Collecting Cameras

Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 3: Research

Recently I told you how to assess a camera’s condition, first by checking basic features and then by checking advanced features. Now I’m going to tell you about the powerful tool in your camera-inspection arsenal, especially when it comes to all- (or mostly-) electronic cameras: your smartphone.

That’s right. Because wherever you get a good signal, you can research the camera.

Minolta Maxxum 7000

Failed aperture-control magnet

I didn’t do that at the counter of my local camera shop, where I was hot to buy this Minolta Maxxum 7000. It wasn’t until I took it home and shot a roll of film in it that I learned it suffered from a very common Maxxum 7000 fault: a failed magnet in the autoexposure system. When it goes, the camera shoots only at its smallest aperture. To test it, drop a battery in, go into low light (but not so low you can’t see the camera well), look down at the lens, and fire. In low-ish light the camera should select a wide aperture. If you see a tiny aperture as the shutter fires, the Maxxum has this problem.

I had a great mobile signal while I stood at that counter. A quick search for “Maxxum 7000 fault” could have spared me the disappointment.

Canon EOS Rebel

Failed shutter

As electronics crept into cameras, so did intractable problems. That’s not to say used electronic film cameras are inherently a bad deal. I own several that just keep on trucking. But when they do fail, they can appear to be functioning properly. More than once I’ve happily shot an entire roll only to find every shot spoiled by some internal gremlin. I’ve owned two Canon EOS Rebel-series cameras, for example, with failing or failed shutters. It’s the number one problem these cameras develop. But the camera sounds like it’s working as you shoot it. (Tip: look at the shutter curtain. If there’s any goo on it, or an arc of marks, the shutter is failing or has failed.)

Minolta X-700

Jammed tight

Sometimes the failure is as subtle as a brick to the forehead. My aunt Maxine gave me her Minolta X-700 kit a long time ago, and I managed to shoot one roll of film before its most common failure happened: a rogue capacitor breathed its last. When that happens, the winder locks tight. My friend Alice later gave me her X-700, which had already suffered the same fate. This can be repaired with a new capacitor, but it’s major surgery and expensive to have done. Such is the case with most failures in electronic cameras.

Yet it’s not just electronic cameras that have quirks and common failure points.

Kodak Retina Reflex IV

Wind to fix this cameras main “fault”

The fully manual Kodak Retina Reflex series has a quirk: the mirror stays up after you press the shutter button. You see black in the viewfinder until you wind, which raises the mirror again. If you come upon one of these and find you can’t see through the viewfinder, if you don’t know this you will think the camera is broken.

The Argus A-series cameras and some of the Kodak Pony-series cameras have collapsible lens barrels.  They don’t work right unless the barrel is extended.

And many folding Kodak Retina cameras might appear to be broken, the winder being stuck. But when the frame counter atop the camera counts town to zero, the camera locks the winder. Moving the frame counter off zero frees the winder.

For many cameras, you can find the original manual online as a free download. The best and best-known site is butkus.org, but there are others. It can be a little tricky to read a manual on your phone, but it can mean the difference between not buying a camera because the winder’s stuck, or realizing that moving the frame counter off zero frees that winder up.

♦ ♦ ♦

The point is that many cameras have quirks, common issues, and known failure points. And others have gone here before you. They like to write about their woes with old cameras, either in their blogs or in the photography forums. A quick Internet search often reveals all.

And now you have a complete camera-evaluation toolkit. First check fundamental functions. Then test advanced features. Finally, research the camera’s quirks and known failure points. If you do these things, you’ll greatly reduce the risk of bringing home a dud.

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12 thoughts on “Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 3: Research

  1. I think there are two approaches to collecting cameras. One is to always have your eyes open at car boot sales, charity shops and so on, and pick up anything that you find interesting. This will likely be a camera you know little about, so Jim all three of your posts will be invaluable.

    The other approach is doing the research first, then targeting specific models, which is the approach I have tended to take. Then I can hopefully flag up potentially common issues for particular cameras and be aware of them when looking to purchase.

    I think I’ve taken this approach because 1. My intention for a long time has been to find the “ultimate” small arsenal of cameras and lenses that I absolutely love and 2. Because just collecting whatever comes along I find too daunting and overwhelming!

    My brain prefers to have a much narrower set of options when going out to shoot and adding another possible camera/lens can result in endless dithering rather than just getting out there and shooting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps I’m a little myopic, because I have always wanted to try all the cameras I can afford. Recently I bought a Nikon N8008 because it was inexpensive and in good nick. I didn’t need it, I probably will only shoot one roll with it before selling it again (as it’s not different enough from my Nikon N90s), but I’m happy to experience it.

      I know that I’d be a better photographer if I’d just stick with a set stable of gear, and keep using it. I want to be a better photographer! But the experience of using all this gear is just so compelling to me, and so I persist.

      But then I’ve been at this since I was 8. Hundreds of cameras have passed through my hands in the 41 years since. If there ever was a hobby that defined me, this is it.

      If there’s a particular camera you simply must have, I think it’s worth it to seek respected sellers and be willing to shell out full market value for a camera as flawless as you can afford. For bottom-feeders, if you will, like me, the thrill of the chase and the fully functioning bargain is a siren song.

      What’s great about this, for me, is that I now have a metric ton of experience, thanks to having learned the hard way over and over again, at buying old gear. I love to share it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jim, I certainly relate to “the thrill of the chase and the fully functioning bargain is a siren song!” – I love this description.

        But I try to keep it reeled in more these days as I just hate having cameras lying around gathering dust and not being regularly used.

        One of the good things about writing a blog is when we write stuff down to share with others, we realise how much we’ve learned and progressed ourselves!

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  2. Andy Umbo says:

    It’s hard to work up a sweat for the 1990’s era film cameras that look like they were carved out of a block of plastic. I was managing a big studio for a retailer at the time (we did mostly 4X5 film, and 120 rolls on fashion, but were doing more 35mm as what they used to call a “lifestyle” look). When we were buying into auto-focus 35mm semi-pro models, I remember our buying source telling us not to bother with the high-end “Canikon” stuff, and to get a couple of generations down, because it wouldn’t be worth the money to repair broken shutters or screwed up electronic internals; basically saying everything we were buying was going to be a disposable on need of repair!

    No one can fault the actual operation of that stuff, tho. I had a Canon Elan II that took great pictures, was always dead-on for exposure on transparency film, was quiet, and I had a nice couple of lenses for it; but I never would have thought that this would have been a camera I wanted to baby and have rebuilt and repaired for the rest of my life; but if I had an older Canon F-1n, I might have wanted to do that!

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    • The consumer auto-everything 35mm SLRs were fine cameras as long as you understood that when they failed, you threw them away and bought new. I wonder, however, about the higher-end cameras from that era. Are they worth fixing when they fail? Are they even fixable? My Nikon N90s is delightful. My Canon A2e is wonderful. But when they die, should I just chuck them and move on? By the way, now is the time to buy these high-end 90s SLRs as they go for under $50. Could they be the next collectible, poised to double or triple in value in the next five years?

      But no doubt: a Canon F-1 or some other all-metal, all-mechanical 70s SLR, will always be worth repairing.

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      • Andy Umbo says:

        I wonder if you really love these cameras, if you should get them “cleaned, lubed, and adjusted (CLA)”, now, when you can still find parts? Maybe a little preventative shutter spring replacement with a newer spring, etc. (even tho it still works) could result in a camera that would last the rest of your days with careful use? I’d hate to think that I’d be successful looking for a part ten years from now, but they aren’t that old now!

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        • yeah. I would like to have about a dozen of my cameras overhauled. I need to just decide where to spend my limited photography funds. I keep buying more because that’s fun. But if I skipped five-ish cameras and got one CLAd I’d be better in the long run.

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        • This is how I finally have become about lenses. I must have tried over 100, and many, many of them have been very satisfying in their way, even with a battered body, a bit of fungus, a stiff focus ring or a half working aperture.

          But there came a point where I decided that one lens produced such special results that it’s slightly lazy aperture and inconsistent focus warranted a CLA. That was my M42 Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4. I got it back like new, for, in the end, a modest investment of about £40 for the CLA. It remains, just about, the single most special lens I have ever owned.

          Yes I could have bought two or three more very accomplished lenses for the price of the CLA and enjoyed playing with them. But none of those would be what the Flektogon is, so I made that choice to invest (first time I’ve ever had anything CLA’d!)

          Very recently (like last Saturday) I made a similar decision with my M42 Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8, as its aperture blades have gone from lazy to not going past about f/4 to staying stuck open. I’ve sent it off to the same guy (Miles Whitehead) as, like the Flektogon, it’s such a special lens when it’s fully working, it’s worth that investment.

          I doubt I’ll do this with many lenses, but those that blow me away and I plan to keep for a very long time, I think it’s well worth the CLA to get a almost like new lens with vintage (ie characterful, unique, well engineered and built) performance.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Christopher Smith says:

    I’m like you Jim I love the thrill of finding something for a song at my local charity shop or on eBay and I like using and experiencing different cameras. at the moment I have something around 400 cameras my latest interest is old folders and seeing if I can get the best out of them. I’l try and collect a line of similar models from the same brand money permitting. I can concur with all your points of evaluation of cameras when buying.

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    • 400! I’ve had probably 250-300 pass through my collection, but if I had to guess right now I’m at under 100. I have about another 30 I want to get rid of.

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