Buying stuff at flea markets and from thrift shops runs in the family. For some years now I find myself visiting shops and markets more and more often. Sometimes I think I should open a vintage shop and fully indulge into my passion for old stuff. While I try to be more minimalistic when it comes to stuff in general, I can’t resist (older) cameras. I’m writing this as I look at a Polaroid Image System camera I just purchased two days ago. Here’s what I learned on my hunts after vintage cameras:
Why buying vintage cameras anyway?
I like old stuff and things from the past. Old houses, all things you find in a museum, stuff from thrift shops – if it has a certain age I’m probably into it. It’s not about the things itself but more about the stories behind. I always wonder what pre-owned cameras would have to tell. All the places, people and things they must have seen. My camera collection startet with a Zeiss Ikon Box Tengor 54/15. It’s from the mid 1930s and I’d love to know who has owned her since. Which places was she at? What did she see from WW II? How many hands triggered the shutter release?
It is always said that photography is not about the camera but the photographer. I agree to that – in part. Because the camera IS a fun part of the game. I can shoot the same scene with my camera from the 1930ies, a compact camera from the 1980ies and my DSLR but the feeling will be totally different. I need a lot of variety in my life and continuity bores me to death so here I am with a lot of different cameras that don’t break the bank.
At the beginning, finding a camera at a thrift shop is the perfect (and cheap) start when you want to get into film photography. You can stop thrifting after you bought your first camera (haha!) or you can go on and buy some more. If you enjoy a good hunt you’ll probably end up with several cameras. Oh the joy, when you are in search of a certain vintage camera and then you see her, sitting on a table at the flea market. Waiting for YOU. You know it. Buy her!
A guide for thrifting cameras
- What are you looking for?
There are a few cameras which use film that no longer is produced. I bought a pocket camera last year and back home I realized that there’s no more film for it – it’s been discontinued. As long as you stick to 35mm and 120 film, you’re fine. Of course some cameras you can hack into using other film formats. Finding 35mm film cameras is more easy than medium format ones – and they are cheaper. The more open you are regarding brand and model, the more cameras you’ll find. #nobrainer If you already own a few cameras your hunt will become more specific as you focus on one or several certain cameras.
- Come prepared
Have some batteries with you so you can check if the cameras are working before you buy them. I’m not very well organized so I don’t always have batteries with me and have to skip this step. For manual cameras you don’t need any batteries for the first check.
- The price
Cameras at thrift shops or charity flea markets are usually a real bargain. You can get a good compact camera for about 5 to 10 Euro. Even if you use them once and then decide to give them away, you don’t loose a lot of money. If you come around a cheap camera, don’t hestitate and give her a try. Just be aware that something might not work properly since cameras from thrift shops are usually not tested. That’s fine if a camera costs 5 Euro but not if the vendor sells them for 50 Euro or more. That’s why I bought more expensive cameras like my Pentacon Six at a shop specialized in vintage cameras.
- Is it working?
Time for the inspection: How worn is the camera on the outside? Open it and have a look inside to see if something’s broken or missing. Also check if there is a lot of dust or fungus. Be careful not to touch the shutter curtain with your fingers. See if the shutter is working at any speed, keep the back of the camera open while you do so. Also make sure that the film lever is not stuck. Take a look at the lens, you should be able to move the aperture ring easily. If the camera has a battery compartment, open it to see if there’s still a battery in it. Worst case: the battery has oxidized and you can’t open the compartment.
- Know your sources
Unless you are an absolute vintage-camera-geek, you can’t know every single camera, what it’s worth, which film to use etc. And you don’t have to – all hail the mighty internet on our smartpones! When I’m not sure about the price of a camera at a thrift shop or at the flea market, I use my smartphone for a quick check. At CollectiBlend you can look up the value of different cameras. After that, you can also have a look at Ebay or similar sites and check the prices there. If you want to know which film or battery your object of desire needs, a simple search query in your preferred search engine will do. If you want to dig deeper, there are plenty of blogs with reviews of (vintage) cameras. I recommend to have a look at 35mmc and Japan Camera Hunter (there’s also a very useful guide to cleaning classic cameras).
All in all shopping vintage cameras is a lot of fun. Don’t be too dogged, prepare for disappointments every now and then but just keep a positive attitude. Have fun out there!