We all love hunting for bargains. There is nothing better than to spend a morning rummaging around a flea market in the hope of finding a nice old film camera at a bargain price. But with the cost of repairs high, what are the simple checks you can make when you are out and about to make sure you are buying a bargain and not a brick?
1. External Appearance.
The first thing to do with any used film camera is to check its cosmetic appearance. This will give you a fair indication of the life it has lead. Even a camera that looks superficially good will have tell tale signs of wear if it has had heavy use. Look particularly for wear on the corners, scratches on the bottom plate or shiny plastic where the camera has been rubbed smooth by use. Heavy dents and dings should also ring alarm bells and suggest the camera has had a hard life. While signs of use shouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker, it will give you some indication of how likely it is that the internal components are worn – and that is where you might find yourself footing the bill for expensive repairs in the future.
2. Check the Shutter Speeds and Winder
The most obvious check – does the camera fire when it is wound on? If it does, try various speeds, do they sound different? Pay particular attention to slower speeds. Any inaccuracy there will be more obvious, particularly if the half or one second settings are slow. Shutter speeds can’t be accurately tested without specialist equipment, but you can check for any huge issues. Also pay attention to the winder. Does it operate smoothly and does the tension feel correct? The wind on mechanism is a weak point in many SLRs so make sure it at least feels correct, even if you can’t test it with film.
3. Check the Lens
If you can remove the lens, hold it up and shine the torch from your smartphone through it. In most cases you will see quite a lot of dust, which is normal, but check as well for scratches on the elements, and fungus. Fungus reveals it self as a web-like growth on an inner element and will effectively destroy a lens if left there. Removing it is expensive and not worthwhile unless the lens is particularly valuable. Small scratches or marks won’t necessarily affect the performance of a lens but they do heavily reduce its value. This especially true of fixed lens cameras like TLRs or point and shoots where you cannot swap the lens for a better one later on. Once you have checked the elements try stopping down the lens to see that the blades are operating smoothly and there is no oil on them.
4. Light Seals/Shutter Curtain
Next, open the camera back. Cameras of a certain era, usually from the late sixties to early eighties have foam seals that degrade over time. This is the most common cause of light leaks. They become sticky to the touch and bits flake off, it should be easy to spot if you check carefully. Not only does this cause light leaks, bits of the seal can get stuck on your film and ruin your pictures. In most cases they are fairly cheap and simple to replace. However, if you spot them it gives you a bit of bargaining power when it comes to the price of the camera. If they haven’t been replaced, it is a fair assumption to think the camera hasn’t been used recently. In that case, it has probably been sitting in an attic for a number of years. While the back is open check too that there is no obvious damage to the shutter curtain. This usually appears as a wrinkles or fraying in a cloth shutter, or misaligned blades in a metal one.
5. Battery Compartment
If a film camera has been stores with batteries left in it, which is quite likely, there is a fair chance that the batteries have leaked and corroded the battery compartment. The acid from the battery can also damage internal components and circuitry which you can’t see. Check the battery compartment for signs of corrosion or recent cleaning. You can clean corrosion away to get a camera working easily enough. But do consider the fact there might be damage inside the camera that might lead to failure in the near future.
Look through the viewfinder and evaluate its condition. Dust can be difficult to clean out, and a dim viewfinder might indicate the reflex mirror is starting to corrode. If the camera is a rangefinder check the focusing patch is clearly visible. When you focus at something at infinity, check the rangefinder lines up properly.