Lots of readers have asked me to knock up some sort of a rough and ready guide to buying vintage cameras, seeing as every Tom, Dick and Harry is rushing to buy the latest digicam, making classic camera prices very affordable.
So let’s jump in straight away and see what points you need to consider before you buy.
Firstly, decide what format you want; are you happy with 35mm film, or would you want something with higher quality such as a medium format camera? Or do you want to go higher still and opt for the ultimate film camera, a large format instrument? In between the above, there are one or two interesting cameras which offer you the best of both worlds, namely a medium format camera that also takes 35mm film! More of that later!
Second, try and make sure the camera you choose can be repaired if need be. As a rough guide, most oldish cameras with electronic faults are more difficult to repair than fully mechanical ones.
That decided, the next thing is to talk! Talk as much as you can with seasoned photographers, camera shop owners, etc; don’t be shy, we photographers just love questions and in general have a fairly high silly-question tolerance level, so ask away! If you can’t find anybody in person, or don’t want to, then jump on the web; there are literally thousands of forums out there where you can join in and get answers to your queries for free. Failing that, I’ve always offered a free query service to anyone; just leave me a comment and I will try my very best to answer asap.
Another point to bear in mind is cost; what is your budget? Will you be happy with an Olympus Trip costing maybe $40 or so or would you want to go for a very high quality Rolleiflex or Leica? Bear in mind also that some vintage cameras, especially so the Zeiss folding cameras, like the Nettar and Super Ikontas, can give you staggering results that belies their age. The same goes for the Kodak Retina and Voigtlander folding cameras.
Let us say you’ve decided on what you want to buy, and are now looking at 5 or 6 possible buys; what else do you need to look for? Ok, check all the mechs firstly. This will involve winding the film winder, which may or may not cock the shutter depending on how the camera works. If the shutter needs to be cocked manually, find the lever that does this and do that.
Then go to the lowest aperture the camera is capable of, ie it may be f2.8 for example, choose the slowest speed for the shutter (this may be something like 1/15sec or 1/10 etc. Now press the shutter release button, at the same time looking at the aperture blades inside the lens if possible. What you are looking for is smooth open/close action of the aperture blades; with many vintage cameras, the blades get gummed up with oil or grease and refuse to move, or move very slowly. If this is the case, put the camera down and walk away!
Now go through the whole range of the apertures and shutter speeds, checking the above for each one. If that is fine, then we need to check the body of the camera for dings, nicks scratches and so on. Minor dings are ok, if you don’t mind them, but anything that severely affects the look of the camera should be avoided. Most dings occur at corners and edges of cameras so look out at those areas.
Then take a quick peek at the paintwork cosmetic finish — if the camera is covered with leatherette, make sure it is all in one piece, is not coming off through dried up adhesive, although this can be glued back in place. Next comes paintwork — check to see if the paintwork is in good condition; vintage cameras almost always have paint chipped off in places. I wouldn’t be too concerned about that, as a little adds to the patina of the camera. Same goes for brassing, where the paintwork may have come off through wear and tear, revealing the brass bodywork underneath — I just love that.
Now, if the camera is a folding type, make sure the bellows are fully open, then open the back of the camera where the film fits, hold the camera up towards a light or the bright sky and check to see if the bellows are light-tight; if you see even a tiny pinpoint of light, again, walk away. Although old bellows can be repaired or replaced, I would not advise getting involved with it, as it’s a horrendous job and very involved.
Coming to the lens; check for fungus here. Fungus affects many cameras and once it has taken serious hold, the lens is scrap in short! It is possible to clean off fungus that has not established itself on the lens; I have used cold cream or sometimes even distilled water together with a cotton bud, gently rubbing it away. Be very careful though, as I once tried using my wife’s nail varnish remover and ended up removing not only the fungus, but also the blue bloom coating that many lenses have!
Finally, check to see the camera light sealing foam inside the camera is in good fettle; 99% of vintage cameras used an inferior foam material that deteriorates with age, becoming a messy, gooey mass that takes hours to remove completely and again, is a very time-consuming task. Some cameras used felt, which is almost always in great condition, which is good news.
Just to finish off, here’s a list of a selection of cameras I recommend, which are superbly usable as well as easy to take care of:
Olympus Trip 35
Olympus 35RC, Olympus 35SP
Canon AE1, Canon Ftb
Yashica Mat TLR
Olympus Pen F
Minolta SRT 101
Voigtlander Vito B, Voigtlander Vito C
Zeiss Ikon Nettar, Zeiss Super Ikonta
Leica (screw type or newer versions)
That in a nutshell is what you have to check when buying a vintage camera. I know, it takes time but you don’t want to hand over your cash and end up with a camera that doesn’t work. Needless to say, all cameras in my collection always, always get these checks before I buy or sell them!