If your investigations suggest a need to lubricate parts of a camera (this is not unusual for models produced prior to the 1970s, and a formality for some German lens shutters) you’ll need to consider the frequently controversial subject of oils and greases. This could easily be the subject of a separate discussion; therefore what follows is merely a brief introduction.
The lubrication requirements of the small mechanisms used in cameras are specialised. The closest comparisons you could make are to precision scientific instruments, or mechanical watches and clocks. It should not be surprising, then, that certain oils and greases devised for horologists are also well suited to camera lubrication. What makes them so specialised?
Firstly, any oils used must be of super fine viscosity. As a rule, don’t expect to be able to buy lubricants suitable for repair work from your local motor trader. Although there is limited scope for certain automotive greases in camera repair there are usually better dedicated products. Motor oils are unsuited to the needs of photographic equipment—even the lightest motor oils are likely to be far too viscous for the speed escapements or shutter spindles of your beloved camera.
As we’ve discussed, oils used in camera mechanisms must, by virtue of the component size to which they’re applied have extremely low viscosity. But they also require disproportionately high resistance to flowing from the locations to which they are applied. Ultra-low viscosity, and resistance to flow, are two traits that are fundamentally at odds with each other in most types of naturally occurring oils.
Traditionally, super fine grades of organic oils, notably whale-derived oils, were used extensively in clock and watch lubrication. It was to such oils that manufacturers of antique cameras turned when the earliest shutter mechanisms were being devised. The days of using such lubricants are now behind us hopefully. (The manufacture of photographic equipment and, unfortunately, whaling, is still carried out by states of the former USSR, and I do not actually know whether or not the use of marine mammal lubricants by them has also ceased—I hope it has). Other manufacturers now employ highly refined mineral oils or synthesised oils in their place which incorporate additives when needed to ensure they are ideally suited to their specific purposes. These are also more resistant to the long term deterioration that marine mammal derived lubricants will experience after extended service. This is also a part of the reason why your classic old German camera may not run well at all of its shutter speeds, (or any of them, occasionally) decades after such oils were originally applied.
Greases used in lens helicals must have certain qualities that are not usually important in most industrial or automotive applications—imparting an appropriate damping effect or “feel” to lens focus rings and the absence of the tendency to “outgas” components into the internal atmosphere of lenses and cameras, (which may contaminate optical surfaces) being two such traits. So greases for optical, astronomical, and laboratory use are a subset of lubrication technology for a small number of specialist manufacturers. This is generally reflected in the price of such products.
In the field of high quality watch and clock lubricants one name is pre-eminent: Moebius of Switzerland. I use Moebius oils and greases for the lubrication of items such as Compur lens shutters, and parts of fine German cameras from makers like Voigtländer, Rollei, Exakta and Zeiss Ikon and others.
Moebius cater mainly to the horology profession. Their catalogue covers a number of oils, greases and epilaumes tailor-made for a variety of incredibly specialised applications. It’s critical to note this, do your homework, and select the right item for your needs. If, for instance, you applied oil formulated for a large pendulum mechanism such as a grandfather clock to the speed escapement of your shutter, it wouldn’t be at all happy (and probably wouldn’t even run). Certain oils in their 8000 and 9000 series are well suited to camera use. When applied correctly, these will lubricate parts properly and avoid undesirable contamination of other parts, by remaining where they have been applied. Compared to traditional organically derived lubricants they also have superior long term stability, so using them is not only better for the whales, it’s actually better for your shutter, too.
Although I have never used it personally, US-based repairers use NYOIL from Nye Lubricants and have reported good results over many years. Micro-Tools list it, and it may also be found from a number of online sources. Note that NYOIL is actually not just one single product: Nye Lubricants make a range of different oils, and some are likely to be more suitable for photographic purposes than others, so bear this in mind when shopping online.
I'm a photographer who images on 35mm or medium format film. I enjoy using older, all manual cameras from my collection, and I'm also a self taught camera repairer who can never resist just one more German classic (according to my long-suffering wife). We live on a few acres of forest and pasture near Hobart, with our two children, four Border Collies, three cats, alpacas, goats, geese, ducks, peafowl, turkeys and chickens, and Tasmanian native fauna species like echidnas, wallabies, kookaburras, bandicoots, (and many others). You can see more of my work here or via my Facebook page. I have also recently started a blog about my adventures in film and collecting and repairing old cameras.