Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 1: The fundamentals

There you are, looking at an old camera. And you want it. But you hesitate. How can you tell what condition it’s in so you don’t get burned?

A basket case

I’ve been burned. Like when I bought this Agfa Super Silette. Nothing on it worked – not the rangefinder, not the focusing ring, not the shutter, not anything.

Because I’ve been to the school of hard knocks, because I’ve learned the hard way, my pain gets to be your gain. This is the first of three articles in which I’ll share how I assess an old camera’s condition. Today I’ll explain how to check a camera’s basic functions. Next time I’ll share some tips on advanced features and on cameras with electronic components.

But know right now: all you can do is reduce your risk of being burned. Even the simplest camera can fail you in ways that you’ll be hard pressed to detect through inspection. But my tips will help you avoid most of the junky cameras out there. And you might even be willing to live with some problems, or wish to try to repair them. Your inspection will help you decide whether the camera is worth the money.

Here’s how I break an old camera down.

Voigtlander Bessa
This old folder has some cosmetic blemishes but the bellows are good

Inspect the body. Does it look like it’s been through a war? If it does, it has; move on. But small dings and scratches and moderate exterior wear generally mean that the camera got normal use.

If the camera has focusing, aperture, and shutter-speed rings or knobs, turn them. They should turn freely, but not feel loose.

Look through the viewfinder. You should be able to see through it. This might seem obvious, but I’ve bought more than one camera with viewfinder faults because I didn’t check this.

If the camera folds open, check the bellows. Generally, pressing a button on the body pops it open. If the bellows is cracked or flaking it will likely need to be replaced. It’s costly to have done and painstaking to do yourself. Most common cameras aren’t worth the cost or hassle. Even if the bellows looks sound, pinholes might still lurk in the creases. It’s hard to check for this in the field, as you need a very bright light and a dark room. But I never let pinhole worries stop me from buying, as pinholes are easy to repair with dabs of black fabric paint.

Inspect inside the camera. Open the camera back. The camera should be clean inside. It’s not happened to me, but I’ve heard of others who’ve found fungus and mold growing inside cameras they thought of buying. Steer clear.

Some cameras have foam light seals where the back meets the body. Check their condition, because they all eventually turn to goo and need to be replaced. Gooey seals invite light leaks. You can replace the seals yourself with fresh foam rubber, but it’s a tedious job. To shoot such a camera I usually just tape up every gap with electrical tape.

Check the shutter’s condition. With the camera open, if you can see the shutter, look at it. On a simple leaf shutter, you should be able to see the little spring that provides the shutter’s action. I’ve known them to go missing. But it might also be visible only through the front of the camera, so check there too. On a diaphragm shutter, the leaves should be uniformly arranged. A little oil on the leaves is okay, but a lot is not. On a focal-plane shutter (such as on a 35mm SLR), look for gaps, wrinkles, debris, and pinholes, all signs of trouble.

Ansco B-2 Cadet
This box’s lens was very dirty – I cleaned it with a swab and rubbing alcohol

Check the lens. Ideally, the lens will be clean and clear. A little internal dust and even light scratches usually don’t affect a lens’s performance, but deep scratches usually will. If you find haze or fungus (which looks like etching) inside the lens, walk away. Unless, that is, you want to try your hand at disassembling the lens to clean it. I won’t do it, but others are braver than I am.

Haze and schmutz are different things, by the way. You can (gently, gently) clean off schmutz just by wiping.

To check for these things, look down at both ends of the lens in good light, and then hold the lens up to a good light source and look through it. In a pinch, you can use the flashlight on your smartphone as a light source.

When the lens is built into the camera, open the camera back, set the shutter to B, and press and hold the shutter button.

On interchangeable-lens cameras, dismount the lens. Some lenses screw off. For the rest, you press a button or a lever on the camera body near the lens and twist the lens off.

Check whether it winds and the shutter fires. The winder should function, ideally smoothly, and the shutter should snap cleanly.

Argus A-Four
Cocking lever – cocked – on top of the lens barrel

If the shutter doesn’t fire, you might need to cock it. Look for a cocking lever on or near the lens barrel. Move it until it clicks into place. Other cameras cock during winding via a pin on or near the takeup spool. You can usually cock it with a finger while the back is open.

Try the shutter at all available shutter speeds. It’s common for a shutter to stick open at its slowest speeds. This isn’t always a dealbreaker for me as I seldom shoot that slow.

Even when you can fire the shutter, you can’t check its accuracy and its full functioning. I’ve tested cameras where the shutter sounded okay but was wildly inaccurate. This is always a gamble.

♦ ♦ ♦

These simple checks are just the beginning, but if a camera doesn’t pass them, move on. Most common cameras are plentiful enough that you should just wait until you find another one in better shape. Unless, that is, the price is right and you know how to repair what’s wrong!

Next time: battery corrosion, busted rangefinders, weak light meters, and bad bellows.

Wrapping up the series: the most powerful tool in your camera-inspection arsenal.


28 responses to “Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 1: The fundamentals”

  1. hmunro Avatar

    Great tips, Jim — all of them.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! And now you have completed the first lecture. Second and third lectures are queued up for the next two Mondays! But you’re just auditing this class, so no diploma at the end! :-)

      1. hmunro Avatar

        No diploma needed here, Jim — just being a slightly better-informed consumer is good enough for me! :) (Makes me think, though: It’s not too hard to get accreditation these days. Maybe you should found a Grey University and charge tuition for your blog?)

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’m actually thinking about writing a book about how to get into the film-camera hobby!

          After I finish my Pentax ME book, of course.

          1. hmunro Avatar

            This is great news, Jim! I think you’ll find there’s quite a market for such a book, the way so many folks are “discovering” vintage cameras.

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          I wish I had written it last year to capitalize on this resurgent interest in film now!

  2. Greg Clawson Avatar
    Greg Clawson

    I myself have gotten a few duds, this is a great guide to keep that from happening. Keep up the good work Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Impossible to avoid duds. They’re a fact of life when you collect and shoot old gear!

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Plus one for : winding, firing shutter, etc. Shouldn’t be stiff without film. I’m always amazed at “amatuer” box cameras (and others) that were built with winding/shutter cocking/firing absolutes! i.e you have to do certain things in certain orders. Almost all of those cameras are broken or frozen. Can’t tell you how many great 50’s 60’s non-interchangeable lens Japanese rangefinder cameras I’ve run across just jammed beyond repair…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      IKR? It’s like the manufacturer tried to make it hard for the poor amateur photographer.

      There are cults around a few cameras that I find to be dreadful to use. The Argus C3 is one of them.

      1. Dan Cluley Avatar
        Dan Cluley

        I think the C3 is much like the Model T Ford, revolutionary at the time for being a reliable form of new technology at a mass produced price. They were both surpassed fairly quickly by better products, but had been made in such large numbers that they became iconic.

        I suspect that for many of the current C3 fans, the enjoyment comes from having mastered the awkwardness of the camera.

      2. Kevin Thomas Avatar
        Kevin Thomas

        I think the C3 takes a certain mindset – and it’s definitely not the most ergonomic camera. As Dan suggests, somebody of the attraction is mastering the beast, but the lens is really sharp and can take some great pictures. It’s a good intro to shooting so-manual-it-almost-hurts.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Perfectly stated: so manual it almost hurts. That matches my experience with these cameras!

  4. Bill Bussell Avatar
    Bill Bussell

    Okay, where would you go locally to get a camera repaired? I used to keep one camera repair shop busy with pro cameras. It was Davis/Arvin repair. Mr. Arvin kept it running until one day it disappeared. I know of one remaining local company I would trust, and one that I would not. I have driven a camera to Chicago for repair. BTW, using an Argus C3 is kid’s stuff. I was a kid when my father instructed me in using his. Thousands of Kodachrome ASA 10 slides were exposed with the C3 by many. I also used B&W from a 1000-foot roll of cinema stock in dad’s.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I haven’t tried any local places. I’ve heard some people report good luck using Roberts Camera downtown. They don’t repair anything themselves; they send out to various independent techs, I presume using the one that is right for the kind of camera you bring them.

      Perhaps it’s just that I haven’t enjoyed my C3s. I own three and have shot two. I plan to shoot the third to give the brick one more chance.

  5. Joshua Fast Avatar

    I will also add that when camera shopping a small led pen light or the flashlight on your cell phone is the best tool available. Shine the light and look through the lens (from both sides) at various angles.

    If it looks like frosted glass that is haze. Haze can be cleaned in about 80% of the cases but requires a lens to be disassembled. It’s typically caused by lubricants evaporating and collecting on the elements. It also can not be seen without a light source. If your handy and careful it can be done by yourself or budget about $50-$100 to have a professional take care of it. If it’s a common lens just walk away. Haze is the most damaging to resolution and contrast.

    If it looks like spider webbing or snowflaked lines on the elements this is fungus. It typicaly starts from the edges and works its way towards the center of the element. It feeds on dust and organic coatings on the glass. The acid waste it produces can etch the coatings on the glass. In most cases it can be cleaned but any etching is permanent. Don’t listen to internet fodder. Fungus doesn’t spread from lens to lens like the plague. In most cases it’s long dead and unless it is flowering spores aren’t being produced. Most light cases of fungus don’t affect image quality.

    If it’s an older lens you will probably see dust and cleaning marks (scratches). This is common, photographers used neckties not microfiber cloths to clean their lenses in this time. Scratches on the front element will not affect image quality at all. Scratches on the rear might have some chance of flare in the right light.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for adding color to checking a lens!

      I’m completely uninterested in disassembling a lens, so when I see anything more than minor haze or fungus I move on. Actually, I don’t want any haze or fungus if I can manage it. A little dust and some cleaning marks never bother me though.

      1. Joshua Fast Avatar

        I’ve never been interested in keeping lenses with major blemishes but i have cleaned up a few lenses that would be hard to replace otherwise. I’ve found myself with no spare time recently so I’ve been sending them out. I have a lens and a camera to Youxin Ye and another lens to Don Goldberg. Both phenomenal camera repairmen if you need repairs. Youxin specializes in Leica M/LTM but Don does an entire assortment of cameras. Other recommendations for anyone needing lens/camera work

        Gus Lazzari
        Kurt’s Camera Repair
        Midwest Camera Repair

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I updated the lens part of this post with some of what you wrote here. Thanks for fleshing this out!

      1. Joshua Fast Avatar

        Anytime! Glad to be of service.

  6. […] via Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 1: The fundamentals — Down the Road […]

  7. Ron Avatar

    A vital topic, if you have a hankering for old cameras. I’ve bought a lot of old cheap cameras on e-bay. Usually “untested”. Some real jewels and some not so much. The Agfas almost always have stuck focus ring that you can’t move short of nuclear weapons. Something about the lubricating grease they used after 60 years. Not had good luck with Retinas either, after the 1a or so. Bad shutter cocking, film transport, etc. The pre-war ones work great! Voigtlander and Zeiss Ikons I mostly love, if the lens is clear. Got a Super Ikonta the other day that is beautiful, but I may actually have worked on, since the film advance that’s supposed to lock for every shot without looking at the red window doesn’t lock anymore.

    Of course, if you are new to old cameras, it pays to find the manual on line ( and read it before playing. A lot of cameras were quirky even when new. So, when all else fails…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m pretty good at spotting the “untested” eBay cameras that are a good risk. You can tell a lot from the photos and from a smattering of Internet research. It all comes down to whether I can get it for a price that if it’s broken I won’t hurt too much over it.

      You do learn about the common problems with kinds of cameras as you buy. Like the stuck Agfa focusing helicals. I have zero interest or skill at fixing that sort of thing. Someone gave me an Ansco that’s a rebadged Agfa and its focusing ring is locked tight. Can’t decide what to do with it, so it sits in a box under my dresser waiting.

      Oh yeah, great tip about I’ll add that to Part 3 of this short series, which is a good time to mention it.

  8. mfobrien1956 Avatar

    Good tips, as always, Jim. I have bought some cameras in lots — once paid about $5 each for a box of 6 Nikon SLRs. All they needed were batteries and they worked fine. That was very lucky. On the other hand, i have a Wardflex TLR that will remain a shelf queen, even though it looked good on the ebay.


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oooh, lots. I never thought about that. I may try it. Good tip!

  9. shamimsobhani Avatar

    Great tips!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! Parts 2 and 3 of this series will appear the next two Mondays!

  10. […] via Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 1: The fundamentals — Down the Road […]

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