Buying a film camera – A how to guide
There can be many pitfalls in buying a used camera or lens, and if you don’t know what you are looking for you could end up with a lemon. So let me help you with a little buyers guide.
How to buy a camera
So, you have decided to buy yourself a used camera. How do you go about this? Here is a little guide about how you should traverse this rocky little path.
Firstly make sure you read up on what camera you want, it is all very well having a rough idea, but you should research what you want properly. I cannot count the number of times I have had requests from people saying that they want a camera, but they don’t know what they want. It is important that you have an idea of the camera that you want. Read up, there are plenty of articles on just about every camera out there. Camerapedia is your friend.
OK, so now you know what you want. This guide is going to help you check the camera out. Obviously this is not applicable if you are buying a camera from me, because I am doing all of this for you, that is why I am Japancamerahunter.
Check the outside of the camera. Are there dents? Dings? Massive scratches? For the most part a lot of these things are cosmetic. But you should be wary of big dents, they could indicate that the camera has been dropped or hit, which could have an effect on the inside of the camera. If you are a user and not a collector then scratches don’t really mean anything. As long as the seller is telling you it has marks then you are fine. If you are a collector then you should be going over the camera with a fine tooth comb to make sure the description is accurate.
- Check all of the surfaces. Look for dents and major dings.
- Check the leatherette (if it has it), make sure it is not peeling from the body. Are the grips ok?
- Is everything secure? No loose fittings?
- Sniff test. Does it smell smoky or moldy?
- Make sure serial numbers match any accompanying documentation.
- Check the barrel, is it marked? Heavily? Signs of being dropped? If so, walk away.
- How is the focus? Too tight? Too loose? Walk away.
- Aperture. Is it snappy? Or loose and wiggly?
- Check the mount. Are there signs of oil? If there are you might have an issue.
Actions speak louder than words
Right, now this is the important bit, so listen very carefully. Checking the actions of the camera or the lens is going to tell you an awful lot about that particular item.
- Fire the shutter. How does it sound? If the camera has a motor then check if it sounds strained or tired.
- Check the film advance. How smooth is it? If it is auto then listen to it carefully. Listen for clicking or sounds of strain.
- How are the speeds? Are they all on time. With experience you will be able to tell quickly. The slow shutter speeds will tell you a lot. Check the 1 sec. against your watch.
- Leica cameras are special and the movement will tell you a lot about the camera. Become familiar by checking every one that you see.
- For rangefinder cameras check the rangefinder. Is it in alignment with the lens? Check against text or graphics.
- Does the camera have an LCD? Check to see it works. Go through all of the settings.
- Open the camera. Check the light seals. Check the internals for dust or damage.
- With bellows or cloth shutters, check for holes with your phone torch.
- If applicable, check battery compartment for corrosion.
- Bring a penlight. Check the inside of the lens for dust and mould. Dust is OK, if it is slight. Mould is not OK.
- Check the aperture. Is there oil on the blades? This could be a bigger issue.
- Is there clouding? Don’t mistake a bit of dirt for clouding. Clean the lens carefully and check.
- Check the movement. Make sure it is smooth.
- Mount the lens to a camera and make sure the mount is tight.
The Film Test
The film test is something that I like to do if possible. It is not always possible to do this, but if you get the opportunity then you should. Obviously this is only applicable for film cameras. Carry a roll of Cheapy McCheap film with you. For certain cameras LCD screens and other features will only active when the film is in the camera. Put a roll in a just put a few shots through it. You don’t have to do the whole roll (it is also good for checking the rewind setting), but a few shots will give you an idea of the camera. You don’t even have to keep the film. But I would rather spend $2 on a film for peace of mind than $500 or more on a dud.
A note on Leica cameras
Leica cameras are a bit special from the rest. There is a reason why they are so expensive, because they are precision engineered equipment. There is no such thing as a cheap Leica. If you are being offered one on the cheap then you should be suspicious (unless you have a very generous friend).
Older Leica’s are like fine watches, they need to have a tune up from time to time and they need to be checked to make sure that they are running at the correct speeds. When you are checking Leica cameras you should be checking all of the speeds, the viewfinder and the RF patch, the film advance should be smooth, the shutter curtain should be clean and the seals should be intact. It doesn’t matter if the camera is marked and battered, as long as it is working well then you will have a camera that will last a long time.
Follow your head, not your heart
I know you really really really want this camera, but don’t rush in and buy the first one that you find. Make sure that it is right. If you are not sure then don’t buy it. In most cases there will be another one somewhere, so you can wait until you find the right one.
So, there you go. A comprehensive (I think) buyers guide to getting yourself a camera. Now, before you go off at me about being focused on film cameras, this is all applicable to digital cameras too. Just not the film bit.
One of the reasons I do what I do is so that I can take the pain out of buying a camera for you. I find the cameras that people cannot find, but I also make it easy for people to buy a camera that they can be confident in. If I wouldn’t buy it for myself then I wouldn’t buy it for you either.
If you want me to find a camera for you, then Contact me here and I can help guide you through the choppy waters.
Below is the JCH Camera Inspection Checklist that you can download and take with you on your hunts.
Do you have anything to add? Feel free to comment below. I love your comments, they give me a warm feeling inside and make me do a happy dance.
I would also add to check for pinholes in cameras with cloth shutters + look for wrinkles.
On many older SLRs and rangefinders (with focal plane shutters) the slow speeds are controlled by separate escapement than the high speeds (if the high speeds even have a clockwork escapement at all) – I’ve come across various old Prakticas, Mirandas, etc. where the slow speeds were lagging and hanging up but the high speeds were fine. Since Pentax et al. just copied Praktica’s basic camera layout the slow speed escapement is under the bottom plate of the camera and easily cleaned with a drop of lighter fluid. It only takes a modicum of technical fortitude, time, and a jewelers screwdriver + lighter fluid to do. So it’s something I wouldn’t write off a camera for, but it’s something I’d use to talk down a price if I encountered it.
With rangefinders look for the vertical alignment of the rangefinder patch. It’s commonly off. Won’t keep you from taking pictures if it is, but if you’re like me it’s one of those things that will grind on your nerves every time you use the camera.
With old SLRs make sure the aperture closes and opens when the shutter fires, if it doesn’t or is lazy and lagging, it’s not useable (obviously this does not apply to preset lenses).
A camera repair man once told me that one way to find coating issues is to shine the light from the opposite side of the lens while looking from the other side. Any coating issues will show up quite glaringly.
Excellent read Bellamy, thanks! Bookmarked and filed away for future reference.
A good tip for future camera hunting. Thank you!
WoW, i find this abit too much “How is the focus? Too tight? Too loose? Walk away.”
if the focus is too tight can only mean that either it needs some C (L) A , lubrication. it is not really a dealbreaker honestly.. unless your talking about the levels that it cant be focused.. no one expects an old lens like 20-30 years old to be silky smooth or like new kinda smooth.. unless its been kept in a real good condition. each lens also has their own degree of smoothness.. like my nocti is tighter as it needs a huge turn (this is of course better, since u need more accuracy). my lux/elmarit is loose compared to my nocti. lol
i believe the correct word should be whether the focus is “ROUGH” , like it stutters or not? if it is “rough”, the focusing mechanism could be having an issue, this , really walk away.
I understand your thinking, but you can have lenses that are too tough to move and this is a dealbreaker. If the lens is valuable then obviously it is worth getting it CLA’d, but sometimes it is better to just walk away and find another lens, which is what I mean by this. Not everyone wants to go through the hassle of getting a lens re worked. I have had lenses in the past that were very tough, but it was worth getting them re-lubed, which is what I did.
Great post! Bookmarked as well.
On a related note, do you have any opinions on used lenses from *Kamera no Kitamura*? I’m thinking about buying a 70-200mm zoom from there, and wondering if I can trust their grade system.
I’ll certainly be taking your tips to the store with me though.
I use Kitamura often, but you have to check all cameras carefully, as their rating system can sometimes be off.
Bellamy, this is very helpful. I think it might be good to have a camera looked at after the purchase, even if it appears in pristine condition but has been sitting in some cabinet for a long time. Lubricants harden over time, things settle.
It is a bit like starting up a fine car that had been left in a garage for many years.
This might sound funny, but I also smell a camera body for any hints of things gone bad. If there is mold sitting under the leatherette, chances are things will go funky with other parts of the equipment soon.
This is obviously something that can’t be done on eBay. So it is good to make sure the thing can be returned.
I actually prefer to buy equipment from sources I trust. You are obviously one of the people I trust with my purchases. But even that pristine condition Hexar RF body I had bought from you recently got a cleaning and a rangefinder calibration at a specialist here in New York. The item you sold was obviously in perfect condition, but it also traveled in a little package and was thrown around by many non specialists on the way to me…
Oh, one more thing comes to mind in that context. I have heard somewhere recently that Leicas should be shipped and stored with their shutter fired… this also turns off the meter…
You are absolutely right, you should always check that the movements are working well. I do smell cameras, and I listen to them too. You can tell a great deal from listening to a camera.
You are also right about shipping or storing and camera with the shutter fired. You should always do this.
Agreed on smelling the Camera with the sniff test, that has to be in the top 5 things to do when checking out a camera. Walk if it smells like a toilet.. ;-)
Nice one Bellamy, I hope I made the right choice (I know I did) and thanks for your assistance in getting me my M6
You are more than welcome. Thanks.
this help me a lot. I’m thinking about to buying M3 DBS from some guy in the net…for 500 USD… some scratch, no dings, L seal still there… but the rangefinder patch is faded… i’m about to email you and ask is it the good price?
but after i read this article… maybe i should wait for the right one… :D