Collecting Cameras

Tips for buying vintage film cameras on eBay

If you want to start collecting old film cameras, eBay is an obvious place to buy. It’s also obvious that buying gear you can’t touch and test comes with risk. Old gear can be broken in so many ways. But eBay is also full of great gear and the prices can be so good. With a little knowledge, you can manage the risks and have pretty good success.

Kodak Automatic 35F outfit

The first camera I ever bought on eBay. It was broken in two ways. Argh.

If you will tolerate no less than a perfectly functional, cosmetically excellent camera, eBay might not be for you. Buy from KEH Camera or Used Photo Pro instead. You’ll pay more, but their cameras are tested and graded, and they offer money-back guarantees. Also, some of my film-photography friends have developed relationships with trusted individual sellers. So can you. You’ll pay premium prices, but you’ll get beautiful gear that works flawlessly.

But if you’re collecting on a budget (or are a cheapskate like me), and you’re willing to take gear that’s less than pristine (or even less than fully functional, if you have repair skills), then eBay is the place for you.

If you know what make and model of camera you want, just search for it. But my favorite way to buy cameras on eBay is to troll for last-minute bargains. I search for camera listings that are about to end. Here are my default searches in both the Film Cameras category and in the Vintage Cameras category. You have to move fast, which elevates your broken-gear risk a little, but I’ve bought a lot of great gear this way.

Here are some tips to reduce your risk. But let’s be clear: you’ll never eliminate it. Even with the greatest care sometimes you’ll get a dud camera. And despite eBay’s buyer protection guarantee, sometimes you’ll have to fight with the seller to get a refund. (My policy is not to spend so much that I’d care if I wasted the money. I don’t fight sellers.)

Look for sellers with ratings as close to 100% as you can get. eBay’s rating system has little nuance. People are either (nearly) 100% sellers, or they have a questionable track record. Sellers with ratings at 99.8% or 99.6% usually had one dud sale in the last year, which probably isn’t a big deal. But for sellers with ratings below 99.6%, always click their name on the listing to see their rating details, and read the negative rating comments. They might just have a low number of sold items, where one dud sale can tank their rating. Or maybe you’ll see a pattern of bad behavior. Stay away from sellers whose reviews repeatedly say items don’t function as promised and/or that the seller is unwilling to resolve problems. Flat out avoid sellers rated less than 99%.

Look for sellers who know something about the camera. Read the description – read it carefully. Ideally, your seller can describe the camera well and vouch for its full functioning. They may not have tested it with film, but they at least fired the shutter, checked focusing, and tried to check whether the light meter worked. Lots of sellers will just say flat out that they don’t know anything about cameras and didn’t test the one they’re selling. I buy from those sellers only when either the price is such a bargain I’m willing to risk loss if the camera doesn’t work, or when I know something about the camera and how resistant to failure they are.

Research the camera to learn its quirks and common failures. Search the Internet for the camera’s make and model and read some reviews and forum posts. If a camera has common failure points, you will probably find information about it. For example, the Canon AE-1 Program’s shutter can develop a squealing noise. The focusing helical often gets stuck on Agfa Isolettes. And Minolta X-700 SLRs contain a failure-prone capacitor that locks the winder up tight. You can message the seller to ask whether their camera suffers from these common failures. Also, sometimes you can learn that a camera a seller thinks is broken might not actually be. For example, the Voigtländer Vito II is tricky to open and close, and a seller might think the camera is stuck open or shut. And on Kodak Retina Reflex cameras, the mirror returns only when you wind to the next frame. A seller might report that you can’t see through the viewfinder, which might be remedied simply by winding.

Examine the photos of the camera carefully, looking for signs of abuse. You’re buying used gear, so expect the camera to show signs of wear — brassing (where the finish wears off to reveal the metal beneath), small dents and scratches, even a little peeling or worn leatherette. Steer clear of cameras that show signs of prolonged rough service or abuse — big dents, broken or missing parts, and heavy body wear. If it looks like it’s been through a war, it probably has been. If you’re not sure about some aspect of the camera, message the seller and ask.

Find out what the camera is really worth. Because of sheer transaction volume, eBay is probably the world’s best way to find out what any item is worth. Open a new eBay window and search for the camera make and model. When the results appear, scroll down and click the “Sold listings” checkbox in the left column. eBay shows you recent closed sales, including the sale prices. The range may be wide — it will include known broken gear, which goes for less, and gear with more or better accessories than what you’re looking to buy, which goes for more. Condition affects price, too. Look for cameras of similar condition with similar accessories to get a sense of value. Use it as a guide as you bid or Buy It Now.

Be clear on the seller’s terms. Check the seller’s shipping fees and return policy. Sometimes sellers pad their profits with high shipping costs. Also, sellers sometimes say they don’t accept returns. eBay’s buyer protection policies trump such statements, but you’re likely to have challenges with the seller anyway. Decide whether the camera is worth the hassle. Most cameras a beginning collector will buy are fairly common, and are therefore not worth the hassle.

If you have any concerns about the camera, message the seller. Of course, if you’re trolling for bargains as I usually am, there isn’t time for that and you have to take your chances. But that’s part of the drama of eBay!

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18 thoughts on “Tips for buying vintage film cameras on eBay

  1. Dan Cluley says:

    My theory on ebay: Nothing is as good as you hope, but if it’s not as bad as you fear, then you did ok.

    Other than Argus products, the Kodak Automatic 35 is really the only camera I have intentionally tried to collect. I have parts of 4 of them in a box, and may or may not have actually had one working for at least part of a roll.

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  2. Christopher Smith says:

    Can’t really add anything to your methods as it’s more or less what I do on ebay, although I must say it’s getting harder to find a bargain on ebay as the prices are getting really silly for pieces of junk. I find my best bargains in charity shops.

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    • I wish i had more time to look through thrift shops. I just don’t. The only one I do visit sometimes has gotten wise, and they put only the junky gear out. The good gear is in a locked case and has prices at or higher than what I can pay at the camera shop downtown.

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  3. Andy Umbo says:

    I’ve had enough experience on eBay that I can read between the lines for a lot of sellers. If they “don’t know anything about cameras”, or “it seems to work ok, but I don’t know if it’s working correctly”, it usually means it doesn’t seem to be working right, and they’re covering their liabilities. I always take a pass, unless it cheap enough to pay for professional repair, and I really want to use it.

    Another thing I learned the hard way, is I never, and I mean never, buy anything from any of the south-eastern states, and maybe into Texas as well. I can’t tell you how many items I bought from Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, etc, that when you shine a light through the lens, it’s wrecked due to poor storage and covered in mold caused by high-humidity. Stay away from the humid states. Grampie’s Leica that was in the back closet for years, is probably entirely covered in mold, including the lens interiors, and it’s going to cost you thousands to fix! That’s why most people wanting a “shooter” will pay for a rated camera from KEH.

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    • I think an important bit of context that I didn’t make clear in my post is that I’m buying mostly common gear. Of course, even a mold-encrusted Kodak makes for a frustrating eBay experience. But if I wanted something truly good, and therefore more expensive, I’d buy on eBay only if the seller’s description shows that they know what they are doing, and there are extensive photos that show well the camera’s condition. You pay for that, but it’s hassle insurance.

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  4. Great read Jim and you’ve hit the most important parts of buying on eBay. I agree with trolling the “countdown cameras”, but as you said, no time to ask good questions of the seller. I’ve done very well there but I’ve also purchased some real junk too. I’ll add two other ways to enjoy eBay – I like to look at the newly listed cameras and gear. Often sellers misjudge the true value of their item and will list it rather cheaply. The other way is to look for newly listed items, and after looking them over, make the seller a quick offer to sell it now (they are often still sitting at their computers listing other items). Sometimes you hit upon a seller who would like nothing more than a quick sale and be done with it. Some do and some don’t but why not ask – you never know what the sellers motives are.
    One final thought. Don’t overlook Etsy. I know, the camera prices appear high at first glance (compared to eBay), but if you are friendly and ask for a better price you more times than not will get it. If you scroll down to the bottom of the listing you’ll find the date the camera (or whatever) was listed. Sometimes on a long running listing the seller is just happy to have someone interested in the item (and finally get a sell on Etsy) you can both negotiate a fair accord. Three of my nicest camera sets have come from Etsy recently.

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    • Good tips. I hadn’t considered Etsy before. I’ve seen cameras there, but never really explored in detail. I’ll give it a try.

      Another minor tip I’ve used is to look for misspellings in the listing title. A few times I’ve scooped up something really good for nothing because the seller called it a “Vogtlender” or something similarly wrong.

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  5. A really useful guide, thanks Jim.

    I would add that setting up followed searches is useful if you’re after a specific camera/lens, and you can set it so you get an email when new items appear.

    Sometimes if they’re on Buy It Now (or Best Offer) you can get a good price before too many other people see it. Or even if it’s at auction you could message the seller to see if they’d take an offer for a quick sale, it there are no bids. Again there are risks, but sometimes it can pay off.

    Also it’s fun to set up searches for generic words like “lot” and “old camera” and see what comes up. If you search within specific categories, sometimes people who aren’t too sure about what they’re selling (maybe they’ve inherited it or bought at a house clearance) won’t lost items in the correct category, so you’d never see them by browsing through specific categories.

    There are two particular occasions I can think of where I ended up with a couple of lovely lenses that came in a lot with other, lesser lenses, and a very average camera body, one being my beloved Carl Zeiss Flektogon. The other lot contained a Pentax-A 50/1.7 and Sigma 24/2.8 plus a couple of others, and the price I paid was about the value of the Sigma lens alone.

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    • I have some saved searches. I think I’ve bought things from them two or three times. I don’t know quite why. I think maybe I just prefer trolling through auctions ending soon.

      Good tip about searching for generic terms. I’ve done a little of that. IIRC it’s how I bought my current Pentax ME for a whopping $16.

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  6. All good tips here! I have been buying cameras off and on from eBay since 2004 and have only been stung twice. The first was my fault for not looking at the pictures carefully. The second time, I was misled by the seller, but he made it good.

    As for buying, if I find a camera on eBay I really want, I wait until the the last 20 seconds of the auction and then bid the maximum I am willing to pay. It’s worked all but once.

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    • 20 seconds? I like the thrill of waiting until the counter’s down to 5… : )

      I would completely agree about the maximum price. Decided on the maximum you’d be happy to pay overall, subtract the postage cost (unless it’s free), then make it a non rounded number, like £10.17 rather than £10. Then put in the bid about a minute from the end, click the first time to get to the “review bid” screen, then confirm the bid and click again with 5 seconds left…

      Decide your price then stick to it – Don’t get sucked into a bidding war.

      This works a lot of the time, and when it doesn’t it’s only because someone else bids more than I would’ve been happy to pay anyway.

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