Thursday, May 6, 2010

Olympus 35 EC - "for parts or repair"

My spouse has been encouraging me to pare down my camera collection, even if it means throwing cameras away. For once, I found the opportunity to oblige.

Some time ago I bought an Olympus 35 EC. This is a simple, 1970s camera with zone focusing (i.e. you focus by guessing the distance with the help of little icons like one person, three people, mountain) and automatic-only exposure. I guess I was feeling nostalgic because the first camera I ever owned was very much like this, and I got some fine pictures with it. The 35 EC has the same highly regarded 42mm f2.8 lens as the more collectible Olympus 35 RC, a rangefinder camera with shutter priority and metered manual modes which I also own (shown above at right). The 35 EC that I bought for $4.99 looked nice in the online auction listing, and when I got it home and put batteries in it, I found that the aperture and shutter speed changed depending on what I pointed it at, indicating the electronics were awake. However, someone had attempted to repair the lens and had bungled it up badly. I tried re-repairing it, but found too many broken parts to get it back together (and broke a few more trying).

I looked out for a cheap second 35 EC to donate parts to fix the lens, and after a while found one that was going for 99 cents because of a nasty dent in the top casing. The lens of this one looked all right; as expected, nothing else about it worked. But before getting around to the repair I lost interest, so I had two broken 35 ECs lying around.

Finally though, under domestic pressure to shed a camera, I dug them out of the closet to attempt the repair. I was hoping just to replace the front part of the lens assembly, but the more I took apart the lens of the first camera, the more broken parts I found. I finally realized I was going to have to transplant the entire lens assembly from the lens donor to the first camera. This is not too difficult to do on these cameras because there is no electronic wiring involved, the light sensor being on the camera body, and just a simple linkage from the focus cam to the viewfinder display. Nevertheless the lens comes apart into quite a few pieces, and fitting the lens into its focusing helical -- the thing that had defeated whoever worked on this lens before me -- is tricky. Four or five parts have to fit together perfectly while being rotated down the helical until they seat right. When they do seat right, however, you know it: suddenly everything is just where it should be, and you're not even certain how it got that way.

I just knew, once everything dropped into place, that the lens focus would be properly collimated. But this is a difficult thing to test on this camera because there's no way to manually hold the aperture and shutter open while you squint at the image on a piece of magic tape stretched across the film gate. The solution was to dial the ASA to its slowest setting, cover the light meter cell completely with electrical tape, then fire the camera. The camera thinks it's very dark and keeps the shutter open for several seconds, long enough to check whether the focus is right. And it was.

The shutter seemed a bit sluggish, so I dribbled a little Ronsonol into it with the bottom plate off. While I was at it, I made one more change. My original 35 EC was silver; the lens donor camera was black. I preferred black, but the black top casing of the second camera was too dented to use. I did, however, swap the black bottom plate onto the original camera, so now it has a silver top and black bottom -- a combination never seen in production, and a reminder that it's a hybrid camera. The shutter seemed to ease up with the Ronsonol, so I loaded a film and went shooting.

That first roll of film was very disappointing, with all frames overexposed by several stops. Apparently, the shutter was still very sluggish. But I know what to do when a little Ronsonol fails to get a mechanism working: try again with a lot of Ronsonol. So I fairly drenched the interior of the camera with lighter fluid, getting it inside the viewfinder, on the shutter blades, and a lot of other places it shouldn't go. It leaked out of every opening in the camera casing. I sloshed it around, drained it, let it evaporate for a few days, cycled the shutter a few hundred times, then tried again with a new film.

This time every frame was perfectly exposed, in light conditions ranging from the dim basement of Grand Central Terminal to a sunny-16 day outside. Finally I had a working 35 EC. And, I had a dead donor camera that I could throw away to make a show of thinning my collection. Win-win.

And it really is a fine little camera. It's compact, but heavy for its dimensions because it's made of good old metal. The little 42mm lens really is a corker. Exposures are accurate, and the ASA dial is so conveniently placed that it is easy to treat as an exposure compensation dial. All of the pics in this post were taken during my daily commute, with what will be my everyday walkabout camera for a while.

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