Cameras, Photography

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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Cameras, Photography

Another Yashica-D

Is it possible to love a camera too much? Because I’m totally head over heels with my Yashica-D, a twin-lens reflex camera for 120 film. And now I own a second one.

Yashica-D

This one comes from the father of my friend Alice, who last year gave me all the cameras he’s ever owned. It’s pristine. It came in a leather case, which looked pristine but wasn’t. As I removed the camera from it, all of the stitching disintegrated and it fell apart.

Yashica-D

Yashica made these cameras for a whopping 16 years starting in 1957. They all used a Copal MXV leaf shutter, which operates from 1 to 1/500 second. Until sometime in 1970, the taking and viewing lenses were both 80mm f/3.5 Yashikors of triplet design. The Yashinon lenses that Yashica used in the D starting in 1970 were four-element, three-group Tessar designs to be sure. Fortunately, the Yashikors are no slouches.

According to this site which lists the history of Yashica TLRs, this D was made sometime between 1963 and 1965. It came with a plastic lens cap; earlier models had a metal cap. And it has the “cowboy” Y logo on the hood; later models had a plainer, wider Y logo. My other D has that wide-Y logo, so it’s from after 1965.

Yashica-D

When you open the hood the viewing box erects on its own, a nice touch. When you press the Y logo in the lid, a magnifying glass pops out. Is it just my middle-aged eyes, or is this glass necessary for accurate focus? It is for me, anyway. I’m glad it’s there.

Loading film into any TLR is awkward at best as the form factor doesn’t lend itself to easy handling when the back is open. But in the D’s case, after you hook the film backing end into the takeup spool you wind until the big arrow on the film backing paper lines up with a red triangle on the body. Then you close the back and wind until the film stops. From there, as you take photos and wind the camera stops at the next frame for you. It’s so much nicer than using the infernal red windows you’ll find on so many other medium-format cameras. A frame counter is on the side of the camera next to the winding knob.

TLRs with a winding crank seem to be more sought after than these knob winders — indeed, I sought after one myself, and learned the charms of crank winding. But the winding knob is large enough to grip easily and it works smoothly. Tip: you have to press the button in the center of the knob first, or the film won’t wind.

The Yashica-D is all manual. You set exposure by reading the light yourself, or with the help of an external light meter. The two dials on the camera face set aperture and shutter speed. A window on top of the viewing lens shows what is dialed in. And before you can take a photograph, you have to cock the shutter. The lever is by the taking lens.

I spooled some Kodak Ektar into this D and went out to shoot. I spent a little time in Crown Hill Cemetery, home of one of the nation’s largest military cemeteries.

Charles H. Ackerman

I also took the D on a walk around my neighborhood. I love shooting things up close with these Yashica TLRs.

Fireplug

But it does fine landscapes, as well. The big focusing knob has delightful heft — not so much that it’s a chore to turn, but just enough that you can easily focus precisely with no fiddling.

Eastern Star Church

This goose is a decoration in one of my neighbors’ yards.

Duck

I shot this test roll last autumn. It took me three months to write about this camera because the lab botched the scans initially. I sent the negatives back for a rescan, at which time the lab discovered that their scanner was malfunctioning. After they got it repaired they sent me fresh scans back. This is a long view down one of the streets in my neighborhood.

Autumn Street

Alice’s dad often bought accessory lenses for his cameras. He sent me a Spiratone closeup lens set for this Yashica-D. I love doing very close work and was eager to try it.

Yashica-D

I made a few photos with it, but all of them suffered from wicked parallax error. (Edit: Yeah, I know now, I mounted the lenses wrong. Taking on viewing and viewing on taking. D’oh! I’ll try again with another roll of film soon.) This photo suffered least. The lens is perhaps a little soft. I’m sure that with practice I could consistently adjust properly for parallax and be quite happy with this closeup lens.

Daisy

To see more photos from both of my Yashica-Ds, check out my Yashica-D gallery.

The Yashica-D just feels great in the hands. You wouldn’t think so; this is, after all, a large brick of metal. Yet its weight and size feel just fabulous as you carry it around. And then everything about it feels and sounds precise and luxurious, from winding to cocking the shutter to pressing the button. The Yashica-D is a sensual joy, roll after roll.

It’s why I’ve kept my first one within arm’s reach since I got it. There are just times when I feel like a little medium-format fun and the D is always a marvelous choice. I’ve been known to shoot a roll of 120 in twenty minutes in my D! Moreover, Ds go for far less on the used market than the better-known Yashica-Mat 124-G with its crank winder and integrated meter. While I very much enjoy the crank-wound, metered Yashica-12 I own, I think that if I were forced to sell all but one of my TLRs, I’d keep this Yashica-D.

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Cameras, Photography

Taking photographs in the cold

Do you take many photographs during the cold of winter? I don’t. I hate cold weather.

Cary Quadrangle

Pentax H3, 55mm f/2 Super Takumar, Kodak Gold 200, 2016

So do some of my old cameras. Last winter when I shot my sexagenarian Pentax H3, I foolishly took it out on a near-zero day. It was out of my warm car for two minutes when I made the first shot, above. The shutter sounded odd, so I wound and shot one more time. That time, the shutter sounded quite sick. It made an exposure, below — a hot mess but I like it anyway. Those colors are so Kodak.

Too cold for the camera

Pentax H3, 55mm f/2 Super Takumar, Kodak Gold 200, 2016

The mirror wouldn’t come back down after this shot. Worried, I tucked the H3 into my coat and then, shortly, back into my warm car. Thankfully, when the H3 warmed back up it worked fine.

If your camera is fussy about cold at all, then keep it warm right up until you need to shoot it. My oversized wool coat is great for this — it’s super warm and can hold even my bulkiest SLR. I make my shot and then let the camera warm back up before I make another.

Most of my wintertime shots are around the house, which gives the camera little time to get cold in the first place. In Gracie’s last year I shot her in the driveway with my Pentax ME, right after I knocked snow off the gutter and onto her head and back.

Snow-covered dog

Pentax ME, 50 mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M, Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400, 2013

It was wintertime when I got around to testing a Kodak 35. I shot about half the roll around the yard in the cold. It did all right.

Front door

Kodak 35, Kodak Plus-X, 2015

I took my 1980s-vintage Canon EOS 630 out for a long walk along the Michigan Road a couple winters ago. I let it hang off my neck the whole time, exposed to the elements, and it performed great.

Barber Shop

Canon EOS 630, Canon EF 35-80mm f/4-5.6, Arista Premium 400, 2015

The camera I’ve shot most outside on cold days is my digital Canon PowerShot S95. I made this photograph on a day when temperatures hovered around -12. A foot of snow had fallen, making the tree branches beautiful. I tried to capture the beauty. I largely failed, but this shot of my next-door neighbor’s house worked out all right.

Snowy day

Canon PowerShot S95, 2014

My S95 performed fine shot after shot in that extreme cold, but I did stow it in my warm coat between shots. But my friend Alice also has an S95, and she finds hers to be fussy in weather below about 40 degrees. Who knows.

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Cameras, Photography

Certo Super Sport Dolly, Model A

What I like about old folding cameras is how elemental they are. You get a lens and a shutter, but everything else is up to you. Plus, even the most straightforwardly styled of them look elegant.

It’s like having a beautiful but difficult girlfriend. Especially when something’s wrong in the relationship and she leaves it entirely up to you to fix it. That’s how it has gone for me with this Certo Super Sport Dolly.

Certo Super Sport Dolly

Certo was a German company, headquartered in Dresden. It produced a wide range of Super Sport Dollys (Dollies?) from about 1934 to about 1942. Mine is a Model A, the most common version by far. It takes 120 film. SSDs could be had with a dizzying array of lenses and shutters, but mine happens to feature the most common lens, the capable 75mm f/2.9 Meyer Görlitz Trioplan, set in the most comon shutter, a Compur, which operates from 1 to 1/250 second.

Certo also offered the Model B, which adds the ability to use plate film, and the Model C, which adds to the Model B the ability to rewind rollfilm. Most SSDs have a pop-up viewfinder, but the Models A and C could be had with rangefinders. And some SSDs focus by twisting the front lens element, and others focus by moving the entire lens board.

Certo Super Sport DollyCerto Super Sport Dolly

But back to my Model A. Notice the three frame-counter windows on the back, behind a door that covers them. Masks that clip on inside the camera let the SSD create either portrait 4.5×6-cm or square 6×6-cm negatives. The top and bottom windows count 4.5×6 frames and the center window counts 6×6 frames. My SSD came with only the 6×6 mask. New SSDs shipped with an exposure calculator card inside the door. As you can see, my SSD’s original owner replaced that card with some personal exposure notes.

Certo Super Sport Dolly

My SSD shows signs of heavy use and rough service. But the lens is clear and focuses smoothly. And the shutter snaps with square-jawed, steely-eyed authority. It sounds like it means business. It’s the Charles Bronson of shutters.

But before I could use this SSD, I had to repair it. The focusing mechanism was broken. I outlined the repair here. Once fixed, it behaved beautifully.

Ektar 100 is probably my favorite film for testing medium-format cameras because its exposure latitude leaves plenty of margin for error. I used a light-meter app on my iPhone as I shot my SSD, but Ektar would have let me confidently go commando with Sunny 16.

I shot this roll at Crown Hill Cemetery on an overcast day late last autumn. Just look at the great sharpness that Trioplan lens delivered. The bokeh is middling, though.

Test

I found it hard to frame in the tiny viewfinder. I worried that close shots would be misframed, and I was right. My framing of landscape shots turned out fine, though.

Autumn tree in Crown Hill

I shot a lot of landscapes to check the SSD’s infinity focus. A complete repair of the focusing system would have included properly collimating the lens. That sounded like a hassle so I set infinity focus quickly and dirtily. It turned out okay.

Autumn tree in Crown Hill

Oh bother, a light leak. See it there, on the right, about 4/5 of the way down? There really isn’t much to go wrong with a simple camera like this, but bellows pinholes is one of the most common problems. My cursory initial check of the camera didn’t find any pinholes, but I suppose that’s the problem with cursory checks.

Lane in Crown Hill

This throwaway shot of cars in my driveway shows the leak at its leakiest.

Cars

If you’d like to see more, check out my Certo Super Sport Dolly gallery.

I really liked using the SSD, and so here soon I’ll take it into a dark room and shine a bright flashlight into the bellows to look for pinholes. And then I’ll seal them with dabs of black fabric paint. And then I’ll spool in another roll of Ektar take this beautiful old girl out. Because beautiful old girls do love to be taken out.

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Cameras, Photography

Repairing the focus stop on a Certo Super Sport Dolly

Even though I’m not a fan of repairing my old cameras when they’re not working right, for an especially interesting camera I will do simple repairs that require tools I already own.

Certo Super Sport DollyLast year my friend Alice’s dad sent me all of his old cameras. He just loaded them all into a giant padded box and FedExed them to me. I’ve reviewed a couple of them here already. One I was especially excited to recieve was a Certo Super Sport Dolly, Model A, a 1930s folding camera for 120 film. Fellow photoblogger Mike Connealy owns more than one and makes wonderful black-and-whites with them. Its 75mm f/2.9 Meyer-Gorlitz Trioplan lens, set in a Compur shutter that fires as fast as 1/250 sec., is pretty capable.

I could see that this Super Sport Dolly showed wear consistent with heavy use, but the shutter sounded surprisingly snappy and a cursory check of the bellows revealed no light leaks. Those are the big things that can go wrong with cameras like this. So I loaded some Kodak Ektar and went out to shoot.

And then I turned the lens’s outer element to focus the camera — and realized that nothing stopped it from turning. It should turn no more than one revolution. I ended up accidentally unscrewing it from the camera. D’oh!

So I emailed Mike to see if he had any advice for me. He had better than advice: he accurately guessed what the problem was and told me he’d be happy to send me a part from his stash of spares to fix it. Thanks Mike!

It turns out that a ring in the lens assembly includes a stop tab, and that the lens’s outer element includes a pip that stops against that tab. I saw a pip, but no tab. Following Mike’s instructions I removed the front two lens elements to discover a broken ring inside. (In this photo, no part of the lens glass is touching the table!)

img_0894

Mike sent me a good ring. It’s on the left. On the right, well, you know. How in hades does a part like this break?

img_4117

I didn’t think to photograph the disassembly, but I did photograph the reassembly. Here’s the camera with both front elements and the stop ring removed. Note the white pointer just south of 3 o’clock on the camera’s face. It’s just a sticker. It is almost certainly a makeshift focusing reference point added after that ring broke.

img_4118

The stop ring simply sits in this hole, held in place by the inner element. I used a dinner knife to tighten the element. Its blunt blade was the right thickness and was long enough. But you can see I marked up the slots a little bit getting it screwed in.

img_4119

Then I used my fingers to screw in the outer element. Now, you can’t just screw in the element any old way, and have the stop pip and tab any old place, and expect the camera to focus accurately. Really, you have to collimate the lens. This involves placing a ground glass in the film plane, pointing the camera at something far away, and twisting the lens until the ground glass shows everything at infinity is sharp. That sounded like a lot of hassle. And besides, that roll of Ektar was still in the camera! I hated to waste it.

img_4121

Fortunately, Mike gave me a quick and dirty way to set the lens set well enough. He said that the outer element would screw in at three different starting points. I could use any of them I wanted, but since I had to tighten the inner element against the stop tab ring first, he recommended using the thread point that placed the stop pip near 12 o’clock. His experience was backing the stop pip off a hair gave accurate enough infinity focus.

So I screwed in the outer element until I got it in that positon, and saw that the stop pip wound up just a hair shy of 12 o’clock. So then I unscrewed the outer element, loosened the inner element, and moved the stop ring to a hair off that pip’s final position. Then I had to unscrew and rescrew that outer element repeatedly until that pip wound up at near 12 o’clock again.

About that stop pip. You see it in the photo above at about 8 o’clock. You have to remove it from the outer element, screw the outer element in most of the way, and then screw the pip back in. Otherwise, the pip blocks you from screwing in the outer element all the way.

This pip is an itty bitty bit of metal. Fortunately, it is slotted on the end. My ittiest-bittiest jeweler’s screwdriver just fit that slot. Unfortunately, that screwdriver isn’t magnetized, so it was guts and glory screwing that pip out and in without losing it. My entire catalog of four-letter words was poised and ready should challenges with this step have made them necessary. Fortunately the pip came out and went in with only a little drama, reserving my words for another more frustrating day.

One reason, but certainly not the only one, that I don’t do more camera repair is that I really don’t like hearing those four-letter words come out of my mouth.

I took the Super Sport Dolly to Crown Hill Cemetery on a chilly late-autumn day to finish the roll of film. I shot at stuff near and far and then sent the roll off for processing and scanning. I don’t want to throw the processor under the bus so I won’t name it, but they kind of botched the scans. They apologized deeply and told me to send the negatives right back to them for rescanning. And then their medium-format scanner broke. That was two weeks before Christmas. The lab owner told me a harrowing tale of scanner repair and re-repair, but promises that the scans are finally in the mail.

But here’s one photo from the original scans that turned out well enough to show that focus is pretty good at infinity. The faraway details are a little soft, but that could be part of the scans’ many problems. Click it to see it at full scan size.

32290007-proc

It also shows a slight light leak. See it there, on the right, about 4/5 of the way down? It’s faint in this shot but more pronounced in others. So now I get to try to find that leak. I’m betting it’s in the bellows. Mike tells me a bright flashlight in a dark room should find it, and a dab of black fabric paint should fix it right up. That job should be easy enough not to need any four-letter words.

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Cameras, Photography

Trying to repair a sticky shutter on a Canon EOS Rebel S

When I reviewed this Canon EOS Rebel S not long ago, two thirds of my test roll’s photos were mostly or entirely black. The shutter was clearly not firing properly. I said I thought it was failing.

Canon EOS Rebel SFellow film photographer Mark O’Brien left an incredibly helpful comment: “…the problem with the shutters is that the foam used as a light baffle in the shutter mechanism turns to a gooey mess and infiltrates the curtains. … So, it’s not so much that the shutters fail, they fail because they get gummed up by something else.”

I opened the camera to check, and there it was: a gooey mess on the shutter curtains.

I dipped a Q-Tip in rubbing alcohol and gently wiped the goo away. After the curtains dried I mounted my 50mm f/1.8 Canon EF II lens and loaded a roll of expired Kodak Max 400. What a perfect use for expired film! I shot la-de-da stuff around the house. The subjects didn’t matter — I just wanted to know whether my hacky fix restored the shutter.

The processed negatives arrived presently. I figured they’d tell me everything I needed to know, so I didn’t order scans.

Wolverine Super F2DMy fix seemed to help, but didn’t solve the problem entirely. One shot was partially exposed and the last six were entirely blank. And several shots looked to be severely underexposed. Could I rescue them in Photoshop?

I decided I wanted scans after all. I’ve loaned out my flatbed scanner, so I dug out my Wolverine Super F2D, a cheap film digitizer. It’s essentially a light table with a built-in digital camera. It yields noisy, soft images, but it works fast and is easy to use. I figured it’d be good enough to see how the images turned out.

It was. And I had my scans in about ten minutes. It reminded me of making a quick contact sheet in the darkroom. Here’s a lonely little purple petunia, with my gas grill in the background.

Petunia with my grill in the background

The Rebel S really wants the photographer not to be bothered with matters of aperture and shutter speed. It’s an entry-level SLR, after all. But it does let you scroll through all the aperture/shutter combinations that yield a good exposure in the available light. I scrolled it for the widest aperture I could get so I could shoot this coffee-table scene handheld.

On the coffee table

The Rebel S’s shutter never sounded very good to me, making a hollow clacking sound with each exposure. I wasn’t sure it was working at all. So I peered into the lens and fired the shutter to see if I could detect any shutter movement. I couldn’t, of course; how silly of me. But the Rebel S’s autofocus did its job even at close range. The puzzled/angry look on my face cracks me up.

Me

While these images are usable, they reveal flaws in the scanner itself. The Wolverine isn’t exactly a refined instrument. First and foremost is the light area in the upper left of each image. I can’t tell what causes it but my guess is a light leak in the film transport. Also, the Wolverine did nothing to correct a fairly stout lateral curl in the negatives, which distorts the resulting images. And when you view these at full size, the noise makes the images look like mosaics.

Focus

But at the sizes I’m showing them here, these images work okay. I bet they’d make acceptable 4×6 prints. The detail is good, though the colors are a little off. I can’t tell whether that’s the scanner or the expired film, though.

Tree

I couldn’t save any of the underexposed shots, by the way. But it was fun to see the images that did turn out.

I really want this dumb camera to work! Because, and it almost feels like telling a dirty secret to say so, I like using it. So small, so light, so easy. Such an about face from the big, metal, manual SLRs I normally love to shoot.

But I’m two for two on busted Rebels. Despite my irrational attraction to these cameras, I’m not sure I want to go three for three. I was browsing Used Photo Pro the other day and found a Canon EOS A2e body for $27. This is a big, solid, semi-pro SLR that retailed new for about $1,200. It arrived the other day*. So my EOS journey continues, just in a different direction.

* I need another camera like I need a hole in my head. I’ve been slowly selling off cameras I don’t use. Here’s my eBay page where you can see what I’m trying to unload right now.

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