I Still Shoot Film’s Guide to Buying Used and Vintage Film Cameras

So, you want to buy a film camera… you may think that they are no longer manufactured, but you would be mistaken. Fuji, Leica and Hasselblad are just a few of the companies that still manufacture film cameras - even if the latter may cost you your first born child after refinancing your house. Now is the perfect time to snag up as many film cameras as possible, while people are upgrading to digital and 35mm isn’t old enough to be considered “antique.” You would be surprised how often you can find great film cameras for a couple of dollars… I believe I paid $2.50 for my Moskva 5 and it’s one of the cameras I use the most. Purchasing used and vintage film cameras may seem intimidating if you are not familiar with them, but it’s actually easier than you think. First you have to remember: if you don’t buy the camera from a dealer or shop, there’s always a risk of something being wrong with it, even if it looks perfect. That’s a chance you’ll have to be willing to take. But let’s consider these important points:

First, ALWAYS stop at thrift stores. No matter where you are. I have found cameras in the following extremely obscure places: Cape Cod, MA, Owensboro, KY, Carthage MI, Culpeper VA and even the Jersey Shore. I have also found cameras in bustling tourist markets in Paris, New York, Barcelona, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh. Whether or not a place seems like it would have vintage cameras is irrelevant; always keep your eyes open.

If a camera is less than 5 bucks and it’s not in shit condition, buy it. Who are you kidding? You know you want to, so why bother playing this game with yourself. You can always take it apart and use the pieces for a super cool camera hack.

If you go camera shopping at flea markets, GET THERE AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. Seriously, I am that person who shows up at 7:00 am, buys every camera for sale and leaves before anyone ever even knew there were vintage cameras available. I have gotten TONS of super fabulous cheap cameras like this, including my Kodak Retinette, Dacora-Matic and Zenit-E.

When you are considering buying a camera, start by looking at the body. Normal wear and tear is no biggie but these are the things you should look for in a working camera:

  • a smooth shutter advance
  • a back that fully opens and closes
  • shutter pops at all speeds (open up the body and watch the shutter pop to make sure, I usually pop the shutter at least 10 times to verify it’s working properly)
  • you can easily slide the aperture ring
  • you can easily adjust the shutter speed without the dial getting stuck

On top of these, it is also important that:

  • the interior of the body has no mold or fungus
  • the lens is free of mold and fungus (very small spots on the lens are okay - they’ll give your photos a vintage touch, but if you look through the lens and it’s cloudy, blotchy or you can clearly see foreign matter, it’s a no-go.)

On another note, beware of people selling their cameras for over $50, and even at $50 it should be a kit with multiple lenses or extra accessories. If someone tells you their camera is worth x amount and they’re not willing to bargain, walk away. I’ve seen my beloved FM2 for sale for under a hundred bucks and it makes me sad, but film cameras are not worth what they used to be. *Obviously, this does not apply if you come across a magical suitcase of medium format Mamiyas or something glorious like that.*

These are the main things that I have looked for and it hasn’t failed me yet. You can also get great deals by buying a body with a damaged lens and then a damaged body with a clean lens and swapping the two (obviously they need to be the same model, but it’s easier to find than you think; I once saw 5 Canonets in the same flea market).

That being said, I now release you into the wild to buy your own vintage cameras. Feel free to submit any babies you find :)