Sunday, September 30, 2012

Fixing a Sticky Mirror on a Pentax ES Film Camera

The Pentax Spotmatic was a break-through camera in the 1960's with it's behind-the-lens metering system. For a moment in time, parent company Asahi surged ahead of the market leaders Canon and Nikon. But the 42mm universal screw-thread mount for their lenses would end up causing some engineering trouble when it came to offering an automatic exposure model. With a couple of small changes to their house lenses, Pentax was able to create the ES model (Electronic Shutter or Electronic Spotmatic, if you prefer) around 1971. 

 The Pentax ES was a stunning beauty. Some special machining allowed certain new lenses to seat on the body with exact alignment to permit aperture-preferred automation (you choose the lens opening, the camera picks the shutter speed). It worked great.

[The Pentax "K" series a few years later solved all the engineering problems of automating with single-pin M42 screw-mount lenses by dumping the special ES mount in favor of a completely new bayonet arrangement.]

Production of the wonderful ES only happened for a few years and the price for this technology was high. Sales were restricted to well-heeled enthusiasts or pros. Thus, a Pentax ES is not easy to come by for vintage camera collectors; so I was shocked to see an example at a local garage sale going for $2. It came complete with it's case, a Honeywell electronic flash and instruction book.The owner said the camera was jammed; the mirror would not come down but the shutter worked fine. Well, as a shelf queen it looked great and the price was certainly right.

A little internet investigation revealed that an ES mirror stuck in the up position could be cured. Quite often, the bearings on the shutter drum/spindles just needed lubricating. The gear at the end of the assembly sticks slightly so that the mirror operation never gets a chance to cycle completely. Sometimes this occurs at one shutter speed, often at all. A touch of oil is all that's needed on the bearings to help clear the problem.

Before assuming you need to do surgery, first try taking the camera off the automatic setting and wind and shoot using the manual speeds. If that doesn't work proceed to the information below. 

Now, I'm no camera repair expert and you're on your own with regard to how successful this is and how good your mechanical skills are. But all you'll need is a small screwdriver and some light oil. It's a pretty easy amateur operation.

The Process

First remove the four screws on the bottom plate of the camera with a very small Philips-type screwdriver (jeweler's type). Lift the bottom plate off straight up. You'll now see a green circuit board covering the guts of the camera.

Next remove the three screws holding the circuit board. Once done, the assembly is free to be lifted up. Lift the left edge slightly (in order to clear the tripod socket assembly in the middle) and pull the circuit board gently to the left to disconnect it from the electrical connector. 

Go slowly, do not force anything. It should separate with a calm, even tug or with a wiggle.


The target for the oil is a gear located to the lower-left of the tripod socket. You're trying to reach ball bearings between the gear and the large screw center. Yep, those are some mighty small bearings.

Using some form of hypodermic, pin, penpoint, flat-head jeweler's screwdriver, etc., apply a very, very small amount/beadof thin lubricant to the area just outside of the screw that holds down the shutter drum/shutter spindle arrangement. 

I realize that you might want to know what kind of Lubricant to use. It's easier to say what I would NOT use: lithium type, graphite, 3-in1, and especially WD-40. Bad choices. You're looking for very thin oil, nealy as runny as water. Sewing machine oil might fill the bill if you can find it. I just happen to have some specialty machine tool lubricant given to me by a friend.

OK, a very small drop is what you're after. You don't want to douse the bearings. Wipe up any extra lubricant off the face of the gear with a cotton swab. 

Test the shutter a couple of times. If the mirror returns to the typical down position after the release - success! That's it! Simply reassemble the circuit board and bottom plate in the reverse order from the first step.

If the mirror still stays up, well you haven't damaged the camera, but the problem is likely located at the other end of the spindle drum, deep inside the camera. That's a professional fix. Sorry.

Hopefully, you'll find that your ES will spring back to life. The ability to make a repair like this to a forty-plus year-old camera is testimony to the wonderful precision engineering by Pentax. Good luck on your example.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ego Smack-Down at the State Fair

My family and I always make it a point to visit the Minnesota State Fair each year. Over one million of our fellow citizens go and its the absolute best place to watch people and eat food that's decidedly bad for you.

After a couple hours of munching corn dogs and taking a dare to eat something like fried Spam on a stick, I tend to break away for a half-hour and head for the Fine Arts Building at a far corner of the property. It's my annual "I'm not worthy" tour.

The Fine Arts Building is a wonderful old square brick structure about the size of a very large chain restaurant. At one time, it may have been dedicated to display something more agricultural in nature but now it's a "yuppified" mecca for art types and art wanna-bees like me.

Amateurs from around the state submit works of all kinds for competition. I've seen some spectacular carvings, sculpture and paintings over the years. Naturally, I'm drawn to the photography. Every year I an very impressed with the depth and quality of the images my fellow Minnesotans can create. But it makes me envious of their talent. I love photographic technology. Love it. I just can't seem to take a picture that's any damn good.

The worst is when I've seen photos taken in my own hometown of places I see everyday. But it's the way the photographer saw the same location or subject and translated it into something with so much better lighting, a far more interesting viewpoint and a perfect cropping that floors me. Same place, better eye.

By the time I reach the exit, I'm a muttering old guy with a crinkled, unhappy face and festering revenge growing in my heart. I tend to get angry - at my own lack of ability.

"Just once," I say with my index finger pointed skyward, "just once I'm going to take a photo as good as that one over there and submit it to the fair. That'll show 'em." I never do. I'll spend weeks afterward scouring flickr or photo.net for inspiration. By Christmas, the fair will be far enough behind me that my resolve fades.

So I was telling all this to my wife as we drove home from this year's fair. We've been together for over 30-years, so she's heard the rant easily more than two-dozen times. While still concentrating on her knitting, she said, "Well just think how that stop at the Fine Arts Building every year helps get you out and take photos again. And I think your photos are very nice."

Bless her.

She's right. The Minnesota State Fair is my personal demon that spurs me on to try and take better images. I may not ever have a photo hang on the wall in late August a the fair, but I can always get a blue ribbon from a judge I most admire. Good enough for me.