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Buying used cameras

This picture taken with a film camera 20 years ago, when this was still a lens worth buying.

It is just as easy to fall in love with a good camera as a bad one

This is the first in what might be a series of articles on how to actually evaluate used cameras. This covers some general principles common to most 35mm and medium-format cameras. Film-testing cameras is stultifying, expensive, and time-consuming. Unless you really have a chance to develop test negatives immediately, you will miss the return period for the camera. So to be practical, let’s at least take some steps to rule out cameras that have obvious problems.

How to check a camera

The following checklists will help illustrate important points to consider and their relative importance. If you are looking at a collectible item, though, all bets may be off.

ConsiderationWhat to checkWhat it means
Body integrity (plastic)Cracks in camera bodies can cause issues with light-tightness, and in extreme cases, with structural integrity. Note that most higher-end cameras in the 1980s and on had plastic covers that look like metal, usually on a metal chassis.Cracked plastic generally cannot be repaired. As long as the camera is light-tight, you should be ok. And in most instances, plastic covers are not used as light seals.
Body integrity (metal)Bent metal covers, traumaIn general, the only metal trauma that matters is the one that causes misalignment of the lens and film plane. Pretty much anything else is cosmetic.
Missing controlsMissing button and knobs can introduce functional challenges. It’s pretty normal for covers like the ones on hot shoes, viewfinders, and flash synch outlets to have been lost over the years.If a non-critical button or switch is missing, you may or may not be able to live with that. Be aware that some missing parts are part of weatherproofing.
Body coatingsRubberized coatings can get nasty. Who thought this was a good idea?The selection of these materials in the 1990s is befuddling, but many times simply rubbing sticky coatings off with a cloth and alcohol can be a solution. Just be careful of any painted-on markings.
Light sealsIf these gaskets around the inside of the back door and around the film reminder window are in bad shape, you will get light leaks.Replacing light seals is labor intensive and within the capabilities of moderately skilled people. The materials are cheap. I would just tape over the film reminder window.
Film railsInside the back of the camera, there are (usually metal) rails. Check to make sure these are not scratched.For reasons known only to Nikon and the Almighty, paint often transfers from the camera pressure plate to the rails and manifests as a black spot or two. Not harmful.
ViewfinderIn general, viewfinders do not affect pictures, although haze, fungus, and misaligned viewfinder elements can make shooting less fun. LED/LCD elements should work; LCD displays should not be bleeding.Be ready to live with the state of the viewfinder; very few cameras have viewfinders that are simple enough for a user to clean safely, especially where exposed beamsplitter mirrors are present.
SLR MirrorSLR mirrors should flip back down after shooting a picture. Some very old SLRs like Exaktas – and some medium-format cameras may require the film to be wound to return the mirror.Stuck mirrors are usually caused by bad light foam around the focusing screen. On some motorized SLRs, a stuck mirror may be symptomatic of a burned-out motor.
Light meterWith batteries (if needed), the light meter should respond to various light levels. With the shutter speed set to the reciprocal of the ISO (for example, 1/125 for 100 ISO), you should get a reading of f/11 or f/16 in bright light outdoors.Meters have some adjustability, but many older types of photocells decay over time. Sometimes you can compensate by changing the ISO setting to fool the meter. If it’s a fully mechanical camera, you can of course use an external meter.
ShutterShutter should fire on all manual speeds. Blades should be free of oil or rust. At the synch speed (or 1/60), you should be able to make out the entire scene looking through the back of the camera and pressing the button.Shutter repairs are best done by professionals; amateur repairs generally do not stay fixed. A non-functioning shutter should be considered a show-stopper.
Iris ActuatorOn an SLR, the actuator is what pushes the iris closed to the selected aperture. If you change the aperture on an SLR lens and shoot, you should see the iris stopping down to sizes that correspond to aperture numbers.Generally, if this is not working, it is due to mechanical faults deep within the camera. If this is not working, then it’s game over.
Film driveThe camera’s film drive should work when you operate the winding lever (or if motorized, should operate when you press the shutter release). Rewind crank (if so equipped) should turn smoothly.Film drive issues are generally beyond reasonable repair.

How to check a lens

ConsiderationWhat to checkWhat it means
ClarityGlass should be reasonably clean and clear (see next section)On all but the simplest lenses, cleaning glass may require expensive professional help. Some things cannot be fixed. The effects of some things are exaggerated.
Iris/ApertureThe iris should be free of oil. All blades should be present. On an SLR, the iris should snap open and closed freely.Iris repairs are generally simple in themselves but require inordinate effort to reach the relevant assembly in the lens.
FocusingFocusing action should be reasonably smooth and not too stiff. Focusing ring should not feel loose. Rubber grip rings should stay on.Focusing rings can be re-lubricated; however, there is a danger that the helicoid will not be reassembled correctly. Many focusing mechanisms use multiple points where the thread could start. Rubber grip rings can be fixed in a lot of instances with rubber cement.
Infinity focusGenerally, when the lens is on ∞, the focusing aid in the viewfinder should line up on a super-distant object.This is mainly true for prime lenses; zooms almost never focus at a hard infinity stop. If you reach focus on an “infinite” object a little before the lens scale reads ∞, especially on a zoom, you should be ok. On rangefinder cameras, you might not be ok. Do note that on SLRs, the “misalignment” at infinity may be your camera’s mirror bumper.
Filter ringFilter rings should be round and able to accept filters of the stated size.Minor bends in filter rings are not a big problem and happen to a lot of people. You can tell there is a very subtle bend sometimes because the filter threads will have a bare-metal, “worn” spot. But the bottom line is that if it accepts a B+W filter, it is not significant. Hoya and Kenko filters have looser threads and will fit rings that are slightly more “out of true.”
Inscriptions/EngravingsShould be legibleThese are purely cosmetic.

What is “good” glass?

The most agonizing part of buying used lenses is figuring out if the glass is “good.”

Clarity. A lens is generally clear enough when you open the iris, look through the back. point it at a halogen light bulb, and don’t see an obvious defect. LEDs are not a good test because no lens passes them. Every lens has a dispersion of 1-10% per internal surface, and LEDs make even new, high-end lenses look nasty 100% of the time. A few dust specks are normal. Even new lenses have them. A film of dust may call for cleaning.

Scratches. In general, scratches are not good on lenses. A couple of barely-visible marks in the coating on the front or rear of a lens is nothing to worry a lot about. A nest of fine scratches is. Cleaning marks are scratches. That seems like a euphemism, but they are unintentional and generally not in the same class as a scratch that can catch your fingernail. A couple of fine marks inside really expensive lenses is usually an artifact of manufacturing (hand-grinding). Recoating a lens only works for the most minor marks, and there are few people in the world who do it. It is also beyond justification cost-wise for any lens that costs less than a thousand dollars.

Haze. This is tricky. Twenty years ago, I would have said that haze is not a big deal. But as lubricants in old lenses break down, or as rare-earth metals corrode, it can be permanent. Do not assume that merely because it’s haze and not fungus that it can be fixed. Sometimes you run into mechanical problems – like the fact that hazed elements are milled into a metal barrel that does not simply come open. The same sealed-in haze thing can happen to viewfinders as well.

Fungus. A surprising amount of fungus comes clean – but you won’t know until you’ve tried it, which often takes an inordinate amount of lens disassembly (fungus usually strikes the middle of the lens, near the aperture, since that is a usual entry point for humidity). A lot of lenses coming out of Japan in the 2020s have really bad fungus. If fungus is minor, and you can live with it, great. If an element is overgrown, repair costs may be impractical. Fungus looks like cotton threads or sometimes little stars. It usually grows from edge to center.

Separation. This is a really ugly thing. It turns out that a lot of old lenses had elements cemented with nothing more than Canada Balsam, which is clarified tree sap. If you see discolored areas at the periphery of lenses, the lens is a goner unless you want to spend megabucks having the elements cleaned and recemented.

Schneideritis. Named for the fabled optical producer of Bad-Kreuznach, Germany, this is a condition where the blacking paint on the edges of a lens element craze, making it look like the lens is full of little stars. Minolta brought this to a high art with the CLE-era 28mm lens. This is correctable as long as the lens cell can be disassembled, but it has a nasty habit of showing up where a cell is milled shut.

Bubbles. Bubbles are completely normal on older lenses. According to myth, it was a sign of quality.

Pits. Sometimes you get pits and pops on front elements. These do not actually require abuse; in some cases, they are the product of pinholes (that were always in lens coatings) allowing tiny amounts of moisture to reach rare-earth metals in glass which oxidize and pop. Although these are intellectually challenging, they are in almost all cases harmless.