Photo: All Images Credit Raphael Orlove

It’s been a while since I last dug into my car, which might explain why I got antsy and decided to tear into another fiddly old machine instead: an old camera with a seized lens. This will be a fun little project, I thought, picking up some lithium grease at the hardware store. Needless to say, not only has everything gone wrong, it’s gone wrong in the exact same way that everything I work on goes wrong.

A glimpse into where this was all headed.
Photo: All Images Credit Raphael Orlove

Again, I’m genuinely surprised at how similarly this whole thing went down as my various car mishaps, so I’ll lay it all out.

It all started, perhaps, less surprisingly, with me keeping watch on whatever cameras and film gear are for sale on Craigslist using its map function. The map function is bad news, friends. Things you don’t need look all the more desirable when you know they’re only five minutes from your front door. Things like 1980s Toyota Celicas, or 1970s East German film cameras.

I knew I have no need for a black 1970s East German film camera, virtually identical to the black 1970s Japanese film camera I already have, virtually identical to the black 1960s Japanese film camera I… you get the idea. But the asking price was less than the cash I had in my wallet and it was listed just down the block from me. Even then I was ready to pass on it, until my coworker Mike Ballaban swore he would buy it for me if I didn’t buy it myself. “Yeah but do you have an East German film camera?” he asked. “How else are you going to take pictures of Trabants?”

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Enablers. I’m surrounded by enablers.

By the end of the day, the camera was mine, for 10 bucks less than asking and some old rolls of expired film thrown in. The problem was that the lens wouldn’t budge, even after a good fifteen minutes of twisting and poking in an apartment building lobby, much to the confusion of the other residents coming home after work. If there was ever a “bring a trailer” kind of situation for cameras, it was this. I am impressed at my consistency between my car and camera sides.

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But again, I figured that it would all be easy enough if I took it apart, and given that the lens was basically disposable, I figured why the hell not. I’d never taken a lens apart and was always scared of doing so, in awe of those who did. The process always looked like it required incredibly precise hand work and a great deal of experience, of which I have never had much of either.

Walking home in the rain, I was filled with optimism. I’ll figure it out! It’ll be satisfying when it’s over! And plus, I get to buy tiny screwdrivers and organize things and clean things and it’s gonna be fun.

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Things went wrong immediately.

YouTube Is A Lie

A quick Google search showed that a stuck lens like this is far from uncommon, as grease meant to keep the lens smooth can basically turn to glue with age. The fix is straightforward: take the lens apart, clear out the old glue/grease and put new stuff in its place. Re-assembly is the same as disassembly in reverse, that sort of thing.

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My biggest mistake was scrolling right past all of the blogs that detailed how this work goes and instead clicked on a YouTube link explicitly showing someone else actually doing the repair. YouTube tutorials like this are great for me, as I can see exactly how everything is supposed to look, like an exploded diagram in motion. YouTube tutorials like this are also the devil’s work.

The main thing is they make it all look easy. Is it easy? Hell goddamn no, or else there wouldn’t be a YouTube tutorial for it.

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Taking the lens apart didn’t seem particularly bad, even once I got into things. If you see a screw, unscrew it. If you see a thread, unthread it. I made sure to lay out all my parts and screws into little trays in order of how they came out, always as close to how they looked inside the camera as out. This is what I learned from taking any part of a car apart, trying to make sure that I can’t forget which bolt goes where, or where which bolt went.

As for the camera, I was riding a high of getting to go the hardware store and blow $20 on tiny little screwdrivers, lithium grease and new superglue. Everything was going good, man. I was figuring things out. I was solving problems. The lens was seized up from old grease and glue. I knew it because I saw it, right there in front of me.

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It was like a puzzle, except with significantly fewer parts. Moreover, it was fun to see how the operation of the lens translated into its physical construction. Same feeling you get working on a car. I understand how drum brakes work because I’ve pulled them open and stared right at them. I could see how the aperture ring in my lens had little grooves cut into it that bumped into a little inset ball bearing, giving you the click for each setting. I could see how all of the aperture blades oh shit I just flipped them upside down and they all fell apart. Shit. The YouTube video told me not to let them fall apart because they’re hard to get back together. Shit. It didn’t say don’t flip them over. Goddammit.

The Only Thing You Can Count On With Old Parts Is That They Will Deceive You And Fail You

I will not go into how long it took me to get the aperture blades of the lens lined up correctly. (They’re what work in the lens like the iris of your eye, opening up or stopping down like your eye dilating for bright light or adjusting to a dark room.) I won’t go into the time I spent with the aperture blades because it was like a life I lived in orbit. Things moved differently then. Gravity wasn’t the same.

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And I don’t know how much time I wasted on a little pin that aligns the focusing ring that fits into a larger body section of the lens. Everything went together, but in coming together, I pushed the pin down and the focusing ring was sliding around where it shouldn’t. I tried prying the pin with a little screwdriver. I tried tweezers. Eventually I had to hammer at it through a hole meant for another screw, banging down on an even tinier screwdriver with a thermos until it fell into place.

I suddenly recalled trying to do the wheel bearings on my Baja Bug in a parking lot, never having done it before, with no one around to tell me what I was doing wrong. Hitting things with a hammer as night was falling, knowing that I didn’t have time to get things right, and I didn’t have time to get things wrong, either. It’s just so frustrating, and absolutely something to watch out for. I’d like to say I don’t try that kind of thing alone anymore. I’m not the best.

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Later I would find it went slightly too far with moving the pin in the lens and I ended up unscrewing the whole assembly after I finally put it together, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

This same sort of banging happened when I was re-assembling the lens only to realize it was out of adjustment. The lens was twisted all the way out, the reading on it said only halfway. The lens was twisted halfway in, the reading on it said it was focused on something two blocks away.

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Everything I’d put together had to come apart again, only this time it was already re-glued and re-greased. Extra tight. No grip. I had to assemble three other pieces together and use a screwdriver as a pry bar to get leverage. Only then was I able to get the aperture ring free from the focusing ring. I could screw everything back together right this time, which I did wrong again, and then wrong again again and then yet once more again.

What I was lacking was another special tool that would have allowed me to adjust the focusing of the lens with more of it together, a part I would have gone to some specialty camera parts store, something I wasn’t about to do six hours into taking this lens apart and putting it back together.

The low point. Not sure what rebuild this was.

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Six hours? How did this happen? Fuck. I am so tired. I have been banging on a pin with a thermos. My apartment is covered in weird grease, I swear that I am leaning at a 30 degree angle to the right even though I know I’m sitting straight up. I’m mad and I’m fed up and I will not stop being mad and fed up until this thing works dammit. It’s going to work I swear I will take this thing apart and do it all over again until it’s right.

If Something Seems Like It Requires Experience, Be Prepared To Do It Over A Dozen Times

This is something I’ve known since I started trying to re-tighten the spokes on my bicycle, but is still something I get wrong all the time. When I adjusted the rear brakes in my new Volkswagen the other month, I did them completely wrong and burned straight through a whole set of drum shoes in a short drive. Either have someone around to help out and eyeball what you’re up to, or be prepared to do it over again when you get it wrong.

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My first “successful” assembly worked great right up until I tried to use it. I had gone so far as to mount it on the camera itself (which I had enjoyed cleaning as well, happily working with a new battery) only to find out that everything was loose to the point that the aperture ring didn’t do anything, and then I unscrewed the whole thing without realizing it because it wasn’t aligned right.

I know this will sound like a petty complaint but it really fucked up my day. I was a skitterish mess. I couldn’t speak in full sentences. I couldn’t focus on anything else. I barely had any life outside that lens. I put off calls I had to make after work. I had to remind myself to get fresh air. It felt like I had sand in my skin, though that may have been some of the chemicals.

I’m running long here, but it was another three hours of back apart, back together, which sort of shifted from frustration to at least some kind of accomplishment. Oh, that’s what those screws are there for. Ah, that’s how that is supposed to line up. I eventually got the lens together in such a way that it did work, even if it was wildly out of adjustment. That was as good of a win as I was going to get, good enough to set me free from Mechanical Repair Prison that lives inside my mind, that won’t let me go until the job is done.

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It’s kind of weird how similar this is to my car repairs. Hammering wheel bearings to the brink of tears in a parking lot comes to mind, doing things half right with almost the correct tool and no guidance. The last job I took on, replacing shocks and my rear brake drums, is also still fresh on my mind, and not something I’m rushing to revisit. I realized I was missing a mounting shim for my shocks only after they were all re-installed and I mis-adjusted my brakes so that I need to take them apart and do the exact same work over again.

For me to get this lens right, I’m going to have to re- and re-assemble it until I have everything lines up right, a process which has built-in lines to guide you in some places but not where you need them most. I’m still looking forward to it, if I’m honest, even if I know I am going to emerge a more bitter, weary and glue-high person on the other side.