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Thursday, March 11, 2004 01:06 am

Developing picture

Ervin Hill and Jason Hill (foreground) in the repair shop of Springfield’s Hill Camera Repair Service

When Ervin Hill moved to Springfield in the late 1960s to live in his new bride's hometown, his future as one of several local camera-repair technicians seemed secure. Today, the 62-year-old Vermont native operates one of the area's last camera-repair businesses along with his wife, Dianne, who keeps the books, and their son, Jason, who is learning the trade. But, like those who repaired typewriters or rebuilt carburetors for a living, Hill has been forced to adjust to changing technology that's making much of what he knows obsolete.

Not that change is uncharted territory for Ervin Hill: He's spent his whole life mastering complex gadgets. During his service in the U.S. Air Force at the height of the Cold War, Hill was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he serviced nuclear weapons. "I got out of the Air Force in 1964 and met Dianne in New Hampshire, where I was living at the time." Hill grew bored with the monotony of attaching the same parts to the same telephone switching components day after day. "I also worked as a locksmith for a year and a half. But when I came to Springfield, I knew what I wanted to do, and that was camera repair," he says, with an accent that betrays his native state. "Photography was a hobby. I lacked the imagination to be a good photographer, so I figured working on cameras is the next best thing."

Hill Camera Repair Service opened at 705 N. Amos Ave. in 1968. It was first located in a small portable building; later the Hillsexpanded the business into an adjoining garage. The building includes lumber used in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, but nothing about the structure suggests its origin.

Cameras went through a metamorphosis of their own, Hill recalls. "Back in the 1970s, Canon built their first AE-1 and changed the mechanics of photography in a big way. Most cameras manufactured after that no longer were operated by springs and levers but [by] integrated circuits," he says. Starting in the mid-1980s, SLRs -- single-lens reflex -- cameras with interchangeable lenses began featuring automatic focus, just like the compact point-and-shoot cameras that had introduced the feature a few years earlier. The change made serious 35mm photography convenient and inexpensive, even though traditional and many professional photographers looked down their noses at 35mm photography.

"At that time, all but a few low-end point-and-shoot cameras, the kind people used to call box cameras, were made in the U.S. Today, I don't know of a camera manufactured in the United States," Hill says. In the 35mm-film camera industry, he says, "the leaders are still the leaders: Nikon and Canon are tops with serious photographers, followed by the more popular Minolta and Pentax."

Large-format cameras -- traditionally the tools of studio professionals -- have been adapted to digital technology. "There are still many being used. Hasselblad is coming out with new models all the time," Hill says. "They are backing off a little because of the digital technology, and many are putting digital backs on their cameras, so the optical quality remains high, but the pros have the convenience that comes with the new technology. Many studios are abandoning the larger format altogether and using high-end digital 35mm cameras. They're shooting from 8- to 14-megapixel cameras. The public want to see their wedding pictures tomorrow, and that kind of turnaround is possible only with digital cameras." Hill says Canon and Nikon remain the leaders in high-end digital cameras.

Hill began to feel the impact of the new camerasfour years ago: "People started coming in and asking about them. Today, people are asking us to service their digital cameras, and we're planning to bring digital-service equipment in as soon as it appears practical to do so."

Unlike 1966, when repairing a simple camera meant replacing a few parts, such repair of digital cameras is rare. Many camera companies don't want to provide parts or service information to outside vendors. Hill says, "One digital company is saying, 'You want a new battery door for your camera? Send it to us, and for $180 we'll send you a rebuilt camera.' Considering you may have paid only $250 for the camera in the first place, it's easy to say they prefer selling new ones.

"We're seeing a new kind of customer these days," Hill notes. "People come in with simple film cameras, wanting to know if they're repairable at all. Typical repair costs might approach $100 even for simple point-and-shoot cameras, and that's all they need to know to convince the wife or husband that they need to buy a new digital camera." And of course that kind of customer pays nothing for the time the Hills spend to determine the future of an older camera.

"I'm also seeing more customers who are disenchanted with digital cameras and want to buy new film cameras," Hill says. "Using a typical digital camera can be more complicated than [using] point-and-shoot film cameras. Until the new technology is simplified, there will always be a place for simple film cameras." He adds that for many amateur photographers, dropping off the exposed film at a processor and picking up the pictures is more convenient than learning how to process photos on a computer.

"Some people buy a digital camera and then discover they have to learn about computers to see the pictures, " he says. Traditional film processors have responded to this kind of customer by offering digital processing where people also leave film for processing.

"A lot of people think printing a picture at home on the computer is less expensive, but it's not. And once an image is taken from a digital memory card or disk, at a retail processor, it has to be saved onto a CD so you can reuse the memory card or disk. If you don't have a computer, you can't retrieve your images from the CD, so if you want more pictures of the same print, you have to go back to the store and ask for more."

The Hills concede that they have lost repair business over the past five years because of digital cameras. Their retail business has picked up some of the slack. They have ordered the first digital camera for their own use and plan to introduce Pentax digital cameras to their retail inventory in a few months.

Hill does not see the curtain going down on film cameras in a hurry. "I expect, eventually, we will see them gone, but not in my lifetime. I like film. A representative from Minolta told me that digital is great for communication, but film is great for memories. Film doesn't change. The negative from the picture your grandfather took can still be processed 80 years after he took it. Considering how fast the digital technology is changing, it's hard to imagine that the pictures on your CD today will be accessible 10 years from now. It will probably evolve the way Super 8 movies did when people began transferring home movies to VHS, and now the VHS tapes are being converted to DVDs."

Jason Hill began repairing projectors when he was in high school. He signed on full-time with his parents in 1992. "Jason has surpassed me in terms of the kind of work he will do. He's not afraid of more difficult challenges," his proud father says.

As the business starts its 36th year, Jason Hill is not certain that the success known by his family will continue for the next 36 years.

"The electronics involved make it difficult. The manufacturers don't want to sell us the test equipment we need to service some cameras, which are brought to us," he says. "But as the technology evolves, we will evolve with it. I've heard digital-camera salesmen telling customers they won't be able to find a film camera in a few years. This will not happen. There will be a place for that kind of camera for many years to come -- and we will be around to service those cameras."

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