewhat. The old bellows may shed bits when opened and closed. If you wind on after you take a shot, then the film will be exposed to this dust while the camera is waiting for the next shot, which could be hours, days or weeks. When the photo is taken, this dirt will be seen on the image as unexposed blobs. By winding on immediately before you take the shot you get a new bit of clean film. It is true that dust will get on the film after you have taken the shot, but this dirt will be washed off by the developer and will less likely affect the image. Another reason is that with time, the tension in the film will slacken which may cause a focus problem. Finally, it has been known with some cameras, that when you open the bellows, the suction pulls the film from the film gate.


Choose Subject Carefully

Choose a subject that matches the film you are using. For example, when using colour film, ensure that colour is an important part of the image. For Black and White, the structure of the image is more important. The film will also affect the amount of grain that will be visible in the image.

Good Luck