A Practical Guide To Buying Cheap Cameras From eBay & Second-Hand Shops

John Duder has been perusing eBay and frequenting second-hand shops in search of inexpensive camera gear. Find out how he got on and, you might learn a thing-or-two from his experience, too.

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Stephanie Dubois photographed with a Praktica Nova and Russian Helios 58mm f/2 lens.

Stephanie Dubois photographed with a Praktica Nova and Russian Helios 58mm f/2 lens.

 

I’ve always had a soft spot for cameras that I remember from the past, and I still own most of the cameras I’ve used over the years. A few got away when I was young and lacking money, as selling one camera helped pay for the next one. And one digital camera has migrated to another branch of the family.


It’s only recently, though, that I’ve done more than pick up the occasional interesting bit of metal and glass from secondhand shops, and have started to graze eBay on a slack day.

So, with the prospect of time off work over Christmas, and the potential desire to try something different, here’s a partisan, biased and practical guide to playing with cheap cameras.

 

Choose Something…

There’s a bewildering range of stuff available, so I’m going to suggest that you do one of three things in choosing a camera. First, buy one that you remember: if your Dad owned a Kodak Retinette, see if you can lay hands on one of those.

 

2 My Dad’s Retinette, with which I won my first photographic prize, early in 1970.

My Dad's Retinette, with which I won my first photographic prize, early in 1970.

 

Second, keep an eye open in antique centres and junk shops. Pick a body up, check if it’s got film in it (a surprising number have), and see if it works. Quite a few will be terminally jammed: repairable, but probably not worth spending money on, as camera repairers are skilled craftspeople, and a fair rate for making an elderly Praktica work is likely to be five times the cost of the wreckage.

And third, have a look at the golden oldies - the cameras that people wax lyrical about on the web. Beware, though: some people are very easily impressed! But there are an awful lot of cameras out there that work, within certain parameters…

 

Good Runner But Needs Some Attention

Actually, this car-orientated description applies to most older cameras. You shouldn’t expect everything to work perfectly all the time. Expect to lose a proportion of shots on every film - and you may not notice this happening at the time (though it may be only too apparent!)

 

3 Praktica Nova – not quite two-a-penny on eBay, but there are a lot of them around.

Praktica Nova - not quite two-a-penny on eBay, but there are a lot of them around.

 

For instance, I’ve acquired a couple of Praktica Nova bodies. One works pretty decently, but the other one locks up every time you try to take a picture at 1/125 second. Turning the shutter speed dial to another setting tends to let the mirror back down, and photography can resume.

My proudest acquisitions are an Exakta VX1000 (which I wrote about some while ago, HERE) and an Exa 500 (my first SLR as an Exa). Both work pretty well, though the VX can sound a bit asthmatic, and occasionally the mirror doesn’t come down immediately after you take a picture.

And a recently acquired Edixa body winds on every time you use the lever, but the shutter mechanism simply unwinds as soon as you release it around 35% of the time.

 

4 Exa 500 and Exakta VX1000 – a direct competitor for the Praktica on the left, and a full system camera, the last variant in the first SLR system.

Exa 500 and Exakta VX1000 - a direct competitor for the Praktica above, and a full system camera, the last variant in the first SLR system.

 

But they all still take pictures. Imagine driving a Mark I Cortina with bald tyres and dodgy brakes. It may not be sensible, but it can move you from A to B. Mostly…

If you can’t live with that sort of thing, best not to try to use an older camera beyond a nostalgic first film. And if you want to drive an older car, borrow one instead of buying it! You know you want digital radio, aircon, and cruise control on the way to work…

All is not lost if you acquire a complete brick, though. Older cameras are often very tactile objects, and pretty, in an old-fashioned engineering sort of way. One on the mantelpiece may attract attention: one on an occasional table will be picked up and fondled by visitors.

 

Ergonomics

Er - yes. Don’t expect that everything will fall to hand as well as you’re used to it doing on your current camera. Ergonomics is a relatively new discipline, and while there are really intriguing ways to operate some older cameras (running your right forefinger across the winding knob on a Leica to advance the film, for instance) there are some absolute clunkers.

 

5 Werramat – a front view with the lens hood and cap on the table, and a side view, showing the tiny space for fingers to get at the focus ring – the narrow milled ring behind the lens hood.

Werramat - a front view with the lens hood and cap on the table, and a side view showing the tiny space for fingers to get at the focus ring – the narrow milled ring behind the lens hood.

 

Ever heard of Werra cameras? No? Made by the East German Carl Zeiss company, they are thoroughly ingenious and delightfully engineered. The designer would, I think, be working for Apple if he was alive now: a Werra is a very solid and satisfying thing to hold, and capable of outstandingly good results (the most common lens is an f/2.8 50mm Tessar).

The Lomography site praises them to the skies (as it should: their usual fare of leaky light traps and dodgy lenses is easy to outdo) but ignores a few points.

The very compact bodies and clever winding ring around the base of the lens mean that you can’t wind on without changing your grip on the body: you might think that you can wrap your left hand round it, but you will either cover part of the viewfinder, or your right hand will be in the way. The neat and excellent lens hood (which doubles as a lens cover - it’s reversible, like many modern lens hoods, and a metal screw cap on the thread covers the front element) is so steeply angled that you need small fingers and a vice-like grip to move the focus ring when it’s attached. The ingenious leaf shutter, speeded to 1/750 second, is, I believe, particularly difficult to strip and service, unlike the simpler West German equivalents.

And the shutter release on a Braun Paxette is neatly close to the shutter mechanism but is easiest to trip with your middle finger.

 

6 Paxette – the meter and rangefinder on this particular example haven’t worked for years, but the shutter and lens are in excellent condition.

Paxette - the meter and rangefinder on this particular example haven’t worked for years, but the shutter and lens are in excellent condition.

 

But then, I believe that the accelerator pedal in a classic Bentley is in between the clutch and the brake, so let’s not be silly about this!

 

Costs

My very rough rule of thumb is not to expect anything to work at under a tenner. Add postage and a film/developing, and you’re looking at £30 to £35 minimum. Obviously almost every camera on eBay is sold without a warranty, and you shouldn’t have excessive expectations!

If you buy one of the classics, like a Pentax K1000 or Spotmatic, you will pay significantly more. Part of the market is that where there’s more demand than supply, the price goes up. Often, a bargain price comes with a caveat – meter not working, or some minor mechanical or optical defect.

That sort of thing won’t matter if you want to play, occasionally, or use the camera as a prop, or for display, but could get annoying if you plan to use it regularly.

 

7 Ultimate ‘prop’ camera, the Polaroid, wielded by model Alicia Black.

Ultimate 'prop' camera, the Polaroid, wielded by model Alicia Black.

 

Special Circumstances

Here’s a thought… It is very worthwhile to have something in your photographic armoury that you can view as disposable, or, at least, riskable. Do you want to take your £1k DSLR and lens onto a spray-drenched seafront and test the weatherproofing? Possibly not. But a £15 camera is pretty much disposable, and so I often carry one when I know I shall be heading somewhere dangerous for high tech, or simply a bit risky. I have no qualms leaving a Praktica in my locker at the swimming pool, for instance.

 

Hints And Tips

If you can handle the camera before buying, try the following tests.

Wind and release the shutter, at a variety of speeds. Slow speeds should be discernibly longer, and you will usually hear the clockwork whirring.

 

8 Older camera have odd shutter dials. This Edixa Prismat has fast speeds on a dial that rotates when the shutter fires – this was common up until the late Fifties. Slow speeds – though only from ½ second to 1/8 are set with the lever below the dial.

This older camera has odd shutter dials. This Edixa Prismat has fast speeds on a dial that rotates when the shutter fires - this was common up until the late Fifties. Slow speeds - though only from ½ second to 1/8 are set with the lever below the dial.

 

Open the camera back, and set the lens to maximum aperture. Point the camera at the light and repeat the test - you should see daylight through the lens.

If it’s an SLR, check that the lens stops down when you release the shutter (note: older cameras and cruder ones will have preset lenses, without automatic diaphragms. There’s less to go wrong, but they are harder work to use. The most common examples are Zenith E and B bodies). Some lenses are better than others - I have two Meyer Domiplan lenses that are permanently stuck at f/2.8. A cheaper alternative to the Zeiss lenses for Prakticas and Exaktas, the cost-cutting is showing a bit these days.

With focal plane shutters, inspect the blinds, both before and after winding the shutter for damage and holes. A little wrinkling may be fine: a hole isn’t!

 

9 Slightly wrinkled second curtain on my Exakta doesn’t seem to have any adverse effect on pictures.

The slightly wrinkled second curtain on my Exakta doesn’t seem to have any adverse effect on pictures.

 

Most cameras from the Sixties or earlier won’t have been used much. A good first try to getting them working well is to wind and fire them a few dozen times – regular use is a great way to keep anything in shape.

Note that there are sometimes big changes in the line of cameras from a manufacturer that you might need to know about. For instance, Pentax cameras changed from a screw-thread lens mount to a bayonet around 1980, and there’s no compatibility between the two mounts. Similarly, Praktica produced a much more modern series of cameras from the mid-Seventies, the L series: though the mount was the same, the overall design and build were radically different. The cameras work perfectly well, but are much less of a classic experience to take pictures with!

 

10 The East German Beirette is very basic – shutter speeds go only from 1/30 to 1/125. It was intended for snapshots – if you set the shutter speed according to the film speed you were using, the weather symbols made adjustment pretty simple. Apertures show on the underside of the lens.

The East German Beirette is very basic - shutter speeds go only from 1/30 to 1/125. It was intended for snapshots - if you set the shutter speed according to the film speed you were using, the weather symbols made adjustment pretty simple. Apertures show on the underside of the lens.

 

Learn to live with the charming quirks that can include dust in the viewfinder, scratched lenses, and inaccurate (or no) light meter. Use your modern camera to take light readings, and add a little exposure: negative film, black and white or colour, tolerates overexposure but not underexposure, the exact opposite of a sensor.

Avoid high precision images, at least until you know the camera. Focus error isn’t an issue with landscapes in sunshine: portraits at maximum aperture will be terribly taxing and will show up problems with focussing screen position and your own technique. Leave the clever stuff until later! To be honest, unless you have been using a manual-focus SLR regularly and quite frequently, it is going to be a few films before you can trust your technique for a shot at three feet and f/4.

Autofocus? Nah. Don’t bother. Anything AF and cheap will also be plastic and rather grotty: the delight, for me, of older cameras is the way they feel as engineered objects.

 

11 A front view of the Edixa (wearing an East German Tessar lens) shows the shutter release on the front plate, to the right of the lens and prism. Peeling and missing leatherette is to be expected with cheap eBay cameras of this age. A tube of Evo Stik can be a useful investment…

A front view of the Edixa (wearing an East German Tessar lens) shows the shutter release on the front plate, to the right of the lens and prism. Peeling and missing leatherette is to be expected with cheap eBay cameras of this age. A tube of Evo Stik can be a useful investment…

 

Materials - The Consumables

If you have a developing tank in the loft, this is the time to get it out and play again. You can get darkroom supplies from a variety of places: local camera shops may stock them, and can certainly get them in for you: my own preferred source, because it’s close to where I live and stocks just about everything, is Ag Photographic - they do mail order, including develop, scan, and/or printing.

By the way - if an article on what to do in order to develop your own films would go down well with you, please say so in a comment! It can be done…

 

12 Chelz poses for a selfie-style image with a late-model Polaroid camera. Some studios have a selection of old cameras for decoration, and maybe as props…

Chelz poses for a selfie-style image with a late-model Polaroid camera. Some studios have a selection of old cameras for decoration, and maybe as props…

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17.

Over the last year or so, he’s been writing articles for ePHOTOzine, as well as being a member of the Critique Team. He’s also been running occasional lighting workshops and providing one-to-one photographic tuition.

He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

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Comments


dudler Plus
16 994 1552 England
11 Dec 2019 10:51AM
I apologise for not having more pictures taken with the cameras in the article... Maybe they will follow soon.

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altitude50 15 16.8k United Kingdom
11 Dec 2019 10:59AM
I agree with all the above. I would add, from my own point of view that basic 35mm Voigtlanders are a very sensible buy, they look good, are very well made, most of the Vito B in various forms are very reliable and the Color Skopar lens is excellent.
Also I never test the self timer on old mechanical cameras. You are not likely to want to use it. (use your digital camera for selfies) if the clockwork sticks (often) then you will not be able to use the shutter without expert dismantling.
This morning I bought a nice clean looking Mamiya Sekor 500DTL plus lens and erc with a spare f2.8 Tessar lens at my local car boot sale before the rain set in!
The camera mechanics work well but the exposure meter doesn't.
dudler Plus
16 994 1552 England
11 Dec 2019 1:41PM
Duff exposure meters are more or less par for the course: selenium cells may just have died: powered CdS meters often suffer battery issues - if you can get one ot fit in the first place.
altitude50 15 16.8k United Kingdom
11 Dec 2019 3:44PM
Not too bad for 10 !
21670_1576079074.jpg

dudler Plus
16 994 1552 England
11 Dec 2019 4:02PM
I hope we'll see some pictures from it one Film Friday soon...
mistere Plus
6 4 3 England
12 Dec 2019 9:27AM
Fascinating stuff John. There are far more of these treasures on ebay and similar
sites than i expected. Hundreds of them, it's very dangerous browsing SmileSmile
An added advantage with many older film cameras is that they are lovely .
Working or not they are aesthetically pleasing, so ideal props, and they
feel and handle very differently to modern digital cameras. Delicate and complicated
mechanisms but housed in solid reliable cases that were built to last. I doubt that there will
be many working 50 year old digital cameras in the future.
If anyone reading this has only ever used a digital camera I recommend trying a roll or two of film.
It makes you think a lot more about what you shoot and how you shoot it. You cant instantly review
your images so you don't know what you've captured till the film's developed. It is surprisingly rewarding.

Dave.
dudler Plus
16 994 1552 England
12 Dec 2019 10:24AM
Wise words, Dave. And I KNOW you know all about the perils of eBay!

I sometimes feel it's a bit like walking a tightrope without a safety net: you have to trust in your own ability, intelligence, resourcefulness - and balance...
Kirkby 12 5 United Kingdom
13 Dec 2019 10:28AM
M42 screw lenses can be used on Pentax k bodies with an adaptor, and keep infinity focus. I have such an adaptor in my box of bits, and they are
available on ebay
GeorgeP Plus
12 57 24 United States
13 Dec 2019 2:47PM

Quote:M42 screw lenses can be used on Pentax k bodies with an adapter, and keep infinity focus. I have such an adapter in my box of bits, and they are
available on ebay


Caveat emptor when purchasing those M42/P-K adapters on eBay. There is a great variety and an wide range of prices. However, this is a precision piece that must meet three functions: maintain focus at infinity, easily attach to the lens, and most importantly, secure to the body but easily detach from the camera body without need to resort to screwdrivers and pliers. The Pentax official adapter is recommended - even if it is harder to find and does cost many times the price of the other bands. Grin
GeorgeP Plus
12 57 24 United States
14 Dec 2019 1:33AM
Great article and it keeps raising additional thoughts.
I am a fan of old Yashica cameras. (I had the Yashica Minister II as a teen in the 60s and a couple of those photos are posted in my portfolio). Yashica rangefinders are more reasonably priced [cheaper] than the Canon/Nikon/Pentax SLRs and the lenses are good. The TLRs like the Yashica Mat can still be expensive but for some reason, the 45 which is a TLR with fittings to allow it to shoot 35 mm film remains cheap - probably because it doesnt appeal to purists. Like many old cameras, the snag is that most dont have built-in light meters and we've become lazy. Even those with silicon meters have long ceased to function. So, we need to read the guidelines that come with the film . . . . and remember the sunny 16 rule.
dudler Plus
16 994 1552 England
14 Dec 2019 8:18AM
Or even buy a separate meter, if you don't have one already... I have two Sekonic meters, on fro spot readings, which was costly, and a more moderately priced one that sort-of does incident readings. But my favourite meter remains a Weston Master V, which I had fettled by a firm in Colchester a few years ago. The Invercone (and only the big plastic clip-on for a Weston is actually an Invercone) is the ultimate device for taking incident readings.

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