Nikon DP-20 finder for the F4

Recently, as part of a beautiful, practically unused, late model Nikon F4s which (ahem) came my way, I immediately noticed a problem with the DP-20 finder. There was quite a heavy infestation of fungus on at least one of the internal eyepiece surfaces which was so bad it made viewing the lower meter readout difficult, blurring the LCD. I’d already knocked the seller down quite a bit (without knowing about this issue, of course) and so my initial reaction was not to demand a refund. I’ve fixed this kind of thing before – in lenses and more simple finder pieces – so how difficult would it be to eliminate the fungus from this otherwise pristine DP-20 and restore it to minty condition?

Well, as it turns out, quite difficult. But feasible, given care and patience.

This project required some careful planning, given the condition and obvious complexity of the finder. I got hold of the service manual for this finder which, unfortunately, is an x-generation photocopy scanned by an ancient scanner (probably) and so the image quality gives rise to a fair amount of guesswork. I was so determined to get this right that I bought a well-used finder for a cheap price, so that I could practice and note any caveats before working on the “real thing”. At worst, I’d spam it up completely and learn something in the process; at best I’d have a working spare finder that I could use for parts if need be. The practice run went very well in the end; a very grubby, fungus-infested DP-20 (though not nearly as badly affected as the minty one) with decomposing foam seals is now very clean, fungus-free, re-sealed and functioning perfectly, with just a few external scratch marks. I’m keeping it as a spare.

Now much more confident that I could do this, I set to work on the minty one. I’ll describe the steps I took in case this is of use to anyone else who wants to have a go at restoring their own finder. Note that this doesn’t require a complete disassembly but it’s worth mentioning that the finder optics and areas around are quite complex and fragile. With care there should be no need to de-solder any wires, but some patience is required.

The finder optics comprise three separate lenses in front of the prism (not including the screw-in eyepiece on the outside of the casing). The first lens is held in place by two small screws, whereas the second, which is able to travel forwards and backwards, is held in only at the top by the dioptre adjustment mechanism. The third and final lens, before we reach the viewing edge of the prism, is attached to the meter cell unit and is the most difficult to work on. The worst possible area for an infestation of fungus, if we were to try to remove it, would be the back-side of the third lens. Guess where it was in my finder.

Step one, a challenge in itself, is to remove the centre parts of the dioptre dial and meter selector dial without causing too much damage. These plastic discs cover the screws that need to be removed in order to remove the dials. They are held in with glue and are, frankly, a pig to remove because it’s likely that there will be some degree of marking to the outer parts of the dials during removal. To minimise this I covered the outer dials with insulation tape and then gently levered the covers out using a very small screwdriver. Once the screws are exposed both dials can be removed. Take care with the two washers for the meter selector dial: the white plastic one goes against the inside of the dial and the black foam one goes against the case.

After removing the four black screws of the outer case, the top can be lifted away from the body. A little bit of wiggling may be required here. The wires attaching the flash shoe to the main body are quite long and I didn’t need to detach them at all. With the main cover off the first lens can be seen directly, with the two screws holding it in place. 

Take the first lens off and inspect both surfaces; with luck any fungus will be here (this is where it was, mostly, in the “scruffy” finder with a tiny bit also on the front surface of the second lens). If there’s some on the back surface of the second lens then this can be taken out by first loosening the dioptre adjustment unit which sits on top. Notice the two small screws holding this part down (not the larger one; that can stay in place) and loosen them a a bit. Be careful here as the two mercury switches are held by this unit and they are glued to the unit underneath, yet there’s some play to take advantage of. The top adjustment unit may be lifted just enough to wiggle out the second lens, which is held there by the pin of the swinging arm. Again, inspect both surfaces.

If there’s fungus on the front surface of the third lens, it can be treated in-situ. If it’s on the back side, though, then the meter cell housing needs to be taken out. There are two screws holding this in place – a small one and a larger one, but this unit is the most difficult to get out so take extra care here. Remove both screws. Facing the lens, first lift the left side and then lift the right side a little. It may not appear to want to move much but persevere here, gently lifting either side and twisting slightly, firstly at the top, outwards, and then push up, swinging out at the base. Watch for wires snagging and gently lift them out of the way so that the lens/cell unit can swing outwards. Don’t pull it too far out. To clean the back side of this lens it will be best to turn the whole lot upside-down and move the unit out far enough to get at the surface, but no more. 

DP-20 insides
Lens no. 3 of the eyepiece group – clean and clear. Nearly half of the inside surface was covered in fungus.
DP-20 eyepiece lens group holder- side view
Side view. Notice one of the mercury switches and wires going into one of the meter cells in the lower left of the picture.

Once clean, re-assemble everything in reverse and look for any wires that may have become detached. I had just one such casualty – the black wire of one of the mercury switches – which was a simple fix with a soldering iron.

Neither the fungus in scruffy nor that in minty had etched the glass coatings at all and so I was able to remove it completely, using my usual method. There’s no secret to this, although people tend to have their preferences as to which tools and compounds to use. I have cleaned fungus from photographic optics for a few years and I’ve never had any return, using simple, easily obtainable isopropanol, cotton buds, cocktail sticks and certain brands of optical cleaning wipes which are, specifically, impregnated with alcohol. It’s the cocktail stick wrapped in an optical wipe which really does the trick, with gentle rubbing over the affected area. If necessary, the area can be finished off with an optical-grade microfibre cloth. Perhaps stronger chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide, may be required for very well-established fungus but I’ve yet to encounter any.


Minolta X-700

Unless you’re getting on a bit, like me, you probably won’t associate the Minolta brand name with photography equipment, or even necessarily have heard of them. They were a major player, though, particularly in the 1970s to 1990s, with at least a couple of firsts: the first multi-mode autoexposure SLR, the XD7 (a.k.a. XD in Japan and XD11 in the U.S.A.) and the first body-centric AF SLR in the 7000 AF. In addition, the Minolta “Acute Matte” focus screen technology was provided to Hasselblad for their 501/503 (and contemporary) series of cameras which, I can state from experience, makes a huge difference in terms of preview image clarity, if not ease of focus. Unfortunately, despite their innovations, Minolta couldn’t compete with the market leaders later on, and they merged with Konica before the camera division was entirely bought-out by Sony in 2006.

Sony continued with A-mount DSLRs, using the same Minolta AF mount (which differed from the pre-AF MD/MC mount) but are now concentrating on their E-mount which is the basis of their mirrorless system and is entirely different. There’s little doubt, though, that Sony’s ability to continuously innovate their camera line has been, in part, thanks to the knowledge and resources gained through Minolta and Konica Minolta.

Going back to 1985, I briefly owned a used XD7, for about a week, but had to return it because it was faulty. I’d gone in for the X-300, the only one of the current models that I could afford, and the shop had offered the second-hand XD7 as an alternative. I really liked it but it wasn’t usable in the end, so I opted to go with the original choice and enjoyed the X-300 for the next couple of years. Of course, the one I really wanted at the time was the X-700 but that was out of the question. The X-300 was fine if not ultimately a little too restricted but, by the time I was able to upgrade, instead of the X-700 I switched to Nikon. One thing I do remember is how much I liked the Minolta 50mm f/1.7, in terms of clarity and colour rendition, and how I found Nikon’s kit-50mm a little lacklustre by comparison!

In recent years, with memories of that XD7 and the 50mm on the X-300, I have been battling with the desire to buy back into yet another SLR system. I’ve been good and I’ve been sensible – until now. Whilst on holiday I wandered into an antique shop and immediately spotted (my camera radar is always operational with practically zero downtime) a Minolta X-700 in a case, with a Tokina AT-X 28-85mm 1:3.5-4.5 attached. They wanted £28 for the lot.


Let’s get the lens out of the way first. The AT-X range from Tokina was their top-of-the-line “pro” series and they are, reputedly, excellent. The one attached to this X-700 is pristine (now that I have given it an external clean-up) with no fungus or marks, whatsoever. Clean, clear and mechanically perfect; this lens alone is worth more than £28.

I was trying to test the camera in the shop but the owner didn’t know much about it. He has a “camera guy” who checks and provides all of his antique cameras and this person suggests prices accordingly. I, therefore, assumed the camera was non-funcional as this is how it appeared to be, despite trying some new batteries which the shop owner happened to have. I went away to have a think. Some quick research later and I discovered that the main reason for failure of this model is one or both of two certain capacitors – one in the base and the other beneath the top cover – which are prone to failure. I am fairly adept with a soldering iron and so the replacement of one or two capacitors is a minor challenge which I accepted. A quick negotiation down to £25 later and the kit was mine.

I immediately ditched the case. I wouldn’t normally do this but it was literally falling apart in my hands, leaving a trail of dust and debris in its wake. This is what happens when manufacturers cut costs and produce cruddy fabric cases covered in plastic faux-leather which disintegrates horribly. This is in stark contrast to the Pentax kit case for the Spotmatic range: real leather,  strong and beautiful (so much so that I have two). Even the Pentax case for the later ME series, also fabric with a faux-leather covering which has invariably cracked by now, is usually sturdy and intact. What were you thinking, Minolta?

Anyway, back to the camera itself. Once back indoors I nicked a battery from another camera I had with me and cleaned the contacts of the X-700 thoroughly. Battery in, power on and finger on the touch-sensitive button… the meter sprang to life and the shutter fired! No soldering necessary. As far as I can tell without having had the chance to test with film yet, this camera is fully functional.

There’s work to do, though. I have removed the decayed mirror-buffer foam, which was not easy. The issue, with Minolta in particular, is that they tend to favour having a baffle between the lens mount and mirror box, which obscures the top front of the mirror box and, therefore, the mirror bumper. I recently worked on a Pentax S3 which had the same and it’s a pig to remove old debris and replace with new foam. I now need to replace the mirror bumper and clean out the decayed foam making up the light seals around the film door, and replace all of those. Then it’s time to film-test.


Pentax ME 

Not the ME Super, but perhaps the ME Better!

Pentax ME

I think I struck lucky with this one. Found, by chance, when searching for a Pentax-M 50mm lens, the description of this item detailed the lens only and was priced at about the same as the lens alone would go for. But all the pics showed the camera too, so I asked the seller to confirm what was included in the sale. The answer: everything! I snapped it up even though I wasn’t sure I’d need the lens (see previous post) because the camera looked so clean. No knowing whether or not it would work, though, so it was another cheap punt.

This is the camera that led to the later, and much more popular, ME Super. The latter has many refinements but, as I have discovered, also involved some cost and weight reduction by replacing some of the metals with plastics. One of the reasons I prefer the look of the plain ME is the metal top cover with the ASAHI stamp; the Super has a top cover which is mostly plastic but plated with a metallic outer and, as such, has a slightly different appearance. There are no buttons near the shutter dial on the ME because it’s not possible to set manual shutter speeds on this model; it’s aperture priority only apart from a purely mechanical speed of 1/100s (x-synch for flash) and B. The shutter dial itself is more robust on the ME, compared with the all-plastic affair of the Super, and I prefer it even though it results in a more fiddly process to remove the top cover. Most of the remaining differences between the ME and the Super are inside.

So, upon arrival, the lens seemed fine apart from the fact that it was very dusty inside. No fungus (unlike the one that had arrived just prior to this) and mechanics were fine. This was a simple, half-hour job to dis-assemble, separate the main groups either side of the aperture blades and blow out the vast majority of the dust that had settled onto the two surfaces there.

I noticed immediately that the camera’s wind-on lever was loose when near the end of its travel and it didn’t click closed. The shutter, though, seemed fine as did the electronics and meter display. I knew what this meant: the “click spring” had broken off inside. The purpose of this spring is to secure the wind-on lever close to the camera body to, firstly, switch off the meter and, secondly, prevent accidental partial wind-on. Easily overlooked but should not be; the broken-off bit of metal can travel down into the workings or even shutter and seriously jam or permanently break something. I decided to resist the temptation to check shutter speeds any further and see if I could fish out the broken spring. Luckily, after removing the camera base plate, a few short shakes resulted in the piece in this picture falling out.

Broken click spring
Broken-off click spring. Better out than in!

Safe now to carry on testing, I figured all seemed well apart from the usual need to replace the mirror buffer and light traps.

I ended up harvesting a click spring from a parts-only ME Super (the springs are identical) and installed it into the ME. The Super has a refinement, though, where a second, coiled spring is used to strengthen the main click spring and presumably make it less likely to break off. The coiled spring is held around a post and is sprung against a second post, neither of which are present in the ME. I discovered that both posts are direct replacements for plain screws in the ME and so I gave the ME the Super’s full click spring refinement job! Perfect.

With the top cover still off, all that was left was to remove and replace some crumbling old foam which was meant to cover the open area where the meter LEDs go, leading straight into the area between prism and top surface of the screen. This was a very fiddly job and resulted in more cruddy bits than I wanted to see when looking through the viewfinder, so when all was sealed again I removed the prism and cleaned the underside, the viewfinder side, the back of the viewfinder lens and the top surface of the screen. The prism itself is held in by two tiny screws – one on each side – and removal requires the electronic boards to be carefully lifted away from the top surfaces first of all. After loosening the two prism screws the entire prism will then lift out. It’s the same situation in the ME Super and it’s the only way to remove debris that has found its way into the space between prism and screen, since screens are not user-removable in these cameras. The eventual replacement for the ME Super – the Super A (Super Program in the U.S.A.) – does have user-changeable screens which, if nothing else, makes cleaning much easier.

I have renewed the mirror buffer now and will soon replace the light traps in and around the rear door so that I can run some film through. I love the mirror/shutter sound and feel of this camera; there’s something very reassuringly 1970s about it and that’s only meant in a good way. It’s ever so slightly less dampened in movement compared with the Super but it’s certainly no Spotmatic in terms of noise or vibration. And that’s not to say that the Spotmatics are bad, either – far from it.

Something worth mentioning is that I get the distinct impression that the ME suffers much less from the very common shutter and wind-on issues that many Supers will suffer from now, if not serviced. Perhaps because it’s slightly less refined internally, with fewer plastic parts. My Super had the wind-on issue (film winds but shutter won’t charge), which I appear to have fixed without the need for a full service, and my (much more shabby) parts body has the same issue which can’t be fixed in the same, relatively simple, way.

So, is the ME better than the ME Super? Purely in terms of functionality, not really, and yet I prefer it. If you’re on the lookout for a fully working ME Super and don’t care much about manual shutter speeds, give the ME a go.

Saving Pentax-M

I’ve just spent pretty much the entire day restoring a Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7.

I not able to do much moving about at the moment and so, rather than mope around and feel sorry for myself all weekend, I thought I’d spend an hour or two doing this. Lesson number one: estimate the time required to clean and restore a lens as bad as this was and then multiply it by three.

The lens arrived this morning from a well-known auction site and my expectations were fairly low from the start; it was at a buy-now price which was about half that of most others, with no real description to speak of and no way to see close detail from pictures. This was a cheap gamble and I was expecting to do some work on it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the state of the thing when I examined it. Not that it needed close examination to see that it was completely infested with fungus – the worst I’d ever seen.

The outside barrel wasn’t too bad; a little grubby but easily cleaned. The elements, though, looked completely stuffed. Just about every glass surface inside and out was covered in masses of threads and patches of mould. Nasty! I’ve had success at cleaning fungus from elements before but I have to say I was close to giving up on this as it was so badly affected throughout. Pretty much unusable, optically.

OK, so it may take more than an hour, I thought. More than two, even. All in all, it took about six hours! Was it worth all that time, considering price difference between this one and a good one? Well, yes and no but I favour the “yes” because it gave me a project to do whilst unable to go out and, more importantly, I have saved a now-decent lens from the scrapheap. Make do and mend!

Often, it’s said that fungal infestation of lens elements is the end for them: the fungus etches into the coatings and, sometimes, the glass itself, causing irreparable damage. Up to now, though, I’ve been lucky as I’ve been able eliminate fungus on a few old lenses without leaving much permanent damage, if any at all. This lens turned out to be no exception but it’s been the most laborious lens-fix I’ve ever done, without any mechanical fixes, even, as everything mechanical worked perfectly. It was necessary to separate all of the individual elements and clean all surfaces which is very, very difficult to do because, even with fungus all gone, getting truly crystal-clear cleaning results on internal surfaces, without any smears whatsoever, takes a lot of time and patience. Still, time is what I’ve had and it did pay off in the end. Lesson number two: do not use a blower bulb with a metal end too close to an internal surface because one small slip could result in a permanent coating mark. Doh! Thankfully tiny and won’t affect anything but still, a swear-inducing moment.

I wish I’d taken a “before” picture but I honesly didn’t think I could salvage it so didn’t bother. Believe me, it was horrendous! Here it is again, in its fully restored state (I restored the filter, too, which was also in a very sorry, mouldy state but it’s a nice Hoya one so worth saving. I had to take the glass out of the frame to clean everything but all’s well and clear with that now, too):


When elements and groups are taken apart and re-assembled it’s always a good idea to check for any misplacement or decentring as a tiny amount of misplacement of any individual element can have profound optical consequences. I’m glad to say all is well, wide-open and at high magnification (digital test). I replaced the front name ring and cleaned the barrel exterior thoroughly.

One clean and clear lens to add to the collection, and a very good one at that. I could now sell it for twice the amount I paid but it’s definitely a keeper.

Praktica MTL 3

I spotted an old friend looking back at me from a charity shop window the other day. Together with a case and lens, looking nice and clean, was a Praktica MTL 3 for a donation of just £20. This was a very popular and affordable system camera of its time; a fairly robust, all-manual camera with the common M42 lens mount. The MTL 3 was the second SLR that I had owned, after the Zenit EM, from around 1981.

The shutter seemed fine and the wind-on was sure and solid. Unfortunately, though, there was a huge blob of dark fungus showing through the viewfinder which I could see was not on the mirror nor underside of the focus screen. This would mean that the body would need to be dismantled in order to clean it inside. Also, the lens aperture was stuck wide open which would mean a complete dismantling of the lens. The challenge was accepted. 

Once back at home the lens was taken to pieces, helicoid and all, and optical groups separated. I carefully cleaned each aperture blade, a couple of which had grown an impressive coating of fungus, with cotton buds and propanol. Surprisingly, there was no fungus at all on the elements near to the aperture blades; unexpected because fungus normally loves to infest coated glass, seemingly in preference to anything else. The Pentacon 50mm 1:1.8 is a relatively easy lens to work on as it’s very simple in design; the job took about forty minutes and a working aperture was restored. 

Next was the more challenging task. I needed to get in between the base of the prism and the upper side of the focus screen, which would be tricky if the prism and screen were glued together as they are in the B series (the BC1 at least). I removed the top cover after first taking off the shutter speed, wind-on and rewind assemblies as well as the flash shoe. The prism was held in place by a single clamp and I was relieved to find that the prism lifted out easily, on its own, revealing the condenser lens which sits above the focus screen. The mould blob was on the top surface of the condenser lens, at around 5mm in diameter. I carefully cleaned it with cotton buds and propanol, being especially careful not to knock the meter needle, and it was removed entirely. A very satisfying job! 

Then I noticed (only with the aid of a bright light) that the eyepiece lens had some fungus threads growing. I managed to eliminate all traces of that, too, which required some more effort than expected but that’s the way it goes with that stuff; at least it did all come off and it hadn’t etched the glass as can sometimes happen. 

The optics are now all clean and clear, the shutter seems to be fine and the meter works, although I need to check it for accuracy. A nice trip down memory lane. 


How did this happen?

I blame it partly on my discovery of Vivian Maier a year or two ago but, if I’m to be honest, medium format has been in the back of my mind for many years. I’ve seen the odd Hasselblad when scouring various camera shops over time but admiration was really as far as it went. The desire to try a larger format than 35mm never went away and it seems the Maier effect must have accelerated the inevitable. Drawn more to 6×6 than any other (645 too much like 35mm, 6×7 too bulky) I purchased a TLR* quite cheaply, restored it and love the results on film. Square format it would be, then, so a Hassy was bound to happen eventually.

This is a 501CM which was made in 1997 and came as a boxed kit with A12 film back, 80mm Zeiss Planar T* “new-C” f/2.8 lens, Acute-Matte-D crosshair screen and waist-level finder. It was less expensive than expected, partly due to the lens and partly the external condition. The lens is essentially a CF with the F bit removed (to distinguish from the original C-type), introduced to cut costs at the expense of a feature that not many would apparently need. Both body and lens were coated in a layer of grime which, thankfully, I was able to remove thanks to my OCD-fuelled cleaning but, unfortunately, years of filth has caused some pitting in the chrome. There’s nothing much I can do about that but I’m satisfied that both body and lens are now clean (the lens looks almost new now).

Of course, no auction-site purchase would be complete without an issue or two (OK, perhaps I exaggerate) and the first of these was immediately apparent: the screen was distractingly grubby and no attempt at cleaning would make it good. After some research I discovered that the shockingly-expensive AM-D screens are made of two layers, and it became clear that the dirt was in between. “Don’t ever take the screens apart or you’ll ruin them” was the message I was reading over and over, so I took it apart and very gently but thoroughly cleaned both layers. Whatever it was has actually permanently etched the top glass layer, sadly, although I was able to drastically improve things. I can only imagine that the screen had become wet at some point and some glass-etching fungus had grown in-between, where it had stayed damp for some time. Anyway, re-assembly was much more difficult; it can be done as long as swearing is permitted.

Issue #2 was more tricky because I was still getting a feel for how the camera operated as a unit. I put the occasional wind-on jam and A12 winder looseness down to my inexperience but more research indicated that there could be problems with sticky old grease in the back’s mechanics. Off came the cover (with this latest A12 the dark slide holder needs to be removed first: four screws hold it on to the rear of the magazine casing) to reveal no sticky grease but one gear wheel with two missing teeth! Said teeth were floating around inside but hadn’t caused any mischief themselves; the problems were down to the gap in the gear, resulting in it sometimes catching and sometimes another cog free-wheeling inside the gap. No idea how two teeth were sheared off without causing damage to another cog as well, but that was the situation and I can understand why the seller had missed it. I actually managed to glue the teeth back on – talk about intricate – and everything worked perfectly, but it didn’t last, of course. And, because I’d taken the back apart to check and fix what was meant to be a common issue, I couldn’t return the kit even if I’d felt inclined to. I couldn’t find any A12 parts here and the alternative seemed to be to pay for a full service and repair.

Whilst away on holiday I managed to find a service manual, the cog part number and a nice chap in the U.S. who happened to have one new. The part was waiting for me when we returned home a few days ago. I used SPG to lubricate the teeth of the new wheel, because the description is similar to that of the grease specified in the service manual (and I already have SPG!) and spent an hour or so fitting it and making sure all the bits were working properly. Success!

I’ve fixed the light trap (temporarily: it needs a new foil part but don’t have that yet, so I trimmed a small breakage to stop it catching on the dark slide) and I’ve adjusted the film progress indicator because its rotation was slightly off. This indicator should be red when no film is in, white when it’s freshly loaded, and should gradually turn to red as the film is used up; mine was slightly off and fixing it was more difficult than it sounds. Not essential, but since it’s there I want it working properly.

One last thing has been done prior to the imminent film test. I bought an extra screen (pre- Acute-Matte as I’m not made of money!) with a split prism. This confirmed my suspicion, when using the AM-D screen, that infinity focus (and, therefore, everything else) was ever so slightly off. At the lens infinity stop a distant image was still not quite aligned. I’ve corrected for this with a tiny adjustment of the mirror stop (right side whilst facing front of body).  I’m aware of the factors which can contribute to focus alignment in Hasselblads and have confirmed that focus is correct across the whole screen, so I’m quite confident. Aside from impact damage (no sign of that) the mirror stop is the most likely factor following hundreds or thousands of shots and there are, thankfully, no foam pads to deteriorate under the gliding mirror of this model. Testing will confirm. If something such as body length needs adjustment, I’ll send it to a specialist. If it’s instead the lens, I’ll soon find out. Optimistically, though, I think this mechanical marvel is all good to go now.

*TLR = Twin Lens Reflex. Eg., Vivian’s Rolleiflex or, in my case, a Yashica Mat.

A return to M42

I started with 35mm SLRs when I was 11 years old. The first was a Zenith (or Zenit) EM, followed by a Praktica MTL3 for which I traded the Zenith (I wish I hadn’t but I had no choice). At the time I looked longingly at cameras I couldn’t possibly afford – the Fujicas, the Olympuses (Olympi?), the Pentaxes – but it wasn’t until a few years later, and well into the 1980s, that I moved to a Japanese brand. By then it was Minolta and their budget X300 model; a good camera but with fairly typical 1980s-style replacement of some metals with plastics.

For a while now I’ve been trying to find an excuse to return to those early cameras with their screw-thread M42 lenses, for no other reason than what is presumably the result of a mid-life crisis. For me, as a youngster, the arrival of the Zenith, which had followed some fairly dodgy instamatic-types, was a revelation and I remember the excitement, the heft of the thing and even the smell of the leather case. I could change lenses (the ones I had were terrible, apart from the Helios 58mm) and I could actually view through the lens that was going to take the picture! Changing lenses was a bit of a faff – they were prone to fall if the thread hadn’t taken on the first twist – and stop-down metering was awkward. I loved it. And now I wanted some of that back.

Zenith EMs don’t appear to have aged well, it seems, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy into a camera that I’d be unlikely to run a film though anyway. One day, maybe, if I see a mint one for a reasonable price, but in the meantime my attention turned to Pentax. I started initially looking just for a lens or two to use with digital, but found that many of the Takumars were attached to Spotmatic bodies. Those cameras looked really nice and so the decision was made: this would be my re-entry into the land of M42.

After some research, the Super Takumar 55mm f/1.8 was to be the lens of choice (to begin with!) and I managed to find a SMC version attached to a Spotmatic F for not much more than the lenses alone typically go for. The body looked dusty but was described as fully-functional; the lens was described as optically good but with an aperture ring that was somewhat stiff to move. At the asking price (the body was practically free!) I took a chance but then I saw another SP F which looked nice and was very cheap, and so I thought I’d have that as well, just in case the first one turned out to be bad. And then I saw a SP500 at a ridiculously cheap price. It would have been rude not to.

So, here are the latest arrivals in various sates of restoration. Some details are below but in summary: these are real beauties that are built to last. They are such fine pieces of precision engineering that they are a joy to use, with a reassuringly heavy heft and refined controls. With very few exceptions, cameras aren’t made like this any more; even the SP500 (1971-1973), the first budget SP model, feels every bit as solid and well-engineered as the SP F. I’m looking forward to running some film though these.

img_0153 (1)
L-R: SP F w. SMC Takumar 1:1.8/55; SP500; SP F

Spotmatic F with SMC Takumar 1:1.8/55  (picture left)

Arrival state: dusty and grubby camera body. Lens cosmetically better but the aperture ring was very difficult to move, then jammed completely.

Work done on body: cleaned the outside of the camera body only for now. Meter tested and all correct. Shutter tested and fires without any problems. Needs a total clean plus all light seals and mirror bumper changed, which I shall do myself.

Work done on lens: dis-assembled after the aperture ring totally jammed. I expected to find a broken/bent lever or something inside, but upon inspection it became clear that the lens had been dropped and the impact had bent the aperture ring ever so slightly in a 1 cm portion, as well as affecting internal aperture mechanics. I milled the aperture ring so that it was no longer grating hard against the lens body underneath. An internal ring which is driven by the external aperture ring was also grating badly on the inside, so was bent a tiny amount using a vernier calliper as a guide. Ultimately, I cannot get the lower part of the body totally back into as-new shape, which would be ideal since smooth operation requires tiny tolerances. img_0152 (1)I made it the best I could and re-greased the inner and outer components. Re-assembled (checking to make sure I had infinity focus set correctly before the final steps) and now have a lens which is quite usable. It’s still not ideal – the aperture ring needs more force than usual to rotate, especially at the extreme values – but it does now rotate all the way from 1.8 to 16. Unlike many Nikon lenses, some of which I’ve fixed before, these have to be taken apart from the front. Here it is with name ring, filter ring and focus ring removed. I got some tips from this article which was good enough, even though mine is the newer SMC version.

Spotmatic SP500 (picture middle)

Arrival state: sorry.

Work done: I thought this was a goner. Outside it was superficially nice except for the base plate, which had clearly been the victim of a leaked battery in the past, although to be fair the worst of the damage had been cleared up. Meter tested and found to be working in reverse! The needle went up (+) for under-exposure and down (-) for over. This was easy: the battery had been installed the wrong way around by the previous owner/seller, so I reversed it. Outer body cleaned up nicely. Moving inside, the mirror was absolutely filthy and the focus screen had crud on it, so both were cleaned (the mirror using sensor swabs and sensor cleaning fluid with next to no pressure applied; the focus screen using a dry sensor swab). Someone had done a bad job of replacing the mirror bumper foam which contributed to some of the crud inside; I have cleaned it all up, including an unidentified deposit on one side of the mirror box – no idea what it was and it was a pig of a job to remove. The meter then stopped responding altogether, so I removed the base plate and cleaned the contacts underneath the battery chamber. All OK now.

This one needs a bit more work, to remove the old door seals and replace.  Also (maybe) to fix the aperture actuator at the bottom inside the mount which doesn’t spring back as it should. That’s not a major problem, though. What I thought would end up as spare parts is now a clean and functional camera.

Spotmatic F (picture right)

Arrival state: nice! Needs new seals but apart from that, cosmetically the best of the lot.

Work done: Nothing much so far. This one very occasionally sticks with the mirror up but I can only reproduce that at 1/60th. Winding-on and taking another frame cures it until the next time. The wind-on feels slightly rougher than on the other two bodies, so it could do with a full CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust) service, I think. Meter checks out fine. This one will probably be sent off for the proper treatment.


Konica M-Hexanon 90mm f/2.8 – part two

So what went wrong? The copper tape is naturally quite soft and the small force of the camera RF roller against it, when left in one focus position for a while, would result in a tiny indent. We’re talking an almost imperceptible pit in a foil surface already only a few microns thick but it’s enough to slightly throw calibration at that point. Still good, but not good enough.

The job need to be done properly and for that I needed to buy a new spanner wrench (seen below, £10) with points at the ends. Even then, I had to grind some of it down but I finally had enough leverage to remove the collar which holds the cam – and its shims – in place.

After one failed attempt (that copper foil is like very sticky gold leaf) I managed to thicken one of the shims. This may sound an odd way of doing it but it was easier to modify the thicker of the existing shims than to add the copper foil to the surface that the shims sit on, or to the cam itself. Some very careful cutting with a scalpel and the job was done. Once put back together the calibration is spot-on without the fragility of having foil stuck to the contact surface of the cam.

A final few words on coding. As this is not a Leica lens, and especially since it was discontinued well before the first digital M (M8) with the now standard 6-bit lens coding, the digital M has no way of knowing, automatically, what lens is attached. There happens to be a screw in just the place where, if painted black, it gives the impression to the code reader that the lens is a Tele-Elmarit 90/2.8. Note from below that I had to leave a small amount to the right of the screw as reflective silver; this works perfectly and the paint stays because it’s recessed. When I set auto-ISO I have the minimum shutter speed set to 2x(focal length) and it’s nice to have this working seamlessly together with my coded lenses.

Konica M-Hexanon 90mm f/2.8 – part one

Some time ago I part-exchanged my Summarit 90 f/2.5 and have regretted it since, especially as one of my favourite images was the result of a lucky moment when I happened to have that lens attached. Since then, Leica prices have gone super-silly and even the revered Elmarit-M 90mm has increased in value on the used market by a third again compared with what they were just a few years ago. That puts them almost at the new Summarit price – especially when factoring in a trip to Wetzlar to be coded and adjusted (that would almost certainly be a necessity). To get a 90mm back in Leica mount I could have gone for an ancient tele-Elmarit or Elmar f/4, or looked to a non-Leica brand. The only current, viable option there seemed to be a Zeiss 85mm f/4 but that would mean very inaccurate framelines in the viewfinder (85 cf. 90mm). Browsing around one evening I happened across a mention of the Konica Hexanon in M mount, which was made for the Konica Hexar RF back in the 1990s. They are no longer made and are relatively rare – but it was interesting to note that some people compared the 90 quite favourably with the Leica Elmarit-M. If I could find one it should be roughly a third of the price of the Elmarit but apparently be close, both optically and mechanically. It would need to be adjusted, again almost certainly, but I started to look around to see if it would be possible to do that myself (something I would not do with a Leica for obvious reasons). I decided that it would be worth a punt. Fast forward to the arrival of a fairly good condition Hexanon which was described as having “a couple of dust spots” inside. I would call them massive balls of fluff, myself, but that’s eBay for you. I wasn’t banking on having to take apart the optical cell as well but, as I’ve done that before with a couple of Nikons, I decided to go ahead and clean it out. It was reasonably straightforward to remove the rear element group (with care!) and get rid of the crud inside. Needless to say, the lens would rear-focus slightly when using the rangefinder of my M; this is also referred to as back-focus and it’s when the sharpest point of focus is behind the intended subject. At the infinity stop of the lens the rangefinder patch still hadn’t quite reached co-incidence even though the lens will actually focus sharply to infinity (and a tiny bit beyond – without wishing to go into the concept of any object being beyond infinity right now!). This means that the lens is collimated OK but the cam needs to be lengthened by a tiny amount so that, at any given point, it pushes the roller inside the camera by a tiny amount more so that rangefinder patch and sharp focus are aligned. In other words, ideally, the cam of the lens – the brass ring which makes contact with the roller in the camera – needed to be shimmed. But by how much? I tested with a piece of 3M Magic Tape which I stuck to the cam and roughly cut around. This tape I measured to be approx. 0.06mm in thickness. That’s 60 microns. It was a little too much (I was kind of expecting that) so I needed to order some copper foil tape at around 0.03 – 0.04mm in thickness and use that to add to the shim(s) already under the cam. Problem no. 1: I couldn’t loosen the collar around the cam which holds it in place (this can be seen in the picture below – it has two small holes in, one either side) because I didn’t have the right tool. I tried to fashion one but the collar wasn’t going to budge and I risked damage, so I went with option 2. That is, to apply the tape directly to the contact surface of the cam, to build up the part which makes contact with the roller by 40 microns. The result is this: IMG_0085 Not the most elegant solution in appearance, but it works. The focus is now spot-on. Problem no. 2: …hasn’t happened – yet.* It might be that the foil comes away, but actually the adhesive seems to be pretty strong and so I’d expect it to stay unless I accidentally hit the cam and shear off the foil (unlikely!). The good thing is that it can be replaced, if necessary, and the adjustment is easily reversible. I may yet have another go at shimming the cam from underneath but, for now at least, this lens is clean, perfectly adjusted and a very worthy alternative to a Leica. In terms of performance I’d say that it’s pretty much up there with the Summarit I used to own; certainly every bit as sharp, even wide open.


* Well, Problem no. 2 did happen (see part two).

The Praktica BCX project

IMG_0082.JPGAs if I needed another camera, not least one from 1983. I found myself staring at this one a few days ago, in what can only be described as a film camera and photography museum which also happens to be a shop. Wall to wall cameras, lenses, darkroom equipment, accessories – everything from Rollei to Zenith, large format to miniature, most things being decades old. So, what’s so special about the Praktica BCX 35mm SLR?

I almost owned one back in 1984/85. At the time I was using a Praktica MTL3, which I was happy with, yet I secretly longed for something more sophisticated. Alas, I was still at school and such things seemed to be out of my reach. That was, until I saw a fellow pupil come in one day to take some pics of us preparing for the school play – and he was holding one of these. It was the first time I’d seen, or even been aware of, the Praktica B series and it immediately grabbed my attention. Nice camera, I thought: aperture priority as well as manual control, better handling, considerably smaller than my tank-like MTL3 (it really is small, even by today’s standards) and, relatively speaking, affordable. These were the days of pre-unified Germany, of course; Prakticas, made in what was then East Germany (DDR), were generally cheaper than their Japanese equivalents – if not apparently as reliable.

I needed one. I needed to have aperture priority auto, not to mention the word “electronic” stamped onto the front. My mission was to sell the MTL3 with all its lenses and get one of these with just a 50mm prime. I ended up with a close relative of the BCX, in black, as the BCX was no longer available new. I was really happy until the shutter jammed some time later, whereupon it went back for a refund and I switched brands. How fickle.

So, the BCX, in chrome, is the subject of a very vivid recollection from my youth even though I have never actually owned this model. B series cameras in chrome finish were and still are relatively rare and so I had to have a look at it in the shop; it turned out to be so cheap that I bought it, figuring that it’d be an interesting project with nothing to lose if it ended up as useful as a paperweight.

That’s the justification out of the way – now for the list of problems. It had:

  • a very loose flash hot-shoe
  • a loose self-timer lever
  • a sticking wind-on making it impossible to fire the shutter sometimes
  • masses of dust inside the viewfinder
  • a dirty mirror
  • a mirror foam buffer that had disintegrated into powder and sticky goo

and it was generally a bit grubby. What’s more, the lens had some haze on an internal element which needed to be cleaned, otherwise it would flare horribly and contrast would be unacceptably low.

I’ve replaced mirror foam buffers in other cameras so that was relatively easy. The hard part was cleaning the mirror of general dirt but also sticky, decomposed foam from the original buffer. The mirror in every SLR, film or digital, is extremely fragile and I have found the best thing to do, if it’s absolutely necessary to clean it by contact, is to treat it a little like a digital camera sensor and use sensor swabs with light breathing – no fluid! – and very light, full downward swipes. It’s now looking as good as new.

The sticking wind-on meant removal of the base plate. It’s just four tiny screws. It took me some time to figure out what was sticking and, finally, some light grease saved the day, applied to and around the semi-toothed wheel which is attached to the motor drive coupling. Now the mechanism will spring back, as it should, following wind-on so that the shutter can be fired.

The dust inside the viewfinder meant taking off the top plate. I could have left it but it bugged me so much that I had to give it a go. It’s not too difficult but I’ll make it a bit easier, for anyone with a B series who might be contemplating this, by outlining the steps here (for my own benefit, too!). Firstly, unscrew the film rewind lever by holding the rewind arm still from within the film chamber and rotating the lever anti-clockwise. Then, remove the slotted collar which goes around the rewind arm from the top but do not undo the two screws either side. (The slotted collar is meant to be undone with a special tool but I used small screwdrivers and a small hammer to gently tap and loosen it.) The film speed unit will then lift out, leaving the empty housing ring which is attached with three small screws. Undo these and lift off the ring. Moving on to the wind-on lever now, remove the plastic cover by turning the camera upside-down and undoing the screw which holds it in place. The metal lever itself can now be removed by undoing the small nut; lift the lever off and keep the nut and washer safe together. There is another slotted collar to remove here, around the wind-on (mine was actually already loose!). Next, remove the flash shoe by first lifting the sprung “x” plate at the front, using a small screwdriver, and sliding off to reveal four screws; undo only the rear two screws since the front two secure the flash shoe to the top plate but not the plate to the camera *. Finally, remove the four screws directly holding the plate to the body and it should be possible to lift the plate up and away. In particular, note that the shutter speed dial and shutter button remain attached as part of the top plate – but watch out for the remote release pin which may fall out of the shutter button assembly from underneath.

Getting inside the viewfinder is then a case of removing the four screws holding on the outer eyepiece unit. I have no idea how quite so much crud had found its way inside there but it was a very satisfying job cleaning it all out.

Refitting is the reverse procedure, making sure the shutter speed dial is set to the same as it was when the plate was taken off, so that the pin underneath is in the right place to register.

Tightening the flash hot-shoe and the self-timer lever is a case of tightening the screws and another slotted collar, respectively. Testing shows the camera to be mechanically and electronically sound.

All that was left was the lens: a third version (I believe) PB mount Pentacon 50mm f/1.8. It was cheap enough to be almost disposable, so I set to work not really knowing how to open it up. I have dismantled and cleaned/fixed several Nikon lenses in the past but, unfortunately, this one had no visibly obvious means of getting inside. Once I’d popped off the plastic collar surrounding the rear element, though, it all became clear: screws to hold on the metal mount, then screws to hold the aperture ring assembly to the main housing, then more screws holding the two halves (separated by the aperture blades) of the optical set together. I could already see from the outside that the haze was on just the surface directly in front of the aperture blades and, luckily, the optical set came apart pretty easily to reveal this surface. The haze came away without too much of a problem but getting it all dust-free after cleaning was another matter, especially as each time I went near it I risked trashing the loose, flimsy aperture blades. I’ve been there before, though, and so, with the required patience, the result is a lens that’s now crystal clear right through. If the aperture blades had been sticking (a problem that’s not uncommon in older lenses) then it’d be the same procedure to get at them to clean.

There. I have a “new”, fully working, clean camera with a standard lens for peanuts; a vintage but totally functional compact SLR from a time when the Berlin Wall was very much intact and the thought of The Hoff singing his freedom song, as the wall fell, would have been completely ludicrous. I guess it still is.

* I’ve since taken apart a BC1 which I won for virtually nothing on eBay because it came with a lens I was after. The BC1 is slightly different in that all four screws of the flash shoe must be removed in order to release the top plate (which is plastic – as opposed to the BCX’s metal** top plate!).

** Metal? It certainly appears to be so but may not be, after all – well, not completely, anyway. There’s evidence to suggest it may be a plastic shell with metal coating. See comments for details.

%d bloggers like this: