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As this post goes live I am getting prepared for my weekend ritual. Every Saturday morning when I am not working I go out hunting for more film gear. Not that I really need more cameras or lenses, but I want them. Its an addiction. Since I am not by any means wealthy, I have to feed this impulse on a strict budget… $25 a week. To successfully acquire more cameras, lenses, flashes and so forth I head out to yard sales, flea markets and even the occasional antique store. During the winter months I almost completely depend on antique stores, thrift shops and so forth. In the past 4 months I have spent less than $100 dollars and have acquired a treasure trove of new-to-me gear. If this sounds like fun to you I have some advice that you may find helpful.
Before you even start peering through the papers and scouring the internet for yard sales, before you get in your car to head off to the flea market, you should get together a few items to help you decide if and gear is worth buying. I have compiled a short list below of items I recommend to carry with you on treasure hunts.
- Small flashlight (the pen sized Mag-Lites work best)
- Unlined index cards
- 4 fresh AA alkaline batteries
- Microfiber cloth
- Small spray bottle of optical lens cleaner
- Magnifying glass or jewelers eye loupe
- Oddball camera batteries, if you wish to bring them along.
As far as finding the sales, flea markets and stores…that is all on you. I can’t really give any advice on that topic, as my area of the US is plentiful with yard sales and antique stores. But one you find a few to hit, you are ready to go hunting. Not every yard sale will have what you are looking for, I find about one sale with items of photographic interest out of every ten. Persistence is key, and enjoy the trip, yard sailing is a laid back way of wasting away an idle morning. Once you do find a good sale, it is time for action.
This is the big item you are out for. Working SLRs. Usually when you come upon a SLR, it will have a lens of some sort attached, usually a 50mm prime. The big things you need to check with a camera body are fairly obvious. Open the back of the camera and make sure everything inside looks good. Work the frame advance and make sure the mirror moves and the shutter operates. Dry fire the camera a few times and eyeball the shutter speed; set the dial to it’s slowest shutter speed and estimate if the shutter seems to be accurate. The good old “1 Mississippi” count works pretty good to estimate shutter speeds. If the shutter is too far off the mark, pass on it… no sense wasting money if you are going to have to spend a lot more for a CLA (Clean, Lube and Adjust).
Make sure the lens appears to focus properly, it you can not seem to aquire good focus then there may be an issue with either the lens or mirror, you might want to take the chance. I would most likely pass.
Another biggie is to check the lightseals on the film door. If your eyesight is not all that great, check it with a magnifying glass or jewelers loupe. Check the seals at the sides of the body sealing against the door and the thin seals found in the grooves at the top and bottom of the film compartment. If the foam has turned into a sticky mess, you are going to need to redo the light seals. An easy job that anyone can do. Pre-made kits with cut pieces of foam are easily available on eBay for most any camera.
Also check the mirror pad, same material as lightseals, and if it gets sticky it can ruin your focusing screen. The mirror pad comes with most lightseal kits. In a pinch some thick sticky felt can replace worn mirror pad, but make sure the mirror slap is not too vicious.
Make sure the frame counter operates when you operate the frame advance and shutter with the film door closed. If the camera has a light meter built in and it functions, great. If not it may need a new batter or may be completely non-functional. Either way is fine, the camera will still work fine without the meter, you will just have to go Sunny 16 or get a light-meter.
If you are looking at an auto-focus body, hopefully the seller has the correct battery installed an it has enough juice left to test. If not, weigh your options, is it worth the risk to drop the cash on a possibly non functional camera? If it is a good body and the shutter curtain looks to be in good condition, I would probably take the risk, but I would definitely haggle with the seller on the point you can test the camera, you may be able to get them to come down some on price. If you happen to have the correct odd-ball camera battery with you, you can always test yourself. But it could be costly to keep a fully stocked selection of camera batteries.
If everything checks out and it looks to be a keeper, you are on to the purchasing process. Most likely the camera has a price already on it. If the price seems fair to you, by all means go for it, budget permitting. If you think it is a bit high, come in with a low-ball offer. Sometimes, the seller will bite, other times they will offer it to you at a price higher than your offering, but lower than their original price. If they won’t come down, and the price does not seem fair, simply walk away. Sometimes, when they realize that you won’t buy at their price, they will offer a lower price as you walk off. If you got it, enjoy your new toy.
It is rare that you will come across a rangefinder at these venues and if you do, it is almost always a fixed lens model. That is not to say that you should pass though. Minolta’s Minoltinas are solid performers and other manufacturer’s fixed lens range finders can be great fun too.
To check these out, hit all the same issues as we covered in the SLR section. Of most importance to a rangefinder is that the actual rangefinder works. Check focus with the camera and be sure that the image aligns appropriately. If there is a skew in the focusing part of the rangefinder, it won’t perform right. Repair usually is not an option, as a CLA would cost to much and rangefinder mirror adjustment can be a bit too difficult to bother with. Remember that the shutter will be an integral leaf shutter in the lens on almost all these type of cameras, so open the back and look through the lens to check shutter accuracy.
If by some chance you come across a Voigtlander or Leica interchangeable lens body, I would buy it regardless of issue… but that is just me. The price of a quality CLA will be much lower than the cost of buying one of these bodies in good, used condition from a dealer. Check it out still, but if the lens has a sticky shutter or if there is some minor defect, get it. Even a misaligned rangefinder is worth fixing on one of these silent beauties.
Medium Format Cameras
An even more rare encounter is medium format gear. If you come across these, you are in luck, and if you can get them for a song, disregard damage and fix them up. Most TLRs are so simple in design, as long as the lens is working right you are most likely good to go. Remember the lower lens contains the shutter. Check focusing, make sure the ground glass or prism finder is in good shape. If it is a Mamiya model, check out the bellows for light leaks. Odds are if it doesn’t look to rough and the film crank, film door and shutter are all working, you probably have a good investment.
If you find a medium format SLR, you are lucky. If it appears to be in good condition, jump on it. Especially at a low price. I have never seen a MF SLR at a sale or store, but if I would, I would check basic function, light seals and overall physical condition.
Every once in a while you may come across some lenses without a camera. These can often be bargains, as without a camera, their value to most buyers is drastically reduced. First you need to know what lens mounts are of use to you or what lens mounts you are looking to buy in to. If you find a lens that may suit your needs, I have a few tests you can do to check it out.
First and foremost, grab your microfiber cloth and give the front and rear elements a good cleaning. Use your spray lens cleaner if needed. This will make it easier to carry out you other tests.
Obviously, if you have the appropriate camera with you, you can check out the lens much easier. Usually you will not, but all is not lost. First, take off any caps on the lens and check for mold, fungus and bad scratches. It will help to look through the lens with you flashlight. Shine and observe through both ends, and shine the light at an angle across the front element to look for scratches.
Check to make sure the focusing ring and aperture ring are functioning properly. Most lenses will allow you to observe the aperture whilst the lens is unmounted. Those lenses that do not often have a lever on the back of the unit to allow you to test the aperture. If it is a Canon EOS lens, you will gust have to deal with not checking the aperture.
Without a camera it is hard to check focus, but you can give it a good test run. Get your unlined index card out and hold it by the back element of the camera, you should see a ring of light from on the card. Now you can move the card back and forth and turn the focusing ring until you get an image in focus. If you can get a visible image projected on the card from 1 to 1-1/2 inches the focusing is most likely good.
Also check the filter threads anf the mount itself for damage. The thread may not be of any consequence to you, but if the lens mount is damaged it is a definite pass. Check the lens body over for sings of any severe damage. If everything looks good, go for it. The rules of negotiation from the camera section still appy here, and you are more likely to get a good deal if they do not have a complimentary camera for the lens also for sale.
Frequently you will encounter on camera flash units. If you are interested in one, usually all you need to do is drop in some batteries, let it charge and see if the pilot or test button fires off the flash. If so, you are in business. If it is a modern auto-focus flash, you can’t check the functionality of that without a camera. However if it fires, it will still likely work fine as a manual flash.
Check the flash hot shoe foot to make sure that all the required terminals are there and not corroded badly. Make sure to check the side of the foot for the ground spring. If it is not there, it won’t fire. If it has adjustable power, step through its settings and see if there is a noticeable difference.
Usually you can walk away with a flash for a few bucks, so if it looks good and lights up, go for it. You are out $3 max.
I buy film regularly at yard sales, but be prepared for unexpected results. You never quite know how it has been stored. If still in box, check the expiration date and make sure you are comfortable with its level of expiration. If so buy it, buy it all. Don’t pay more than 50 cents a roll though, why throw away money on unknown quality?
You will often encounter lens caps, filters, film cases, lens holders, camera bags, and a veritable litany of accessories. Again, without a camera as part of the set, this stuff is hard to sell. you should be able to get this gear cheap. Just use common sense here. Check filter threads and glass closely.
Hopefully this gives you an idea of how I check out camera gear when I encounter it for sale in the wild. I have added 20 bodies and 27 lenses to my collection since I started this horrible habit. I have spent a grand total of $175 in the past two years since I got into doing this. That’s a lot of gear for less than$200, and that is not even counting my countless accessories I have acquired in the process of making these purchases. In the past year alone I have acquired a Yashica FX-3, Minolta Minoltina ALs, Minolta X-700, Pentax K100, Pentax Spotmatic SE, Mamiya C330, Canon AE-1, and a Canon EOS 5. That’s just a sampling from my regularly used cameras. If you love film photography and its gear, you can really grow you photographic tool box on the cheap with some patience, luck and dedication. Have fun!