The Camera Repairman

by Photo Life

René Genest has been repairing cameras for 42 years. Overflowing with stories, he’s a veritable gold mine of information, able to explain technical concepts clearly and simply. Genest began his career when film reigned, and he’s had a front-row view of the changes in the industry over the years.

René Genest’s passion for photography was ignited when he was 12 years old and one of his friends was doing black and white. Extremely curious, he wanted to understand the process of developing black-and-white photographs. For just one dollar, the young repairman-to-be bought himself a pint of Dektol, some fixer and ten sheets of 8 x 10 photo paper. It’s then that he began to take apart and put together his own cameras.

BECOMING A REPAIRPERSON

How does one prepare for entering the profession? In the days of film, the work was mechanical, but today many of the moving parts have been replaced by more reliable and precise electronic circuits. Now a repairperson needs to comprehend how they work and are programmed. The job requires an understanding of electronics, physical dexterity, and a knowledge of optical physics and mechanics. Darkroom enthusiasts also need to know about chemistry. Then you learn everything else on the job!

Would he encourage someone to follow this path? Only if the person is truly passionate, because, despite the beauty of the profession, Genest candidly admitted that it’s an all-consuming job and the future is unknown.

Cameras are high-precision tools, so we asked Genest how he calibrates them: “We’ll use the tester to take a reading to the millionth of a second at the beginning, middle and end of the shutter cycle. We have to make sure that the second curtain doesn’t catch the first one so the camera’s exposure is accurate.”

A REVOLUTION

Though it might seem the revolution from film to digital would have made his work more difficult, Genest said that the opposite is true. He explained, “Before, we repaired a lot. Now, we replace pieces because they cost nothing to manufacture. But the basics are still the basics. Like with cars, there is always a gas pedal, a brake pedal, a steering wheel…”

In his perspective, the change from film to digital was important for the environment and people’s health: “It was toxic and carcinogenic. It went into the sewers and destroyed copper plumbing and eroded pipes.” Genest told the story of woman who was grocery shopping when suddenly the ceiling fell and liquid poured down on her because the photo lab above the grocery store didn’t know that they had copper plumbing.

Genest also brought up thorium oxide, which was used in certain lenses from the film era. “The refractive index was a lot higher than ordinary glass, which means that you had better optical quality when using very large apertures.” Thorium oxide is a radioactive compound no longer used in lenses. But if you happen to have an old lens with this in it, Genest was reassuring, explaining that it’s about the same amount of radiation as a dental X-ray.

AND PROGRAMMED OBSOLESCENCE?

Though engineers continually try to make mass production simpler and more profitable, Genest pointed out that planned obsolescence is nothing new: “It’s been around a long time. Take pantyhose, for example. Do you think it’s by chance that they get runs so quickly?” Several manufacturers do their own repairs or have authorized repair service providers. Getting pieces is more difficult for an independent repairperson. And certain companies have fixed rates, no matter what the repair, so it becomes simpler to replace a broken camera with a new one. One thing is sure: the rate of knowledge acquisition has changed. What used to double every 30 years, now doubles every two years.

Guy put his neurons and dexterity to the test by getting his old Pentax SV back in working order. However, the real credit goes to the Service Camera Pro team, whose talent is matched only by patience. They guided him in each of his moves. Without them, Guy would have finished the device with a hammer for sure!

THE FUTURE

When asked about the future of the profession, he admits point-blank that he has no idea. “It’s hard to say, I don’t know…. Advancements happen so quickly that we have no idea what tomorrow will bring. It costs so little to make a camera now that repairing them could become obsolete because there will be inexpensive replacement policies.”

Service Caméra Pro’s clients have been coming from further and further away, confirming that camera-repair businesses are increasingly rare. Before, 80% of the clients were local and 20% came from the rest of Canada. Today, it’s almost the opposite. Genest receives items to repair even from as far away as Yukon.


THE MOST COMMON REPAIRS

Service Caméra Pro is a team business based in Quebec City. René Genest and his colleagues, Maurice Pitre, Normand Leduc and Sylvie Robitaille, serve the photographic community in Quebec and beyond.

When asked if cameras should be regularly cleaned, Genest insists that we shouldn’t make life complicated and not to worry too much about it. “It depends on what you do with your camera. But normally, if the sensor is clean, the rest of the camera is too.”

The most common repairs are cameras with a stuck optical block and damage caused by impact. “When there is an impact, it’s often the lens that will absorb the shock. Bayonets will break, but the camera body generally comes out pretty well.” When the body needs repair, it’s generally because of wear and tear. That generally just involves changing out parts, when possible.

“We also change out shutters. Often that’s for people who tried to clean their sensor themselves. They clean the surface and then drops of liquid get into the blades of the shutter. Then the blades no longer slide and will stick together. The next time the shutter-release button is pressed, the shutter is destroyed. 98% of the time, that’s why shutters need to be replaced.”

Before, it was possible to save a camera that fell into water because everything was mechanical. “Now it’s difficult because it’s too fragile.” But it’s still possible to remove moisture to prevent oxidation inside your camera. A repairperson puts your camera into a hyperbaric chamber and creates a complete vacuum. When nitrogen is reintroduced, the problem is solved!

This article was originally published in Photo Life April/May 2016

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