Buying / Testing a Classic Camera
Buying and Testing a (Used) Classic Camera
by Karen Nakamura
Over the past decade plus, I've bought more than a hundred classic cameras made from the 1930s to the 1970s with very few problems. I've also passed over at least a thousand cameras. I'm pretty selective. My Rules of Acquisition are that the cameras I buy/collect/use must be:
- Less than $100 (although I've broken this on more than several occasions)
- Use readily available film types (35mm or 120/220 medium format) - for example, I avoid 126 cameras like the plague, errrk.
- In full working condition
I try to use all the cameras I buy and sell the cameras that I don't use. If you're going to be collecting or using cameras, you should come up with your own Rules of Acquisition to help you narrow the field down. Only 1950s Japanese rangefinders, for example. By specializing, you can get a better feel for what's unique, what's available, what the general price should be, condition, etc. And having a price limit prevents you from bankrupting yourself.
Of my collection, my favorite street cameras are:
- Canon P (Leica screw mount rangefinder, focal plane shutter, manual metering). I use this for all around street photography. It's small enough that it fits in my pocket, even with a full assortment of lenses.
- Yashica Electro 35 GX (40mm f/1.7 rangefinder, leaf shutter, aperture priority auto exposure) and its more widely available older brother the Electro 35 GSN (45mm f/1.7)
- Olympus XA (35mm f/2.8 rangefinder, leaf shutter, aperture-priority auto exposure)
- Nikon FE (a small, compact SLR with aperture priority metering).
- Nikon S2 (a classic camera based loosely on the Contax rangefinder, focal plane shutter)
- Leica M3 (a classic 1950s rangefinder; focal plane shutter). The M3's widest frameline is 50mm, if you use a 35mm regularly you might prefer the Leica M2.
- Leica M7 (a contemporary rangefinder using a classic design; aperture priority metering, focal plane shutter). These are too expensive for most purposes.
I use a small Gossen Digisix lightmeter with the older, manually meterered cameras. With older cameras, I tend to buy rangefinders rather than SLRs. These are a couple rangefinder cameras I really wish I also had:
- Voigtländer Bessa R2: This takes Leica M-mount lens and goes for around $500 new for the body. Add a $400 Leica lens and you got a like-a-Leica for less than a grand.
- Minolta CLE: I stupidly let one of these go at an auction. The CLE is a Leica copy that has aperture priority metering. Darn darn darn.
- Olympus 35 SP: Everyone raves about these. Gotta see why...
Why rangefinders? I recommend getting rangefinders rather than SLRs. Why? Leaf-shutter rangefinders are usually much smaller than SLRs, much quieter, can be handheld at much slower speeds, flash sync at all speeds, focus in very low-light / low-contrast, are much more rugged, and are usually cheaper.They are less complicated and less likely to break. More evangelism. Even more members of the 60s~70s rangefinder cult.
Note that the famous Leica M and Nikon S rangefinders are focal-plane shutters and thus don't have all the advantages of the classic leaf-shutter rangefinders. But they do allow for interchangeable lenses, which leaf-shutter rangefinders usually don't offer. And the rangefinder design allows for better wide-angle lens performance. Even though Leicas are mega-expensive, modern Bessas and older Canon screwmounts can be found at a reasonable price.
Why non-metered cameras? Metering is usually the first thing to break. It's electronic. Batteries leak. Wires corrode and break. Non-metered cameras are less likely to have the problems that metered ones do.And it's one huge variable that you don't have to account for when purchasing. Is the meter dead or is the battery dead? With cameras where the battery electronically controls the shutter (e.g. Nikon FE, Canon AE-1, etc.) if your battery dies, you're dead in the water.
Remember: there are lots of cameras out there. By only buying ones that you are sure work, you'll always end up happy. If you're the least suspicious, don't buy it! Most camera repairs now cost >$100 even for something simple. You're almost always sure to come across a working version of the camera later on. Don't get too attached and stick by your rules.
You definitely should get a copy of McKeown's Guide to Antique and Collectible Cameras. They just announced a new 2005 edition.
I've managed to not have a single dud* by checking the cameras out extensively. Let's divide the tests into sections:
* This is no longer true. I arrived at an auction late with only 5 minutes to inspect the cameras. That was when I got a camera model that I wanted for only $50, but it suffered from a sticky shutter and internal lens grime, both of which I didn't catch until I got home with my winnings. It cost me $110 for repairs. Always arrive early for a thorough inspection! (Then again, I got a $400 camera for $50 + $110 in repairs = $160.)
Dirt, dust and fingerprints are acceptable. Wipe them away with your microcloth and steam from your breath. If there is dirt or dust in any of the internal lens elements, then you or a repair person will have to take it apart. Until you get more experienced, I'd pass on it.
- Is the lens clear and free of scratches? Any haze or clouding? Bring a microfiber cloth so that you can check to see if the clouding is just atmospheric pollution or something more serious. Use your breath as wiping fluid. Light scratches are acceptable. A worn anti-reflective coating is pretty bad.
- Is there any sign of separation? Separation is when two cemented lens elements start to separate. It looks like a iridescent or rainbow shaped crescent on the sides of the lens elements. It can also look like faint white lines. Very bad.There's no easy way to fix lens separation.(OK, you can separate them, get rid of the old glue residue, and then glue them back together with balsam or UV-setting glue, but it's very very very very hard [i.e., expensive] to get them optically centered again).
- Fungus looks like fine spiderwebs or mold spots on internal lens elements. This is usually very bad. Fungus secretions are acidic and actually eat into the lens. If you can get the lens taken apart and cleaned quickly, you might be able to repair the damage, but things are usually grim.
- Any white spotting? Spotting is caused when the lens coating breaks down. The Minolta CLE 28mm lenses are famous for this. It usually happens on the periphery and isn't critical unless it migrates to the center.
- Are all of the lens elements actually in place? This take a little bit of experience to notice that a rear element is missing, for example. I notice this a lot in very old Kodak folders. You have to have experience though. Sometimes very old cameras (pre-War) used simple meniscus one element lenses, so all you see is all you see!
- Try all of the shutter speeds. The slow shutter speeds are usually the ones that have problems. Count "one one hundred" to see if the 1 second shutter speed works. Is the 1/2 shutter speed about half of that? Any problems usually reveal themselves quickly. Shutters are expensive to repair (~$100-200). Very bad.
- Leaf shutters occasionally become "sticky." This is usually caused by some idiot trying to repair them by putting watchmakers oil on them although occasionally oil will migrate to the leaf shutter from the lens helicoids. Leaf shutters and diaphragms are almost always "dry" lubricated and shouldn't have any oil on them. If you take the lens apart, you could clean it with naphtha, but this is more a pain that it's worth for sub-$100 cameras.
- To test a sticky shutter, be sure to release the shutter in every position possible. Sometimes the friction only reveals itself when the camera is upside down or pointing downwards, for example. But you might say, I never shoot upside down! Nevertheless, the friction is always present and will throw off the timing even if it doesn't actually cause the shutter to stick.
- Leaf shutters are often sluggish from disuse. They might "warm" up if you release them a couple of dozen times. You might look stupid, but the huge grin on your face when you realize a "broken" camera in the $5 junk pile is coming back to life is worth it.
- Many cameras have bizarre shutter interlocks to make sure you don't double-expose pictures. Some can be unintuitive. See the Kodak Retina or Zeiss Ikoflex for example.
Focal plane shutters
- All of the above recommendations for leaf shutters apply.
- Make sure cloth shutter curtains are clean and are free of any pinholes caused by an idiot pointing the camera to the sun without the lens cap on. Point the camera at a bright light with the back open and make sure it's light tight with no pinholes.
- Make sure the shutters are free of any tears or folds. Some lightweight steel, brass or titanium foil shutters (such as the Canon rangefinders or Hasselblad 2000 series) are renowned for their fragility. An idiot can easily stick his or her thumb into it, and crinkle the curtain.
- Rangefinders and TLRs are much less apt to have diaphragm problems because the diaphragms are always "hard wired" into their settings and do not move when taking a photo. SLRs have many more diaphragm problems because the diaphragms must be wide open for focusing, then at the moment of exposure the diaphragm must automatically stop-down before the shutter releases. This mechanism tends to be problematic.
- Diaphragms like leaf-shutters become sticky with oil problems. Set the diaphragm to its smallest aperture (f/22 or f/32) and the shutter speed to "bulb." Look directly into the lens and make sure you can see the diaphragm close down at the moment the shutter opens. Try this several times.
- With Pentax mount lenses, take the lens off the camera. Set the lens aperture control to 'Auto' and set the aperture to f/22 or small. Push the small tab on the rear of the lens several times to make sure the lens closes down smoothly and with no hesitancy. With other lens mounts, you can usually figure out which nubbin or cam causes the diaphragm to close down. Check from the rear to make sure there's no oil on the diaphragm blades.
- Selenium cell meters were used in cameras in the 1960s and 70s. They were great because they didn't need batteries as the selenium produced its own electricity like a little solar cell. You can recognize selenium cell meters because they are quite large (usually 1 cm x 3 cm) and usually have little bulbous plastic lenses that help concentrate the light on them. The "selenium cell" look was considered so high-tech at the time that cheapo cameras even had fake grey gridlines on them to imitate them!
- Unfortunately, selenium degrades with sunlight and humidity. Unless your camera was stored in a bag or in its case or unless it had a selenium cell light shade on it (such as the Contaflex IV), the selenium sell is almost always shot. My Contaflex IV and Yashicamat are OK (although nonlinear) but my Bessamatic is shot.
- Selenium is also nonlinear. In essence, you can't really trust a selenium cell. Don't stress if your camera meter doesn't work. Just get a good external meter.
- In the 70s, CdS (cadmium-sulfide) became the rage. The Pentax Spotmatic was an early adopter. These cells vary resistance based on sunlight. They could be made much smaller. If your camera has a 5mm (1/4 inch) little lens or hole to measure aperture, it's CdS. If you have TTL metering (Spotmatic, etc.) then it's CdS. These types of cells do not degrade with time so you're in luck if you have one.
- The downside of CdS is that you need a battery. That's bad enough but most 1970s cameras used a mercury battery called the PX625 that is no longer being made. You can purchase replacements such as the Wein though or modify the camera to use modern alkaline or silver batteries. I have a page that deals with replacements for mercury batteries.
- With a CdS camera, test out the camera fully. Ask the owner if you can go outside with it. Set the camera to ASA/DIN 100. Make sure your outdoor reading is about f/11 ~ 16 at a shutter speed of 1/100 or 1/125. Go back indoors. The reading should drop by about 4 stops.
- With most CdS systems the common breaking points are:
- battery dead. Unfortunately it's hard to tell if the battery is really dead or if the electronics are shot. Most mercury cells last over a decade with light use.
- battery leakage. Open the battery compartment and see if there is any gunk in it.
- analogue match-needle cameras are very susceptible to damage caused by shock. Hold the camera upside down and make sure the needle doesn't go floating awol.
- Open the back and release/wind the shutter a couple of times. Make sure all of the film transport cogs are working.
- Look at the film rails and run your fingers along them. Make sure they are free of scratches, burrs, or abrasions that could damage your film. More than one camera has been tossed into the Goodwill bin because it was scratching up film. Don't be the one who buys it back! That being said, burrs can be fixed with 3000 grit sandpaper from your local car supply store.
- Is the back light-tight? This is easily repairable so it's not an automatically killer. Make sure the foam hasn't reverted back to gunk.
SLRs: Reflex mirror and focusing screen
- The reflex mirror is quite a complicated mechanism. Make sure it goes up properly when you hit the camera release.
- Many pre-1960 era cameras did not have auto-return mirrors. That means the mirror does not come down automatically after taking a photo. The viewfinder goes "dark" when you take the photo. This is not a BUG it's a feature. Well, they hadn't figured out how to make an auto-return mirror yet in the 1950s. So if your camera goes dark, don't freak. Wind the film/shutter and the mirror should go back up. If it doesn't, toss it.
- There will almost always be lots of gunk on the focusing screens and mirrors of older SLRs. Ignore it, it won't hurt you. Cleaning it almost always causes more problems than its worth.
All of these tests should take only around 10 minutes to run. I do all of mine in the store / dealer / garage of the person I'm buying from. They look at me weird, but I'm able able to avoid most absolute duds. But here are the worst things that have happened:
- Selenium cell non-linearity. My Yashicamat and Contaflex IV both have meters that "work" in that they respond to light, but the metering is pretty non-reliable.
- Lens imperfections. My Voigtländer Bessamatic is in great condition but the photos lack sparkle. The lens are clear so I'm not sure what's causing this. It's most probably just a symptom of a consumer-camera of the 1950s showing its age. My Zeiss Contaflex of the same era just shines. Sigh. Can't win them all.
- Leather rots. So the cases are in much worse condition than the cameras. But that's better right? Who wants a ratty camera in a clean case? Better the other way around.
- Getting the bug. One year, I purchased over fifty cameras. Not sustainable.
Dealers on the Net
I don't recommend buying used cameras on the net (including ebay) unless the seller allows you an inspection period because of variances in what "mint" and "working" means. However, the dealers below have shown themselves over the years to be anything if not conservative in their ratings, i.e. what KEH calls "good" is usually what an ebayer would say was "Exc++++++".
- KEH - the granddaddy and perhaps largest of used camera stores
- Tamarkin - specializes in Leica
- Acme Photo - specializes in Leica
Scams on Ebay