Do you love those vintage cameras you see on ebay, at antique malls and flea markets? Do you want to know what to look for and what to avoid? How can you tell the real condition of an old camera? Read this guide for some valuable tips.
"Vintage Cameras." That really covers a huge subject, because photography has been with us since the mid 1800's and many millions of cameras have been made in a wide variety of forms. The most common are rarely worth more than a few dollars, while some very rare models of desirable brands such as Leica can be worth as much as a luxury home.
First and foremost, if you have a strong interest in collecting vintage cameras, you need to buy the bible of the hobby, McKeown's Price Guide to Antique & Classic Cameras. This is a big, $100 book that lists tens of thousands of vintage cameras along with historical information and price ranges. Although there is a wide variation in prices, McKeown's can give you a fairly accurate idea of how rare a camera is and what you can expect the value of the camera to be. Be warned, though, that many of the values don't reflect modern markets like ebay, and most real values are lower than the book values. Very high demand cameras, though, and reach much higher prices on ebay than those listed in the book. The greatest value of McKeown's book is to help you identify old cameras and who made them, which adds a lot to the collecting experience.
The oldest cameras are made from wood, and used early imaging processes such as Daguerrotype, tintype, and wet plate collodian. Very early cameras, especially Daguerrian, are museum pieces and can easily reach five or even six figure prices. All these cameras were designed for use by professionals, tend to be made from very high quality materials and are built for rugged field use. Often, these vintage cameras may show a lot of use. I recently appraised a Daguerrian camera from the American Civil War era that to the untrained eye would look like a very dirty, broken wooden box. It sold for over $6,000. As a collector, that means you should never assume that a very old and damaged camera has little value until you consult an expert! Also, you should always work with ethical appraisers and pay for their services. An ethical paid appraiser will NEVER offer to buy your antique or collectible item. If they do, you should ask for your money back and refuse to deal with them in the future. Someone who offers to buy items they appraise is a dealer, not an appraiser, and the value they quote will be deceptively low.
Now back to the history lesson. George Eastman revolutionized the photography industry in the late 1800's with the introduction of the Kodak, a camera using roll film instead of glass plates, and as the 20th Century begins, a wide variety of roll film cameras, almost all 'box type' appear, and the box camera persists today in the form of disposable film cameras. Box cameras are by far the most common vintage camera forms, and were made by the tens of millions. You should always guard against overpaying for box cameras, because most are not worth more than a few dollars. The earliest box cameras can be very valuable, though. This is where a book like McKeown's pays for itself! Some can surprise you though, especially the versions that were made for World Fairs, comic characters, promotional use, or commemoratives. A very common and virtually valueless plastic box camera sold at a World's Fair and in the original box can command $500 or more, quite a change from the usual $2 value. Also, one of the prototypical early box cameras, the Kodak Brownie, has a box that is so unique and attractive that the box sells for hundreds of dollars-- far more than the camera.
That brings us to a short side trip-- the Box. Boxes for typical consumer cameras of the 1900's are really not that rare, especially for quality brands that made stout boxes. A collector will pay more for a clean camera in a box though, but don't be tempted to overpay. For instance, a common box camera like those made by Agfa might be worth $5 or $10 in clean condition, but some dealers think the same camera in the original box is worth $75. Not so!! $10 to $15 is more like it. One of the big exceptions is very high demand, high-end collectible camera such as Leica. Most early Leica components and boxes are worth money, and camera boxes are very rare, so boxes for early Leicas are actually rarer than the cameras and can command high prices from serious collectors. Once again, when in doubt, take the time to do some research and consult experts.
Now, back to the cameras. The folding camera is another common form of late 1800's and early 1900's cameras. Most used roll film, glass plates or sheet film cartridges. Most of these cameras could focus, and many were upscale models appealing to professionals and serious amateurs. Camera technology was improving during this time too, and we start to see more complex models such as single lens reflex cameras like the Graflex. Camera sizes are all over the place, with tiny models that can fit in a shirt pocket up to huge boxes like the Graflex, little cardboard box cameras like the original Brownie up to huge 11X14 or even larger studio cameras. Things to look for in folding cameras are high quality materials, gold plated metals, and lots of features and adjustments. Exotic cameras such as stereo, tropical models and panoramic cameras are prized. Tropicals are very striking, usually made from teak with eelskin bellows and gold-plated metal parts. The wood is rarely covered by leather (which would rot in a tropical environment) and the eelskin bellows are a beautiful milk chocolate brown. Early panoramic cameras were wide box cameras with a rotating lens inset in a panel on the side, and stereo cameras (most often box or folding style) were also popular exotics. Metal cased folding cameras are later models than the boxy wood folding cameras, and there is a transition period where some folding cameras had the rounded ends typical of all-metal folding cameras, but had wood bodies with metal film backs. With earlier, boxy folding cameras, especially Kodak, look for red bellows and wooden lens boards. These are the earliest models and fetch the best prices. A fairly common but clean model like the Folding Brownie Model 2 with wooden lens board and red bellows can be worth $100 or more and makes a very attractive display.
As film stocks inproved and film got smaller, the Leica camera marked an evolutionary change that happens in the late 1920's with the introduction of the 35mm rollfilm camera. The familiar 35mm film cartridges didn't appear until after WW-II, so the early 35mm cameras use a variety of film holders. When looking at these early 35mm cameras, make sure that they have the empty reels or film cartridges in the camera if you plan to use the camera with modern 35mm film. It's easy to load your own early cartridges in a film bag or darkroom and these cameras are a lot of fun to use. The success of these small cameras created a flood of competition, and most are very cheap and basic cameras.
With better film, cameras also became smaller and smaller. In the first half of the 20th Century, most prints were made by the contact process, where the print paper was pressed against the film negative and exposed to light. This means that the negative size determined the print size, and if you wanted larger prints, you bought a larger camera that used bigger film. With the new popularity of small formats like 25mm and 127 roll film, print labs started using enlarging machines to produce bigger prints, and this helped cement the popularity of the small formats. As we move into the 1960's, what is considered "medium" format by today's standards (used almost exclusively by professional photographers) began to disappear.
The 1960's also marks the change from viewfinder cameras to single lens reflex (SLR) 35mm cameras, which reached maturity in the 1970's and became the standard for quality amateur photography. A flood of consumer-priced SLR's hit the market during this time and most of the SLR's produced from the mid-1960's through the 1970's are solid, basic designs of very high quality that continue to be useful today. One noteable exception is the famous Zeiss name, which dropped out of the camera market in the early 1970's. While Zeiss lenses were of high quality, the cameras suffered from quality problems and it's rare to find a working Zeiss camera from this period. Most, though, can be repaired and reconditioned.
A popular side market of the 1960's and 1970's are the half-frame and compact 35mm cameras, which used only half the 35mm frame and doubled the number of images on each roll. This was attractive to customers because the new color films were expensive and they wanted small, light snapshot cameras. Some of the small and half-frame cameras are very high quality (like the Olympus Pen half-frames and the Rollei 35 full-frame compacts, and are very usable cameras even today.
The 1990's is the era of the electronic autofocus camera. This can be a problem for users because many of these early high-tech cameras have very poor autofocus performance by today's standards and also suffer from problems with the electronics. If you want to shoot pictures with one of these early AF cameras, you need to test it carefully before purchasing, and avoid the camera unless it has a full return guarantee or you can test it.
In general, the rapid increase in electronic content starting in the 1960's also results in cameras that don't work properly. Typically these cameras have uncoupled electronic meters, and you can use such a camera even if the meter is broken by metering with a hand-held meter or another camera. However, the "automatic" camera also became popular and unless they include a manual mode, broken electronics render these cameras unusable. The earlier electronics can be fairly robust, though, and I have a number of early automatic cameras that still work well and are fairly accurate.
Here is a quick guide to checking out any camera, and it is oriented towards those who want to shoot pictures with a vintage camera:
1. What imaging format does the camera use? Can you still get film? Of the old sizes, only 120 format roll film and 35mm cartridge film is still commonly available. Professional sheet film cameras are the exception, because you load your own film holders and it's straightforward to cut down the available sheet film sizes to fit in obsolete film holders, or simply use modern film holders.
2. What is the overall condition of the camera? Broken wood, mildew or mold, obvious water damage, torn or worn bellows (most common on the corners) and lots of dirt are all conditions that greatly affect the value. Any condition that allows light to leak into the camera makes it unusable, but things like worn bellows that are relatively intact are fine for a display camera.
3. Look at the lens. Many old box and folding cameras do not have a lens in front of the shutter, and sellers often think the lens is missing. They generally discount the camera because of this, which is a good illustration of the cost of ignorance. Older lenses (before WWII) do not have optical coatings (which have iridescent colors when looking that the lens) and should be clear and clean. If you can open the back of the camera, look at the lens with a light source shining through. Look for separation (breakdown of the cement that hold lens elements together) which looks opaque and begins around the edges first) and mold or fungus. Fungus inside glued elements can't be cleaned off, and the lens will not be usable. Fungus usually looks like splotches, spider webs or trails and lines across the lens, and seems more common with coated lenses. It's another condition that is more or less impossible to correct, and cameras with fungus should be avoided because the fungus can affect other equipment when you store them together. It's important to open the shutter and lens diaphragm and look through the lens when looking for fungus because it often forms only on the lens elements inside the camera and behind the shutter. I once purchased a twin lens reflex camera that was mint on the ouside but then had to replace the inside lens element because it was clouded by fungus. Buyer beware!!
4. Check the shutter. Older shutters are very simple. Some designs are surprisingly good and still work reliably after even 75 years or more. Older cameras often have only one, two or three shutter speeds but usually include a bulb (B mark) or time (T mark) mode for long exposures. Bulb means the shutter stays open while the shutter lever or button is depressed. Time mode will open the shutter with the press of the shutter release and then close it with a second press of the release. Time mode is excellent for checking the lens for problems. More modern cameras (especially 35mm cameras) use various forms of focal plane shutters, and these older cameras are generally plagued with shutter problems. You can open the backs on most SLR's and fire the shutter. These cameras will have a shutter that moves horizontally across the film gate, and generally the shutter moves at the same speed but varies the gap between the two shutter panels according to the speed setting. Slower shutter speeds will yield wider gaps. When rewinding, there should never be any visible gap between the shutter panels, and there should also be no rips, tears or holes in the shutter. If you are buying a classic camera to shoot images, also make sure you have an inspection period so you can shoot a test roll of film. Often, cloth shutters have pinholes in them that result in a pattern of white spots on the print. This problem can usually only be repaired by replacing the shutter. Check for pinholes by opening the back of the camera and the aperture in the lens, point the camera towards a very bright light source and hold the shutter open on bulb or time mode. You'll see light coming through any pinholes in the shutter.
5. Check the light seals. Older cameras usually have rope or mechanical seals that hold up well with age, but cameras from the 1970's through 1990's are famous for using a black foam rubber that deteriorates with age and turns into a black, sticky goo. You can replace these seals yourself but it's a time-consuming, messy process and bad foam seals should always be a reason to pay less for the camera.
6. Check the film transport. This can be a difficult on some cameras because many of the vintage cameras have complicated systems and interlocks which make the system hard to check. Some transport systems also have internal mechanisms that require film to cock the shutter (common on small 35mm cameras) so winding the camera may not cock the shutter. Many cameras have elaborate interlock systems and often you simply need to experiment with a new model to discover how the winding system works. I once purchased a very nice Rolleiflex model at a bargain price because the seller was convinced the shutter didn't work.
7. Exposure metering system. Here's where you have the biggest problem with vintage cameras. Starting in the 1960's, many cameras had built-in electrical or electronic metering systems, and until the mid-1980's, almost all relied on mercury batteries. Because of pollution, these batteries are no longer widely available (not at all in the USA) and there may simply be no way to test the exposure metering system when looking at a camera. If the camera is being sold as a usable picture taker, you need to make sure the seller offers a full return guarantee if the camera does not have a working battery. Many of the cameras are automatic models that will not work without a battery and you should probably consider such cameras as collector's items and devalue accordingly. Some others have automatic modes but also work well in manual mode and can be used with external, hand-held light meters.
8. Look for accessories and kits. These can add a lot of value to a camera, especially those with detachable lenses. Extra lenses, special viewfinders, fitted cases and bags, special viewfinders, external meters, stereo adapters, lens hoods, sports viewfinders-- all of these items add value to the kit. For example, the ubiquitous Argus C3 "Brick" 35mm camera was made in the millions and are rarely worth more than a few dollars, but later models had interchangible lenses. A full kit with box, extra lenses, special viewfinder, flash and case in good conditions can fetch ten, twenty or even thirty times the usual $5 for a brick.
There are literally hundreds of other points to consider in looking at vintage cameras and most come with experience. Remember, though, that the values in camera guides are generally based on cameras in mint condition, and drop quickly with condition problems. Camera sellers, especially dealers, can be fairly self-serving and like to tell you the book value of a camera without adjusting for the true condition. If you don't feel the condition merits the price but are interested in the camera anyway, make an offer to the seller and state why you don't feel the camera is worth the asking price. I've bought cameras at half the asking price because the seller was simply hoping for a careless buyer but knew the true value and was willing to deal. Also, if the seller offers a trial period or guarantee, get it in writing on the sales slip! Verbal guarantees are worth the paper they are written on.
I hope this helps give you some general information about old camera and how to check them. I'll refine this guide as time goes on and if you have any suggestions to improve it, please let me know. I have several thousand cameras in my collection and it's a wonderful hobby. While many of the cameras can't be used and can only be admired on the shelf, I often take out vintage cameras and shoot pictures with them. Many of these cameras are optically at least as good as any modern camera and take wonderful images, making camera collecting a hobby that rewards the collector on many different levels. Enjoy!!!