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.

Outside Inspection

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.

JCH Camera Inspection Guide

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.