Appraising Old Cameras and pricing.

This chapter deals with deciding on whether you want a particular camera or not. The first stage s to have a good look at the camera and deciding if it is a camera that you want in your collection – on line, the ‘good look’ means at the photographs. The second stage, once you have decided that you want the camera, is to decide how much you are willing to pay.

This section is entirely about how I go about curating my own collection but it should be mostly applicable to most collections. 

So, I come across a camera that fits my collecting paradigm. First, I ignore dirt. Dirt can be easily removed and tells me that no one has done ghastly things to the camera to make it clean. Actually, I do not ignore the dirt, I look past it. My first concern is the physical condition of the camera. Things that concern me

  • dents, which mean that the camera has been bashed at some time.
  • Cracks in the plastic, which also mean that the camera has been bashed and further suggests that the plastic is aging badly – more cracks are likely to occur in the future. The cracks might be letting water and dirt to get inside.
  • Water damage, which is likely to result in internal corrosion.
  • Oil, which will hold and move dirt and also get inside the camera.
  • Bits and pieces missing.

Things that do not really concern me but affect the price

  • covering/leatherette coming unglued
  • paint worn off with handling
  • chrome or nickel plating worn off with handling.

Dents – many of my cameras have dents. The presence of small dents will lower the price I am prepared to pay but will not inhibit me from buying. Larger dents matter more. If the camera model is a common one, I will wait for a good one to come along. On the other hand, my 1912 Icarette has quite a bit of damage, yet I bought it – I am unlikely to get another chance.

Where the dent is matters. Viewfinders and pentaprism humps get bashed frequently. If the viewfinder still works fine, I will be happy to buy at a suitably lower price. The corners of the camera also get bashed a lot but if the camera works fine I will not care. As I am not looking for shelf queens dents, in and of themselves, do not matter to me but dents that stop the camera working as it should matter a great deal.

Cracks – most cameras that I collect have very little or no plastic but it is far from unknown. Cracks are bad. If plastic is used on the outside, it is likely to be used inside as well. Metal can also crack. If the camera has suffered sufficient violence to crack the outside it might well have damage to the inside as well – which I will not be able to see. Also, cracks grow. A small crack can easily become a large crack. Plastic, as it ages, becomes brittle if old plastic has started to crack, the plastic is likely to old enough for all the plastic to be very brittle. I do not buy cameras with visible cracks.

Water damage – the camera having been significantly wetted is very bad. Water can get into small gaps – most cameras are designed to be splash resistant but they are most decidedly not water-proof. However, if the water damage is away from joins in the body, all is not lost. First, I want to know how much water and where. Then I want to check for corrosion. If visible parts are corroded then hidden parts are also suspect. I will look inside the back of the camera and, with a removable lens camera, inside the throat of the lens mount. Any visible corrosion and I will put the camera back. This is the big drawback of buying on-line as the water damage is unlikely to show up in the photographs and you cannot examine the camera.

If an on-line seller claims that the camera is in good cosmetic condition, that precludes both water damage and corrosion – but only if he is honest.

Oil damage is not so common. Usually, it signifies that the camera has been stored in a garage in a box with other things that are oily. Oil actually protects the camera so long as there is not enough oil to make the inside oily.

Bits missing are important to me. Some people delight in buying a couple of non-working cameras and making one good one. If this is you, then all power to your elbow. Me, I am mechanically inept and I have learnt the hard way to leave mechanisms be. If a camera has parts missing, still works and it is an uncommon model that I particularly want, then I might buy that camera but mostly I will pass it by.

All this is about the physical condition but there are other aspects that are important. Often, cameras are sold with accessories. A common one is a case – I always dispose of these. Other common accessories include filters and rangefinders. I do not have much interest in filters – I have a small collection but only because I do not like throwing things away. I also have a small collection of rangefinders – these are interesting but any more that I acquire I sell on.

Lenses are a more important addition. Many cameras have fixed lenses but for those cameras with removeable lenses, I want to have at least one lens included. Many sellers try to maximise their revenue by selling body and lens separately. Unfortunately, a camera body with no lens is useless. If you are interested in an interchangeable lens camera with no lens then you need to factor in the cost of buying a lens separately. If the camera has a common mount (M42, Pentax thread, or Leica M39 thread) many lenses are available and many are available at quite a low price. In extreme cases – where the camera has an unusual mount – it might not be possible to buy a lens at any price. If you are interested in a lensless camera, make sure a lens is going to be available first. 

A further problem with a camera with no lens is that you have no idea as to how long the camera body has been without a lens. If the camera has been indoors for a few days without the lens while the seller sells the lens, that is OK. If the camera has been lensless for several years in the garage, dust, moisture, grit, insects and god knows what else will have had free access to the mechanics of the camera. This cannot be a good thing.

As well as offering bodies with no lens, some sellers offer two (or more) lenses with one body – a good bonus. I find the lenses as interesting as the bodies – both the lens’ design and the range of makers.

Lens condition makes a big difference as does the make and model. Some cameras are offered with a cheap, after-market lens where I suspect that the seller has sold the OEM lens separately. If buying on-line, there should be a photograph of the lens showing the bezel with maker’s name and lens model. Most lens defects are rather obvious. Scratches clearly reduce the value as do excessive cleaning marks (but probably have little effect on the lens performance). Lenses that have a ‘daylight’ filter in place are good as the lens is unlikely to have any physical damage to the front piece of glass.

It is worth looking to see if a lens has been dismantled or even if an attempt at dismantling has been made. The pieces of glass are held in place by screw-in rings. If these are scuffed and scratched, someone has tried to (or succeeded in) removing them. This is frequently most visible from inside the camera. Inside, the surroundings of the lens should be matt-black. Any scuffing around the glass inside tells us that someone has made an a crude attempt at removing the lens. If they had succeeded in removing the rear piece of glass there is a very good chance that they have not replaced it exactly as it should be. For exchangeable lenses (for SLR cameras and rangefinders) there are several small screws around the lens – these should be in good condition. any chewing of the screw head, no matter how slight, indicates that an amateur has tried to dismantle the lens – not good. The rings that hold the glass in place have threads with several starting points. If the ring is replaced using the wrong starting point then infinity focus will not be possible.

Another problem with old cameras, particularly those stored for years in an unheated garage, is the growth of fungus inside the lens. This is visible as a network of very fine lines. You will probably need to look at the glass with a magnifying glass or jeweller’s loupe. Personally, I do not buy lenses with known fungus and bin those I do buy which turn out to have fungus. A further welcome addition is the original manual. These are rarely offered and if they are, they do not alter the price that I am willing to spend (except, perhaps for a particularly rare camera). The same goes for the original sales invoice and any repair bills – nice to have but I am not going to pay for them. Sales invoices do have the advantage of enabling you to accurately determine the age of the camera.


Author: John Margetts

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

One thought on “Appraising Old Cameras and pricing.”

  1. Very informative; thanks! 🙂
    I figured out the “fungus” issue a few months into my lens collecting — had not thought to check for it previously.
    I usually just open the aperture and sight through the lens, towards the light.
    I’d actually disagree about binning the fungal lenses:
    1) You can sell them on at a steep discount: supposedly if you have the right set of tools (<US$100 total) a person can disassemble, clean, and reassemble fungus-y lenses: the right person will do this.
    2) My local camera repair place will disassemble and clean lenses for about US$120: for expensive lenses, it's worth it; for something common that you've picked up for US$20 (used), it's obviously not worth it. 😉


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