☰ Menu
Art Deco Cameras

What could possibly go wrong?


I Don't Believe It!

I collect and use vintage cameras that are mostly from the period between the World Wars (1920 - 1940). They are generally simple devices. The probability that something would go wrong when using them seems slim. However, this has proved not to be the case. There seems to be a trap waiting for me with every camera I test.

I have documented the traps that I have fallen into, so that you can avoid them. Some seem blatantly obvious, others are obtuse.

So take note and be warned!


Red Window Trap

Old films were not sensitive to red light. Unfortunately, modern films are. Make sure you cover the red window with black tape and only open it to wind on in low light.

The Faint Annotation Trap

Modern film seem to use very faint annotation on the backing paper. Check to see if you will be able to see the frame numbers through the window in low light. Keep some old backing paper handy for testing.

The Varying Annotation Trap

Be careful which film you load into a vintage camera. All films do not have a full set of annotation on the backing paper. This especially affects some cameras that take 16 exposures on 120 film. Some 120 film, like Kodak Portra, does not have the annotation required for 16 exposures in the right place. Ilford FP4+ and Ilford Delta 100 & 400 are OK to use for instance. Try to get hold of some backing paper for the film you will be using to check that the annotation for 16 frames lines up with the red window.

Bellows Light Leak Trap

It's easy to assume that bellows that look in good shape do not have pinholes or other light leaks. Use a very bright light in a darkened room to check for holes. Turn the camera and light in all directions. If you need a quick fix for the bellows, try this. Bellows Quick Fix

Flakey Bellows Trap

Some bellows that are still leak free are not fully intact. Sometimes the inside will be flaking or disintegrating. The flakes and bits will get on the film causing black spots on the image. Use a small USB vacuum cleaner to ensure the inside of the bellows in flake free.

Bakelite Light Leak Trap

Old Bakelite cameras can have cracks and bits missing. Check around the camera carefully, especially around the thin sealing strips where the two parts of the camera meet. Some issues can be fixed using Araldite Rapid with a bit of black poster paint mixed in.

Dirty Rollers Trap

Ensure the rollers of the film transport system are free from rust and other blemishes. Clean and smooth out any imperfections. Check that they rotate easily. Otherwise you will get lines and scrapes in the film emulsion.

Old Wooden Spool Trap

It may seem authentic to use a old wooden spool that came with the camera. Unfortunately the wood will have become weak. The force required to move the film on will often break the wooden slot making it impossible to turn the spool. This will normally happen at the end of the film so you might lose a few shots. If this happens, unload the film in the dark so as not to lose the last shots.

Binding Spool Trap

This applies to 116 and 616 cameras that have been converted to take 120 film. Modification is fairly straight forward. Check out my page on 'Conversion of a 116 camera to take 120 film' or 'Conversion of a 616 camera to take 120'. However, with some cameras it is not possible to use a 120 take up spool because the film tensioners expand as you wind on and at about frame 3 they foul the 120 spool and jam. Check first by inspection or using an old 120 film. If binding is going to occur, you must use the original 116 spool and unload the camera in a darkroom directly into the developing tank to avoid light leaks.

Using 120 in 620 Cameras Trap

Some 620 cameras will take 120 film with no problem. With others, the 120 might seem to load OK but when the back is put on the camera, the spools are squeezed and start to bind. This may not be noticeable until you are getting to the end of the roll. There is a danger that the film will be damaged, scratched or you will lose the last few frames. If it jams, unload the camera in a darkroom directly into the developing tank to avoid light leaks. Check the camera out with old film first. However, it's faily simple to re-spool 120 film onto 620 spools.

Dirty Internal Lens Trap

It's so easy to check the front lens and forget to check out any internal lenses. Put the camera in 'T' or 'B' mode, open the shutter and look through the lenses. Any marks or dust will degrade the image. Do your best to clean the lenses.

The Faulty Shutter Speed Trap

Some cameras have the shutter speed annotated on the shutter. With other cameras you have to get the likely shutter speed from the internet. A shutter speed error could make the difference between success and partial failure. If you can, test the shutter speeds. For example, typical shutter speed for old box cameras is 1/30s. I had one that ran at 1/100s. Serious under-exposure would result if the wrong ISO was used. Another example was a bellows camera that had a range of shutter speeds. Most were approximately OK, but there was one speed that was so far out of tolerance it would have made that speed unusable. How to check shutter speed


Fumble Trap

Be very careful loading a camera with film. It's best to load with the camera resting on a table. It's so easy to fumble the operation and see your film roll away from your hands and unroll in the process exposing the film.

120 to 620 Unravel Trap

When 120 film has been re-spooled onto 620 spools, it will not be wound so tightly and it has a tendancy to unravel itself due to being on smaller diameter spools. Hold the film tightly while loading.

Taking Pictures

Viewfinder Trap

Viewfinders on old cameras are notoriously inaccurate. For some the viewfinder area is smaller than the image area, in others the reverse is true. With some cameras, the viewfinder is somehow offset. Remember also that these cameras do not have through the lens viewfinders. This means that you must compensate for the position of the viewfinder in relation to the lens. This is particularly true for close-ups. If in doubt, allow a reasonable border around the viewfinder image for cropping later.

The Modified Viewfinder Trap

Some cameras use masks to change the size of the film plane. When the mask is in place, don't forget to use the modified viewfinder size, usually indicated with marks on the viewfinder.

The Wrong Red Window Trap

Some cameras have more than one red window. Make sure you use the correct one. For instance, the Photax V camera has a mask to change from 6x9 to 6x6 format. It has two red windows on the back. Using the wrong window will either cause frame overlap or large frame spacing. See my Photax V page for more information about this fail.

Double Exposure Trap

Forgetting to wind on the film leads to double exposure. Forgetting that you have already wound the film on leads to a lost frame. The accepted practice (seen in most manuals) is to wind on the film to the next exposure immediately after you take a shot. 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. Whether you decide before or after, it's important to be consistant to avoid trouble.

Miss a Frame Trap

The red window of a camera needs to be covered to avoid light entering and fogging the film. Only expose the window in subdued light. This leads to a situation where it's difficult to see the annotation. Wind on slowly. It's easy to miss a frame.

Forget to Deploy Lens Trap

With some cameras you need to extend the lens tube by either sliding or screwing out. You'll get some interesting out of focus images if you forget to extend fully.

Shakey Hands Trap

Many vintage cameras have a shutter speed on less than 1/100s. This means that shakey hands will lead to blurred images. Hold the camera as steady as you can against your body or face. Holding the camera against a solid object like a wall or lampost is ideal. Tripod is best.

Lens Cap Trap

Remember to take off any lens cap before you press the shutter. If you realise the cap was in place before you wind on then simply remove the cap and retake the frame.

Focus Trap

You are just about to take a picture when you realise you need to focus the camera. Unfortunately, the annotation on the focus control is rather esoteric. The annotation might say 'Near' or 'Far', it might say 'Portrait' or 'Group', it might say 'Close-ups' or 'Groups' or 'Scenes'. Unfortunately, you have forgotten the focus zone distances to which they refer.

Strap Trap

You turn the camera on its side to take a portrait shot and the camera strap dangles in front of the lens.

Finger in Lens Trap

You try to turn and hold your camera to a awkward position but your fingers obscure the lens.

Shutter Release Stopped by Fingers Trap

Some cameras need the shutter primed by moving a lever. This lever will reset when the shutter is fired. There are certain cameras, for instance the Argus C3 or the Purma Special, where the priming lever is in such a postion that it is easy to stop the action with your fingers when the shutter is released. Usually leads to an overexposed image.

Sensitive Shutter Release Trap

The shutter release on some cameras are very sensitive. As you try to feel for the release whilst looking through the viewfinder, the slightest touch triggers the shutter before you have framed the image properly.

Time Setting Trap

Leaving the shutter function lever on 'Time' instead of 'Instant'

Forget to Arm the Shutter Trap

You're waiting for that perfect time to take the picture. Unfortunately, you have forgotten to prime the shutter. Missed Opportunity!

Bellows Suction Trap

Sometimes, if you release the bellows too quickly, the suction caused moves the film off it proper plane. An out of focus image results. Open the bellows slowly and wind on just before you take the picture. This will ensure the film sits properly on the film plane.

Internal Lightmeter Trap

Old cameras that use lightmeters made of selenium are sometime not accurate. Check the accuracy before using.

What Film Did I Load Trap

You load the camera and take a couple of shots. The next time you take the camera out you have forgotten the ISO of the film you loaded. The solution is to use ISO 100 to work out exposure. If the film is 100, all well and good. If it was 50, then under exposure by 1 stop will result. If it was 400 the over exposure by 2 stops will result. Luckily, most negative film can handle under exposure by 1 stop or over exposure by 2 stops.

The Reciprocity Trap

Camera f stops and shutter speed are normally linked in a simple way. However, at shutter speeds slower than about 1 second, this relationship breaks down and there is a need to compensate for that failure. This is called reciprocity failure. This is especially important if you use your camera in 'T' or 'B' mode. Find info about Reciprocity Failure here.


Unloading Film Trap

After you have taken the last frame of the film, you forget to wind the film on to the end (120, 127) or forget to rewind the film (35mm). If you do not do this before you take the film out, either the last two frames will be fogged (120,127) or the whole film will be fogged (35mm).