Sources of Old Cameras.

So, you have decided you want to collect cameras and which themes that interest you. How do you actually get your hands on the cameras? There are a number of ways and the easiest is to let it be known amongst your social circle that you are collecting. An amazing number of people will find old cameras when having a clear-out and will happily give them to you. Other sources are car boot sales, charity shops, auction rooms, on-line auctions – I shall cover each of these in turn.

Car-boot sales

These are very hit-and-miss but great bargains can be found. The biggest problem here is the seller’s opinion of what they have to offer. Frequently, they are aware that Dad or Grand-dad paid a lot of money for a special camera and so it must be worth a lot second-hand. Unfortunately, there is only a small market for old cameras (just us collectors, actually) and the law of supply and demand means that values are much lower than these sellers realise. So, that camera on sale for £50.00, say, when clean and in working condition is probably worth £10.00 to £20.00 but is not clean and potentially will have many problems.

Frequently, old cameras will have spent twenty years or more in a box in an unheated garage. Internal corrosion is very likely, fungal growth on the shutter blinds and in the lens is a real possibility. That £50.00 should really be £5.00 rising to £15.00 once you have cleaned and checked the camera. It can be hard to convince the seller of this. On a positive note, you can actually see and handle the camera. Lens fungus is fairly easy to spot as is rust and other corrosion. You also get to check the general operation of the camera (assuming that the camera does not depend on a battery).

If you buy a lemon at a car boot sale, you don’t really have any redress, even if you find the seller at a later date (the technical term is caveat emptor). This needs to be reflected in the price paid.

Charity Shops.

These used to be a good source of old cameras. They frequently placed the price on the high side but you can offset that against the fact that you are doing good by shopping there.

This seems to have changed recently and I have not seen any cameras in charity shops for a long time. They seem to have realised that they can get a quicker sale and perhaps a higher price by selling on eBay.

The advantages of a charity shop are that you get to handle the camera. There is a disadvantage here in that the staff are likely to clean a dirty camera. Unfortunately, a good spray with aerosol polish is not actually very good for a camera. I prefer a dirty camera to still be dirty. This tells me a good deal about how the camera has been kept and the degree to which the storage conditions have damaged the camera.

Auction rooms.

Good collectable cameras can be found in an auction room. In this environment the cameras will be clean and well described in the catalogue. Again, you get to handle the camera on offer. This is probably more for the ‘serious’ collector – the price is likely to be high and you have to pay a buyer’s commission on the hammer price.

There can be a cheaper source of cameras in general sales in auction houses and this is the box of assorted stuff. These boxes generally come from house clearances and contain things the seller does not expect to be saleable individually but the boxful might be worth £5.00 or £10.00. You need to be prepared to look through many boxes to find a camera – and if you do, the camera is likely to be in a very sorry visual state. You need to be able to look past decades of grime to find the hidden gem.

On-line Auctions.

This is where I get most of my cameras. Ebay is the most famous of these sites but there are a number of others as well. There is a definite skill to successfully buying cameras here. Here are some pointers to avoiding dishonest sellers.

Photographs. All the on-line auction sites enable the seller to upload a number of photographs of the item for sale. I would expect at least three or four clear photographs showing all of the camera. In this age of smart-phones, everyone can manage this. BEWARE! If there is one, out of focus, photograph the seller is hiding something. Out of focus photographs are now quite hard to do – there must be a reason for the seller to go to the lengths of producing one. Of course, the seller could be genuine with a real inability to use a camera. Avoiding the single, out-of-focus photograph might mean that you do not get a bargain but the chances are that you are avoiding a lemon.

More sophisticated sellers of trash will provide a number of good photographs with one part of the camera missing in all the photographs – this is frequently accompanied by the statement that the photographs are part of the description implying that if the seller finds a defect after purchase that is because they did not look hard enough and back to Caveat Emptor. Why does the seller not want you to see this part? If it is a camera you particularly want, email the seller asking a direct question about the part you cannot see. Their response forms a part of the contract of sale and, if they are not honest, will give you grounds for asking for your money back. Ebay, for sure, will back the buyer over a dishonest seller.

Assuming that the photographs are clear and give a good impression of the camera (I always start by looking at the photographs), it is time to read the description. Now, this is harder to produce than photographs. If the seller is selling dad’s or granddad’s old camera, they might not know enough to properly describe the camera – which is why the photographs are so important.

As with the photographs, there are tell-tail signs of dishonesty. An ignorant seller can tell you if knobs turn and buttons press even if they do not know what they do. If the seller has a one-line description that tells you nothing, look at the photographs and email the seller with specific questions – phrase the questions so that the ignorant can still answer them.

Price matters. I have bought cameras with a poor photograph and one short line of description – but I have restricted my bid to £1.00. About half of those have been worthless rubbish but I have also ended up with several delightful cameras worth much more than £1.00 each.

When reading the description, it is worth noting what is NOT mentioned – this is like the series of photographs that all leave out one part. Why? Doesn’t mention the lens? Is the lens damaged? Is the lens missing (which is not uncommon, even with fixed-lens cameras)? It could be an inadvertent mistake but you need to email the seller to find out.

All old cameras have defects. I want those to be mentioned – if in doubt, assume faults. Shutter not mentioned? It does not work. Focus not mentioned? Lens will not turn. If the seller lists six faults, there are unlikely to be seven. If the seller lists no faults, it is anybody’s guess as to how many faults there are. Your job as buyer is to match the faults with the price you bid.

After looking at the photographs and description, look at the postage. Now, this does not really matter at all. You are going to have to pay to have the camera delivered but you do need to know how much.

The worst postage is ‘collection only’. This is fine if it is within a mile or so of where you live but very expensive if you live in Land’s End and the camera is in John O’Groats. If I read ‘collection only’, I move swiftly on.

Now, I said that the postage amount does not matter but it is important to know. That might sound a bit daft but here is why. Before you bid on a camera you want, you need to decide on how much you are willing to spend. With any auction, this is very important. It is easy to get carried away in a bidding war and spend much more than you intended. So, my technique – decide on the maximum amount and deduct postage costs. This smaller amount is my maximum bid – and I stick firmly to this. An example: you want a camera that is worth £25.00 to you. Postage is a sensible £3.50. £25.00 minus £3.00 gives £22.00 maximum bid. A second example: You want a camera that is worth £25.00 to you. Postage is an eye-watering £15.00  (why, for Odin’s sake?). £25.00 minus £15.00 gives a maximum bid of £10.00.

In both examples, the cost to you is £25.00 and in both examples the seller gets £25.00 which is why the postage does not matter to you.

What is important here is that you have a cast-iron price before you bid. Now bid your maximum bid immediately. Ebay will bid on your behalf starting at the next bid increment above the current bid. If no one has bid yet, you start at the starting price. If you do this and then ignore the auction you will avoid being sucked into a bidding war and will never pay more than you want to.

There are people who only bid in the last seconds of an auction. This is called sniping. The idea is that you have no time to respond to their bid and put a larger bid in. This is true, but we want to avoid a bidding war, so let the sniper have the sale. But stop. Not only do you not have time to respond to the sniped bid, if your maximum bid is above the sniped bid the sniper has no time to respond either. You can improve your chances with a sniper by clever bidding.

Above, I said how to calculate your maximum bid and that you should stick to it. What I actually do is calculate my maximum bid as I described and then add 51p to it. So, if my calculated maximum bid is £22.00 I will actually bid £22.51. This works as most people bid ‘sensible’ amounts which means whole pounds for most people. So, I bid £22.51 and the sniper bids £22.00, Ebay’s automatic bidding system means that I win. The reason for the odd penny is that some snipers are aware of this and will snipe with an amount ending in 10p or 50p. My bid with the extra penny is still larger so I win the auction. If I do not win I do not fret, I move on. There are plenty of other cameras for sale on Ebay.

Another bidding technique is ‘silly bidding’. I use this for cameras that I would like to buy but I cannot justify the usual price. This technique works because there are more cameras for sale than there are buyers. Example: a camera is listed that usually sells for around £50.00. In the last ten weeks, 100 of these cameras have been sold and all the people who want one at that price have just bought one. I bid £2.51. No one else bids at all so I get a £50.00 camera for £2.00 plus postage (because no one else bids, the 51p part does not come into play). Now, mostly, someone else will bid as well and I will not get the camera – but it costs me nothing to bid so I lose nothing. Sometimes – and more often than you might think – I get a very nice camera at a knock-down price.


Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 50 years photography experience.

One thought on “Sources of Old Cameras.”

  1. That “silly bid” trick is interesting. And a bit sneaky 🙂 When I auction, I never set a reserve, but I do set a minimum that I will sell for just to avoid this.


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