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?


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.