How to choose and buy a vintage film camera

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!

a lens affected by fungus

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

Rolleiflex 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)

Nikon F

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!

Happy hunting!



About filmcamera999

ME & MY PASSION! ok, you probably looked at the length of this "about me" page and thought, god, what's wrong with this guy!....does he have to start telling us his life story or something!!? well, youve come here now anyways, so why not hear what im like as a person, eh? ive been using film cameras for well over 30 first one being the family yashicamat twin lens! over the years, ive both bought sold and collected film cameras...too many to tell the truth! in fact, ive been buying and selling cameras well before the internet came on the scene, so anything you purchase from me is backed by my self-styled moneyback promise.....if you dont like what youve bought, send it back within 14 days and you get all your money arguments!! WHERE I STAND ON THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION! yes, i do use digital as well, but only as a ready-reckoner...i try and take most shots with my simple 2megapixel digicam....if the shot looks good, i pull out my film camera and shoot! i most defintely do not believe in digital manipulation of photographs....that in my eyes is not photography...its cheating! WHERE I USED TO LIVE, WHERE I AM NOW & WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO! i used to live in Ontario, Canada, but moved back to the UK a little while ago (its a long story..!)...but now i'm living in the one place i always wanted to be...Vancouver, BC..the next best thing to paradise on earth! as i work as a freelance writer as well as other things, i often find hat my work takes me to europe for short spells, so i get to travel a lot...not a blessing, as i just hate long flights! im a qualified Quality Assurance guy (you know...ISO 9000, auditing, documentation etc) ....99% of my skill-set is transferable so i can handle any admin or documentation-related roles....see you in BC! otherwise, i specialise in ISO 9000 auditing and documentation. my dream? to have my own thriving camera shop in Vancouver BC, whilst living in the mountains somewhere.....the best of both worlds!
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2 Responses to How to choose and buy a vintage film camera

  1. Good tips. Old lenses are a good buy too as some can be used on newer DSLR’s although in limited fashion.

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