How-To: Vintage Camera Shopping // Elias from Orange Juice, Etc.

Hello Moorea Seal readers. My name is Elias and I have a little blog with my wife Theresa called Orange Juice ETC.  We are honored to be guests today, I hope some of you find this interesting and/or helpful!

A couple years ago my dad gave me his old Olympus OM-1n 35mm camera. I immediately fell in love with it. The big bright viewfinder, the shiny chrome dials, the solid feel of the all-metal body, and the effortless flicker of the shutter all hearken back to a time when things were made to last. And last it has. My dad bought his Olympus in 1974, and for several decades it accompanied him all over the world. The bright kodachromes and ektachromes filed neatly in boxes next to my scanner are a testament to the longevity and reliability of this fine machine.

I now own roughly a dozen old film cameras. I've picked them up at estate sales, antique stores, thrift store auctions, ebay, and used camera shops. Because digital is so prevalent you can often find professional level film cameras at dirt cheap prices. For example, I have a Mamiya 645 1000s that I use for most of my landscapes these days. Back in its heyday this camera would have sold for a thousand dollars or more. I snagged it for $250. I also own a 1936 Leica III that I picked up at an estate sale for $5, maybe the find of my life. The images it produces have a timeless look to them that is quite charming. Each camera has its own unique characteristics. If the "film look" that's so popular now interests you, well, quit wasting your time with Instagram and get the real thing!

As I've accumulated my collection I've learned a few things about inspecting these cameras. As well-built and reliable as they are, most of them are 30+ years old, and it's worth giving them a thorough inspection before committing to buy. If any of you are interested in film photography I hope this little guide will help you find a camera you can fall in love with and enjoy for many years.

The Checklist:

The Lens - The first and most important thing to check is the lens. Without a working lens you are stuck with an expensive vintage paperweight. 

1. Inspect the lens glass. Look for scratches, chips, or dust. Dust on the outside of the glass is fine, you can clean that off with a microfiber cloth. Dust behind the glass means you'll have to pay a repairman to take apart the lens to clean it. A tiny speck or two behind the glass isn't the end of the world, but any more it may be best to move along.

2. If you are able, inspect the lens blades for oil. The ability to check for this will vary from lens to lens. My Olympus lenses have a little button you can push that closes the aperture blades, some cameras have depth of field preview buttons that do the same thing. If the lens blades have oil on them, don't waste your time. Oil will cause the aperture blades to stick when you fire the camera which will throw off your exposure.

3. Remove the lens from the body of the camera and look through the glass with a bright light source behind it. You are looking for the dust inside the glass we mentioned before, as well as mold that sometimes grows between the glass elements inside the lens. If you find a lot of dust, or any mold at all save your money for another day.

The Body - Of secondary importance to the lens is the body. You want a solid, mechanically reliable body without light leaks.

4. The primary weak point on any of these old cameras is the light seals. They are nothing more than little rubberized foam strips, and often turn to a sticky mush over time. Open the film door and look at the foam. If it looks dry and intact you are probably fine. If it looks gummy, or if there are little chunks missing you are likely going to have light leak issues. The good news is, if you are handy and patient, light seals are very easy to replace yourself. You can get a kit on ebay for just about any old camera for $10. In other words, the light seals aren't a deal-breaker if you A) want to try a few rolls with light leaks, or B) don't mind spending $10 and 30 minutes replacing them.

5. Since you have the camera back open take the opportunity to inspect the interior. This is where most of the plastic on the camera is, so look for any broken pieces or excessive wear and tear. Inspect the shutter curtain (usually a piece of black, sometimes rubberized cloth). Is it clean and in good shape? Are there any tiny holes in it? If there is any doubt as to the light-blocking capabilities of the shutter don't waste any more time. Shutters are expensive to replace, and without a good one, your pictures aren't going to be any good.

6. Look through the viewfinder. A minor detail, but one that you won't regret later. If the viewfinder is exceedingly dusty or hazy inside it may prove quite difficult to take pictures. If the dirt and grime is only on the outer glass you can clean it off easily. If the haze is on the inside you'll probably need a camera tech to take off the top to clean out the viewfinder. You can also take the lens off the body and look at the mirror inside the body. A dirty mirror could be part of the problem, and if you are gentle, this is easy to clean yourself.

7. Check the bottom of the camera to make sure the battery compartment cover is there. Most pre-1980 cameras will only need a battery to operate the light meter, however some of the later 1970s, and many of the 1980s film cameras have electronically controlled shutters. This means is that without a battery your camera is essentially dead weight. This is nothing to worry about since most cameras will fire right up with the correct battery. However it is something to keep in mind if you are buying at a thrift store, or garage sale where you will be unable to test a battery powered camera.

8. Last, but not least, close the camera back, flip the film lever over once, put the camera to your eye and try to take a picture. Did it work? Did the shutter click? If yes, you are likely good to go. However I usually take it a step further. Open the back of the camera and do a test shot on each shutter speed with the back still open, paying close attention to the shutter as it fires. I typically hold the camera up to a bright source of light and fire away. The higher shutter speeds like 1/1000 and 1/5000 will be barely detectable flickers of light. Once you drop down to the 1/60, 1/30, or 1/15 range you should be able to clearly see the difference in shutter speeds. 

Note: Most cameras come with some form of self-timer. Be warned that using these is often a game of Russian Roulette. The older and more worn the camera, the higher the risk that the self-timer will jam up. If that happens you may be looking at a nice little repair bill to get it working again.

Where to Look:

Pros: Every so often you can find a great deal. 
Cons: Poor descriptions/pictures and many 'sold as is' sales. Bid at your own risk.

Pros: Decent deals, detailed descriptions of camera condition, many sellers. Some risk.
Cons: More challenging to win, and the deals aren't always worth the trouble.

Estate/garage sales & thrift/antique stores:
Pros: You can pick up the cameras and inspect them, great deals sometimes. Some risk.
Cons: Unless you know what to look for, and know the cameras market value it can be intimidating.

Your local used camera store:
Pros: Beautiful cameras, experienced techs to answer questions. Low risk.
Cons: You will pay top dollar, but you get what you pay for.

Pros: Trustworthy rating systems, typically better prices than a camera store. Low risk.
Cons: You can't touch the cameras, and often there is only 1 small picture.


nova said...

My favorite thing about old film cameras is when you wind the film. It feels so...solid. And the shutter noise too. Very satisfying. No digital camera or Holga feels like that.

Awesome tips!

Rachel - Firebird said...

Great tips, most of my favourite cameras are secondhand - some inherited from my Grandfather and some (randomly) found in a massive haul in a Stockholm charity shop. I think I'd struggle to buy secondhand online because the visual checks are so important but I think I should be braver. And use film more. A lot more

Marisa said...

These are such awesome, informative tips! Thanks for sharing!

Sweet Harvest Moon said...

Great post! I love finding new 'old' cameras...

Kelly June from Intrepid Hermit said...

Wow really really helpful and practical tips. Thanks!

ana said...

what a great post! :D

Leigh-Ann said...

Great article! :)

Vanessa said...

Awesome post! I've always wanted to learn more about buying used vintage cameras. It would be great if there was another post about which cameras you'd recommend. Thank you for sharing. :)

Elias said...

Hey Vanessa, if you want advice on cameras shoot me an email elias.carlson@gmail.com. I'd be happy to give you a list of good ones :)

Brian said...

This is a great write up. I have quite a few vintage film cameras (most of them given to me, lucky I know), but this is a huge help for when I walk through a used section or an estate sale. Thanks a lot!

Daniel said...

My wife and I have been hitting up local thrift stores and garage sales for a little over a year now collecting vintage cameras. I think that we have about 30 or so in our collection. We love them!

Uchujin said...

You could do much worse than check out japancamerahunter.com
An English guy in Japan who sources and supplies rare and vintage cameras from Japan and delivers worldwide.

(full disclosure - the guy is a friend of mine)

Sue said...

Great advice! printing out this post :D

For #7, another thing to check is if the old batteries have corroded! I've seen cameras with battery compartments that have been ruined by the corrosion, and had to pass them up sadly.

Another tip is to make friends with your local charity shops! (Not Goodwill or Salvation Army.) Mine have offered to contact me whenever they acquire donated cameras, and I'm thankful for their generosity. Their goal is to just get rid of stuff, so I get such steals! :)

p.s. A vintage Leica for $5?! My lifelong search...hehe.

Anonymous said...

Just what I needed!! Thank you so much.

$5 Leica? If only...

Anonymous said...

Major important collection of rare and vintage cameras (US army/spy, press and so on) is being auctioned in batches in Philadelphia. First auction just happened but more to come!!!

Mire info about the signifacance of this collection of hundreds of cameras with amazing stories here:


Burun Estetigi said...

I do not know old photo camera settings : (
Thanks for sharings this tips.

Burun Ucu Estetigi

Roel John Bobis said...

I would love to collect vintage cameras like yours. I'm tech addict but this is something I want to start on. By the way, if you want to buy some dslr I would recommend to you this online camera store