So you want to buy an old film camera, advertised in your local Craigslist page. Well, read on.
I’ve found out that reading about any topic on the internet, in general, helps a lot be it film photography or exercises for pregnant women. A little bit of history never hurt anybody. That being said, don’t just read about the history – try to also know about the various film formats (preferably those that are available still), the different kinds of cameras and browse through the works of others in the field.
Now, assuming you want to learn photography, not just through internet pages but also by actually going out and shooting some film on your own, it helps to buy an old film camera.
Purchasing an old film camera may be likened to buying an old motorcycle someone’s grandparent left behind. You are not sure if the parts are available still, if the thing has any mileage left in it, or even if there are mechanics in your locality who are trained to repair that fuel dripping carburettor.
Here are some tips that you may use as general guidelines:
When someone says ‘old camera’, you will most probably visualize a dusty, beat up piece of metal with a gaping hole where the lens should have been – you may be right but those things are generally sold by their value in weight of metal ;). There are examples of 50+ years old cameras in pristine condition, and they work great too. That’s important – immaterial of how they look, they should be able to perform as the manufacturer intended (barring, maybe a few special features that were probably advertising gimmicks).
Fun or Serious?
Decide why you want to shoot film – is it just for the fun (which it is definitely full of!!) part, or do you also want to learn photography basics (aperture/shutter speed/light metering/exposure)?
If it is for fun, then any auto-focus (point and shoot) film camera with/without built-in flash unit should do. If it has features like automatic film wind/rewind (rewind only for 35 mm film) then all the better but not entirely necessary – just make sure the batteries used in the camera are still readily available, and there are no light leaks :).
If you want a camera to learn the basics on, then any SLR/TLR/Rangefinder camera that allows you to operate it in Manual mode should be fine. You may wish to buy a camera with a built-in light meter and/or Aperture/Shutter priority mode – this breaks down the learning curve in steps, but surely you could do without them.
Does it still take pictures?
Whatever camera you choose, make sure you spend some time online, studying about it – this way you would know what are the common issues that the certain make/model has and how much a repair charges you might need to account for.
Wide-angle, or Zoom lens? Prime lens, maybe?
If you are buying an auto-focus camera, skip this point. If you are buying a camera with interchangeable lens, don’t worry about the perfect focal length lens to start shooting with. Any lens that comes with the camera is fine – in fact, there is a reason why the manufacturer sold a particular focal length lens with the camera 🙂 … I started off with a 28-100 zoom lens and found it to be pretty versatile!
If you buy a camera without a light meter, make sure you have at the least a smartphone light-meter app ( I use this free app). This will make things a lot easier, and the experience more rewarding – of course, there are some who would believe in shooting without a light-meter, and that’s OK as well.
I will try to fix you
CLA stands for Cleaning Lubrication Adjustment. You can have your camera CLA’ed by camera repair experts, if you know any. Such people are becoming rare nowadays (you can train to be one!), so make sure to find one out in your local business listings before you invest in a camera that’s surely no longer serviced by the manufacturer.
… so, how did I do?
My first camera was a disaster – I bought a Konica C35 AF2 (35 mm, Point and Shoot) off a lady who didn’t know much about cameras herself. Lens was dirty, light seals were torn, and I could not find anyone to repair it either. I ran just one roll through it – never picked it up again.
My second camera was well researched. I chose to buy locally from a guy who was selling his Nikon SLR for cheap – a Nikon F80 (35 mm SLR) – easy film load and auto-rewind, fully functional, runs on a pair of CR123A batteries, pretty accurate in-built light meter and came with a 28-100G Nikkor lens (I got the original manual, too). I’ve found it very easy to use, and it is serving me well, with the only gripe being the batteries don’t last more than 10-12 rolls of film, even though the manual approximates 36 rolls (I later found out that the Japanese factories are no more producing the batteries – outsourced to Chinese factories and batteries are of lower life than before for cost-cutting reasons).
My third camera was a medium-format, and again was well researched. This time I got it off eBay, being sold as display piece (non-working, but repairable). I called up a renowned camera repair guy in my city, and he said he’ll repair it, but I knew I was taking a risk as the camera could’ve had missing/damaged parts, and the seller didn’t know much either. Luckily for me, the gamble paid off and after the much needed general servicing (CLA), I am now a proud owner of a 1960 Yashica 635. It is full of signs of wear/usage, and the adapter for 35mm film is missing (I bought the camera for 120 film, so that’s OK), but the lens is clean, door has no light-leaks, still fully functional, and takes photos just as good as a new camera should!