The first and easiest step in restoring an older camera is to clean the outside. The external condition will not affect performance, but once cleaned it will look and feel a whole lot better. Even if it looks clean, the chances are that it is actually harbouring a lifetime of grime.
The best thing to clean a camera is freely available: it’s spit. The enzymes in saliva that break down food also break down dirt. If you think this is a bit gross, then consider this: painting restorers use spit to clean paintings, and the phrase “spit and polish” acknowledges that saliva is a universal solvent that will clean almost anything, but damage next to nothing (except food stuffs of course). Don’t clean the lens or any other glass parts with saliva. It won’t do any harm, but there are better things to use.
So, the best way to clean a camera is by rubbing with a little cotton wool, dampened in the mouth, and you’ll see the cotton wool change colour as it removes grime. Work on small areas at a time; don’t get the camera too wet, and dry/polish with a soft cloth afterwards.
The area on an SLR that often has the most grunge is in that little triangle between the shutter release, shutter speed selector, and wind crank. An ordinary wooden cocktail stick is often thin enough to be poked into this spot (and any other similar cranny). Buy used film cameras The principle to observe here is that whatever you use to poke into crevices must be made of a softer material than the camera – otherwise you’ll just end up causing damage.
The insides of cameras are generally pretty clean, and don’t often have more than a few stray tiny fibres within, which can be removed with a blower, or jet of compressed air. This is far better than blowing, through pursed lips, since our breath contains moisture, which is not desirable inside a camera.
On some SLRs, the mirror box is often lined with a Velour type material, and this can be a dust trap. Then best way to clean this is with masking tape. Masking tape has a non-transferable adhesive, so it sticks, but doesn’t bond (well it takes a long time to do so). Wrap a small piece of masking tape, sticky side out, around the tip of a finger. Set the camera shutter speed to “B”. Trip the shutter, and hold down the release button to keep the mirror up and out of harms way. Dab the masking tape on to the walls of the mirror box, and remove. As with the saliva cleaning, you’ll be able to see all the fibres and debris you collected on the masking tape. Go in through the lens mount (rather than the back of the camera), because it’s a safer option, should you accidentally release the shutter while your finger is inside.
With due care, you can also clean the underside of the focusing screen this way too. Debris here have a habit of being sticky, and are often difficult to detach with a jet of air alone.
All glass surfaces are best cleaned with a made-for-the-purpose cleaner. The simplest lens cleaning products are generally little more than ionised water. There’s nothing wrong with it, but neither is it particularly good. Others can contain ingredients such as silicone, alcohol and glycerine. These solutions tend to coat the lens instead of removing the embedded pollution from the surface. I don’t want to make this article a promotion for a particular product, but there are lens cleaners that contain a “residual oil remover” which emulsifies any microscopic film of oil caused by environmental pollution. They are good. Look to see what’s in a lens cleaner before you buy.
The tried and trusted lens/glass cleaning technique is to blow away and loose particles. Sparingly moisten a soft lens cleaning cloth (that is, one sold for that purpose), don’t rub too vigorously, and polish the glass dry.
Mirrors sometimes have grunge on them (often picked-up from the damper), and have to be cleaned. Do this very gently and with great care, as they are easy to break. The focusing screen is best not cleaned with any fluids (unless it’s removable, but let’s assume it’s not). Attempts to clean it – in place – using fluids usually make things worse, so stick to blowing debris away, and dry cleaning with masking tape, and be prepared to live with anything you can’t remove this way.
Camera leather can be cleaned with any leather cleaning products, but again spit does a good job. Good leather cleaning solution will “feed” and rejuvenate, but try not to smear it elsewhere.
Almost all film cameras that are more than 15 years old will typically require new light seals. Sadly the material degrades over time, and ceases to perform its function. Deterioration of light seals is a product of time rather than use, so even that pristine camera that has never been taken out of the box is going to need some work. If your camera is old and German, it won’t have light seals to replace: light seals are generally found on all Japanese cameras.
This article does not attempt to explain how to do it (there are already lots of good how to articles on the Net), but rather describe when you need to do it.