How to Buy Film Cameras Online & on Ebay- The Complete Guide
At Paramount Camera Repair we are constantly asked about buying film cameras online, pricing used film gear and why the prices of film cameras vary so much online. Many of our customers buy broken film cameras for cheap on eBay and send them in to us for repairs, CLA (Clean Lube & Adjust) and Light Seals.
If you're in the market for a used film camera, whether it's a Canon AE-1, Pentax K1000 or a Medium Format Mamiya RB67, it can be scary and confusing when you see the same sell for $50 or $300. And with tons of sellers claiming MINT and A+++ and EX+++ condition but then you get a camera with fungus or shutter issues, it can be even scarier to buy online.
So what's the deal with some sellers?
How can you safely buy a film camera online?
How can you minimize the risk?
Why are prices all over the place?
We will answer all these questions and more in this article. With years of experience rebuilding, cleaning and servicing hundreds of different models of 35mm film cameras, medium format cameras and large format shutters, we are going to give you the no-bull run down on how to buy vintage and film gear online.
Disclaimer: There are definitely many sellers and people with vintage gear that are going to be upset with us spilling the tea on selling film gear and the pricing game that many of them play. There are also sellers that are just unaware of how to price their gear or are intentionally trying to play dumb to sell at a higher price and not disclose the issues their gear has. And then there is the unscrupulous sellers that claim their gear is "mint" or serviced" or "tested" just to ask a premium, when it is in fact none of those things.
Why film cameras need servicing regularly
Unlike modern DSLR cameras (they do need some cleaning), film cameras used to be serviced regularly especially if not used for a period of time. The longer it sits, the worse it is. Time is the biggest killer of film cameras for 3 reasons.
Lubricant - The lubricants used in film camera gears, levers and mechanics turns into, essentially, peanut butter over time. It makes gears and levers stick instead of work like they should. It slows shutters and jams mechanics. This is where a CLA (Clean, Lube and Adjust) comes in. More on that later.
Corrosion - Corrosion grows over time and wreaks havoc on wiring, meters and electronics. Any moisture or battery acid leaking will spread and get worse the longer it sits. And many cameras were put away for 10+ years with a battery in them.
- Light seals - They are made of foam and over time, they turn sticky, crumbly and fall apart. As they break down they make a mess and need to be cleaned off and replaced to avoid light leaks and other issues.
Some of the most common terms you will come across and what they mean.
CLA - Stands for Clean, Lube and Adjust. What exactly this includes can vary greatly but it should include a full disassembly, cleaning all mechanical components, cleaning prism and viewfinder, reassembling with proper lubrication and checking and setting the shutter speeds and light meter calibration. Unfortunately some sellers consider spraying oil inside a camera until it stops jamming and cleaning the outside a CLA. It is not. And many parts of a films camera actually need to be perfectly dry to function properly, with oiling only in very specific spots with very specific lubricant. So the spray and pray method almost always does more harm than good. Unfortunately many websites and forums boast these hack repairs and they almost always make things worse.
Light Seals - These are the foam seals that are found in the back of the camera film compartment and film door. They can also be found in other areas of the camera depending on the model. When they age, they get sticky, compress, fall apart and stop working.
Mirror Foam - This is the light seal damper foam that can usually be found sticky, crumbling or missing entirely in the top of the mirror box.
Light Meter - Used to find a proper exposure, these can be powered a variety of ways from no power needed to batteries. They can be a needle and scale type or LED meters. On some cameras the metering directly controls the aperture or aperture and shutter speed. Accurate metering is also needed for program and auto modes. Many older film cameras have meter issues or they don't work at all. This can be a simple fix or impossible to economically repair. It's usually best to look for one with a working meter.
We will use a Pentax K1000 for an example in this. But it applies to all cameras. There are basically 2 price points for all film cameras, each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Needing repair or not functioning being the low end. Serviced, working like new being the high end. And various degrees of condition in-between. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to the functionality of the camera, not the cosmetic condition.
$40 - Pentax K1000 that is jammed, won't fire, won't advance and dirty. Needs repairs and servicing.
$80-$100 - Pentax K1000 that hasn't had any servicing recently but fires, seems to have decently accurate shutter speeds, somewhat clean. This is the price of a working K1000 with a functional meter but has not had any CLA or servicing done. It will likely need it in the near future but is currently working.
$240-$280 - Pentax K1000 that is 100% functional, working like new. Has been CLA'd (Actually CLAd not just claiming it is), has new light seals and mirror foam installed and has had the shutter speeds and light meter adjusted and calibrated. These should also be complete clean. No dust in viewfinder, focus screen, film back or prism. Outside cleaned.
Now the cosmetic condition can place the camera in a different price point too. One that works but is dented up and covered in scratches or has broken parts will decrease it's value. But don't fall for paying a high price for mint condition camera, that doesn't work or hasn't been serviced.
The reason a serviced camera is $280 and not $80 is because a CLA typically costs $140 to $180 on a Pentax K1000. Light seals are $90. So you have $230 to $270 labor done to it.
So buying a used old one for $40 or $80 and having it serviced, is a great way to get a K1000 that looks and works like new. Or you can buy one pre serviced from a reputable camera repair shop.
Selling tactics to avoid
There are many sellers to avoid and many that are honest. Some of the common tactics that sellers use to inflate the price of film cameras can be easily spotted and avoided. All of the below types also have good honest people in them that price appropriately. But many are just looking to take advantage of beginners in film photography and people who don't know better.
The Uneducated Seller - This is typically someone selling an old camera a relative left them, they found at their grandparents house or they found in their closet from years ago, and don't know much about what they're selling in general. Usually have been sitting for 10 or 15 or 20 years. These cameras may still advance and fire, but they absolutely will need a CLA and new light seals.
These people typically hop on eBay or online and search for the highest price people are selling the camera for and then price theirs the same. Not having any understanding why some are that expensive and that theirs is far from worth that.
They will often use claims like "hasn't been used in about 15 years but works perfect" or "In excellent condition. Seems to work perfect but don't know much about it"
This is fine if they are selling at the $40 to $60 price point as you are buying something that needs servicing and may even need repairs. But they are usually trying to sell it to unsuspecting buyers for top dollar.
This has become very common on facebook marketplace and kijiji. We have people come in the shop all the time wanting us to buy their camera off them for $280. Not only would that leave no room to make any money for us, but their camera in it's current condition is only worth $40. They are usually offended and say they found them online for $280. After trying to sell it online for awhile, they typically come back and take a more reasonable offer.
The Collector - This one can be hit and miss. Some collectors have an abundant knowledge of their cameras and are honest in their description of it. They use their cameras frequently which keeps them operating accurately.
Others are a lot like the "Uneducated Seller". They think their cameras are worth top dollar but they have been sitting on a shelf for 10 years and need to be serviced. They will often claim their cameras work perfect. Well cared for. In excellent condition. Never had issues with it. etc. So if they are pricing them appropriately, go for it. But if they are asking top dollar and when asked if it's been CLA'd or shot lately, they say "no but it was working perfect the last time I used it", I'd avoid it.
The Ebay Reseller - Usually selling regular low price point cameras in various forms of functionality, cleaned up externally and selling for top dollar. They like to use terms like "Super Rare" or "MINT +++" or "Almost Mint". Not that these are bad descriptions....if they were true. Many have started even claiming "Has had a CLA and ready to go."
We service hundreds of cameras that people have been bought as CLA'd and MINT off eBay that clearly have never been serviced. Or someone sprayed oil inside or in the bottom and cleaned the outside to look nice. They usually survive a few rolls of film then jam up. Or the shutter speeds are way out and pics come back over or under exposed.
Camera Stores - There are some great stores out there that specialize in selling good working film cameras. But most cameras stores are neither equipped or knowledgeable enough to properly test film cameras. Shutter speed testers and exposure testers are needed to properly test a camera. Most shops simply verify it advances, fires and meter seems to work. Now if they are transparent that it only seems to work and they tested it best they can and it's sold at an appropriate price, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You know what you're buying.
But many shops use a tactic of not outright lying, but just not mentioning any of the important details. They will clean up the outside and boast that it's in great shape. Talk about how well cared for it looks. But intentionally don't mention if the shutter speeds are accurate, if it's been serviced or CLAd recently, if the light seals have been replaced, etc. And they are usually asking for top dollar.
What to look for when buying Film Cameras
Obviously the best place to buy film cameras is from a trusted source. There are some excellent film camera shops that offer fair pricing and send their cameras that don't work to shops like ours for servicing so they can fairly ask top dollar for them, and only sell working cameras.
Here at Paramount Camera Repair, we have become known as one of Canada's best sources for fully serviced, guaranteed film cameras. We don't sell any film cameras As-Is or untested. All our cameras are serviced and tested, working like new. Backed with a 3 month repair warranty.
Here are some of the obvious things to look for. This can vary greatly based on the camera so these are just general things that apply to most 35mm Film Cameras.
Advance and Shutter Firing: This can be tested in person easily but is harder online. You have to depend on the seller guaranteeing they work and have been tested. In person, listen for a squealing or slow mirror. Lagging and sluggish shutter. Minolta cameras are prone to capacitor issues affecting firing and Canon AE-1 and other Canon bodies are prone to Canon's "Mirror squeal", indicating it needs a CLA.
Shutter Speeds: Always test all speeds, especially the slow speeds. 1s to 1/30s is the most problematic for sticking. The slow speed timer is very vulnerable to sticky lube, jamming and over oiling. And some shutter speeds are electronic below 1/30s and mechanical above that, like the Pentax 67 and 6x7 medium format cameras.. And some won't fire without power or a battery. So it's good to be sure it's working no matter what.
Sticky Mirror: A deteriorating mirror damper can cause the mirror to stick up but so can other mechanical and electrical issues that require a CLA or repair. This is super common on 35mm cameras.
Light Meter: Look for a guarantee that it works, if nothing else. It's easy to turn on or activate and move from a bright light to dark and see if the meter at least moves. This doesn't indicate accuracy but that it at least works. Cameras like the Olympus Trip 35 are trickier to test as the metering integrates with the aperture and the meter cells are prone to failure.
Light seals: Look close at signs of sticky foam transferring to the doors or signs of them missing completely. Some sellers will clean the old failing light seals off but not replace them. Many 35mm film cameras have light seals around the prism inside the top as well. So excessive crumbling and debris in the viewfinder can be an indication of that.
Corrosion: Take a close looks at screws and surfaces for corrosion or signs of corrosion that has been cleaned up. Moisture,especially over time, is a killer for film cameras and can cause fungus, rust and seized parts. It can also indicate a seller is lying about it having a CLA if there are some screwed that appear to have never been removed.
Buying film cameras can be tricky, especially online. We didn't dig into vetting sellers on eBay or online as that's a whole topic of it's own. But be sure to due some due diligence on the sellers feedback, previous sales and history on eBay before buying.
We decided to only sell serviced cameras so we can warranty them and there will be no confusion about what state the camera is in if bought from Paramount Camera Repair. Our cameras tend to be on the higher end of price scale but are on par with other cameras that are actually serviced and CLAd sold by other reputable shops. And they are still a great value if you are looking to skip having to have a camera you just bought serviced before using it or you just want to buy something that works like new and not worry about it working right.
Hopefully this guide will help you navigate purchasing your next camera and if you are looking for the best film cameras online, check out our collection of constantly updated 35mm film cameras medium format cameras and lenses here.