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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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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.