Often I talk to folks who recently bought a classic film camera because it looked neat, seemed to be a reasonable price and most importantly, they were immediately inspired by the camera to take some great photos. I love to see people being so enthusiastic about classic cameras. Generally, older film cameras are very attractive and built to last, however, like all mechanical devices, they require service and simply can't sit around unused for a decade or longer then be expected to perform like new. People want to believe a seller when they say "I think it works, it's in real good condition for its age." Next thing you know, excitement has won the battle against logic and you've dropped your cash into something that is going to end up in a closet or on a shelf because something is broken on this little machine that was supposed to inspire so much amazing art.
Do this enough times without learning your lesson and eventually you will get discouraged from buying these precious gems, or you'll end up on the TV show, Hoarding. And this is just not acceptable to me. So I want to help everyone find a camera that both excites their imagination and actually has the capability of fulfilling those dreams.
Below are a few general buying tips followed by details on testing the functional condition of classic cameras so you can be a smart buyer and happy photographer!
1--While even I get caught up in the moment when I see a neat camera I've never seen before, it's best to do your research on that particular model, learn the common prices for it, evaluate the quality of images you can expect and maybe even find some known or common issues with it before purchasing.
2--Don't buy cameras from pawn shops, flea markets, eBay, antique stores, Craigslist or other non-professional photographic supply stores who don't really offer a warranty or where the seller clearly is not an authority on vintage cameras, UNLESS you are getting the camera at such a good price that you wouldn't mind taking it to a repair shop for a $60-$120 Clean Lube and Adjust. I recommend buying expert-checked and warrantied cameras from KEH.com, CollectibleCameras.com, BHPhoto.com or Adorama.com among numerous other reputable used camera retailers.
3--Many film stocks are no longer manufactured and antique stores are filled to the brim with the lifeless but cool-looking cameras that used them. I really don't recommend buying any still camera that does not use 35mm, 120, 220 or large format film. Instant film is another story that you'll have to do your reading with to prepare for properly. 127, 126, 620, 122 or other bizarre formats should generally be avoided unless you plan on modifying the camera to burn 35mm or medium format or you already have a specialized workflow for buying, possibly spooling, processing and printing that format. Figuring out what format film the camera takes is just as important as figuring out if it works or not. You may have just bought a 100% functional 126 camera but how often are you really going to use it if you have to buy expired film off eBay and then mail it to the other side of the country for ridiculously expensive processing? I hate to contribute further to the death of these mediums but what's more important is that we keep the popular formats alive and our creativity kicking. It's also important, in my opinion, to spend more of our time shooting and less time fidgeting with our cameras!
4--It's okay to choose not to buy a camera if the price is too high for the model and its condition. Try not to get so caught in the moment of discovery that you make a decision you'll later regret. These are mass-produced objects so you will probably find another one at a better price if you really want to. Save your money for the CLA (Clean, Lube and Adjust), film, processing and lenses. Don't forget these aren't digital and you essentially pay per use so start-up cost should be minimized. Spending $1500 on a Leica is great but isn't going to matter much if you can't afford another $1500 in film and processing for a year. I think it's better to buy a $150 Nikon FM and put the rest of that money in film and processing. Later, if you can sustain the operating costs of the Leica, go for it. Also, in my not-so-humble opinion, we should not forget to support the people who are going allow us to keep shooting film decades from now; the manufacturers of the stuff and the repair techs who keep the gear running, not the weirdo on Craigslist who "went digital" and is trying to get retail value for something he left to die in his attic.
Assessing Condition (in no particular order!):
--If the camera has a light meter, does it work? Many classics will work fine without a light meter (if they are 100% mechanical) but a broken meter can be an impossible repair so if you want a built-in meter, it's important to be sure about this. Usually if meters work, they are fairly accurate for print film and if they're not accurate enough for you they can be re-calibrated. So unless you're able to handle and check the camera yourself, asking about accuracy of the meter is not necessary in my opinion, you just want to ask if it responds to light. Most people won't be able to comment honestly on accuracy of the meter anyway. If you are buying a camera in person and can't test the meter for want of a battery but are willing to take a chance, at least check the battery compartment for corrosion or an exploded old battery. I seldom leave the house without a camera bag and each of my camera bags contains a few spare batteries both for testing possible purchases as well as replacing dead batteries in whatever camera I'm hauling around with me for day-to-day shooting. Most common classic camera batteries are 1.5 volt A76 (LR44) and mercury 1.35 volt batteries which have been replaced with zinc air batteries, typically sized as 625 but there are several types. Selenium meters don't require batteries and can be identified by a clear bike reflector-looking object on the front of the body or around the lens. You want to point the camera at different amounts of light and be sure that the meter display changes accordingly. Obviously it should indicate overexposure if pointed at sunlight and underexposure when pointed at a dark corner. SLR's with built-in meters always have coupled meters. This means that the meter display will change along with the change of settings on the shutter speed dial and aperture ring. Check this. The same common sense logic should apply about over/under exposure. Knowing the Sunny 16 rule or having another camera with a good meter in it (or a handheld meter, even an iPhone light meter app) will help you test for relative accuracy. Some cameras like rangefinders or cameras that have removable meters may not have coupled meters. You will have to learn to tell the difference between a camera not having a coupled light meter and one that is supposed to have a coupled meter but it is not responding to shutter speed and or aperture changes.
--Does the shutter fire? Does it fire at different speeds when you change the shutter dial? Fire all the speeds and fire each one over and over again. Does it get caught on speeds below 30? Sticky shutters below 30 should not affect the faster speeds on most cameras but if you're buying the camera to do slow shutter work obviously this will be a problem if you don't want to CLA the body. If the shutter doesn't fire at all, be sure you're using it properly (this can mean many different things for many different cameras so you'll have to figure this out on your own or look it up) but if it continues to be inoperative, it should be purchased at a parts camera price or given to you for free depending on how badly you want it and if you're willing to get it repaired. Jammed shutters on classic cameras are common and can sometimes be easy to repair if they are not electronics problems. Be sure that if the camera requires a battery in order to fire its shutter (as do most cameras with Aperture Priority or any auto exposure mode), you test it with known working batteries before calling it quits. Someone less savvy than yourself may be assuming the camera is jammed and is selling it cheap but the only real problem is a dead battery! Again, an all manual (mechanical) camera does not need a battery to fire the shutter so be cautious of a camera that has not auto exposure features but whose shutter will not fire.
--Are the light seals in good shape? This is the number one thing you can expect to be wrong with a classic camera that is not purchased from a reputable camera shop. Decayed light seals are just a result of age and so once a camera is over about 20 years old, if it has light seals, you can expect that they need to be replaced. Some classics don't have seals at all, these are usually rangefinders, German cameras and point and shoot or type cameras--these will have deep troughs around the film door and should be obvious that there was never any foam in them. SLR's need light seals though, so take the lens off and touch the foam above the mirror. If it squishes down and doesn't bounce back quickly or crumbles, all the foam will need to be replaced. Factor this into price. It is easy enough to repair yourself but can earn you a good deal on an otherwise expensive camera if you point it out to a reasonable seller! Most repair shops will charge about $30 to replace the light seals in a typical classic camera. You can also do it yourself for $10 or less. Some people will tell you that you don't need light seals so don't worry about this but that is really bad advice. Bad light seals, when left in place will fall apart the more you use the camera and drop sticky bits onto your SLR viewscreen that often cannot be cleaned off, permanently marking the screen and making its use much less enjoyable. Decayed foam can even cause mechanical problems like jamming the frame counter or worse. You may even get bits of foam on your photos if it falls onto the film itself. On top of all this, even if you don't see light leaks with low speed film, if you ever want to use faster film, or shoot in brighter light, you're likely to start seeing light leaks. So why limit how reliable/flexible your camera is just because you're too lazy or cheap to replace the light seals and treat your camera with the care and attention that it deserves?!
--Does the film advance work? With popular classics, as long as the advance lever works, things should be good but check with a test roll and/or ask the seller (if they've shot film on it) if the space between frames is even. Again, this is something that is covered with a CLA and is a rare problem (in my travels) but worth asking about and checking for oneself. I wouldn't call it a deal breaker as frame registration will usually only be issue on 36 exposure rolls where you might get overlapping frames towards the end. Also, with some, particularly consumer grade German cameras, the only way to fire and advance the camera is when film is loaded so look out for that. This is pretty much never the case with Japanese SLR's which do not require film to be inserted in order to check the advance.
--Do all the controls move smoothly? Unless you're into camera repair, I don't recommend messing around with cameras with seized or difficult-to-move dials, levers, buttons etc. Sometimes these problems are easily solved with simple amateur repair but in other cases, this can also be indicative of a more complicated problem. If you want to attempt repair, just don't blow a lot of money on a camera with tight controls and, as with any fault you find, point it out to the seller for a discount. Also, remember, don't force anything that doesn't want to move. You are more likely to break a part rather than actually free anything up.
--Is the lens in good shape? Preferably it has been stored on the camera with a lens cap, uv filter or cased and capped on both ends. No scratches or marks on or in the glass? That's an obvious one. To properly examine a lens, remove it from the camera and open the aperture to its widest setting. Most SLR lenses will require you find the aperture stop down tab on the lens mount and slide that after setting the aperture on the lens. This will open the aperture blades. On rangefinder and earlier SLR lenses, this is not necessary. Now hold the lens up to the light so you can see through it. Occasionally you'll see a bit of dust inside a lens. As long as there's not more than a few flecks, it'll never affect performance. If there's fogging, haze or webbing, this might be fungus growing in the lens and you should completely avoid purchasing it (unless it's a Leitz lens and they only want $10 for it!) Make sure there is no oil on either side of the aperture blades of the lens. This is particularly important with post 60's SLR cameras and will cause incorrect exposures if the aperture blades stick. To check the aperture blades, follow the steps mentioned above but stop the lens down to the minimum aperture setting so that all the blades are visible inside the lens. Examine the front and back of them. Haze on the glass can also be a result of condensation of oil. This can be cleaned professionally but again should bring the sale cost down.
--Is the focus accurate? If you're considering a rangefinder, expect that the rangefinder itself (the viewfinder) needs to be cleaned and adjusted. As you might imagine, I have handled countless cameras and I can't think of a single time that a vintage rangefinder came to me with a viewfinder that was as clear or as accurate as it should be (aside from quality camera shop purchases.) If you can look at the camera and figure out how to get the top plate off, you can probably adjust it yourself. If you can't, factor in Clean Lube and Adjust costs. You'd be surprised how many people continue to use rangefinders that are dirty and fogged up without even realising how bright, beautiful and ACCURATE they'd be with a simple cleaning. Olympus XA owners are notorious for this! Rangefinder users are really missing out if they're not getting them serviced!
--Cleanliness--don't walk away from a camera just because it's dirty or has dents in it! In fact, keep an eye out for these! It could mean that it has been well used and loved. As long as there are not big/deep dents in the top plate and dirt is not inside the camera, you're probably okay if the above points test out. You might be able to get a camera cheaper if it looks like trash because others will avoid something that just needs a careful cleaning. Conversely, be critical of cameras that appear to be in perfect cosmetic condition no matter how fired up about them you are! If a camera is ultra clean it might have seldom been used and the lubricants inside have seized the mechanics up, or soon will. Or the owner might have stopped using it because something broke early on in the camera's life and they never had it repaired, this is actually pretty common of super clean cameras from what I've seen. So don't lay your money down just because something looks great; test it even more thoroughly! Fire the shutter till you get tired of hearing it, open and close it and open and close it. Go over it! By the way, if someone says something is in "mint condition," they really don't know what they're talking about or just don't have very high standards. Assuming mint condition cameras actually exist, they probably wouldn't function for very long before you had to change the "mint condition" factory-applied lubricants and break the "mint condition" adjustment screw seals in order to actually use the thing!
Finally, have fun hunting for classic cameras but don't have soo much fun that you overpay or buy a bunch of neat cameras you'll never use. If you make a habit out of either of these things you'll probably start missing out on the best part of photography; the photos!