4 Tips For Purchasing a Vintage Film Camera

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Behind the lens of my mother’s old, beat-up Canon AE-1 (forever known as “the student camera”), I fell in love with photography. There was something so satisfying about the click of the shutter, winding the film, and finally, after waiting a week or an hour — depending on how much allowance I’d saved — receiving my prints. Twenty-four to thirty-six little moments, trapped forever on a 4×6 piece of paper. It was magic, and I was hooked.

These days, I mostly rely on my digital SLR (that stands for single lens reflex) to get the job done, but I welcome the slower pace that shooting with film provides. I still have that AE-1, it saw me through four years of high school photography, and two years of college classes before both myself and the world made the switch to digital, but it’s sadly filled with sand from a few too many beach tips, and sporting an impressive light leak. Along with a Minolta that drains its battery, a Rolleiflex that once belonged to my great-grandfather, and a few adorable but defunct Kodak Brownies, the AE-1 is living out its days as a very fancy paperweight.

I’d been casually hunting for a new-to-me film camera that actually works, until recently when, while digging through a drawer of cameras at a Philadelphia antique store, I unearthed something that looked promising: A Pentax Spotmatic sitting snugly in it’s original hard case. After a conversation with an employee, I left the store with a used camera and my fingers crossed, hoping for no light leaks and no sand. If you’ve been thinking about getting into film photography or searching for a new camera, today I’m sharing my tips for purchasing your own vintage film camera.

Vintage Camera

Know what you want: There are thousands of film camera models out there, and you’ll encounter most of them throughout your hunt for an SLR of your own. Do some research and narrow down your ideal camera to a few models. The Canon AE-1 became famous for how user-friendly it was, and I was looking for that same ease of use in whatever camera that would eventually land in my care. I wanted something that was simple to take care of, sturdy, and took 35mm film (the easiest film to come by these days — still available at most drugstores). Keep in mind that while medium format or wide format cameras are beautiful, the film can be expensive and difficult to get your hands on. You’ll be more likely to actually use the camera if it’s easy to buy the film.

Know where to look: While there are plenty of used cameras available online, unless your purchasing from a certified seller, your best chance of getting a camera that actually works with no issue is to buy one in person. You’ll be able to look it over — check for bent film spools which will cause light leaks, cracked or scratched lenses, dirt around the lens, loose knobs and buttons, and leaky batteries — and ask questions. To get started on your search, check out flea market sellers that specialize in used cameras and equipment, antique stores, and vintage stores in your area. Estate sales are also a fantastic place to purchase camera equipment, as you’ll usually be buying directly from the owner or a close family member who might be knowledgeable about its history.

Vintage Camera

Ask questions: Along with an overall inspection, be sure to ask plenty of questions. The obvious question is if they know whether or not it works, but also ask if the seller knows anything about who owned it last. After some searching, the store employee I spoke with when considering purchasing my Pentax was able to dig up the original manual and a customs receipt from 1975 from the previous owner. While flipping through the manual, I also found a service receipt from 1991. The fact that these documents were kept in good condition and with the camera stowed safely in its hard case told me that, most likely, the person who owned it before me took solid care of it, and wanted to keep it in working order.

Vintage Camera

Don’t be afraid to take a chance: When purchasing a used camera, there’s always a risk that it might not work in some way. Now, I’m not advising you to drop a bunch of cash on an iffy camera, but personally, as long as the price is right and the odds seem high that it will work, I’m willing to take that chance for the possible reward of a good piece of equipment. Do some research and know what you’re willing to spend, know what you’re looking for, and know what you’re ready to overlook in the name of a good camera (in my case it was the slight smell of smoke on the case).

The case may be scratched and the strap may be worn, but it kept the camera inside safe and sound during its previous life spent traveling the world, and I can only hope to have as many adventures with it as the previous owner.

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Comments

Marsya -August 1, 2014, 7:56AM

Thanks for the tips ! I always adore vintage camera because it’s actually brought me back to the old days when we still used films. Anyway, great post <3 xo

http://www.kinikunormal.blogspot.com

Laura Gingerich -August 1, 2014, 9:05AM

Thank you so much for this post! Makes me want to go out and thrift one out right now :)

Faiza -August 1, 2014, 9:24AM

Being quite young, I’ve always had quite an interest in things from the past. I do enjoy taking pictures and may be in need of a new camera soon…maybe I’ll go vintage. Thanks.

http://etsy.com/shop/earthlingcreations

Sara -August 1, 2014, 11:25AM

I love this, I’ve been wanting to buy myself a nice camera to experiment with but wasn’t sure if I should go digital or stick with film. A lot of people have told me that there’s just something different about film – it’s more personal, more exciting, and you REALLY learn how to take photos. I think this has convinced me!

xoxo Sara
http://www.restlessnomads.com

Hypnotica Vintage -August 1, 2014, 10:09PM

this is so informative and well thought out- thank you! I’d love an article about buying your first DSCLR… getting ready to.
http://www.etsy.com/shop/HypnoticaVintage

Alice -August 2, 2014, 1:59AM

Perfect timing for this article! I’ve been thinking about getting a film camera for months now but I’ve never been able to fully commit. I’m definitely no photographer so I’ve always been worried that a film camera would be too difficult for me to handle. Luckily, I’ve found a lot of pretty cool sites and instructional guides online that seem like they are fool-proof enough for even this technology-daft klutz! :) Maybe it’s about time to bite the bullet…

P.S. It’s probably also a good idea for anyone looking to buy a film camera to check that there’s a location near them that develops the film. There are sites that also do it but I’ve heard that they can be more expensive and take longer than your local CVS/Walmart/what have you.

Yashira -August 2, 2014, 2:08AM

Thanks for the tips! I just bought a vintage camera. I still have to practise more to get some good experience, but it is very exciting to let them get developed and waiting for the results! It makes you look for carfully and it details when taking photos.

http://www.sowhereartthou.blogspot.co.uk

Stephanie -August 2, 2014, 8:38PM

Thank you for this post! I am on the hunt for a new camera!! – Stephanie

http://www.projectwanderlustblog.blogspot.com

Margaret Fisher -August 3, 2014, 7:31PM

Great article! Film cameras are suprisingly easy to find, if not for cheap on ebay, in some telatives attic!
For film inspiration checkout my work!!!

Suburbiaandsuch.tumblr.com

Emily -August 4, 2014, 12:31AM

Hmm. There are a few good pint do. This article but these aren’t really helpful when buying. Here’s a few things you should check when buying a camera
1. Check the battery compartment. If there is one. If the batteries are corroded pass it up. If they are not so far so good.
2. Check to make sure everything winds and clicks after replacing the batteries. If is does awesome move on to the next step.
3. Light seals. These are probably the easiest to get fix or replaced they typically cost only about $15 or so. Your light seals are the black foam looking things all around the back of the opening of the camera. If they look green or roted out they will need to be replaced. But again easiest thing to fix.
4. Check your lens. Make sure when you pop off the lens that the apature blades move accordingly. When you change the numbers on the lens you should see the lens open and close up. If it does awesome. If not the lens is broken. And that will be about a $200 fix.
5. Shutter speed accuracy. The best way to check this is with a flash if it syncs, sweet, all is working well.
6. Light meters. Most battery operated cameras will have a light meter in them. The best way to check if they are spot on is to go outside set your ASA dial to 100 than set the apature to 100. The light meter should want to shoot at 1/100 for the shutter speed. If it does awesome. If it sets it to another speed you will need to get that checked.
Also, 120mm film is not hard to find at all or to get processed. There is usually a local lab that will process it and the film can be found online ranging from about $5 to $12 per roll depending on what you buy. The films I suggest are kodak trix for black and white , gold and portra for color. Happy shooting everyone !

fp julie -August 4, 2014, 8:44AM

Thanks for the additional tips Emily!

Callie -August 8, 2014, 1:25PM

Where did you get the camera strap shown in the last picture? I’ve been looking for one just like that for my minolta for years!

Hannah -August 13, 2014, 9:21AM

Excellent tips! My first ‘real’ camera was a Pentax Spotmatic my dad and I found at a yard sale when I was a teenager. I got very lucky with that one; I still use it from time to time.
And yes I’d really love to know about that camera strap too!

fp julie -August 13, 2014, 10:36AM

Callie & Hannah – the strap is actually vintage, bought with the camera :)

Minnie -August 15, 2014, 1:22PM

Where is the ring in the first photo from?

Liz -August 17, 2014, 3:19AM

A useful tool for picking out a film camera is flickr. There are groups devoted to different cameras (pretty much every camera that has ever existed) and you can get an idea of how the photos will turn out because someone else has already done the work for you! The photographers are also usually specific about film type and speed which can help you decide what kind of film to buy.

best sites for editing photos -August 22, 2014, 7:10AM

I am personally used canon 1100d model; I want to know actually what the main tricks to take a professional photograph. Anyone help or suggest me ?

Oliver Filippi -October 12, 2014, 12:55AM

Julie,

Why not dust off your Great Grandfather’s Rolleiflex? They are built like tanks and have excellent lenses.

There is a Rollei mechanic in Southern CA who can overhaul them and have them functioning like new. {If you want his contact information, e-mail me off line.}.

Note that in the 50′s, most of the fashion magazine photographs were shot with Rolleis.

If you want a 35 mm camera, don’t mess around. Get the BEST – a German LEICA. They are extremely rugged and reliable, as well as have the BEST lenses. Older, used ones, are affordable. [A 1960 vintage 50MM f/2 Summicron lens will, even today, take any 50 mm non Leica lens to the cleaners - even though it was designed without the help of a computer.] Leica lenses are known for their sharpness and contrast, even at full aperture, and in the corners – wide open at f/2. Once you use one, you will be hooked. Here too, I can give you the names of a couple of expert Leica mechanics. Parts are still available.

With the Leica, you can go with an M-3 rangefinder style, or an SLR starting with the R-3. (I would go with an R-4, but there are several R-4 models, as the camera was improved during its production run. The SLRs have an internal light meter, as do later model Ms. If you decide to go with the R-4, e-mail me off line and I can advise you as to the sub model and serial numbers to look for.

For more info on Leicas, go to Kenrockwell.com.. Ken had Nikons and Canons, but has seen the true superiority of Leica. Sadly, the current Leica models, though very good, are VERY VERY EXPENSIVE,

Most photographers cannot, or do not, comprehend how truly superior Leica shots are, compared to those taken with other 35s. I can give you many examples, but the following is typical:

Many years ago, I met an elderly couple at the San Diego Zoo refreshment stand, each with a Leica R hanging from their neck. I commented to them that I seldom see folks with Leicas. – let alone two. They told me that they had gone on a trip to the Great Barrier Reef with a club they belonged to. One of the members used a Leica. When the club reconvened after the trip, they all brought their slides and had a screening. The Leica shots were very noticeably better – even though many were taken of the same subjects from essentially the same spots, with the same film and exposure.

They asked the Leica photographer, “Why are your pictures so much better?” His response was, “It’s the camera.” So these folks went out an bought Leicas, and have been happy with the results ever since.

As a transition from film to digital, you might want to try using Kodak Ektar color negative film and when you have it developed (I use Costco) have them digitize the pictures and write them to a DVD (CD). Then you can manipulate the photos in the same fashion as if they were shot digitally. Note that Ektar film was specifically designed to record images for subsequent digital processing. Ektar film has very fine grain, and is very sharp.

Please let me know if you try any of my suggestions.

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