Photography

Where do you buy old cameras?

When you get into the film-photography or old-camera-collecting hobby, you can buy gear in a whole bunch of ways.

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Gearpallooza: a typical scene on my desk at home

It’s a remarkable time, really, for film shooters and collectors. Before the Internet, options were limited. Prime used gear could be had at camera shops. Lesser gear could be found at garage sales and antique shops. That’s how I bought cameras when I started collecting in the 1970s. I put hundreds and hundreds of miles on my bicycle visiting sales all over my hometown. I amassed a collection of more than a hundred cameras this way.

But that was so time consuming. Fortunately, so many more options are available today, many of them online.

A word about risk, because buying used gear always carries some. The more expensive the gear, the less risk you obviously want of experiencing some undisclosed problem. It matters little when you’re buying a 35mm point-and-shoot camera for $5 and a lot when you’re buying a Leica IIIf for $500. If I’m shopping online I’d buy that point and shoot but I wouldn’t buy the Leica without questioning the seller extensively. Or I’d just buy it from from a camera shop or a trusted seller — but then it might cost $750 instead of $500.

Here are the options I know about. What options do you know about, especially those of you outside the United States?

Online

The selection online is huge, but you can’t examine a camera before you buy it. So you risk getting broken gear. Some of these sellers accept returns and some don’t. Read my advice for buying cameras on eBay for tips to help you minimize your risk.

eBay. Could this be the ultimate old-camera marketplace? It’s where I buy most of my cameras. You can easily browse among available cameras, looking for just the ones you want or just trolling for bargains. Start with the Film Cameras and Vintage Cameras categories

shopgoodwill.com. Many Goodwill locations in the US participate in this clunky and feature-poor auction site. I assume it lets especially valuable donations fetch the best price. They offer a lot of cameras (see their Film Cameras and Vintage Cameras categories), and my experience has been that prices are slightly under eBay’s.

But your risk of broken gear is high here because the selling Goodwill never knows anything about the cameras and can’t answer any questions about them. After a few painful experiences, I now buy here only when the price is so low I won’t care much if the gear is broken.

Etsy. This site isn’t just handmade goods anymore. Type “film camera” in the site’s Search box and a reasonable selection of old gear will appear. Etsy offers some protection against items not being as described, which should protect you against broken gear.

Used-camera sites. Several companies deal in used gear online, mostly 35mm SLRs and higher-end medium-format cameras. You’ll pay much more than on eBay et al, but these sites generally guarantee their gear for 90 days. My favorite is UsedPhotoPro.com, largely because they’re in my city. But the granddaddy of them all is probably KEH.com. I’ve bought from both and have never regretted it. Other sites, which I haven’t bought from (yet), include Green Mountain Camera, Cameta Camera, Jack’s Camera Shop, Midwest Photo, Unique Photo, and Igor’s Camera Exchange. B&H and Adorama also sell a little used gear, too. If you know of others, let me know in the comments!

I’d like to specially mention Pacific Rim Camera, which is possibly the biggest dumping grounds of old gear ever. Their Web site is straight outta 1997 but they evaluate each camera and tell you it’s exact condition, including any faults. You know exactly what you’re getting. I’ve bought from them a few times and the camera is always exactly as described, warts and all.

Trusted sellers. Some people specialize in selling used cameras, especially of a certain type. Frequently these same people restore the cameras so what you buy is as good as new. I’m thinking specifically about Chris Sherlock, who restores and sells Kodak Retinas, and a fellow named Jurgen (better known as “Certo6”) who restores and sells old folders, and well-known Nikon F2 restorer Sover Wong who sometimes sells F2s on eBay. You might even build trust relationships with sellers via the other channels I list here.

Craigslist. This is only sort of online as you make purchases in person. And you can scoop up bargains here as sellers sometimes don’t know their gear’s value. But after you arrange the meeting and drive out to look at the gear, what if you don’t want it? What a waste of time. And who hasn’t heard a horror story about a Craigslist seller? (I’ve bought and sold stuff on Craigslist and have always had good experiences.) There’s no cameras-for-sale category, so search for “film camera.”

In person

When you shop in person you can examine the gear and be sure of what you’re getting. I wrote a short series of posts on how to do that: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Camera shops. If your town has a camera shop it likely sells used gear. The camera shop in my town does, and offers a no-hassle 90-day return policy. It’s just fun to go see what they have and lay hands on it. You’ll pay more here than on eBay, but zero risk can be worth it.

Thrift/charity shops. Most thrift/charity shops I’ve visited will have a smattering of junk cameras and occasionally something good. I find that I have to keep going back and have good luck to buy anything interesting at them. I don’t have that kind of time. Prices vary wildly, too.

Antique shops. The selection is much as in thrift shops except the gear tends to be older, and prices are almost always negotiable.

Garage/yard/boot sales. This remains a hit-or-miss way to find gear, but sometimes you can stumble upon something amazing at a fraction of its value.

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19 thoughts on “Where do you buy old cameras?

  1. Most cams I bought at eBays. The problem is, eBay Germany is not sorted very well in cameras and foreign auction marketplaces are very expensive in shipping. At eBay Marketplace I bought three cams. Three brandnew cams I bought at Online shops as Lomo etc. One very special camera, the Minolta speaker, I got at Etsys and some Eastern European appliances I found live in Poland, Russia or the Ukraine. Last not least some cams were gifts of friends. And now my closet is full anyway and I have stopped buying more and more ;-)

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    • I shipped a camera to a buddy in Germany once — $50 to ship! Shocking!

      I’m trying to stop buying so many. I have plenty of great cameras to use now!

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  2. Ron says:

    I’ve bought lots of e-bay cameras. Some from as far away a the Ukraine (Leika and Zeiss Ikon copies–all of which have been great). Experiences have varied, to say the least. Sometimes I know it’s a dice-roll from the seller’s pics and descriptions. It’s obvious when they don’t know what they have or the real condition. Others are just being cagey. I’ve bought a couple big lots of cameras on e-bay (you’ll get a whole box). There’s some broken junk in there, but there also can be nice surprises, kind of like that box of chocolates.

    I’ve also bought a few at estate sales. There can be some good deals, especially by Sunday afternoon. Picked up a really nice Yashica 124G that way.

    ,Best advice I ever saw about buying used cameras on e-bay (from a young lady in a you-tube video) was buy cheap, and if it works, be pleasantly surprised.

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    • I’ve bought cameras on eBay only from the US and Canada. Beyond those borders it just feels too risky to me. I’ve heard horror stories especially about the 35mm cameras that ship from Japan.

      But within those borders I’ve had about 90% good luck — the camera was as described. But I’m a bargain hunter. I’ll buy the scuffed camera, or the one with the battery door you have to tape closed, or the one with the dented filter ring. So my expectations are managed going in!

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  3. Thanks to a previous post in your blog, I learned about KEH. While I haven’t bought anything from the business yet, I look regularly for items on my photo wishlist.

    I’m not knowledgable enough (or maybe not trusting enough) to feel comfortable about buying from eBay. I do find some good items and prices but have had a couple of negative experiences in the past (non camera related), so the site is just for window shopping, so far.

    I look forward to checking out the other sites you mention. While I’m not a ‘collector’ I do like seeing all the goodies available and might even find an unknown treasure or two.

    This is a bit late but I’ll put in a good word about your book, Exceptional Ordinary. I’ve enjoyed it and have come to realize that the title is an apt description of both the images and the writing. Well done.

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    • I am delighted that you enjoyed my book! I wasn’t fully happy with the title I chose at first, but it’s grown on me. I have ideas for future books. I’m quite busy right now readying my home for sale so I’m unable to work on those ideas, but I hope to move forward them later in the year after I’ve moved.

      The trick to buying from eBay is to have appropriate expectations going in. My advice, if you really want to ever try it, is to buy inexpensive cameras at first to get a feel for it. Spend $10-20 per camera. You’ll learn the ins and outs of it and not be out so much money should you get a negative surprise.

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  4. I have purchased a number of cameras on eBay from sellers in Japan and have never had an issue, but I do stick to a few known sellers there. I’ve been stung more on cameras bought domestically on eBay. Craigslist is great here in the Bay Area for old cameras. I just browse the Photo/Video section every once in a while and to your point–sometimes people don’t really know the value of what they are selling. As for the online retailers, KEH is great and I have had very good luck buying from the used department at B&H Photo. Locally, our little Mom & Pop photo store has a decent used section with a good selection of 35mm SLRs to keep the photo students at the junior college outfitted. I bought one of my Nikon F2 cameras there in almost pristine condition for $100.

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    • I’ve yet to buy a camera on CL largely because of the time factor — I just can’t make the time to go meet someone somewhere to complete the purchase.

      I suppose that you can find trustable sellers anywhere, even an eBay seller in some foreign land. Do you just take the risk on an unknown and build the relationship, or do you ask around for tips?

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      • bodegabayf2 says:

        As for CL: I will ask a seller if they will meet me halfway…a public place, shopping plaza, etc. This reduces investment of time. It does look a bit like a drug deal going down though :-) I’ve found that most sellers are willing to meet me and if they are not, I pass. Never that desperate to buy a camera from CL.

        As for buying from foreign sellers, yes I do ask around for tips on the camera brand-specific forums (Pentax, Leica, Nikon F2, etc.). Doing good research pays dividends.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Christopher Smith says:

    I buy anywhere the price is right (cheap). I have a selection of about half a dozen charity shops in my area and also a local camera shop that sells film cameras.
    But I buy mostly from eBay. I bide my time until I see the camera I want at the right price and condition. ( you have to be patient).
    Prices on UK eBay have gone stupid as people are asking exorbitant prices for something that’s even broken. I don’t understand where people think a £10 to £20 camera is worth £200 or more.

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  6. Here in Utah (USA), and in the western states, we have a chain of thrift stores operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon’s) called Deseret Industries. Each store has a “collectable case” or an area where they secure items that are a higher dollar amount. Before they deem an item “collectable,” they do some research before they price it, and they always beat eBay prices by 10%. I’ve purchased several cameras at Deseret Industries, but it’s really hit-and-miss like most thrift stores. I’ve found some hidden gems, and some nasty cameras with bugs in them. Two gems I’ve found in Deseret Industries are: Minolta SR-T202 and Canon Canonet G-III QL17.

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    • Deseret sounds much like Goodwill, which also secures valuable donations in a special case. The Goodwills near me don’t pull from the better neighborhoods so they don’t tend to have nicer cameras, but the ones in the city I’m moving to later this year just might have nicer donations.

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  7. Great selection Jim. I loved usedphotopro and KEH. I rarely buy from the New York guys because they’re a little overpriced most of the time and because of the taxes. Once in a while they have better deals than usedphotopro/Robert’s or KEH, but that’s rare. Awesome and very informative post!

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  8. I used to buy mostly on Ebay. I found that if I was careful in reading the description then everything was okay. If the camera wasn’t what the seller said it was easy to get my money back. Now I get most of my cameras from garage and church sales. This is where I have gotten by far and away the best deals. Still it can be quite an investment in time to do it this way. Myself, I enjoy going to these sales and have other things that I look for. If that wasn’t the case I imagine going to such sales would be a lot of drudgery. Another way that I have occasionally gotten a camera is from having people that know I still like such things give me their old cameras and equipment.

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    • I think I look forward to a time when I can make time for garage sales again. I think I’d like going to them now as much as when I was a teen.

      Most of the gear I’ve received in the last 2-3 years has been simply given to me. A longtime friend’s father, a photography hobbyist, was slowly in the process of giving me his gear. And then bam, one day last year a giant box arrived with the rest of it all, nine or ten cameras in all.

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  9. James Thorpe says:

    I just noticed today that Certo6’s website is down. I’ve bought a couple of cameras from him in the past, and was going to go shopping again. Do you happen to know if he’s still in business?

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