The looks of a camera is perhaps not the most relevant thing in photography, but a pretty camera is nevertheless a pretty camera and an ugly one is just ugly. If all other things stay the same, wouldn't you rather have a pretty one? Like one with real snake skin? Yeah, eh, okay... There is perhaps no great argument to support re-covering a perfectly good camera, but I did it anyway. Here's how.
You start with a camera that has some sort of leather, rubber, vinyl, vulcanite, or plastic covering. Basically something you can easily tear off. Like my Voigtländer Bessa R2A here:
Okay, stop! Before you start tearing the covering off, you had better have some sort of a plan, right? One alternative is the hard route of DIY. Many different materials are available as sheets, or you can even get more creative and use something you already have. The options are pretty much endless. This however takes some time, some skill, and some basic tools. There is also a simpler route. Some companies and individuals offer pre-cut kits for various camera models. One example is cameraleather.com. They have a good reputation and a pretty extensive catalog of materials to choose from. Kits are available for dozens of camera models, mostly classic cameras, though. That's in fact where I got this red paradise snake kit from:
So, when your kit arrives (or when you have your tools and materials ready, should you play ball in the big league), you can proceed to tear the old covering off your camera. That should be pretty easy in most cases. However, you may be left with some glue residue that is harder to remove. You don't necessarily need to remove all of it, as the new covering will stick there anyway. You should however note that any residue that you can feel as a bump on the surface may create a visible bump after you have applied the new covering. A pretty effective way of removing all the glue (at least with the Bessa) is to tap a chunk of the already-removed glue over and over on the surface. Little by little the residue is removed.
Once you have removed the old covering and glue, you can start applying the new covering. For a simple design such as the Bessa, this is pretty straightforward. There are two more difficult points worth mentioning here. The first is making sure you introduce no skewing (meaning all corners of each piece ends up in the correct place). This is easy to get wrong even if you think you have the first two corners in corrects spots, because any error gets larger the farther you apply a piece from its original point of contact. So, make sure that the tops and bottoms line up nicely. This brings us to the second point. The adhesive on the cameraleather.com kits is very aggressive. Don't just remove the carrier sheet and stick the piece on your camera thinking you can easily adjust it after you have it on the camera. That spells trouble, since the pieces really do stick to the camera (that's what they were made for!). Instead, remove the carrier sheet ever so slightly as you progress and you should be okay.
One more tip. The holes for the strap lugs can be tricky. If you have trouble getting the strap lug through the hole, simply cut the piece in the narrow part. I didn't need to do it, but the cut should be pretty much invisible as long as you line up the piece well.
Finally, we are all done. Let me introduce you to my new, old Bessa:
The camera certainly looks different — much nicer in my opinion. Not only has the look of the camera changed, though. The overall feel and handling of the camera has changed a bit as well, because the new covering is quite thin and lacks the molded shapes of the original rubber covering. The camera just feels a bit different, not necessarily any better or worse. In addition, a small thumb rest was removed from the back of the camera. This can be a real issue to some users, and I spent some time thinking about it. Should I remove the thumb rest and risk losing some of the ergonomics or rather keep it? In the end, I decided to try the camera without the original back cover (which I believe could easily be glued back if desired) and felt comfortable with the camera that way. So, I proceeded to apply the snake skin cover on the back as well. Note that the snake skin is mostly for looks and durability. It feels good, but it doesn't provide the greatest grip. If you are looking for the best grip, you need to consider some other material.
My next re-covering project is the Epson R-D1. Check that out later!