Buying an Old Camera: What to Look For, and What to Avoid
So you've decided to buy an old camera. Maybe you don't have any lying around the house, or maybe the ones you have aren't cool enough for you. So what should you look for? What should you avoid? Where should you start? This article will attempt to answer these questions.
Where to start
There are two good places to get old cameras that I have used: Antique stores and eBay. You could also try places like KEH, but I never have. I can only write this article from my personal experience. If you go for the antique stores, try to go to the ones that are simply a conglomeration of different antique dealers. They usually have the phrase "Antique Mall" in their names. The vast majority of the other stores are simply shops full of useless trinkets, glassware, and furniture - not the kind of place likely to have old cameras. You can sometimes have good luck on eBay, as long as you know what a fair price is for the camera you're looking for, and you're very careful about checking the description and photos to make sure it's in acceptable condition.
What to look for
When one is looking to buy a vintage camera, there are a few specific things to look for as far as condition goes:
- Rust. This is obvious: If a cameras is rusted to any non-trivial degree, you probably don't want it. Rust on the outside is often an indicator of rust or corrosion on the inside as well, and that's something the average person does not want to deal with.
- Functionality. Does it work? If there's no film in it (here are instructions for how to find out) you can open it up. Cock and fire the shutter. If the shutter speeds seem okay (i.e., "1" is about 1 second, "1/2" is about a half second, "1/100" sounds fast and not slow, etc.), the shutter probably works. If the speeds are slow, or they don't seem to change, you have a sticky shutter. This is a very common problem and can often be easy to fix if you know what you're doing. I have bought a few cameras with sticky shutters, and, when cleaned up, they work just fine. The next thing to check is the winder (on a 35mm camera). Pull the lever (or wind the film): does it cock the shutter? If not, does the shutter may need to be cocked manually - you should check for conspicuous levers near the lens - or there may be a problem with the mechanics inside. Also check the sprockets: on a 35mm camera, they're supposed to turn and advance the film.
- Paint. On old cameras, sometimes the paint will flake off. This is purely cosmetic. Sometimes it enhances the coolness of the "old" factor, other times it just makes it look ugly. It's your judgment!
- Leather. Cameras made before 1950 often have a faux leather exterior. If this is peeling off badly, it may be detrimental to the coolness of the camera, and may point to more consequential internal damage. But then again, it might not! If it's just peeling a little, that's normal. Don't worry about it, it has happened to all of those cameras.
- What kind of film does it use? You can read what I've written on film and how to tell what your camera uses here. There are only a few types of film you can still reasonably use: 35mm, 120 film, 620 film, 110 film, and 127 rollfilm. If you know what you're doing, you might make other sizes work if you rig something up. But if your camera uses one of these films, you can still get the film and can use it! If it doesn't, it's usually some weird sized medium format film.
Some common vintage cameras to look for:
- The Kodak Brownie. This is the classic box camera. It was made from 1900 until the 1940's, but the most useful one is the Brownie No. 2. You can still use it today (it uses 120 film), and it was by far Kodak's most popular camera, selling more than 2 million by 1921. It was introduced in 1901, so there are a lot of really old models out there. You can check out the Brownie Camera Page for more information on Brownies, and how to tell how old one is. They usually go for under $20, even if it's very old. These are very simple cameras - basically just a lens in a box with a "gate" type rotating shutter. As a result, they're very easy to use and a lot of fun if you don't want to get too technical.
- Any old Kodak folding camera. Kodak made folding cameras from 1897 until the 1950's. Not too many of these cameras used a film you can still get today, but they're not hard to find; they made so many millions of them. I have the Pocket Kodak No. 1, made in about 1925, which fits in a (large) pocket and uses 120 film. It's really a fun little camera.
- Classic SLR's from the 50's and 60's. This was the time period when SLR cameras started to get really good, especially the ones engineered in Germany. If you're looking for a good, practical 35mm camera, you can't go wrong with a Kodak Retina Reflex or a Zeiss Contaflex, or something similar, if you can find one in good condition. I got my Contaflex for $15 on eBay, and it's built like a tank. I'm not exaggerating when I say it is my most reliable camera. My iPhone camera app crashes far more often than this camera fails, which is never.
- Rangefinders. Golly, this is a large category. You can probably find better info on these from other sources. Suffice it to say, you've got a huge selection to look from, all the way from the fabled Leica all the way down the line. A good place to start is the Kodak Retina line, which probably peaked with the Retina IIa in 1953 (wink, nudge ;P).
What to avoid
Unless you like cheap plastic crap, don't get an Instamatic. They are child's toys compared to other cameras you can get for equivalent dollars.
And that's all I've got to say about that.
And that's all I've got to say about that.