I have already said a lot about how much I love my Canon AT-1 so I won’t say any more. For a while using the camera resulted in my fingers and film canisters being covered in a black gunge. It didn’t take me long to realise that the viscous material was in fact the light seals from inside the back of the camera. I chose to ignore this for as long as I possibly could but eventually the light leaking into the back of the camera started to affect the images that I was capturing. Sometimes this resulted in some pleasant surprises, like the image of the fly above where a band of light frames the insect and adds to the final image. In other cases this effect was much more dramatic and not really what I was looking for like the image from Donnington below.
Failure of light seals in older film cameras is not uncommon and is certainly not specific to the AT-1 or other AE models. If you start to see the tell tale lighter areas in your images I would suggest that you are probably better fixing it sooner rather than waiting like I did. Yes I ended up with some nice images but I have also missed out on others which would have showed some potential if it weren’t for the dreaded light leak. When it comes to fixing the light seals you have two options, buy a kit and fix it yourself or send the camera away for servicing. The value of the camera is probably going to have an impact on your decision but the fix is fairly simple if you have the time. Personally I was keen to try and fix my camera myself and I wanted to share my experiences in this blog post.
What you will need
- A light seal kit for your camera (Can be found on eBay)
- A sharp knife
- Some tissue paper or kitchen roll
- Some wood or a surface to cut on
- Solvent (I used lighter fluid)
- Wooden cuticle stick
- Cotton wool buds
- A metal ruler
- Some instructions
- Time, lots of time
- Tea (This probably goes without saying)
- A steady hand
Out of all of those things the most valuable item IMHO was the cuticle sticks. I picked up a pack of 6 for 50p which meant that I could throw them away and pick up a clean one when I needed to. The fact that they have one pointed end and one angled end means that you can use them for all sorts of things and they are soft enough that they won’t damage your camera. When it comes to a sharp knife I found that a Stanley knife with a brand new blade was sufficient but I did swap the blade for a fresh one part way through just to be sure.
When it comes to a kit and instructions a quick Google search should reveal something specific for your camera. Personally I picked up my kit from eBay but the instructions that came with it were pretty rubbish so I was able to find some more with another quick search:
You could of course just buy the foam and cut it all yourself but I couldn’t imagine doing that as the kit makes things much, much simpler. The pieces of foam you will be dealing with are pretty small and having a straight edge to work with is really useful.
The other thing worth noting is time, you need to leave yourself plenty of time to do this job as its extremely fiddly. I spent about 3 hour fixing my camera. I expect that you could do it faster but I am pretty meticulous with the way I do things and I wanted to make sure I got this just right.
Lay all of your items out on a working space which is going to be big enough for everything you need. I used a small coffee table and this was ample. Remember that you are going to be there for a while so make sure you can sit comfortably. My other tip would be to RTFM. If you have instructions read them from start to finish. I missed a part on my instructions and as it turned out it didn’t apply to my camera but my heart stopped for a moment when I read it.
Removing the old light seals
Despite the fact that the seals in my camera had disintegrated into nothing in places, it still took quite a while to clean what remained of the original foam that made up the light seals. Things are much easier if you can remove the film door from the back of the camera. The AE series cameras have a small catch on the door hinge that allows you to room the door easily. I also found that leaving my 35mm prime on the camera body made it easier to hold the camera and meant that I wasn’t worried about damaging the mirror on focusing plate whilst cleaning the back of the camera.
A solvent is a must for this step but use it a small amount at a time as you don’t want to end up damaging the exposed components of your camera. I used lighter fluid as my solvent just because it is readily available. I found three techniques for applying the solvent without pouring it all over my camera:
Work in one area at a time, apply solvent and then use the cuticle sticks to scrape away the damaged foam. Keep the cuticle sticks clean as you go so you don’t drop the gunge into the inner working of the camera and switch to a new stick once it becomes too clogged to clean.
You want your camera to be completely free of old adhesive so once you have cleaned your camera go over it again to make sure you haven’t missed anything. You want to be able to move the new seals around once you have stuck them down and this will be extremely difficult if there are bits of old glue and foam.
Applying the new seals
The first thing you need to do before you start applying the new seals in tidy your workspace. At this stage I had old foam, solvent soaked kitchen roll, used cotton wool buds and cuticle sticks all over the place. You are going to need all of that space for cutting the foam into shape so its a good idea to start with a clean working area.
Take note that your kit will probably come with two thicknesses of foam. My kit contained 1mm thick foam for the light seals and 2mm thick foam for the mirror damper. Make sure you check your kit before you start as you wouldn’t want to use the wrong foam.
My instructions suggested cutting all of my foam up front but I decided that I would rather cut the foam as I needed it. That way I could check the foam as I went and make adjustments for the next piece if I needed to. I started with the seals on the back of the camera body. My approach was gently press the foam into the groove and use the cuticle stick to make a mark where I should cut. The AE cameras have a catch in the top groove which moves inward when the door is shut. I made sure that I was as close to this as I could be without stopping it from moving. There is no glue on the strips which go into the top and bottom of the camera body back so this is fairly simple.
The next step for me was the foam at the hinge end of the camera back. My instructions has suggested sizes but I found it easier to make my own measurements as I knew this would create a better seal. Putting pressure on the foam with a metal ruler and making a single cut meant that I was able to get the shape I wanted.
One of the best tips in my instructions was to lick the adhesive on the foam before applying it. I found that licking the adhesive and the area of the camera where I was sticking it gave the best result. This meant that I could move the foam around once I had placed it. I could then hold it in place with a cuticle stick (see how useful they are) for a minute or so until it was stuck in place. For placement I used tweezers so that I didn’t touch the adhesive and so that I could see what I was doing. For moving the foam around once in place I found that it was easier to use a cuticle stick.
The other strips on the film door where fairly similar. The only thing that I found was that my camera also had felt / foam seals at the sides of the latch end of the film door. This meant I had to cut shaped pieces of foam and slide them into place. This was probably the most fiddly part of the whole fix but licking the adhesive meant that I could move the foam fairly easily.
Replacing the mirror damper
This is a good point to replace the film door on your camera and clean your working area. You don’t want to undo all your good work on the rear of the camera.
I thought that my mirror damper was still OK but when I touched it most of it came away with my finger. I then realised that some of it was stuck to the mirror. You shouldn’t use solvent to remove the damper foam as you may damage the focus plate. Instead use a fresh blade and gently cut the foam away. Once most of it is gone you can use a cuticle stick to scrape away any unwanted adhesive. Using a very small amount of solvent on a cotton wool bud I was able to clean the mirror but I would suggest you are very careful if you decide to do this too.
At this stage I cleaned up my work area one last time before cutting and applying the last piece of foam. Remember that the mirror damper is normally a thicker piece of foam than that which is used in the back of the camera. Its job is to stop the mirror hitting the inside of the camera after all.
And there you have it. You should find that your light leak problems and all fixed. This fix does take a bit of time but I think it is well worth it. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I was able to do a pretty clean job. I hope that sharing my experience has been useful to some of you or perhaps made you feel a little less apprehensive of fixing your own camera.