The Challenges Of Buying A Used Film Camera

by Christopher Hosford

Anybody who is into old film cameras must know that acquiring one constitutes a delicate dance between hope and experience.

You say the local Goodwill has a dusty little Vivitar point-and-shoot for $1.99? But wait…there’s that nifty Olympus 35mm right next to it that, uh, kinda rattles when you shake it. And the antique shop up the road offers a lovely Art Deco Baby Brownie that looks in OK shape. But at $60 it’s no bargain, and uses hard-to-obtain film.

Here’s one online: “In perfect condition.” A bit further down the page, there’s this: “I know nothing about cameras,” and “No returns.” Hmm.

Lesson: Beware of Claims
When I was first trying to learn more about photography, I was attracted to what was termed a beautifully “restored” all-mechanical Ciro-Flex twin lens reflex. I love American stuff, and it went for $65 at an online auction site.

Yashica-ALesson: Check Out Seller Ratings
The Ciro-Flex was a horror. The “restoration” included funky green (not original black) leatherette that actually overlapped vital areas. The lovely white Ciro-Flex script on the face of the camera was painted over. And when I actually used it, the bellows crank broke after one roll of film, the resultant negatives were scratched by rusty rollers, and (judging by soft spots in the prints) the lens also appeared to be scratched. The seller refunded my $65 and sent me cost-free a less-upscale Yashica Model-A TLR. I guess he felt guilty, his seller rating was quite good and I’m sure he wanted to make things right.

Lesson: Be Happy With Good Enough
The Yashica A, by the way, works fine, and it continues to be a workhorse for me. So-called entry level cameras from good manufacturers can take great photos, so don’t get too hinky about bells and whistles.

Six-20 Brownie Model DLesson: Know When to  Fold’ em
Which brings me back to the Brownie, the ultimate entry level film camera. Inspired by some great Brownie photos online, I checked out online auctions and found a Six-20 Brownie Model D (1953-57 era). “Perfect condition” again was cited, but after running several rolls through this model from Kodak’s old English manufactory, it was clear that the lens either was scratched or was hosting a colony of fungus happily raising millions of offspring eager to matriculate to Kodak U. It is now a display piece.

Lesson: Check “Extra” Costs
Seeking additional Brownie experiences, I went for an earlier Six-20 Brownie Model C  (1946-53 era), also from England, priced at an unbelievable 99 pence (0.99 pounds sterling). How could I lose? I won the bidding, but when conversion to U.S. dollars and shipping fees were figured in, that one-quid camera set me back $26 U.S. of A. greenbacks. Youch!

Lesson: Enjoy the Wins
Sometimes things work out well. In my childhood my family had a Kodak Brownie Flash Six-20, and it took fine snapshots. I found one online for $6. This oddly shaped little tank seems indestructible, and takes excellent pictures. Later I bought an original Kodak yellow filter and close-up attachment just for this model. (I’m a nut about going stock. You’ll never find me pimping out my 1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk. If I owned one.)

Lesson: No Need to Gamble
There are reliable sources of old film cameras, such as shops that restore and sell them, and offer guarantees. But part of the fun is the thrill of the hunt. To grab a great Rollei for a song has got to put a zing in your swing.

Lesson: Cameras For All
I should add that many, many people buy cameras for reasons other than just picture taking. I know folks with hundreds of cameras, arrayed on shelves from every period of the great age of film. Here, perhaps rusty rollers or befogged lenses don’t matter. Historical gaps are filled, and wonderment is gained from red leather bellows, glorious mechanics, and superb hand craftsmanship.

Whatever your goal, keep up the good fight in your camera hunt. Don’t lose faith. Take the bad purchase with the good, return what you can, and stash the others in the bookcase where they will look fine.

After all, it’s just a camera.

From Chuck: Chris started and moderates the Facebook group “Kodak Brownie Fans“. I’m excited about Chris contributing his thoughts and ideas to this blog.

Images ©Christopher Hosford


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