I follow several photography groups on Facebook and besides making the occasional complimentary comment about someone’s gear or a photograph, I rarely engage in conversation. It’s mostly because I have found that even the ones that start out positive tend to make wild swings in the other direction and I just don’t have the truck for that.
Recently, however, I did join in on a discussion in which one person asked if anyone knew a good source for a CLA on his Pentax ME Super. Several people, including myself, weighed in with suggestions while another asked why anyone would waste their money servicing an old camera when, in many cases, you can just buy another for far less than the cost of a CLA.
The guy had a point. There are ME Super bodies all over eBay for under fifty bucks and a good service from a qualified tech will probably cost nearly twice that. There was a joke told on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update some years back about a cat requiring hip replacement surgery. “Cat hip replacement surgery—$5,000. Total cat replacement—$50.” Using the cat analogy, I can certainly see that some photographers would rather toss an old malfunctioning camera and replace it with a new one rather than having it serviced.
After many years of buying and using old film cameras, I am squarely in the CLA camp. First, I patiently shop for any old camera I have an interest in. If I am shopping on eBay, I try and look for listings where the seller has taken care with his photos and in writing the item description. I’m also not afraid to ask the seller questions and I pay attention to the response. Kind, courteous and helpful responses signify an honest seller. At least that has been my experience. I also only buy from those with 100% positive feedback. In ten years of buying cameras online, I have only been stung twice and both times it was because I didn’t follow my own rules. These two cameras were the only ones I tossed out and replaced with new ones.
When a new to me camera arrives, I do a quick visual inspection and check for any nicks, dents or dings that might not have been apparent in the online photos. I also look for rusty screws which is a sure sign that there may be issues lurking inside. I check the battery compartment for corrosion or battery leakage residue as well as look at the condition of the bottom plate. Next up is the film chamber. I check the film door latch and alignment, inspect the film guide rails, shutter curtain and all of the foam seals. I’ve never met an old camera that didn’t need new seals and many of the issues you see in the Facebook forums are problems relating to light leaks caused by failing light seals.
Next up, I check the lens mount for excess wear and take a peek inside the mirror box with a flashlight paying special attention to the mirror bumper foam and other mirror box foams. Many times, a camera won’t focus to infinity because the foam has deteriorated and is causing the mirror to be out of alignment. Gooey foam can also cause the mirror in a single lens reflex camera to stick. So many old camera woes can be cured with a re-foam.
After the visual inspection, I insert a battery and try the camera’s battery check feature. This is the first test of an old camera’s circuitry. After mounting a lens, I switch on the meter and check for a needle or LED readout and check to see if the meter reacts to shutter speed or aperture changes. Then, I fire the camera through all of its shutter speeds. If all seems good, I go out and have some fun!
Even if an old camera functions as designed, if I enjoy shooting it, I’ll invest in a CLA. I am always amazed at how wonderful these old cameras are when they return from a good service. They sound better, the film advance is smoother, shutter and meter have been calibrated and…they even smell good!
If a camera is in nice shape cosmetically and you enjoy using it, I feel is it always wiser to service a camera you already know rather than rolling the dice on a new one. And honestly, after 30, 40, 50 or more years of service, these wonderful old machines deserve a little “spa time.”