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. 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.

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.

Types of Collecting

If you are collecting cameras you are, of course, free to collect what you want in whatever way you want. Many people do this and end up with thoroughly eclectic collections – and all joy to them. Other people prefer to collect with a theme and purpose. Personally, I collect cameras that are particularly interesting in some way – mostly cameras that were innovative in some way. Other people want a copy of every variation in a small group of cameras and are very happy with minor variations between models. Some people only collect Nikons or Canon, some only SLR, others only rangefinder.

Having a theme gives more purpose and, to many of us, more pleasure than just buying every camera we come across.

I keep my cameras in a display case. This allows me to display the cameras nicely but has a secondary effect – it is now full. If I want to buy another camera, I need to dispose of one I already have. This limits my collection to about fifty cameras and keeps me focused as to which cameras are earning their keep. My collection: top shelf, various SLRs; second shelf, rangefinders; third shelf, viewfinders; fourth shelf, 35mm folders; fifth shelf, medium format folders; sixth shelf, Pentax SLRs (yes, a whole shelf for Pentax – they were very innovative at one time).

Another aspect of collecting is condition. Many people want their cameras to be in ‘as new’ condition. I like my cameras to be well-used – much wear is an added interest to me. For some people, the cameras only sit on a shelf and are never used – and frequently the collector does not care if a camera works or not so long as it looks grand. All my cameras work – that is very important to me – and most of them get used as often as I can  – both time and expense limit how much use they get.

History of Camera Development

All cameras share a basic design which has the same three components

  1. a light-tight box
  2. a means of forming the image
  3. a means of recording the image.

The ways in which those three are manifested range from crude to very sophisticated.

The earliest cameras were the crudest. In fact, they were simple wooden boxes with a slot at one end to take the glass plate and a hole at the other to take a lens. These developed into quite sophisticated cameras. Bellows were added to both enable focusing and to allow close-up photographs. As emulsion speed increased, mechanical shutters were added to time short exposures.

A variety of lenses could be fitted to give wide-angle and telephoto capability (note: I am using the word ‘telephoto’ incorrectly to mean a lens with a long focal length. See the Glossary for the correct meaning of ‘telephoto’). Both the front and back of the camera could be tilted in a number of directions and the lens raised up to help with photographing tall buildings and such.

These wooden box cameras came in a variety of sizes from cumbersome 10 x 8 inch (250 x 200 mm) plate size to cameras with plates 25 mm or so across.

The invention of roll film in 1850s had a massive effect on camera design. This was brought to commercial success by George Eastman and his Kodak camera. The early Kodaks were a simple box with a very simple shutter and a meniscus lens. These first Kodaks took 100 shots on one roll of film giving circular negatives that were 2.5 inches (65 mm) diameter. The entire camera had to be returned to Kodak for the film to be developed and the pictures printed. The camera was then loaded with new film and returned to the customer along with the photographs.

The next step in film development was the production of rolls of film that could be bought locally and fitted to the camera by the user. While the box camera design lasted into the 1950s, a plethora of camera designs appeared, many being small enough to be easily carried in a pocket. At this stage in the history of camera design, it was usual to have prints made directly from the negatives (contact prints) with no enlargement. This gave rise to some very large film formats.

The standard film camera design, which remained until 1950ish, was a steel or aluminium body with a lens which came forward on a bellows as the camera front was opened. Mostly, there was a hinged lens door with the lens/shutter on rails or with the lens/shutter fixed to the lens door – the self-erecting type.

Originally, the lens was focused by sliding the lens/shutter on the rails. With self-erecting cameras, the lens was fitted to a helical thread and focused by turning the lens. As enlarged photographs were rare, focus was not critical.

Early film cameras – into the 1930s – had very crude viewfinders. There were three basic types – a Brilliant finder on the shutter housing, a folding frame on the camera body or an Iconometer which was a large wire frame attached to the shutter housing with an eyepiece attached to the camera body. The cheaper cameras would only have the Brilliant finder. These were small and hard to use and so were not used on more expensive models. Mid-range cameras would have the folding viewfinderr on the camera body.  These ranged from a simple arrangement of two wire frames to two more solid frames with simple lenses inserted. These were much easier to use than brilliant finders but could be awkward for spectacle wearers.

The Iconometer type was the easiest to use. The viewfinder image was much larger than with the other two types, worked much better with moving objects (hence its other name of Sportsfinder) and naturally accommodated rising lenses on more expensive cameras.

In the 1930s, the folding type of viewfinder gave way to Gallilean finders which were effectively little telescopes attached to the camera body.  These are often referred to as ‘reverse Gallilean’ finders as they are a telescope mounted backwards – they make the image smaller than life. These had the advantage in that thy gave a clear image of the potential photograph – the folding frame finders relied on the user centring their eye properly and were accordingly rather vague as regards composition. But the Gallilean finders had two disadvantages in that the finder tended to be very small and they did not work well with spectacles. In time, they did become larger and in the 1960s were easy to use for all of us. In the latest development of viewfinders, bright lines were added to enable composition and giving allowances for parallax when the camera was used for close-up portraits.

With the mid-Victorian cameras, the glass plates used were so slow a shutter was not required. The user merely removed the lens cap, counted to an appropriate number and replaced the lens cap. As the sensitive emulsion got faster, the timing got shorter and verbally counting was no longer accurate enough. This gave rise to various types of mechanical shutter. The first of these were the leaf shutters. Cheaper cameras used a shutter with a single speed, controlled by a spring. Other controlling systems used a cylinder of compressed air, the shutter remaining open until the cylinder was empty. The last development of mechanical shutters used an escarpment very similar to the workings of an analogue watch. From the mid 1960s, electronic shutters were developed which allowed for more consistent and accurate shutter speeds.

Initially, the shutter release was a lever on the shutter housing. This made holding the camera firmly and tripping the shutter awkward to do and from the 1930s it became common to have a second shutter release on the camera body connected to the shutter release on the shutter housing. The more sophisticated shutters also needed to be cocked by hand for each shot. This meant that there would be two levers on the shutter housing – a cocking lever and a firing lever. By the mid 1950s, both of these functions were incorporated into the camera body, advancing the film automatically cocking the shutter and the release button being incorporated into the camera body. Both these developments relied on improvements to the design of the shutter. This was coupled to the advent of cameras that were rigidly connected to the lens – no need to open the camera for use and no bellows behind the lens/shutter.

In parallel to the development of escarpment shutters that sit within the lens, focal plane shutters were developed. The name ‘focal plane’ means that the shutter is very close to the film/plate. These shutters usually consist of two blinds that travel across the film/plate, the gap between the blinds allowing the light to reach the film in a controlled manner.

These focal plane shutters allow much faster exposures than the leaf shutters do. 1/1000 seconds was usual at the time that 1/200 seconds was the limit of a leaf shutter. Modern focal plane shutters can achieve 1/8000 seconds and faster. The reason for the higher speeds is that the shutter blinds do not have to move all that fast. On my Zenit E, the shutter blinds move 36 mm in 1/30 second which is a lot slower than the shutter blades in a leaf shutter move. The high speed of the exposure is achieved by using a very narrow gap between the blinds. With cloth blinds, the limit seems to be about 1/1000 seconds but with metal blinds 1/2000 was commonplace and 1/8000 is now usual.

In the early 1920s, a significant advance in camera design was the Leica made by the microscope company Ernst Leitz. This Leica used ciné film which is a lot cheaper to buy than film taped to backing paper and rolled onto spools. This design also meant that the negatives had to be enlarged. The Leica was not the first camera to use ciné film but it was the first sophisticated camera by a reputable maker. This Leica was followed by two very significant developments. The first was Zeiss Ikon’s competitor – the Contax. The Contax was significant for two reasons – the metal bladed, vertical travel focal plane shutter and the fact that it eventually gave rise to the standard SLR concept. The second significant development was the Retina camera made in Germany for Kodak – this used the new 135 type cassette holding 35 mm ciné film. The film was exactly the same as the film Leica had been using for ten years but was now available retail in a daylight loading cassette – the same as it still used today. Prior to the Retina, Leica and Contax users had to buy bulk film and manually load it into proprietary cassettes.

After World War II, Germany was divided into two countries. The eastern part – the German Democratic Republic or DDR colloquially known as East Germany – contained the Contax factory. The East German part of Zeiss Ikon developed the Contax rangefinder camera into the Contax S which was the first commercial 35 mm SLR camera. This Contax S design was used with little change by Praktica, Pentax, Nikon, Canon, Olympus and a host of other companies.

As well as the development of advanced cameras such as rangefinders and SLRs, there was also the development of even better simple point-and-shoot cameras. These are really a development of the early Kodak box cameras. In the days of folding cameras, they would be simple, with a non-focusing lens and a single speed shutter. After WWII, these developed into rigid versions that were much the same. In the early 1960s, Kodak took the film cassette concept further and produce 126 and 110 film cartridges which could be dropped into the camera with no need to thread the film or rewind it when finished. These became immensely popular. 126 cartridges used a version of 35 mm film – the perforations were different – and were capable of much the same quality as other 35 mm cameras.

110 cartridges used 16 mm film. The use of much smaller film meant that much more enlargement was required so image quality took a big hit. For holiday snaps, this did not matter too much and was compensated for by the much smaller camera but 110 film always had a limited appeal. Other film developments were worse. Disc cameras used film glued onto a circular disc. The cameras were necessarily larger than 110 cameras but with equally poor image quality.

APS (Advanced Photography System) cameras could have been a major advance but came along just before digital photography did. APS offered two advantages. The film stayed permanently in the cassette even after development, so was protected from damage. The other advantage comes from the APS cameras rather than the film and that was the possibility to choose from three image formats on a shot by shot basis. Unfortunately, this format choice depended on masking the film so two of the formats effectively reduced the film size and thus image quality.

At the same time as Kodak were working on new and better film formats, camera makers were working on better camera technology. Once automatic loading of film, automatic film advance and automatic rewind became cheap and usual, there was no advantage in the more expensive cartridges and discs. When coupled with good automatic exposure and automatic focus, point-and-shoot cameras rivalled expensive cameras for image quality coupled with great ease of use.

Then digital technology came along and interesting cameras were no longer made (of course they were and I have owned five. I just cannot see the joy in collecting them).

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