Buying Used Film Cameras and Lenses: What You Need to Know

So you found yourself browsing a local camera shop, a thrift store, or somebody's ad selling some neat used cameras. Everything seems to look great from the price to the condition stated by the seller. You went on to ask more questions, did your negotiations and now your hand in your pocket ready to pull the wallet. Hold up! Don't go rushing to buy it and consider doing a little more inspection.

I present to you a step by step list based on my personal experience to guide you from buying that used but lovely camera:

 All for my film lust. Leica M6, Fuji GS645S, and Nikon 35Ti.

All for my film lust. Leica M6, Fuji GS645S, and Nikon 35Ti.

1. Cosmetics

Who in the right mind would say no to a mint condition, 9/10 rating camera for a good price? No one. But whatever the seller has stated, you have to see it for yourself ‘cause you’ll never know. Looks could be deceiving. Mint looking cameras don't always equate to a 100% working piece. Be critical.

If you are looking for some old cameras and/ or lenses, lower your standards a bit. These cameras have gone through a lot so you have to expect scratches, wear marks, and dents here and there. As long as the camera is working, don’t worry too much about the cosmetics. Unless you’re planning to display this in some museum. If you really want a new-ish condition, you'll probably need to shell out a little more cash.

Just make sure that you thoroughly check the body for some major damage. Sometimes seller rate their products higher than they should be.

2. Check the Shutter speed

Always take time on making sure the shutter speed is right. Start from the fastest down to bulb or the other way around.

How do you know If it’s accurate? I have no Idea. Oops. I’ll leave it to you how you’ll find that out. Usually, I just base it on feelings. You’ll normally feel something is off when the shutter isn’t accurate. Some cameras have the shutter stuck on one speed only so be careful.

3. Check the Aperture

Just like the shutter, go through the aperture from wide open to the smallest. Make sure the lens’ aperture blades are closing smoothly.  The blades shouldn’t be loose nor get stuck when you turn the aperture ring. I’ve never seen cleaning marks on lenses but you should watch out for this too. These marks mean the lens had been dismantled before for some reason.  If I see oils in the blade I’d probably won’t buy it. It looks too sketchy for me.

4. Light Meter

If the camera has a built-in light meter, see if it works. I don’t usually take time checking this. Normally if it’s reacting to different intensities of light or when changing the aperture or shutter, I’m fine with it.

But if you really want to test it, here's a quick tip. Stop down your aperture to around f8 to f16 with shutter around 250-500. Point it towards a brightly lit scene and it should give you a more or less correct reading. Now, without changing the settings, point it on a very dark scene. Whether it's a needle, arrow, or digital, it will drastically drop and give you an underexposed reading.

5. Focusing the lens

Whether you are buying a lens or a camera with a fixed lens, always check if the lens is focusing correctly. Focus on different things you see, until you reach the infinity point. Make sure it’s accurate. I usually look for subjects that are at a distance that I know like 1 meter or 3 meters away from me then I will focus the camera on that object.  If the lens focus ring telling me it's at 1 or 3 meters, then it should be accurate. 

Lenses of fixed lens cameras, in my experience, have a little play to it when you move it side to side. So I suggest you make further research about the lens to body connections.

6. Lens dust/ scratch/ fungus/ dents & cracks

Ok, Let me get this out of the way first. Fungus and scratches are a no go! Unless it's dirt cheap and/ or you are looking for a unique look then fine, buy it. 

Moving on, considering the lens is old, having dust and some scratches are pretty much expected. Now, having dust and minor scratches on your lens will not affect the image it makes. I know this and I’ve shot a lens with dust inside the lens elements and I’ve also shot with a lens full of scratches and all photos appeared to be sharp and contrasty.

 A not so complimenting photograph of my late dog, Portnoy. Taken with a Canon Canonet QL17 Giii. Lens full of scratches but the image turned out really sharp.

A not so complimenting photograph of my late dog, Portnoy. Taken with a Canon Canonet QL17 Giii. Lens full of scratches but the image turned out really sharp.

Having said that, and having the experience shooting these kinds of lenses, I am more comfortable buying lenses with dust than lenses with scratches. My only reason is, scratches are permanent, dust are not. It's just not a comforting feeling. If you want to re-sell the lens, it’s easier to sell those with dust and it’s tougher to convince people to believe minor scratches will not show on their photographs. Plus they will low ball you so bad because of it.

7. Battery

This is actually a no-brainer. If the camera requires some batteries for it to work or at least for its light meter to function then ask the seller to include the batteries. You can bring your own if you already have it. It’s really important to test the camera with the batteries if it’s required because it’s the only way you’ll know if it's working.

8. Loose parts

Shake it and listen to it. Old cameras will probably have some loose parts which can be normal, so you should look (or listen) for the odd sounds that you think should not be rattling. Feel it with your hands for the loose parts. If it looks like that it can be tightened easily then that's fine. But if it looks like something could be missing or broken that is making the camera sound weird then you should really take note of it.

Oh, I'm not sure if this falls on to this category, but try to look for gaps or holes on the camera which may cause light leaks. Shine a light on every possible angle just to be sure.

 Shot with a Leica M4. Unfortuanetely, that camera leaks light from under the shutter curtain creating that streak of light fading down the photograph.

Shot with a Leica M4. Unfortuanetely, that camera leaks light from under the shutter curtain creating that streak of light fading down the photograph.

9. Ask for a warranty

Always ask for warranty. It’s an old camera and who knows when it’s time is up. Normally shop owners selling old cameras offer warranties for about 3 to 6 months. Some are generous enough to give you a year. Seasoned sellers might also give warranty for about a week. But people who just want to sell their stuff probably won’t. But just go for it. It’s worth a shot asking.

10. Hope for the best

Ok, now that you feel good about the camera and you actually have bought it already. The only thing you can do now is hope for the best because the only time you will actually find out if the camera is really working fine is when you’ve received your negatives back. If all photos turned out fine, congratulations! You have successfully bought a working new-old camera!

 Canon Canonet QL17 Gii and Leica M4 shot with a Bronica ETRS.  All mentioned cameras had served me well while I had them.

Canon Canonet QL17 Gii and Leica M4 shot with a Bronica ETRS.  All mentioned cameras had served me well while I had them.

That sums up the guide that I follow myself when I’m buying old film cameras. It works well for me and I sure hope it’ll do the same to you! If I missed anything or you want to share your own tip, please do on the comment box.

Now, give that old-new camera a go!