Old film cameras and light leaks

Film is recently getting more attention from photographers. For those who were starting their photo journey with old 35mm SLRs or rangefinders (like me) it is nostalgic experience. For younger generations raised in digital era it is something different, perhaps even something “new” to try. Whatever the reasons are one must get some used film camera and this usually means getting some ten to forty years old piece of hardware. Most of them still work pretty well, but there is one common issue that you should be aware of – light leaks.

As you know film is light sensitive material thus film chamber must be light-tight or your precious photos will be damaged by unwanted light. There are two elements usually causing light leaks – shutter and film chamber doors. Many old cameras are using cloth material for shutters and after many years this cloth may no longer be opaque. Perforation of shutter will be strongly visible on your images. Here is an example from FED-4 rangefinder:

The longer your camera is exposed to light, the stronger burnouts you will get. Unfortunately replacing whole shutter isn’t something you may do yourself and it is usually cheaper to get other camera than to send damaged one for repair. You may try to make your shutter opaque again using high quality fabric paint. Just keep in mind that it must remain flexible after this operation.

Film chamber doors and/or camera backs are other common sources of light leaks. They are usually sealed with foam or rubber and these materials degrade slowly as time passes. After twenty or thirty years you may not have foam seals at all or you’ll find some sticky rubber-like thing instead. Depending on what parts of seals are degraded or missing you may get various effects on your images, from strong bright burnouts…

… to red casts.

You may as well get both of these on one image:

And here is an example from camera with missing film door hinge seal (usually largest one):

On black & white images light leaks looks like ghosts…

or birght streaks:

From my experience you may shoot few rolls of film without any signs of light leaks before they’ll appear as well as get them right on your first roll. Sometimes only two or three images from whole roll will be affected and sometimes most of roll will be wasted. They may also appear on various parts of your images. It may look random but it just depends on what parts of seals are damaged, what are light conditions you shoot at, what shutter speeds you are using, if and how you expose your camera to strong light (ie. direct sun light), how long you keep your roll in camera or even how much pressure you apply to rear of your camera when shooting.

Fortunately replacing light seals isn’t hard so don’t get scared if your “new” old camera produces photos with artifacts like on examples above. You just need to get new seals either by cutting them yourself or buying pre-cut kits from Ebay (I strongly recommend the latter). If you have your seals ready just remove old ones, carefully clean your camera back and/or film door and put new ones in place. Thats all.

It is also good idea to try asking Google about light seals for your camera model. There are tutorials or forum threads for some cameras available online with specific instructions what and how should be replaced (for some cameras it may be requried to take them partially apart to replace all seals) and what materials are good for light seals if you don’t want or can’t find pre-cut ones.