Nikon FG Early Activation Hack

While I was working on the light meter for the Nikon FG, I thought of a ‘fix’ that I’d read about for another issue – making the light meter active as soon as the film door is closed. The FG, by default, will only activate its light meter after the film counter is on 1. If you’re like me, you want to get as many frames out of your film as possible, so activating the camera’s light meter as soon as you’ve put in a new film is useful.

The fix for this that I had read about is to solder a piece of wire between the contacts that detect the position of the frame counter. However, that requires soldering. I’ve moved recently and my soldering iron is in a box somewhere. Can’t be bothered with all that.

A memory surfaced, back from the depths of time, about an overclocking hack for the first generation of Intel Celeron computer processors. As I recall, these processors were protected from overclocking. However, you could bypass this protection by drawing a line between two exposed electronic components on the processor chip with a lead pencil. With this conductive line in place, you could modify some of the processor settings and get moar speeds.

So…

Nikon FG light meter adjustment
Hacky hacky hacky

You can see, on the right, two points of solder that connect the contacts to the black and yellow wires. The sources I’ve seen suggested soldering a small piece of wire between these two. You could also do the same where the black and yellow wires are soldered to the PCB. But I drew a fairly liberal line of 3B pencil lead between the contacts on the PCB, which you can just see as a smudgy grey line. It works. The meter is now active as soon as the film door is closed.

And, if I ever want to revert it to normal behaviour, all I’ll need is an eraser.

Nikon FG Light Meter Alignment

When I acquired an old family friend’s photographic enlargers a couple of years ago, they threw in a bag of other gear. In the bag was a Nikon F4 (still haven’t got it working – one day!) and a couple of lenses: a Series E 100mm and a Nikkor-H 85mm f/1.8. Too much fine glass to leave languishing in a bag. But as a Canon boy from way back, I didn’t have a (working) Nikon to put them to use.

Nikon FG light meter adjustment
Cue impulse buy

I bought a Nikon FG from Kamerastore with a very dim, basically unusable light meter, which dropped its price to about half of what a working model would go for. I figured I could probably do something about that, and that even if not, external light meters are a thing. When I got it, the light meter was indeed very dim, though by moving my eye around the viewfinder I could see that the amount of light would change. This made me suspect that it was an alignment issue rather than bad LEDs or anything else electronic.

The top plate comes off fairly easily, as long as you have a decent small diameter spanner wrench. The best one I’ve found so far is a 100mm divider from a builder’s shop. The points are a bit thick, but it’s basic steel and I can file them down if it becomes necessary.

Nikon FG light meter adjustment
Pointy and stable

The LEDs are on the end of a flex circuit to the left of the prism (with the lens mount away from you). The flex has a connector that is used to adjust how far down the slot between the prism and the body the flex reaches. This essentially adjusts how well aligned the LEDs align with a mask somewhere in that gap that provides the circular shape of the meter LEDs and the arrows of the over- and under-exposure indicators.

The connector has a central screw to fix it in place. There are two screws on either side of the central screw that align the connector once the central screw is loosened or removed. Both adjust the depth of the connector; adjusting to different depths can adjust slightly in the front-to-back axis. These adjustment screws have flanges that sit below the connector, so the connector is sandwiched between the adjustment screws and the central screw (which makes it important not to over-tighten the central screw – according to the repair article I used, this can bend the connector).

Nikon FG light meter adjustment
Before: the larger black screw right in the centre of the picture secures the connector, while the two silver screws beside it adjust the connector’s height

After some trial and error, trying to find the best way to adjust the screws, I turned them all the way down, and the LEDs were definitely improved but still not fully clear – the circles were a bit dim on one side, indicating alignment was still not perfect. I was going in the right direction, but not far enough. The flanges on the adjustment screws are relatively thick, so there was extra room to move downwards if the flanges weren’t a factor. I removed the adjustment screws entirely and just fixed the connector all the way down, but this was too far – much worse. The flanges were too thick but something was still required. I made a spacer out of some film, cutting holes for all three screws, but this was too thin. I then made one from a piece of card that was about half the thickness of the flange, and this produced a nearly perfect alignment.

Nikon FG light meter adjustment
After: the piece of card fits below the connector, which is now secured with all three screws

I suspect this alignment hack was required because something else in the camera is out of alignment – perhaps it’s had a bump at some point in its history. But I’m not too concerned. The light meter is now quite usable – it’s better out of full sun, but it’s usable in daytime and that’s a huge improvement. And I’m really enjoying this camera. Light meter aside (give me a match needle any day) and ignoring the abrupt jolt at the end of the film wind action, it’s a fun and capable little machine. And I do mean little – the smallest and lightest SLR I have by a decent margin. I bought a Series E 50mm f/1.8 to use with it based on some pretty good reviews of this lens (because 50mm is my jam) and the photos from the test roll are clear and pleasant.

Nikon FG test roll

Nikon FG test roll

I’m pretty happy with how this turned out. I know that it’s not the most elegant repair, perhaps not even the most effective, but the camera is far more usable now and that’s what counts. I’ve rescued a camera that was on the verge of the parts bin, in order to make use of photography gear that was going unused, and I think that’s what this whole camera repair thing is all about. For me, at least.

Minolta X-9 Capacitor Replacement

Last year I bought three enlargers from a family friend, who also threw in a bag of other camera stuff. This included a Nikon F4 and a Minolta X-9, neither of which worked properly. The F4 is my dream fix, but it’s a complicated beast. The X-9 (also called/very similar to the X-300S or X-370N) is a simpler machine by anyone’s estimation. Judging by resale prices, it’s considered outright basic. I am getting the impression, though, that it can easily outperform expectations as long as you can look past its gloriously 1980s plastic shell.

Minolta X-9 capacitor repair
The Minolta X-9 in question. The sorry-looking lens is a project for another day.

According to the internet, many of the later Minolta X series cameras are prone to a capacitor failure. An affected camera will appear to work until the shutter button is fully depressed, at which point the camera will power down; because the shutter never releases, the film advance lever can seem stuck. This Minolta X-9 displayed exactly this issue – the light meter would work on a half-press of the shutter button, but then the camera would die as soon as I pressed further.

I opened the bottom of the camera to have a look. Not without difficulty – I stripped the head of the screw nearest the capacitor in question. It was very stiff and I suspect it was slightly corroded by the residue from the burst capacitor, traces of which could be seen on the underside of the base plate. The plastic at the base of the capacitor, between the pins, was protruding further than it should, indicating that it had burst through the bottom and towards the screw.

Minolta X-9 capacitor repair
The old capacitor in place. It had burst out the bottom towards its pins, and you could see some residue nearby.

The most difficult part of this repair, for me, was learning to solder and desolder. This is a skill that I have come to learn is essential for repairing cameras – almost any camera made after 1970 seems to have parts that can only be removed after certain wires are desoldered (even the Voigtländer Bessamatic, which is a chaotic mechanical masterpiece). Thankfully, there is an electronics retailer in Australia that still provides an abundance of educational materials and affordable supplies for learning to solder. I learned the basics by making a small device with two flashing LEDs. This was a bit challenging, as I had decided to use lead-free solder for safety reasons, and my soldering iron tip was old and corroded; things got easier when I replaced the tip, and I was able to complete the device. Then I tried to unsolder it, found this difficult and gave up, and put it back together. As it still worked, I figured this was a good enough start…

Heady with my success, I dived straight into replacing the capacitor on the Minolta X-9. The old capacitor came off easily enough, so I trimmed and bent the pins of the new capacitor (took a while to find replacements with the same specifications and dimensions, but it is possible) and forged ahead. It’s a bit tricky to get the right alignment, since there’s not much support for the capacitor and you’re soldering it to a flexible circuit. I screwed up the alignment at first and had to re-solder it, and given the higher melting point of lead-free solder I was pretty afraid that I’d cooked something. Doubly so, when I put some batteries into the camera and nothing worked at all.

Minolta X-9 capacitor repair
The new capacitor soldered in. Those huge globs of solder are proof that I had only learned to solder recently and opted for the “overkill” approach.

I checked continuity between the capacitor pins and the next components on the flex circuit, and that was all fine. I measured voltage at the flex circuit and it checked out at around 3V, as it should have. But the camera wouldn’t even turn on. I was certain I’d killed it. And it’s not even a nice-looking paperweight.

When nothing works, go back to basics.

To test the camera, I had been using batteries straight out of my Minolta XE-5. These batteries were powering that camera’s light meter just fine, and they were measuring in at the correct voltage, so I assumed they were ok. But then, just in case, I put in a fresh pair of batteries. I pressed the shutter button. It fired. I pushed the film advance lever. It moved. I did it again. And again. And again.

Now, I know this is a basic camera, a manual focus SLR released at the time Minolta was well into its autofocus phase. It has only two or three more functions than the XE-5, which is about 15 years older. And it looks very much like an SLR and Darth Vader’s suit were spliced in a teleporter incident. However, it’s the first camera that I have resurrected from a state of complete malfunction. I’m pretty pleased with that. And in the process, I’ve seen some indications that the functions it does have are well implemented. When I ran a test roll of film through, it was comfortably familiar to shoot with, and it was plastic enough that I didn’t feel compelled to treat it like porcelain, so I quite enjoyed the experience. I might post a review up here sometime.

Minolta XE-5 Film Advance Repair

A couple of months ago, just before the birth of my son, I fixed the film advance on my Minolta XE-5. The lever had not been completing its action properly, and when it got to the end of its rotation there would still be some film winding left to do, so it would just return loosely. It had to be pushed to the end of its travel again before the action would complete, the lever would return under spring action, and the shutter would be unlocked.

The XE-5’s plastic prism cover, though potentially more fragile than metal and (in my opinion) a slightly questionable aesthetic design choice, has the benefit of separating the top plate into three sections: the prism cover, and left and right covers made of metal. This simplifies some repairs, because if you only have to make a repair on one side, you don’t have to disassemble the other.

Minolta XE-5 winder return fix

Minolta XE-5 winder return fix

There’s not too much complicated about the top plate removal beyond making note of where things were aligned. I had the shutter speed dial set to Auto just as a reference (and to keep the dial from being moved), and I left the power selector set to On so that the shutter could be released while disassembled (for testing the winding function). Also important to align correctly is the strangely shaped part below the brass spring in the photo below, which interfaces between the film advance lever and its axle. The easy way to remember its alignment is tho make sure the larger, stronger tongue is on the left, as this is the part that transmits the lever’s force in an anticlockwise rotation.

Minolta XE-5 winder return fix

Once the top right cover is removed, you can just access the rachet that governs disengagement of the film advance lever, which needs to be cleaned to remove the gunk causing the issue. The ratchet is connected to the small brass pin that is between the two arms of a spring – in the photo below, this is below the PCB (gotta love those 1970s electronics!) and just to the right of the silver screw near the strap lug. You can tell that this is gunked up by moving the pin – it may be stiff.

Minolta XE-5 winder return fix

I cleaned the ratchet’s pivot and the end of the ratchet itself (where it engages the toothed plate connected to the film advance axle) with some isopropyl alcohol on the end of a toothpick that I’d whittled to a point, just dabbing on a small drop and waiting for it to dissolve the gunk and evaporate. I then applied a small amount of light synthetic oil to both areas. I could immediately feel that the ratchet moved more smoothly and quickly. I put the strangely shaped part and the advance lever back on top of the film advance axle temporarily and went through the fire-wind sequence a few times to check the repair was effective – the advance lever returned at the end of each stroke as it should, with no extra push necessary.

This camera has the smoothest film advance mechanism I have ever felt. It takes even less effort than a Voigtländer Vito C-series film advance, despite having a much more complicated shutter to charge. In fact, now that it’s fixed, it feels more broken – it is so smooth that it’s difficult to believe it’s working. I am a little bit in awe.

My Dad and my Son

This Canon FT QL was my dad’s camera. My dad passed away when I was 14. The camera is one of the few items of Dad’s that I’ve kept with me as I’ve moved around. It is the camera that I remember him using throughout my childhood, and it captured many of my early moments. Like my scrunched-up face when I ate some orange peel when I was about one, or when I put on one of Dad’s t-shirts and looked like a monk when I was about two.

I started using it a couple of years after Dad passed away, and I learned the real techniques of film photography on this camera. It is fully manual, so it was a steep learning curve, but I borrowed books from the library and looked up websites (few and far between back then) to piece things together. I bought a wide angle lens and a flash to broaden my capabilities (while working a part-time job and couch surfing… I miss the pre-hipster film photography market). Later, the film market dwindled and processing labs became more scarce, but I shot the odd roll of film and went hunting for extant labs. When I first left uni, got a job, and found the still-depressed vintage camera market a little more accessible, I shot with Dad’s camera regularly alongside newer acquisitions.

Even as I still call it, and think of it, as Dad’s camera, it is probably the possession that has most influenced who I am. It is a little hard to describe the significance of an object that both represents and facilitates a shared experience with someone who is gone. I know that Dad looked through the same finder, adjusted the same shutter speed dial and aperture ring, and pressed the same shutter button. I am on the other side of the lens now, but it is the same machine. And the photos he took, even the seemingly unimportant photos of flowers and leaves tucked into the family photo archives (I was very glad to be present when they were discovered, they were so nearly thrown out), reveal thought processes so similar to my own, and now so impossible to deduce through observation or conversation. The experience shared is not just of using the same small machine, but of seeing the world in a similar way. I record shadows of my times and places, and I am simultaneously living out a shadow of Dad recording his times and places, many years before.

My son was born early on an autumn morning. After the midwives had left, my wife and son and I rested for a while. We were exhausted, but we were, for the first time, together as a little family. As every new dad does in this moment, I took out a camera to take photos of my amazing wife holding our newborn. I took out Dad’s camera.

I had been thinking, in the weeks leading up to my son’s birth, that it would be nice to use his camera as a tangible representation of my dad, present in the early moments of my son’s life that I would have shared with him if he was here. So I had bought some fast film that would work well indoors and loaded it up weeks in advance, ready to sling the camera bag over my shoulder in a potential midnight dash to the hospital. And in those moments after we met my son, exhausted and happy in equal measure, I recorded some shadows of a beautiful time. I photographed my son with his extended family as they gleefully came to meet him. I took some photos of my wife and son as we sat with him in our hospital room, stunned, adoring, and weary. I took more when we left the hospital and settled him into our home, his home, as part of our little family.

Dad couldn’t be among the family members who came to meet my son and to help us settle in. It meant a lot to me, though, that I could include him by recording those times in much the same way he would have when he became a father. Looking through the same finder, adjusting the same settings, pressing the same shutter button, allowing a flicker of light to pass through the same lens as when I was a baby and Dad was the exhausted young father full of joy. Twenty years after he passed away, we have shared a new experience: celebrating and documenting the new life of a son.

Canon FT QL mirror damper replacement

I thought I’d make my first post about some work done on my favourite camera: my dad’s old Canon FT QL.

20181106 Canon FT mirror damper 3

This fully mechanical SLR was built from 1966-72. It has through-the-lens metering (the only electrical function) and a nifty Quick Load system for film insertion (honestly not sure why it’s not ubiquitous in later cameras – it’s foolproof). A camera like this was a great place to start learning how to use cameras properly, as you have to do everything. Doubly so, as the light meter is getting a little iffy. I just “sunny 16” it up when the light meter gets sketchy and it generally works a treat.

This camera has had some work done on it back in the 70s or 80s – badly. Dad kept the receipt. The workman’s notes can be paraphrased as “Couldn’t fix the issue, you’ll need parts to fix this :O also, I tried cleaning the insides and now your focusing screen’s light meter match circle is gone YOLO kthxbai.”

Somewhere along the line it also lost its mirror damper, though from disintegration or incompetence it’s hard to say. The mirror would whack up against the frame surrounding the focusing screen, which was quite noisy. I think, over the years, it also made the mirror mount slightly loose, as the mirror would sometimes travel outward, as it were, and get stuck against the mirror damper’s baffle plate and not return, causing the viewfinder to be black after a shot. How the mirror never broke I am not sure.

For my first attempt at replacing the mirror damper, I used some 2mm black craft foam bought from a local art store. I cut it to size (about 2.5-3mm wide) with a craft knife (not very well – turns out a rotary cutter is a far better tool for this). I attached it with as small an amount possible of PVA glue. While not a great glue for metal, it adhered the foam to the camera well enough.

20181105 Canon FT mirror damper 1

However, after reattaching the baffle plate and testing, I wasn’t sure this foam was thick enough. It didn’t quite seem to stop contact between the mirror frame and the camera body. I had since found some 1.5mm black craft foam with a self-adhesive backing, so I cut some to size and attached on top of the first strip of foam. This photo makes it look less aligned than it is, and I might well re-do this at some point with two strips of the self-adhesive foam instead.

Canon FT QL mirror damper repair 4

However, it is just thick enough to effectively stop the mirror hitting the camera body both in manual and automatic actuation, but not thick enough to obstruct the light path.

Canon FT QL mirror damper repair 5

It seems to be working well in shooting so far. It is quieter – the Canon FT QL could never be described as a quiet camera, but the shutter sounds less clunky and more deliberate now.

There are still a few things I could do on this camera. As it’s got fairly high sentimental value, I’ve just bought a copy that’s in a bit of a state that I can use to practice tearing it down, and I might salvage its focusing screen to get the match circle back.