Cameras

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.

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Cameras

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?

BCSuperSilette

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.

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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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