Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 2: Advanced features

Recently I shared how to check an old film camera’s fundamental functions so you don’t end up buying junk. (Read it here, if you missed it.) But many cameras offer features beyond those fundamentals. They can be broken too.

Minolta SR-T 202
Quite a find at an antique shop!

A couple years ago I found a Minolta SR-T 202 at an antique shop. A 50mm f/1.4 MD Rokkor-X lens was attached. What luck! These are great cameras, and a 50/1.4 is always a prize.

But there I stood in the middle of a dimly lit shop 60 miles from home. What problems would this camera have, and could I negotiate a price that would make me willing to take them on?

First I checked the fundamentals, which I described in part 1 of this series. That all checked out. So I moved on to the camera’s advanced features. Here are the things I checked:

Remove the battery cover, if there is one. When there’s no battery cover, the camera is all mechanical. Cameras that take a battery have some level of electronics, even if it’s just an onboard light meter. Without the proper battery you won’t be able to check some or all of its functions, depending on how much of the camera is electronically controlled.

Yashica Electro 35 GSN
Battery cover on the bottom, slotted to be opened with a nickel

I don’t know about where you live, but where I live Walgreens and CVS are on every other corner, and they have a surprisingly extensive battery selection. For a camera I really, really want, I’ll duck out and buy a battery.

Many battery covers have a slot that fits a nickel or a penny, so grab one out of your back pocket and unscrew it. Alternatively, there might be knurling on the cover that lets you grip it with your fingertips. Or you might find a tab you press in that lets you pull the cover back. Ideally, the cover removes easily and the inside is free of leaky-battery corrosion. If the cover is jammed shut, there’s probably corrosion. I’ve had good luck cleaning up a little corrosion (I use a dab of vinegar and fine steel wool), but my experience has been that a lot of corrosion means the camera’s electronics won’t work.

Check the camera’s focusing. The camera either focuses manually or automatically.

On manual-focus viewfinder cameras, you guess how far away your subject is and twist the aperture ring until that number of feet or meters lines up with the focusing mark. There’s no good way to check accuracy in the field, short of carrying an accessory rangefinder everywhere you go.

But if the camera has a built-in rangefinder, use it to check focusing accuracy. The rangefinder might be inside the viewfinder or it might be in a separate window near the viewfinder. Look for the “patch” in the center, which should be bright enough for you to see the image inside it. Aim the camera at something a known distance away. Turn the focusing ring until the image in the rangefinder patch lines up with the image in the viewfinder. Check the distance selected on the focusing ring and see if it matches the actual distance.

You can do the same on a manual-focus 35mm SLR. Twist the focus ring until the image in the viewfinder’s split screen lines up, or the microprism ring stops shimmering.

On autofocus cameras, see if there’s a manual-focus mode and try the tips above. If there’s no manual mode, you’ll have to roll the dice that focus is accurate. Fortunately, of the dozens upon dozens of  cameras I’ve bought in over 40 years, only one or two were significantly off.

Olympus Trip 35
Selenium meter around the lens

Check the light meter, if there is one. Look through the viewfinder. If you see a needle or an LED/LCD panel, there’s an onboard meter. A few cameras place the meter needle on the camera body instead.

Some meters need power and others don’t. Selenium light meters are photosensitive on their own and need no battery. Look for a bubbled plastic patch on the camera’s face or around the lens.

Yashica Lynx 14e
CdS meter “bubble” on the body

Cadmium sulfide (CdS) and silicon meters need batteries to work. Some cameras place CdS meters on the body. Many cameras embed these meters inside the body

For a powered meter, the camera must be on for you to check it. Some cameras, like the Pentax K1000, are always on. Others have an on switch or button, and still others require you to activate the meter by pulling back the winder lever a little or pressing the shutter button partway.

There are so many ways cameras show exposure settings in the viewfinder that I can’t explain them all here. Many cameras use some sort of needle system: when the needle lines up with a mark or a notch, you have good exposure. Other cameras use LED or LCD displays.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK
Meter needle at the top of this viewfinder

Download a light-meter app to your smartphone. Read light on a subject with the app and the camera, making either shutter speed or aperture match on both. Do this for a few different aperture and shutter speed combinations to see if the meter consistently agrees. A consistently wrong meter is still usable. My Yashica Lynx 14e above is consistently off by a full stop. I just adjust as I shoot. It works beautifully.

A busted or inaccurate meter doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. The meter on that otherwise all-manual SR-T 202 was quite dead. I dropped in some film anyway and metered with an app on my phone. I prefer a working meter, but I still had a fine time with the SR-T. That camera had a bigger problem my initial inspection missed: a pinhole in the shutter curtain that left a bright spot on many photos. That disappointed me far more than the inactive meter did.

The more electronics on a camera, however, the more likely its manual exposure settings are buried in counterintuitive menus. And some cameras lack manual exposure settings altogether. A busted meter renders them useless.

Check the motorized winder, if there is one. For this, you must have a battery. But then this is as simple as turning the camera on and pressing the shutter button. If it doesn’t wind, or if the winder sounds sick, move on.

♦ ♦ ♦

Speaking of all- or mostly-electronic cameras, they present special challenges in field inspection. They can be broken in surprising ways that you might not be able to detect without putting a roll of film through them. In the final part of this series I’ll share how you can predict the problems a camera might have.


15 responses to “Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 2: Advanced features”

  1. Ron Avatar

    All good advice. A working, accurate selenium meter is a rare and precious thing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve found that if the selenium meter is always covered when the camera is not in use, there’s a far, far greater chance it still works.

  2. dan james Avatar

    Useful and thorough Jim, this one and the first post in the series. Alas from me it’s of little use as I don’t really have many local options and 95% of my photography purchases are on eBay!

    Fortunately you wrote a similar guide for eBay a couple of weeks ago. : )

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Two words: boot sales. If you have the time to slog through a lot of junk, anyway.

      1. dan james Avatar

        Yeh I have tried those in the past, but found very little.

        Plus by the time you’ve paid the travel costs and the entry fee, you need to find something pretty special every two or three boot sales to make it worthwhile. Add the time factor and it became not worth it for me.

        I’d rather spend a bit more money and get something on eBay from a reputable seller then spend that time I’m not sifting through junk at boot sales out shooting with the new kit! : )

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Ah, you have to pay to get in? That’s a bummer. Our garage and yard sales here are always free for the browsing. I bought a hundred cameras that way when I was younger but I haven’t been to a garage sale in at least 15 years now.

          1. dan james Avatar

            Yes we don’t seem to have garage sales really in the way you do in the US. Our garages aren’t big enough to fill with stuff in the first place. : )

            I think years ago boot sales were free entry but I haven’t been to one in a long time where it’s not maybe a pound or two to get in.

            That’s nothing if you find a beautiful camera for £10 that would have cost £100s of course but I’ve not had that happen.

            Also, boot sales have become overrun with traders selling new plastic “tat” rather than genuine members of the public clearing out their attics. They’re much more like open markets now than they used to be, and the chance of finding a genuine bargain vintage camera are slim to none, in my experience. But maybe that’s just around here.

  3. Greg Clawson Avatar
    Greg Clawson

    Thanks Jim, for putting the time and effort into writing this guide. It is bookmarked for future reference.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Happy you find it useful!

  4. Mark O'Brien Avatar
    Mark O’Brien

    Jim, great advice. The one thing I have to remember is to not let the thrill of the find overrule common sense. Run through the basic checks, and if it passes, then start the happy dance. All-electronic cameras are a problem, for sure. I once picked up a Rollei Prego for $5. I got it home and found that after I put a roll of film in it, there was no torque on the film advance winder to advance the film. Pretty little camera, crappy construction. Sometime, though, a great find IS a great find, and we can come home smiling.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh yes! That thrill is blinding. I have to force myself to calm down and assess the camera.

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    If I may add my two cents on corrosion from battery leakage…the damage might not be all that apparent by looking at the battery chamber alone. I had a Nikon F2 body with intermittent power problems. This Nikon had just a trace of corrosion inside the chamber. When I sent the camera for CLA, it was discovered that the corrosion had wormed it’s way up the entire length of copper wire and well into the deepest innards of the camera body. Best to avoid a camera with any signs of leaky battery corrosion if you can.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good advice. I’m willing to risk that if the price is low enough. It’s a gamble but I’m willing to flush a little cash on the good chance the camera could be good. Like that SR-T 202 I mentioned. I got a good 50/1.4 but a bad body. Bummed about the body but it was worth it to get that lens.

  6. Sam Avatar

    Jim, I read both series, excellent sound advice and all anyone needs to know about checking out vintage cameras! I was happy to see that Agfa Silette as I have a Karat here that I have yet to profile. I love that your article also gave us some vintage camera porn!! :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Awesome Sam, always happy to meet your gear pr0n needs!

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