Looking to buy a film camera are you? Want to pick up something groovy on the cheap? You’re at a flea market, antique store or your local Goodwill and you spot one...it’s right there telling you “buy me, buy me”?
OK, hold on. It’s easy to find film cameras on the cheap in places like this. Chances are the person selling it has zero knowledge of the camera. There are the rare exceptions, but this is the classic caveat emptor. Seriously, take a breath and give it a good going over first.
Film photography is taking off again for many reasons. Therefore, lots of sellers know this and will jack you on prices and quality. Or, they have no clue what they have so they price it over the top. Therefore, here are a few tips that I use personally when I shop for film cameras.
I’m a digital shooter professionally, but I still shoot film for giggles. No, I’m not talking about occasionally. I’ve got a film jones so I’m shooting film all the time. I’m buying film cameras regularly and have been screwed more than a few times with my purchases. Thought I would share some of my experiences.
First, I’m not talking about cameras you buy online or at a high end camera store or about Polaroid cameras. I’ll talk about those in a different post. I’m talking about film cameras you can actually touch and feel & where the seller is not a professional camera store. Secondly, I’m not talking to you film photographers that have experience with film types and developing. You don’t need my advice. OK here goes:
- Rule # 1 in my book - check the battery compartment. Most cameras have a battery. The compartment is easy to find and open. If there is more than a tiny amount of corrosion in the battery compartment don’t buy it. Most film cameras - especially newer one require a battery to fully operate. If the compartment has lots of corrosion the camera is toast or will require cleaning and testing. Unless it’s a super rare camera or for display only then don’t buy it.
- Check the price. Most film cameras are sold online, and it’s easy to check current prices. I’ve found the online market to be fairly good at pricing cameras. If you find a camera that is out of the ballpark on price, then don’t bother. There is no need to overpay.
- Determine the film type used in the camera. You can check this with a simple Google search or through experience. My recommendation is to stick with 35mm film cameras. If you have experience you can also go with 120 film cameras. Why?, because 35mm film is still made and readily available. 120 styled film is also still made and available, but you need to go to a specialty or a camera store to buy it. Unless you have experience I’d recommend you stay away from 110, 127 & 620 film cameras. The only reason I’m saying this is because of the availability of film and the availability of post processing. Also, I’d avoid Advantix film.
- If the camera has a film advance level, give it a try. This is for an SLR versus a point and shoot. If it doesn’t advance or is jammed, push the shutter release button. If the shutter doesn’t fire then the film advance is probably gummed up or jammed. Wiggle it around and try the shutter release button again. If “no joy” then put it back.
- Open the back and look at the interior & film curtain. If it’s clean and the shutter curtain (if there is one) is in good shape then this is a good sign. If it’s an SLR hold the camera up to the light, crank the film advance lever and push the shutter release. The curtain should open, the mirror slide up and you should see the lens opening. These are all good signs for an SLR. If it’s a point and shoot, open the back and press the shutter release button. If there is a battery in the camera or if it’s a very basic point and shoot the shutter should open. If not, this could be a problem.
- When you open the back check that it opens and closes completely and smoothly. If not you may have light leaks.
- Give the camera a going over looking for cracks / significant damage. It’s OK if there are scuffs and scratches. That’s normal for older, well used camera. It won't’ impact the quality. However cracks / seams that are open may let light in and ruin your film. If your camera has significant signs of wear and tear and cracks then it’s probably been abused and I avoid them.
- If you are getting an SLR with a removable lens then give the lens a good look. Is it clean? Is there minimal mold / scratches on the lens? If it’s clean then you should be good. Does the focus or zoom ring move smoothly. If the lens is damaged, things don’t move smoothly, the shutter blades gummed or has significant mold inside the glass then you probably want to avoid it.
- If you are at an antique store tell the owner than you plan to use the camera versus simply displaying it. Ask them if they have a return policy if you find the camera doesn’t work.
If the camera you are looking at passes these basic tests then give it a go. Don’t fret if you get a dud. It happens. Especially with newer cameras that rely more on electronics you really can’t test in field. Also, if it’s super cheap then what do you have to lose? I buy cameras from Goodwill regularly and give them a basic field check and they look OK. Even then I’ll come home and put in a battery only to find it’s a DOA. Oh well, it happens.
So go out there and get yourself a film camera and add it to your digital arsenal. You may totally dig it.