Buying Old Photographic Gear

Introduction

The purchase of older photographic equipment is one which, done well, can be infinitely rewarding. However, when done poorly, it has the potential to become a source of frustration, both financially and emotionally. This week, I’ve decided to share some of the things I have learnt over the course of ten years dealing with older equipment. I have attempted to write this so that it’s applicable to all old equipment (cameras, lenses and accessories such as flashguns).

Research

To avoid getting caught unawares, it’s a good idea to go shopping with a very clear idea of what you want. Looking through older books and magazines, as well as photography websites, may give you ideas on the type of equipment you want to buy. Once you’ve got some idea of what you want, it’s time to focus your research down to specific products.

Researching specific products is a doddle online, with a plethora of enthusiast sites and forums brimming with information. As with all good research, it’s best to cross reference between multiple sources to make sure you’re getting reliable and accurate information. Also take into consideration the subjectiveness of owner reviews; i.e., does the owner use their equipment the same way you intend to? Another important thing is to familiarise yourself with the basic operations (such as lens changing) of a range of cameras, so that you don’t have to consult your smartphone (and chew through your data allowance) every time you want to check something on an unfamiliar camera.

After deciding what you want, and whether or not you like it, the final thing to research is projected reliability. Again, forums and enthusiast sites are a good source of information. Sometimes, there may be design flaws which render all products in a series a risky proposition. Other times, a design flaw may have been rectified, such as in the case of the Leica R4: units with a serial number below 1600000 are considered unreliable, while those above are known to be quite reliable. It’s worth noting information like this down to take with you.

Where to Buy?

When dealing with older gear, there are three main sources of purchase: specialist photographic stores, second hand shops, and trading websites (or newspaper classifieds).

Specialist Stores

Specialist photographic stores are, obviously, the safest choice. Staff know what they are looking at, and will generally have a sound idea of the condition of the product throughout. As an additional bonus, there is often a degree of warranty cover (as well as the Consumer Act or your jurisdiction’s equivalent) to protect you in the event it does not work as described. They charge a premium over other sources, but it can be worth it for the peace of mind.

Second Hand Stores

“Caveat emptor” is the mentality you must take into any second hand store. Quite often, the staff may be unfamiliar with photographic equipment, or be going on the words of someone who walked in off the street claiming to have some knowledge on the subject. Returns may also be more difficult (or impossible) than with purchases made at a specialist store. That being said, some of my best purchases have been made at second hand stores. If you have done your research, take due care, and check equipment diligently, odds are you will leave with something of good quality at a good price.

Trading Sites and Classified Ads

Trading sites (i.e. eBay and its ilk) and newspaper classifieds range from being safe to being highly risky. Some specialist stores use trading sites and classifieds to clear esoteric or specialty items. These are usually a safe bet, and much the same as buying from an actual photographic store, just without having to leave your chair. Beware of the language barrier, though, as this may make resolving any issues difficult. Additionally, make sure you have read (and understood) their condition description legend, the item description (as detailed as possible) and that they have good quality photographs from all angles, including close-ups of any damage. Being familiar with their returns policy is a good insurance policy should it all go wrong.

At the other end of the spectrum are private sales. Take the same precautions as you would with any other private sale: check their feedback to get an idea of how trustworthy they are, make sure they have plenty of good pictures of the actual item being sold, and ensure the description is detailed. Generally: if there are no pictures, move on; if there are no good quality pictures, move on. Remember, it is very rare to find a returns policy in place for private sales, so unless they have written a great work of fiction for the item description, you have no recourse.

Print classifieds are on the face of it (strange as this may sound) riskier than buying online: there is generally no chance of seeing a good picture of the item, let alone a good description, in a once inch square box of text. However, unlike buying online, you may be able to negotiate to view the item and check it thoroughly before money changes hands.

Checking Appearance

Checking the appearance is elementary: check for dents, scrapes, cracks, residues and general wear. Dust is often to be expected, but beware that it may mask more serious defects. General wear is also expected (obviously), but anything that looks tatty on the outside is quite likely to be just as tatty (i.e. non-functioning or about to be non-functioning) on the inside.

On a camera body, look at the light seals around the mirror box (of an SLR) and inside the film compartment. Seals which are sticky and crumbling will need replacement (or, find another camera body).

Checking Lenses

Find a source of good light (like a window) and slowly move the lens around at various angles (front and, if possible, rear). You are looking for scratches and chips on the surface of the front and rear elements: walk away if they look deep, and run away if they go right through. AS you do this, look down the inside of the lens to look for internal damage. Delamination of lens elements will show up as a coloured splotch or shadow, while fungi will appear as roughly circular, filamentous growths. As a rule, I walk away from delamination, though I will tolerate light fungi (i.e. ones I can see through, which occupy less than 25% or so of the glass area).

As well as the glass, check the aperture mechanism, focus and zoom mechanism, and lens mount (as applicable). Operate the aperture ring while looking down the barrel: the aperture leaves should be free of oil or damage, and move smoothly, with a uniform shape in the centre, while the aperture ring  should move with minimal effort. Check the focus and zoom mechanism by running the controls through the full range of operation, noting any resistance (which usually indicates a lens has been dropped). Look through the back of the lens (preferably a camera viewfinder) to ensure things are moving in and out of focus as they should. It is normal for the image to be inverted when looking through the back of a lens. The lens mount should be flat and free of major scrapes, with any aperture indexing levers operating smoothly when gently brushed with a finger.

Checking Mechanicals

The simplest mechanical components to check are control dials, levers and buttons. Run them through their full range of operation, and note any resistance or jamming, which is a sign of internal damage. Check all doors and flaps for completeness, lack of damage and function. Damaged battery compartment doors are often not worth the fuss.

The critical mechanical check is the shutter, which is also a good time to check the film advance and mirror of an SLR. Operate the shutter at every shutter speed; since you generally  re-cock the shutter using the film advance, you will be checking the film advance between shutter speeds. Listen to the shutter for any sticking, especially at slow shutter speeds. On a mechanical shutter, sticking will be heard as a retardation or stopping of the timing gears. On an electronic shutter (when the battery is installed), you can crudely time slow speeds with your watch, as there is no timing gear to hear. Electronic shutters shouldn’t pose any major issues. Check the shutter curtains by looking at them for tears or dents. Check the mirror (of an SLR) by listening for operation during shutter release, and looking over it to ensure that it has not lost its silvering or gained any residues from defective light seals.

Checking Electronics

Inspect the battery compartment for any signs of leakage or corrosion on the contacts. This can be removed with a wire brush, but it can be tricky, depending on the size and shape of the compartment. Provided there is a battery, check that everything powers up as it should, and that all screens, indicator lights and switches perform as expected. If there is not a battery, but the overall condition seems okay, I will generally buy it on an “as is, where is” basis.

Prices

For reference, I use eBay and specialist stores. These provide a good indication of fair prices for equipment in a wide variety of conditions. They are also an opportunity to price spare parts and accessories, so that the true cost of an equipment purchase can be ascertained. If something is over priced and open to little or no negotiation, I will move on. If I am buying on an “as is, where is” basis,  I aim to pay 10-25% below an item’s market value, provided the overall condition is reasonable.

Summary

Taking appropriate precautions, the purchase of second hand photographic equipment can yield some impressive gear. The most important things to do are learn a bit about what you’re looking at, choose a reliable place to buy, check the items thoroughly, and ensure you aren’t paying more than you ought to.

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