Let me begin by admitting that I’m sick and tired of film photographers telling other film photographers not to worry about their light seals because they’re not necessary. This is complete and total bullshit and the inspiration for this post. There’s nothing more infuriating in the world of film, for me, than the spread of misinformation. Don’t be an anti-vaxxer! I’m going to set the record straight!
Regardless of if you don’t use high speed film or view light leaks as art, you need to replace your decaying old light seals. Don’t scoff, read on!
In the early 2000’s when I started shooting and knew little about film photography or maintaining classic cameras, the foam rubber light seals common in 1970’s SLR’s were often times still good enough to shoot with at 400 ISO or lower. I could shoot all day and night and not even know what a damn light seal was!
But it only took a few years before I began using higher ISO films and picking up bodies whose light seals were crumbling or smooshy. Today, in 2019, I promise you, that ANY vintage SLR which has not been properly serviced in the last few decades, NEEDS NEW LIGHT SEALS. And hey, replacing light seals is cheap and easy so let’s not keep avoiding it, okay?
What cameras have and need light seals? Here’s a general list.
–Most 35mm SLR’s (pre-1970’s German ones sometimes use black string or felt instead of foam rubber)
–Most 60’s and newer Japanese fixed lens 35mm rangefinders
–Most medium format SLR’s
If you’ve recently discovered one of these cameras and would like to use it, at minimum, you should replace its light seals. Ideally, all vintage cameras should also be Cleaned Lubed and Adjusted (CLA’d) by a professional repair person too. The days of finding a vintage classic camera in your parents closet and then loading it with film and a battery before going off and shooting up the world, are over. This is just a sad fact. And we need to be clear about this, else we’ll destroy our cameras.
And here’s why:
As foam rubber light seals age, they either crumble into little bits or they get mushy, gummy and misshapen. So when you find something like a Pentax K1000 or Nikon FM, simply remove the lens and GENTLY press your finger onto the black foam rubber strip above the flipping mirror. If that strip breaks apart or it squishes instead of bouncing back into shape when you remove your finger, your light seals are bad. All of them.
Same thing in the case of something like a Canonet or Yashica Electro rangefinder. But since you cannot remove the lens, you’ll have to check the foam inside the perimeter of the film compartment. This may require pressing it with a small wooden stick for example. It’s a little difficult to see but what you’re inspecting is the same.
So what’s the big deal, right? What if you only shoot 50 ISO indoors or you LIKE light leaks?
The problem is that the foam will continue to fall apart with use anyway. Every mirror slap, every film door close, will cause this foam to deteriorate further, delivering tiny bits of sticky old rubber into the camera and screwing things up.
There are some folks out there who are very vocal in various film photography forums who advocate being cheap and not addressing foam light seal decay. I guess they think they know better than camera manufacturers. They probably also believe that the earth is flat. Don’t listen to these people. They are not real photographers. They are camera hoarders who don’t take care of their many cameras and shoot on them even less yet seem to talk a lot in internet forums.
Here’s what not only CAN, but WILL happen if you keep using a camera with decayed light seals:
–Bits of foam can stick to the view screen in SLR’s. These screens are merely a plastic fresnel panel imprinted with very fine concentric circles. It is nearly impossible to remove decayed light seal foam from these when it becomes embedded.
–Another common problem is the frame counter reset tab. Inside the perimeter of the film compartment of most 35mm and 120 cameras is a small metal tab. When it is pressed by a corresponding tab on the film door, the frame counter is reset back to 0. Because light seals are in the same channel as this tab, the foam can get into the camera body here, and jam the frame counter mechanism.
–Regardless of if your camera has a fresnel screen or frame counter reset, the foam bits can get on your film, ruining your photos. And in all reality, decaying foam bits can probably cause other issues too but these are the just the most obvious, factual threats.
If you enjoy light leaks, you can achieve them in a more controlled way by occasionally opening the film door mid-roll. Fresh seals will prevent metal on metal, and sometimes glass to metal wear on your camera.
The good news is that most repair shops only charge something like $30 to replace light seals. And if you’re strapped for cash, don’t have a local shop or just prefer tinkering and learning camera repair, it’s very easy to replace ones own light seals.
Some newer 35mm cameras have a film reminder window, like a Fujica AX-3, Voigtlander Bessa R or Nikon FM10. The foam rubber strip around this window will also have to be replaced.
Speaking of the Fujica AX-3, some SLR’s, some Leica R’s, will have thin panels of foam rubber or felt encasing the entire inside of the mirrorbox. This is unusual and poses a bit of a service issue. If you have a body like this, I’d recommend not replacing the seals yourself but seeking professional service.
But for the rest of you, you should be fully capable of replacing the foam rubber light seals yourself. If you’d like, I can write a blog about that at another time and provide the link here. But there are numerous great videos and articles on this already. They just need to be followed rather than ignored!
Alright! I think that about does it for my square-off against the anti-light seal crowd! If you have any questions, just let me know in the comments. I’m happy to help or argue about light seals as necessary!
Thanks for reading!