How to clean an old camera

Monday, May 13, 2013

How to clean an old camera

In this episode, I clean my recently acquired Graflex camera in preparation of shooting some film with it.

More about this camera:

On this episode of the House of Hacks, I'm going to try cleaning up this really old camera.

Hi Makers, Builders and Photographers. Harley here.

On today's episode I'm going to do a brief overview of this camera and then we'll start cleaning it. I'll start with the outside, move to the lens and finally do the viewfinder.

A number of months ago, my Dad gave me a bunch of old cameras and this is one of them. It's a vintage 30s or 40s Graflex RB series B camera. It's a SLR and it was bought new by my maternal great-grandfather. My grandparents gave it to my Dad about the time I was born. I don't ever remember him using it or putting any film through it. I have no idea when the last was this was used. But, after I got it, I started looking at it and playing around, taking a look at it. The focus works. The aperture seems to work. The shutter release works. The film advance works. And so, I don't see any reason why this can't take pictures. I'm going to clean it up. It's been sitting in storage for who knows how many decades. So, it's dirty, but other than that it seems to be just in perfect shape. I'm going to clean it up; document the cleaning in this episode and in a future episode I anticipate showing the operation of it and some images that it makes.

An interesting things about the Graflex is it is an SLR. When we usually think of SLR, we think of something a little bit more modern where the light path comes through the lens, hits a mirror, up through a prism mechanism and then through the viewfinder. When the shutter is released, the mirror pops up, the light hits the shutter, the shutter releases and exposes the film or sensor. The Graflex is a little bit different. In its case, the light comes through the lens and hits a mirror, but then it bounces up and hits a ground glass plane. This ground glass gives you an image that's actually size for size the same as what the film will see. So, you can see exactly the framing you're going to get and the focus that you have. But again, when the shutter is released, the mirror will pop up, the light will come back, the shutter will release and the film will be exposed in the same way.

First I'm going to clean the outside with some compressed air, a terry cloth towel and some mild detergents.

Right now I have the lens in the down position to be able to focus and see through the viewfinder. This button on the side will cause that mirror to pop up. Now there's a clear path through the camera to the film. If we take the back off -- I have the shutter in what's equivalent in a modern camera to bulb mode, where the shutter's open. And if we look down through here we can see straight through the body with the lens on the other side. So, the only thing that we really need to clean in order to get the best picture possible is the lens. So, I'll tackle that next.

The lens comes in two parts. First is this outer part that just screws off. And the interesting thing about this is it has interchangeable lenses. This is kind of the standard focal length lens I guess you would say that's on here. And you can get another one that is more of a telephoto lens that was popular with portrait photographers. I'm going to use some 91% isopropyl alcohol and a lens cloth and clean this off, blow it off with some air and then we'll do the next half.

The second half of this lens contains the aperture and an objective behind it. If you look at this, it's kind of interesting. Modern lenses have between five and nine vanes in the aperture. And this one, I counted around and there is fifteen vanes. I'm not quite sure why there's so many more vanes on this versus a modern camera. I'm not quite sure the optics or physics behind it. I just thought it was kind of interesting. If we unscrew this I can get to the objective behind and this is considerably cleaner than the front lens was. With the aperture opened up all the way I can get to the front and obviously the back is no problem.

Well, that took a lot more elbow grease than I expected to get the front objective clean. It was really, really grimy. Much more grimy than I expected. The good new though is after I got the aperture mechanism apart, I realized the back objective actually screws in so it was much easier to clean the front part of the objective than I was expecting. So now I can put everything back together and move on to the next thing.

Since the camera is operational, really all I need to do is clean things up. If I look through the viewfinder here, we can see all these nasty black spots all over the place. For the most part this is just on the mirror or the ground glass. The lens wouldn't show up this way and that really the only thing that would impact the image quality on the film. So, while I have it open, I'll go ahead and clean this up, blow everything out and try to get rid of these spots just on general principles but they don't really impact image quality on the film itself.

So if we look inside here -- I have the mirror flipped down now -- if we look inside here we can see the mirror and the ground glass is up around the bend, we can't really see it too well. But we can see the mirror. I'm going to basically use the microfiber cloth and rubbing alcohol to clean the lens and I'm going to try to get up around the corner there on the ground glass as best as I can and blow it out with some compressed air.

Well, I think that's about all I can do for today. I think it's about time to button it up and I'll do a final test tomorrow when the sun comes back out. Cleaning the mirror was a bit more tricky than I expected it to be. It was in there deeper than I thought and it was just hard to get to. I wasn't able to get to the ground glass at all on the bottom. I was able to get to the top and that was probably the most grime that I've removed from the camera in any one particular area through this whole thing. Just kind of spot checking right now, as best as I can tell, it actually does look a lot better. I'll check tomorrow with another image; kind of an after shot from the before shot that I showed before to see how it really looks. But that's it for tonight. Time to button it up.

Well, that's what it looks like through the viewfinder now. It looks a lot better than it did before. I'm really pleased with the way it cleaned up. Amazingly, the dirtiest part of the whole camera, the part that got the most grime off of, was the top of the outside of the ground glass. That was just amazingly dirty and I think it made a huge difference on this particular image. The lens was also more dirty than I realized it was and took quite a bit of elbow grease to clean it off. But it's all nice, sparkly, shiny now, ready to go out and take some pictures.

That about wraps up this episode. I recently got a couple rolls of film and plan on taking the camera out this weekend to see how it performs. In a couple weeks, I should have a follow-up video going over the operation and see how the images actually turned out.

Thumbs up if you like this video and I'd love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments. Be sure to subscribe to find out about future videos.

Until next time, go make something. It doesn't have to be perfect, just have fun!