Camera Collecting Tip: Shutter Jammed? Check the Self-Timer First

When looking for vintage cameras to add to my collection, I'm always attracted to "parts" cameras in stores or online. Sure, many that are offered have suffered a failed disassembly or a fatal drop to a concrete floor. I steer clear of those. But there are plenty of good units with tell-tale signs of an often easy fix: self-timer interlock. Once remedied, you've usually got a great fully-functioning camera again.

See that little red dot beneath the lens? By nudging it
to the right, this old Wirgin Edinex's shutter
came alive again.
Old mechanical film cameras frequently featured a spring-driven device that delayed the release of the shutter in order for you to get in your own photo: a self-timer. This device is found on the shutter of leaf shutter assemblies, usually as a small post sticking out with a red color at the tip to remind you it's a self-timer and not a shutter cocking lever. On old 35mm SLRs you typically see a lever sitting on the font of the camera body next to the lens. You'd swing the lever up or down to engage the spring timing mechanism (and hear a tiny whirring noise as you did so as all those micro-gears are energized). On a few models, you push a revealed button to activate the timer after engaging it, on other brands, you press the main shutter release button. About ten seconds later, the shutter goes off.

Self-timers were a feature people really very seldom ever used. Even today, your DSLR probably has this ability in electronic form, but I'd guess you haven't used it more than a couple times - if ever. Hence the problem with older cameras, too. If you never used the self-timer, if it never had it's gears and springs wound and used somewhat routinely - it got stiff and stopped working. I'll bet over 75% of the cameras I collect don't have a functioning self-timer due to non-use over decades. I never touch those little levers.

The problem is that the self-timer and shutter operation are connected. So, if the self-timer fails to unwind and release the shutter, the camera is rendered "jammed".Stuck self-timers I would guess are the number one reason folks drop off cameras at thrift or antique stores. Most likely, the owner went to use the camera, fiddled with the self-timer and found they couldn't snap the shutter anymore.

I've seen plenty of Minolta SRT 35mm SLRs advertised online as being parts-only cameras due to shutter malfunction where you can clearly see in the photo that the self-timer lever is engaged and stuck in the down and ready position. Ditto for many other Japanese brands of a similar era; those self-timer units were typically made by some other firm and sold to OEMs.

The fix is very simple: release the energy in the coiled spring of the self-timer. Well, if you're lucky, doing that can be a matter of gently nudging the lever or arm to it's original position, (go slowly and don't over-force) with the result of the shutter happily going off. Or it may involve removing the leather skin or front plate of the camera body and using a small screwdriver to help rotate frozen gears. The worst case is you've got a self-timer on a leaf shutter, as in those used on most old folding cameras, that won't respond to nudging. Sorry to say, the repair involves some tricky disassembly. If it's a German-made unit, do not attempt. These shutters are marvels of miniature engineering. Training is key here, and you don't have it.

Generally, if you can't nudge the timer lever back on a camera you see in a store, leave it be and choose something else. And try not to repair a self-timer in front of the salesperson as well. I did that once and upon success, the price instantly went up. "Thanks for fixing that!" Jerk.

Happy hunting!


  1. Happy To see I am not the only Trawler of the parts section... :-) some are there because the fake leather is lifting off! That's it! Great article.


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