Sunday 8 August 2010

Things to Check when Buying a Second Hand Camera

Thrift stores, car boot sales, auctions, junk shops and flea markets are often good places to pick up vintage gear.

In my experience the seller usually has no idea about what is on the table and this either means the asking price is way over value (because the thing looks really old and collectible) or way under (because no-one uses these film cameras any more, it’s all digital now).

If you are after a working camera, then sadly the only true test of a second hand model is to run a film through and have it developed. However, there are a few things that you can check before you shell out that will reduce your chances of picking up a dud.

Firstly, look for fungus. Check the lenses inside and out. Dust is okay but fungus and moisture damage is a deal-breaker. If the lens looks like it has dampness inside it or a hint of grey/green growth, no matter how gorgeous the camera is, walk away - unless you are just after the body.

Are there any bits or buttons missing? typically, the delay switch lever may not be there (usually on the front of the camera to the right of the lens) although remember some models don’t have one at all. Also the rewind crank, and other rings and knobs on the top can be missing.

Get the back open and check inside. Most 35mm models since the 1970s open by pulling up the rewind knob, older models might have screws to loosen or a catch system. If you can’t get it open that’s a deal-breaker, too.

Look inside. The shutter curtains or leaves should be shut and not rusted open, torn or leaking any light at all.

Keeping the back open, cock the shutter (usually by winding on) and fire it off a few times. Does that sound snappy? Watch through the shutter and you should see out through the lens for a split second when you fire it off. Try different shutter speeds and use a slow speed or “bulb” (B) setting to get a good look through the lens from the inside of the camera. Slide the aperture ring round (if there is one) and make sure you can see the aperture closing and opening inside the lens.

With the back still open, check for light-tightness. Give attention to the seals round the door. This can be a black foam that gets worn away, but it is easy enough to replace. Some old cameras won’t have a sealing material but the door should still fit snugly enough when closed to exclude light.

For an SLR, take the lens off the body and have a quick look at the mirror. Is there fungus or damage there? A little bit of wear to the mirror is acceptable and optically negligible but reject if you can see an obvious problem. Fire the shutter again and watch the mirror. Make sure the cushions around it are not shot. Again a bit of wear is tolerable but if the cushions are breaking down you might need some repair.

For a rangefinder make sure that the bright spot is visible when you look through the viewfinder. Focus on a nearby object that you can estimate the distance to and then check the distance on the focus ring to make sure it tallies with your estimate.

A little bit of cloudiness in your viewfinder is not the end of the world but make sure it is usable.

Is there a built in light-meter? If this is the selenium type, then swing it towards and away from the light and make sure it registers a change. Battery powered ones are more tricky unless there are usable batteries in there, you might just have to take a chance on this.

Finally, if there are batteries, open the battery compartment and check for signs of corrosion. The connections could be completely wasted and this is a bad sign as the corrosion can go much deeper and this is sadly often the only thing wrong with a perfectly decent old camera.

All of the above sounds a bit complicated but practice on an old camera if you need to - they should only take a few moments. If you are reasonably satisfied with these checks, then start haggling! You are probably already more of an expert on the item than the person behind the table and if you can point out that the the light seal is a bit ragged, you might be able to knock the price down.

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