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.
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!