SINGAPORE: With an earth cable attached to his wrist, he pulls a rubber glove over one hand and picks up a screwdriver with the other. David Hilos, a hobbyist camera fixer, then begins taking apart the body of a Nikon D750.
The owner of the camera had complained about its “erratic” behaviour after dropping it in water, and he’d rushed it to Mr Hilos in the hope that he could do something to make it work again. Mr Hilos is, after all, known in the online hobbyist community as the “camera whisperer” who performs miracles on faulty cameras that even the service centres will not touch.
“Chances of fixing flooded cameras are slim, but sometimes I get lucky,” he remarked.
Meek and humble, the 49-year-old Filipino shies away from praise. But among his clients, he is respected for the “hardcore repairs” he pulls off, which include reviving drowned cameras, converting digital cameras to infrared, and sometimes, even transplanting vital parts like an entire prism from one camera to another.
OPERATING WITH MERCEDES BENZ SCREWDRIVERS
Like a surgeon, Mr Hilos skillfully removes the camera’s screws, some hidden underneath the rubber skin, others tucked away in small grooves; then arranges them in a clockwise pattern on his workbench.
“Everything about camera repairing has to be precise. Even for the screws, the number of turns have to be returned to the exact position,” he said.
To the right of his workbench, a collection of watchmaker-grade screwdrivers are laid out nicely - from German-made Wiha to Mercedes Benz screwdrivers, these tools are important to the quality of the work he does.
“A good screwdriver doesn't create marks on screwheads. Some customers feel sad if the screws have signs of cosmetic damage - it affects the resale value of collector items,” said Mr Hilos, adding that dealing with fussy customers has, in fact, improved his standards as a fixer.
With all the intricacies involved in fixing a camera, it’s surprising that Mr Hilos does it all from a small study table in his HDB flat. And he reveals that at times, fixing a complicated issue can be done with simple household items like chopsticks and a toothbrush.
As he lifts the casing of the drowned Nikon D750, he scans the motherboard with his eye loop and makes his diagnosis. “There is a lot of corrosion”, he mumbles.
His treatment for a corroded motherboard is simple - detach it from the body, and clean it with a disposable chopstick wrapped with tissue paper dampened with lighter fluid.
“Once it’s flooded, service centres usually won’t touch anything. It means they would have to overhaul everything, and it costs a lot to fix,” he said.
For Mr Hilos though - who charges a fraction of what service centres would - fixing something that seems like an impossible task is something he finds “fulfilling”.
A CHILDHOOD OBSESSION
Mr Hilos is an electronics and communications engineer by profession, but his penchant for precision in machinery is something he seems to have been born with.
As a child, he developed a peculiar obsession that drove his parents crazy - every time he was given a new toy, his first instinct was to destroy it. From simple plastic gadgets to electronic toy cars, they all ended up in pieces.
I would disassemble it, then slowly reassemble everything… to me it was like a puzzle.
Little did his parents know that these play sessions developed his basic understanding of mechanics. It was only when he was older that they put two and two together.
“My dad realized, ‘oh, that’s why’, because I started fixing things - bicycles, radios, television sets, anything that was broken, I fixed. I just liked to fix things,” he said.
Mr Hilos was born in San Pablo, Philippines, a small city that was “peaceful, quiet, with not much happening back then”. His mother was a teacher, and his father worked several odd jobs before starting his own photography business.
My dad introduced me to some camera fixers. I realised it wasn’t that hard (to do) - I guess it was my passion, so I learnt quickly. I fixed and cleaned all our cameras.
It was at school that Mr Hilos realised his curiosity for mechanics could get him further in life. Constantly topping his class in science and physics, he decided to leave his hometown for Manila, where he took up a degree in electronics and communications engineering.
Upon graduating, he worked as a car audio technician for a Japanese company in the Philippines, and had various other stints in electronics until 1997, when he moved to Singapore for a job with Panasonic as an engineer in their R&D department.
“NOBODY TRUSTED ME”
Adapting to a different culture here wasn’t easy, especially since he was just married with two young kids at the time.
“It felt monotonous and lonely. I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t feel accepted. I just went to work, came home, and went to work again,” said Mr Hilos.
Then one day, he saw a lens for sale in the online photography forum Clubsnap. “The guy said, ‘there's some minor problem. You don't mind?’ I said ‘oh it's simple, I can fix this.’ And the guy said, ‘you can? Actually, can you fix my lens?
I think I charged him S$20. He was so happy. He said, ‘if I sent this to the service centre, they would charge me S$120.
Just like that, Mr Hilos’ passion for fixing was reignited. He decided to advertise his camera-fixing services online. One hitch? “Nobody trusted me! Because I charged only S$15 to S$20.”
As he became more active in online forums, he started giving tips and tutorials on how to fix cameras. But he started receiving complaints from other fixers who said he was spoiling the market by “disclosing the secrets”.
“There was one lens which I shared how to fix. Then I realised there was a guy who fixes only that one lens,” he said.
Over time, he started receiving so many repair requests that he had to start turning people away. “Even at 11pm, people would knock on my door. I got SMS messages at 2am, 3am. Some people don't have a sense of time!” he grumbled.
And something else unexpected happened.
I am a shy guy. But through this, I met so many different people. There are those who, whenever we meet, I fix his camera for one hour and we talk for two hours.
“I got invited to a lot of gatherings, I became more open, to understand the culture here and how things work socially. And I started to feel accepted.”
“WHEN IT’S DIFFICULT, I GET MORE INTERESTED”
These days, Mr Hilos spends more than 10 hours a week of his free time repairing his clients’ cameras. Sometimes at the weekends, he stays up till 3am trying to get a job done.
“The compensation is not always worth it, but I enjoy doing it. It’s not just about the monetary reward.”
It is almost like an outlet away from work for him. “As engineers, we do calculation, we do a lot of documentation, we conduct meetings. This is actual. I fix actual stuff, and it’s very rewarding.”
Apart from repairing cameras, Mr Hilos also takes on requests to repair other types of electronics, such as drones, DVD players, or even other appliances around his house - something he sees as a necessary challenge from time to time.
Some camera designs have weaknesses, so they have the same problem over and over. It gets boring. I want to fix something new. If there's a new model, I want to see what's inside.
“When it's difficult, I get more interested in trying to fix it. Sometimes, even technicians pass things to me,” he added.
Other times, people ask him to reset the camera’s shutter count, or to change the serial number of their equipment, in order to cheat service centres or second-hand buyers.
“I don't accept those kinds of requests. I would feel guilty,” he said.
And then there was a client whose camera had problems reading the memory card. Upon taking it apart, Mr Hilos realised that some bent pins in the memory card reader were the problem, and all he had to do was straighten the pins out.
The usual procedure by the service centre would be to replace the entire motherboard, which could cost between S$600 to S$800, according to Mr Hilos. “It’s easier for the centre to do that because they don’t keep small parts, and the technician doesn’t have to pinpoint the cause of the problem.”
ADVOCATING A REPAIR CULTURE
Replacing something just because it’s old or it’s more convenient to do so is a concept Mr Hilos clearly balks at.
His repair tools aside, all the other gadgets in his home look like dated contraptions of the 80s and 90s. “I’m a fan of old stuff - my PC is from my friend, this screen is from another friend. It may not be new, but it’s still working,” he said.
His sentiment echoes an emerging movement against the buy-and-throw-away culture, where more people are choosing to repair rather than replace their faulty gadgets. (Learn more about this here: Repair Kopitiam)
For instance, Mr Hilos speaks proudly of a Nikon D300 which he bought for S$50. “It had no problems. Just that it’s 10 years old. Sometimes even when things are not broken, people tend to replace.
“But then again I have customers who love beautiful cameras. I can't blame them. Cameras are like cars,” he added.
It’s not just consumer behaviour that is the problem – sometimes the service centres themselves do not repair older models, said Mr Hilos. He sees clients who have been turned away because the centre stopped carrying the parts for their model, which could be as recent as five years old.
So naturally, for many consumers, the easy option is to buy a newer model. “I feel it's such a waste,” he said.
In the Philippines, electronics and appliances are very expensive, so a lot of people can fix stuff. People there tend to recycle, rather than buy.
"In my hometown, they use stuff older than what they throw away here. I wanted to collect all those faulty items, fix them, and send them back for charity – if only shipping it back was easier."
THE CAMERA WHISPERER
Like the current in a circuit board, Mr Hilos’ knack for fixing things seems to run in his two daughters too, who are studying engineering at university.
“When my eldest was about three or four years old, she handed me some screws and said, ‘Daddy, these are screws’ - that was one of my unforgettable experiences,” he said.
“When it comes to computers, my eldest is better than me. She is a bit special - she doesn’t want anyone touching her laptop, even the service centre. So she will buy the parts, and she can figure out herself what needs to be done.”
Mr Hilos just wishes that his own father, who passed on in 2002, were still around to be proud of him the way he’s proud of his own daughters.
“When my dad was still alive, there were two things he liked to show off - his gear, and me," he said. "He would tell my neighbours, ‘this is my son, he can fix stuff. If you have something broken, my son can fix it’."
“So I do this for him,” he said.
Back at his work table, Mr Hilos cleans up the last specks of rust on the Nikon D750, and proceeds to dry the pieces with an air-blower. Everything looks new and shiny again. He pops the battery back in, and in a moment of anticipation, powers up the camera.
“The client will be so happy. He thought it was a dead camera,” said Mr Hilos.
And this is why they call him the camera whisperer.