Classic film cameras are a reminder of an era where technology and art came together to produce a household product at a cost affordable for all. From the early luggable wood objets d’art, to the last of all-mechanical cameras of the 80’s, there were thousands of models made, where most of them you may still get dirt cheap or at a moderate investment. To have a rewarding collection you may want at first to skip the Leicas and the Rollies, and to look instead at the vast selection of other, down to earth, classic cameras.
As with any collections, you may decide what direction to follow. Be it style, brand, country, era, or any other theme. There are many possibilities and endless combinations. However, most collectors begin with anything they can lay their hands on and with time focus on specifics.
There were only so many cameras made, antique, vintage or plain old. Most ended at the garbage heap when new technology overshadowed them. The rest are either at collectors’ and traders’ hands, and the last ones are slowly coming out of their owner’s homes. If there is ever a turning point as to when to get into collecting camera, it is now. After this round, a decade or so, all vintage cameras will be out, at much higher prices.
To begin with, collecting means acquiring. There are many sources to approach, and if you’ve deep pockets you may as well just begin at the top. Normally, most collectors come to be interested in a subject at a certain epiphany, where it builds up from there. Assuming this is the case, please see below where to look for the foundation of your camera collection.
Just a friendly note: avoid the Polaroids and cheap Kodaks. So many were made so even if your great grand children will follow with your hobby, these cameras will not be considered collectible. Same apply for cine cameras, although some are considered classics and carry some value.
Needless to say that if you are seasoned camera collector and already gone this path, we would love to have your notes.
A general note
You can buy the camera seen or unseen. Seen, there are many website that will explain at length how to check a camera, so we won’t go there. Unseen, it takes a trained eye to evaluate the purchase.
- Descreption – the more detailed it is the better your chances do land a decent camera. No reference to body or functions may get you a dud. ‘Untested’ should ring an alarm bell.
- Images, the more the better. if possible, compare the images to other of the same camera model. This way you may find if a limb is missing, which happens a lot with badly kept old cameras. You may also see the body condition.
Asking before purchase is not always possible, but if it is you better verify concerns beforehand. There is no use badmouthing a seller if a question beforehand could have eliminated the disappointment, and you will not get stuck with a sorry camera.
Comes to mind first as a quick and handy market place – flea market on steroids. As with any other purchase on eBay offers need to be well vetted. Read the description, and try to decipher it. There are many articles written about buying on eBay, where a good place to begin is Gisle Hannemyr’s article ‘Learn how to read eBay item descriptions’.
We may add to that:
- You get what you pay for. If it is offered for little and no takers, there is a reason you may not be aware of.
- Buyers often shun first time sellers. It is indeed a risk, but while others shy away you may get a bargain. The seller may want to build up positive sales trail, even at a cost of low selling prices.
- Watch pictures carefully. A side the camera that is not shown may have a blemish.
- Statements as ‘we are no camera experts’ and ‘not sure if working’ should draw your attention. It could be DOA.
- Avoid ‘buy it now’. Real bargains are snapped within minutes. Anything post older than an hour is not a bargain.
- eBay ads are shown worldwide. It is rare to find a bargain there. But if you are ready to pay the ‘right’ price it is a good place to buy.
- eBay sellers are there for a gain. A reserved – starting price not always represent the real value. Look for charity sellers, even at other countries. Camera prices there start very low, as any unsold camera becomes a liability for them.
- Dot be misled by high asking prices. eBay.com sees about 4,500 cameras posted daily in the film cameras and vintage cameras categories together. From there, only about 700 meet a buyer. What it means is that most cameras – six out of seven – remain unsold. Not sure what happen to them, either drop off the system or being relisted at better rate. What it really means is that rush could be costly.
As a side note – I believe that the merging film cameras and vintage cameras categories is long overdue, as there are hardly any new film cameras made. Both film and vintage should be classified as analogue cameras, as it is done in Europe; or simply lumped together under ‘film and vintage’.
- What is the right price – see our notes or consult our suggested camera prices.
- I have seen buyers paying tens of thousands for a camera offered on eBay. With buying an automobile one could rely on a third party inspection services. If the seller is other than an established and well respected camera dealer, I would have taken such sales with a grain of salt.
- You may use eBay alert service advise on a new listing, but it reports once daily. Alternatively, there are other online services, free or otherwise, that will alert you in close to real time so you could catch that ‘buy it now’ gem.
- An honorary mention: You may find unrealistic high prices in ads from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc and Japan. Sellers from the former East Bloc perceive the westerners to be awash with greenbacks, so quote prices accordingly.
In Japan prices for anything are higher than elsewhere, so they quote straight conversion of their prices.
Note similar cameras offered on eBay, the last one from Poland out to lunch.
What will you find there – anything and everything, from the bottom to mid-range, and any Polaroid ever made.
Craig’s list, Kijiji, Kleinanzeigen, Gumtree, dba, Qukr, or whatever name online classified boards go by around the globe. Much like eBay, but at your immediate locale to just haggle your way through. notes to consider:
- The aging boomers need to rid their lifelong acquisitions, so here is user-friendly and low cost outlet.
- Do not expect sellers or buyers to behave at your standards, or any acceptable at that. There are a lot of crazies out there, and crooks to boot. Common sense is paramount.
A personal case: some years ago we had a pickup truck rigged in a certain way, that didn’t fit us anymore. We ordered a new set of racks, and advertised for the old one on an online classified board. A polite person called and asked where can the truck be seen, which we told him. The very same night the racks were stolen.
- Online classified prices tend to be cheaper than eBay. There is no costs to eBay, so seller gets a better return. At one-on-one transaction cash changes hands, so no tax, if any. There are no shipping and clearing / customs charges if applicable, so buyer pays the amount agreed only.
As with eBay, real bargains are snapped at no time. If you feel a camera is offered at an attractive price, act immediately – the seller expects it. Tomorrow may be too late.
- If not immediately snapped, you may hold for couple of days and then counteroffer, when the seller is more likely to compromise.
- Bargaining in way of counter-offer is a common practice, save for cases where the asking price is decent. Just pay the price and go home happy.
- Look at what else the seller offers and get an idea of his price expectations. For a low-end seller, a buyer who is ready to shell substantial amount for vintage camera is a black hole, so you may press hard for a better deal. At the other end, a high end vendor will simply ignore low offers.
Look at item’s variety – a scavenger seller offers anything he / she can lay hands on, and will aim to offload it fast.
- A seller who knows his / her trade will most likely quote a price within reason. A two-bit merchant will throw any figure at you. Do your research ahead of time.
- The most annoying ads are the overpriced items and the ’please contact for price’. It’s either the seller is unaware of the market value, or is in search for the sucker on call.
- Save for common sense, there is no rule as to how to buy at online classified. Seen cases where an elderly seller asked $500 for a Canon AE1, reasoning that’s what he paid for it decades ago, hence its current value. At the same time, found an immaculate Contessa 35 for $20, the seller just wanted to get rid of it. No haggling needed.
- If you happen to find a nice expensive camera and suggested meeting place is at a street corner, it might be prudent to check serial number in advance lest it fell off a truck. An online search my help in finding hot serial numbers.
- Once you travel the countryside, a good practice is to look for such ads off the beaten track. A remote location will have only a few buyers and be priced as such.
- If you are proactive, a ‘want’ ad may dig out some passive sellers.
- As with eBay, the boards will alert you for a new listing, once a day. There are online utilities that may do same in real time.
- Unless you live in Andorra, Murphy has it that any nice antique camera that you may want is at least two hours’ drive away.
Minolta SRT 10 advertised for $500. Actual worth about 10% of this.
Another example – a $10 Pony offered at $90.
Olympus OM10 offered at $400. In a mint condition worth about a quarter of this.
What will you find there – a lot of Canons, Kodaks and Minoltas, dated from the 70’s onwards which are nice to begin your collection with, and a lot of point and shoot cameras that you may want to skip.
Thrift or second hand stores come in different names and support different causes. Either for profit on not. Homeowners donate anything and everything, if just to avoid dumping fee. Interesting observation – there are more charity thrift stores in the better-off parts of town than in the poorer, which shows that such stores are there for the donors.
Some stores aim to recycle their inventory fast. Here the old camera is just an item that uses shelf space, the faster it goes the better. Other stores hold it in high regard, asking for silly prices. Bargaining always work, don’t be shy. Some thrift stores hold a senior’s discount policy for certain day of the week, so one may recruit a silver haired friend for that. Ask for when they carry a special sales day – if the camera will not be snapped by others you will save.
How they price the old cameras is beyond comprehension. Seems that anything with bellows or a Nikon tag is marked up twice the lowly cameras. Common sense suggests that cameras should be cheaply marked and be sold fast – after all their direct cost is zero, save for overhead.
On the other hand, in many cases the camera comes with it’s owners bag, which is too much trouble for the store to throw away. You may find more than what you’ve bargained for – lenses, light meters, rolls of film and whatnot. There are fables about finding high value cameras on the shelf, never happened to anyone I know.
I suspect that the stores are in cahoots with camera or antique dealers, so the cream is removed and does not see the shelf. You may try and arrange such terms with the attendants.
What will you find there – Canons and Minoltas, with some added 70’s – 80’ European cameras and plenty Polaroids.
While is thought to be a good source for cheap finds, I don’t believe so. All decent old cameras, if any, are bought at daybreak. It takes an early start and sieving through a lot of junk, not metaphoric junk, to get lucky, if at all. Some are addicted to garage sales, so you may ask such a devotee to look on your behalf.
What will you find there – nothing of substance. Some old plastic cameras that were cheap at their time and are now worthless .
Local estate and downsizing online auctions
Following the ‘online everything’, there is a new online tool for estate clearance and senior’s downsizing. Local online auctioneers offer short term auctions, where bargains can be found. In theory prices should be better in such auctions, but not always so.
In most cases you are required to pick up the loot in person at a given date and time. For an out of town auctions you may hire a local shipper to collect, pack and ship to you, which adds to costs. Watch for auctioneer’s commission and local taxes. Maxsold is such an upstart. Look for similar ventures in your area, they are everywhere.
Same as with charity thrift stores, you may get bags full of goodies as a bonus.
Note for auctions: at eBay or major auctions houses you bid against the clock, so unless you bid really high you will lose to sniping. Some smaller auctioneers use soft closing, where in the last few minutes each bid resets the closing clock by another minute. This for sure eliminates sniping, but leads to annoying bidding war.
A Leica M3 auctioned on Maxsold. Caught in a bidding war, sold for some 20% over its value.
What will you find there – there are diamonds in the rough. Most stuff is whatever was bought on the cheap and yet was not discarded. With patience there are high end cameras to be found, not bargains though.
Rummage and charity sales
Good place to visit. You may find old cameras that otherwise would end up at charity stores or a garage sale, but several on one venue instead of running around.
Homeowner who will not be caught dead having a garage sale will gladly donate an antique camera to a charity sale. As with a garage sale, early start would help.
What will you find there – here you may score well. You are one-on-one with a seller – the charity – who is most likely unaware about what they offer.
‘Antique’, consignment and home decor stores
One thing is common to all – unreasonable / dumb asking prices. When an old Brownie bullet carries a $70 tag, and asking for a plain Agfa Ventura $250 (real cases), it’s clearly not the place to buy. Here sellers are used to converting worthless goods into glorified decor, at profit margins taken from the stratosphere. What is beyond me – an innocent buyer will not buy such ‘antique’ camera to begin with. A collector will not pay an exorbitant price. Go figure. What annoys me – the way the seller looks into your eyes and convinces you that his price is right.
What will you find there – a lot of box cameras, everything bellows, and the compulsory Polaroids. All that at prices that include the date and the street number. Don’t waste your time.
Depends which and where. Established – permanent – city flea market will always have a seller specializing with old cameras. It is more a tourist attraction or pastime place, rather than a place to buy anything of interest. You may pick up a cheap pair of jeans or fake perfume, but not a bargain camera.
On the other hand, a true flea market, such as at a remote rural area or in a small village in Kazakhstan, could be a place for good finds. Pity that camera collectors hardly get there.
In a flea market it is often an impulse buy, but subject to examination and the obligatory haggling – one could get a nice camera; though not something you ever thought of having.
Late addition to above – if you find yourself in Western New York, it may be worth your while to visit the Antique World and Flee Market in Clarence, just shy of Buffalo NY. It has two distinct seasons. Throughout the year, there are five large, barn size buildings, each divided into alleys of booths and displays where you may find an occasional nice camera. Prices are decent and there is a room to haggle.
In summer, May to October, the place lights up. There are dozens upon dozens of self-storage lockers, all full to the rim, which you can explore all day long. Moreover, on the first Sunday and third Saturday of the summer, the place becomes even busier, with many more ‘day traders’ setting up tables.
Although place is open six days a week year-round, closed Wednesday, it is best to visit on a weekend.
What will you find there – mostly the basics, entry level cameras with the occasional surprise. Sellers tend to know the value of their wares.
Today even toothpaste is sold online, so camera shows had lost their panache. Shows are less attended by sellers and buyers alike. In the past, a camera show was a busy event where today it is only shadow of that. Seems that same sellers are displaying the same wares, year after year. Prices are higher than market so unless you’re looking for specifics you may want to look elsewhere. The only advantage here that you can touch and test the camera. All that is if the show is in your neighborhood. It is really not worth the travel anymore. Search for your local camera show and subscribe to their mailing list. See Photorama for dates in the US.
What will you find there – everything, save for bargains.
Most communities still have the local weekly newspaper with local news and ads, where you may find a good butcher or handyman. Nobody reads that paper save for the old folks – head on your target market. Seniors who are not internet savvy still use local papers for sell and want ads. As earlier mentioned, you my insert a ‘want’ ad and something will for sure come up.
What will you find there – family heirlooms in search for a family. Prices would be in line with the sentimental value rather than the real one.
No bargains here. The best way to find the camera you are looking for is visiting a specialized store. Be it in a brick and mortar or virtual; the selection, quality and expertise make the difference. While on the wane, there are ‘real’ stores in most large cities. Else, a reputable online store would be as good, save for being unable to caress your new acquisition before money changes hands. The most aggressive are Pacific Rim or KEH, among others. Most camera stores have a presence on eBay. Here you may get a honest description and valuation of the camera offered, warts and all.
For specific cameras there are online fan clubs that buy and sell cameras within that brand. See our links page for more.
What will you find there – everything, if you know what you look for, and are willing to pay the price.
Online specialized camera auctions
This is from the toddlers to the big boys sandbox. High-end auction houses carry camera auctions several times a year. The Royalty of the auction universe are Westlicht Auctions, Photographica Auction and Auction Team Breker, where offerings are immaculately detailed, followed by excellent images and condition report upon request. Products offered here are not thrift store type cameras, but rare, expensive, most likely both.
Others, such as Special Auction Services, EPlive, Tennants or LPPhoto are less polished and welcoming. It takes more time and patience to navigate here, and with LPPhoto also assistance from Google Translate.
Further, most countries have local auctioneers selling collectibles and antiques, where cameras fit both categories. Catawiki Auctions offers ongoing auctions of low end cameras and accessories.
At the low end there are many – never counted them – local auction houses that sell estates, collections and just everything. Best is to subscribe to consolidators such as Invaluable, The Salesroom or Live Auctioneers. Bidding through them will cost you some extra points, but it is well worth the service. Here you will be advised about new entries and could partake in a real time auction via their online link. if the auction is other than online only, the present bidders will have advantage on you in seeing ans assessing the camera.
Note that above services will present you with worldwide sellers. So if you are in Oz and the seller in the US, you may need to either stay up late or rise early to participate.
Also, pay attention to house’ commission and local taxes, both could by high. If in another country allow for exchange rate and clearing / customs charges. Further, you’ll need it packed and shipped, which could be costly.
In the high end auction houses hammer price on collectors’ cameras could be ten folds higher than same camera at other sources, as exemplars offered could be in immaculate conditions or other special attributes. At the low end auctioneers it is a crap-shoot, you may get lucky, or not.
It is wise to register for bidding in good time before the auction, as at the auction time sellers will be too busy to accommodate latecomers.
What will you find there – whatever you want, if you could afford it.
Word of mouth
Same as most farms have a car in a barn waiting to be rediscovered, every boomer family has a vintage camera. Just mention it at any opportunity to anybody who lends you an ear. Camera collecting is uncommon, and most people will be happy to add their old camera to your collection, very likely for free.
Buying an expensive collector’s camera has some perils attached. There are fakes galore as well as cameras of suspicions origins. As stated earlier, it would be prudent to have the serial number beforehand and confirm that it is clean and true. There are specialized websites that deal with such information.
We do not endorse nor recommend any of the businesses mentioned here. All should be used for demonstration purposes only without recourse to us.