I want to bring up some points about picking up used film cameras for cheap or not so cheap. These tips will be geared a little more towards those of you who are new to film photography or even photography in general. Some of these tips will apply to digital cameras also, but I find with most digitals, if they are broke they are broke.
This will not be an exhaustive list, but some hints and tips that you can apply to any camera you find. I will mention some specific models that I know and trade in, but again, the beauty of getting into
Keep in mind, for the most part, millions of these cameras were built, they are not rare, for the most part. I would hate for you to pick out your first camera and have it be a disappointing experience that puts you off film. Also remember there is no such thing as the perfect camera. Find one you like and work on just shooting that camera and learning how it works.
So with all that said, lets get to a couple of tips and inside tricks to picking up a great used film camera.
I have been buying/selling/collecting film cameras, mostly 35mm SLRs from the 60’s through the 90’s for about 2 years now. So let’s learn from some of my mistakes.
While this is easy to do with the internet, there are a lot of things that you need to be aware of before you spend your hard earned money on a new to you camera.
There are several different avenues for buying used cameras and I would like to take a moment to talk about.
The first of which is online, to include eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and camera forums/trade groups. I sell on Etsy but I haven’t bought any there, since the prices tend to be higher than I want to spend, since I usually buy to flip the camera back to the market.
If you are buying from eBay or an online seller (KEH.com for instance has a large selection of film cameras – they put the rougher ones on eBay) and you don’t really get to handle the camera before purchasing then you have to trust your instincts by looking at the pictures and asking questions via email. I find usually for the eBay listings, a lot of the cameras you will come across are being sold untested and as-is. This is usually not an issue, but the problem is that the seller usually doesn’t know anything about cameras (from estate sales).
They might list an AE-1 or FE as not working since they don’t know that the camera needs a battery to work. So again, you can take a chance with one of these. Or if you budget allows it then spend a little more to get a camera from a camera sales eBay site or a camera that has a CLA completed.
CLA stands for Cleaned, Lubricated, and Adjusted. If done right, these cameras are almost if not better than they were new. While the number of people who do this type of service is getting harder to find. I do some of the items from a CLA but not all. I usually can get a camera back to a very usable condition, but I try to keep the cost down
Great deals to be had if you are willing to take a little bit of risk. The market is getting hotter for used film cameras so the prices are starting to creep up a little.
Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are good in at least you can usually talk directly with the seller and they are more than likely the owner of the camera and can answer some questions about it. Again some trust is needed. And then when you meet it’s a good chance to check out the camera first before you pay.
Thrift stores also can have cameras, but I find it a little to hit or miss and the cameras tend to be a little rougher.
If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated camera store in town, it’s usually worth checking them out to see if they have a selection of used cameras.
(It’s a good idea to bring along batteries for the camera you are buying)
A lot of the tips I have will center around Canon’s late 70’s SLRs. Those are the bodies I tend to buy the most, since they are usually easy to get cheap and repair to sell at a profit. If you are looking for a camera for your own use. Then a lot of these tips still apply.
Look it over for any obvious damage/If the camera takes batteries you should check the battery compartment for the white powder that shows a battery has leaked. This can kill a camera. A little bit is usually able to be cleaned, but a lot is a no go.
Open the back to check the light seals and the shutter operation. Which is why you need the batteries. Some cameras, like the Nikon FE and the Canon AE-1 require a battery for the shutter to fire, the FE will fire in two speeds without a battery.
Take off the lens and look through it for any signs of fungus or deep scratches. Usually not the end of the world if there is dust/fungus. Stuck aperture blades are another issue.
While the lens if off look in the mirror box. Is the mirror down, for an SLR of course, if it’s not don’t force it down. If you put in the batteries and try to fire the shutter and the mirror still doesn’t come back down, it’s the sign of a deeper issue.
With the Canon AE-1, A-1, AE-1 Program there might be a squeal to the mirror gear. This is annoying and doesn’t usually affect the operation of the shutter, but can cause it to be a little slow. Just something to think about.
While in the mirror box you should check for the mirror foam, there should be some sort of padding for the mirror as it comes up out of the way of the shutter. The Canon has foam at the front of the mirror box, same with most Nikons. Olympus has a pad around the focusing glass.
With the lens back on look though the viewfinder, again if the mirror is down, and make sure the focusing screen is good. Some dust and debris is to be expected if the camera is in a little rougher shape. Which usually means it wasn’t stored very well. This isn’t a deal breaker and the screens can usually be cleaned with a simple blower blub.
(At this point I would also recommend buying a cheap camera cleaning kit on Amazon. With lens wipes, lens cleaner, blower bulb and lens brush.)
You can usually get a deal on a “dirty” camera that is pretty easy to clean up. Key is to not be afraid of doing a little work if you want to find a bargain. If you are looking for collector ready cameras, be ready to spend a bit more.
I can usually find AE-1’s that squeak and need a cleaning for around $50-80 US. On the flip side I can find them cleaned and serviced for close to $200. Depends on if you want something that is ready to shoot right out of the box. Same as buying a house, if your willing to put in a bit of work you can make some great deals.
As far as looking over the rest of the camera. Shake it, nothing should sound loose. Except the rings for the camera straps. Look at the bottom plate to make sure it looks like the screws for the bottom plate are where they should be.
I also recommend, for your first film camera purchase, that you stick with the major brands, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Pentax. Chances are that if you do pick up a camera that has a couple of “issues” that since they are the more popular ones that it is easy to find information online about what the causes might be.
Great starte film cameras are the Olympus OM-1, Canon AE-1/Program, Nikon FE, and the Pentax ME Super.
An Olympus OM-1 requires a battery that is no longer made. It can run on a modern version but the meter will be a little bit off. Probably not off enough to affect your photos, since modern film stocks are pretty forgiving on exposure, but it is something to be aware of. Also the battery compartment for the OM-1 is not well designed, well, not designed to last. It uses a nylon screw to hold the battery tray down. If the meter is acting a little strange (the needle jumps around) it usually means the battery tray is loose. Taking the bottom off the camera and putting a little glue to hold the screw together is not a bad idea. If the meter is not working at all with the battery, it usually means the battery wire is broken. This is repairable, but it is a difficult job. The good news is that an OM-1 only needs a battery for the meter, and will fire at all shutter speeds without a battery in the camera. You just have to be the judge of the light (not as hard as it sounds). There is a series of the OM cameras.
I recommend sticking to the single digit ones (OM-1,2,3(RARE),4) they are the pro level bodies but since Olympus is not as popular as Canon and Nikon, they tend to be a little cheaper. The double digit bodies like the OM-10 are consumer level cameras that are not built very well and tend to have more issues. There is an Olympus OM-G, which I want to buy because OMG!
Olympus lenses are also some of the best glass out there. And the camera bodies are incredibly small. I usually carry my OM-1 in my jacket pocket. The viewfinder is also really big and bright. If you are coming for a digital SLR, you won’t believe how good it looks.
Since they are less popular SLRs they also tend to run a little bit cheaper.
Another camera you should consider is the Nikon FE or FM. The only difference between the two is the FE offers Aperture Priority mode that the FM doesn’t. If you don’t want to worry about needing batteries or automatic shooting modes then the FM is a great choice. If you want the camera to help you out a little, then I highly recommend the FE. The batteries for this camera are really easy to find at any drug store/Walmart/Target whatever since it is a common watch battery.
These cameras were also very well constructed and usually don’t have any issues. The biggest thing I have found with the FE is that sometimes the shutter release magnets stop working. This means that the camera will only fire at two speeds, which is not ideal. It’s pretty rare. You can, and I am saying about 80% of the time, pick one of these up without any worries.
The Canon AE-1 series of cameras (AE-1, A-1, AE-1 Program) are great starter cameras. Millions of them were built so there are easy to find. They are still relativity cheap so unless you want to try to fix one, it’s worth spending a little more to find one that works or has been serviced. Keeping it on eBay to around $100-120 is a good range for a good one with a lens. Again, you have to be wary of the listings on eBay, if you are spending north of $100 I would steer clear of the ones that are “untested”
The Pentax ME Super brings along a low price and great features. It’s also one of the smallest SLRs, along with the OM-1. It has two shooting modes aperture priority and full program. I learned film on this camera and still have a couple that I shoot once in awhile. It does have a pretty strong mirror slap but it a great camera and the Pentax K-Mount has some amazing lenses.
Some other things to keep in mind when shopping for a camera
The lenses for the Nikons and the Olympus tend to be a little more expensive since they can be used on modern digital cameras, but the Canon’s use what’s called the FD mount (again 70’s SLRs) that only work with the non-EOS film cameras. So you can find great lenses like the 50mm 1.4 for less than $100 usually. That gives us a lot of things to think about when looking for a film camera. I would love to hear some of you stories about cameras you have bought. What deals have been found out there? Also a good place to start looking for cameras is asking around. If you have older aunts and uncles, parents, they might have a camera laying around in a drawer that might be a perfect start.