Are film cameras grossly over valued today?

I don’t know what percentage of film cameras collectors actually use them.  But the value of a camera is at least in part related to its capacity to be used … as a camera, and help the photographer shoot good, beautiful, interesting pictures.  Without film, film cameras are little more than paper weights.

Contax T3 – cameras proposed for sale on eBay 0n 4/24/2020

So if film was to become unavailable, the value of film cameras would change. I don’t believe it’s going to happen anytime soon – Kodak  (Altaris) and Ilford (Harman) are still committed to film because it’s their core business, and Fujifilm will keep one or two film plants running, if only for sentimental reasons. The rebirth of the Polaroid instant film packs (the Impossible Project) and the success of Lomography are also showing that when the big players disengage, boutique producers step in and fill in the void.

Contax T2 - completed listings
Contax T2 – a bit cheaper than the T3. The “completed” listings on eBay show that even if sellers ask for prices in excess of $2,000, the cameras that actually sell are priced a bit more reasonably.

So, let’s assume that film remains available and affordable, and that 35mm film cameras keep a certain usage value. And let’s forget about those commemorative editions, cameras with remarkable serial numbers or other gold plated models, that Leica (and to a lesser extent Nikon), release from time to time for avid collectors. They are destined to be kept forever in their original packaging and in a safe, with no concern for their potential usage value.

In the realm of cameras that actual photographers use to take pictures, Leica cameras hold a special place. They’re “classics“.

On eBay, the price of Leica’s rangefinders has been remarkably stable over the years, with the M5 and the M4 at the bottom of the ladder (around $800), followed by the M2 and M3 a bit above $1,000 (depending on condition, of course). The more modern Leica M (M6, M6 TTL, M7) are selling for two or three times more, reflecting their comparatively higher usage value.

KEH app – the price asked for the T2 is a bit more reasonable – but still in Leica M territory

Manual focus SLRs designed for enthusiasts or pros, and known to be at the same time simple to use and reliable have seen their value rise spectacularly (Nikon FM2, FE2, FM3a or F3, Canon AE-1, Pentax Super Program or LX), while more complex or less reliable models don’t attract the same high prices (Nikon FA, Canon T90). Those new classics were launched between 1975 and 1985, a decade which is increasingly being seen as the golden age of film SLRs.

dirt cheap
Entry level manual focus SLRs with lots of polycarbonate (Canon T50), or amateur-grade autofocus cameras – nobody wants them and the prices reflect that.

At the other end of the price scale, cameras that did not do very well on the second hand market a few years ago are doing even worse now. The list includes any entry level model from any manufacturer if it was launched after 1980, and almost any autofocus SLR except for the very last enthusiast and pro models, probably because of their good compatibility with the current digital offerings of their respective manufacturer (Nikon F100 and F6, Minolta Maxxum 9 and 7, Canon EOS-3).

Photographs don’t like that those cameras were built out of plastics, with a bizarre feature set (often deprived of useful functions – reserved for the “pro” models – and at the same time loaded with useless gimmicks and encumbered by unconventional controls). And many of them require expensive and hard to find single use Lithium batteries. They have little appeal for today’s would-be film shooters,  and can be had for a few dollars, even from specialized stores.

“La Mode, c’est ce qui se démode”*

What’s hot? Any luxury compact (point and shoot) camera, with a titanium body and a lens with a famous name: the top of the top is occupied by Contax with the T2 and T3: the craze started with a few actors and celebrities in Hollywood posting pictures of themselves shooting with their T2 on Instagram), but similarly positioned models such as the  Leica CM and Minilux or the Nikon 35ti also command big bucks (they’re all in Leica M territory).

Kendall Jenner and a Contax T2. Image Source: Getty / Kevin Mazur/MG18

Cameras like the Olympus XA, and even the Cosina CX-2**, which were far cheaper than the luxury cameras from Contax or Leica in the eighties, have also been contaminated – with sellers asking for hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a somehow basic camera.

cosina CX-2
The Cosina CX-2 – the ancestor of the Lomo LC-A – a cheap camera in its heyday. Prices are all over the map now ($240 to $1,250 for what looks like two cameras in the same condition)

As a conclusion:

Old classics hold their value, new classics are on the rise: if you buy one of those, you may not win big, but you won’t lose money if you decide to resell  it after a few years.

Contax luxury compacts are reaching insane values. They’re nice cameras, with a great little Zeiss lens, and demand currently outstrips supply. But those luxury compact cameras (Contax’s and the others) rely heavily on electronics and generally can’t be repaired if a component goes bad. If you don’t have one already, you missed the boat, and I would not spend thousands of dollars trying to get one. You can also wonder how long will celebrities be seen playing with their T2, pushing demand and prices to the sky? Prices could very well go back to more normal levels in a few years.

Two other Titanium-clad point and shoot cameras (Leica CM and Leica Minilux) selling for more than old Leica M3s

There are still bargains to be found if you’re not obsessed with shooting with a “classic” : the Canon AT-1 has not reached the “new classic” level of the AE-1 and AE-1 Program, and sells for half the price. But in my view, it’s a better camera for an enthusiast photographer. Early Canon EOS cameras  (650, 620) are solid, very pleasant to use (a T90 with matrix metering and without the bugs), and dirt cheap. An entry level camera from the mid eighties, the Pentax P3n, is at least as competent as its more expensive Super Program predecessor, but can still be had for next to nothing. Nikon’s partially motorized N2000/F301 (the manual focus version of the N2020/F501) is also a great buy. So is the Olympus OM-2. Future classics? I don’t think so. But great everyday cameras at a great price, for sure.

(*) “La Mode, c’est ce qui se démode”  (Literally, “Fashion, that’s what going out of fashion” or “Fashion is made to become unfashionable”) – the aphorism is generally attributed to Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel. Coco Chanel famously added that “Fashion fades, only style remains the same”.

(**) Cosina CX-1 and CX-2  – those cute and very small point and shoot cameras sold reasonably well in the early eighties. With their tiny wide-angle lens they were subject to severe vignetting but they offered more controls to the photographers than the other ultra-compact P&S cameras. A few years later, an almost identical camera was launched as the Lomo LC-A by the LOMO PLC in Saint Petersburg (Russia). The little Lomos were adopted enthusiastically by a group of photographers in Austria, and it started the Lomography movement. But that’s a whole other story.

The Olympus OM-2n – a “new classic” – in my opinion the best camera of the Olympus OM single digit series (OM-1,OM-2, OM-3, OM-4, OM-4ti) for everyday use. Photos shot a few years ago at the Universal Studios in Burbank, CA.

Universal studios – Burbank CA – the Studio tour – here the house from Psycho. Olympus OM-2n.
Universal Studio (Burbank, CA) – the set of the movie “Waterworld”. Olympus OM-2n
Venice Beach (CA). Olympus OM-2n


3 thoughts on “Are film cameras grossly over valued today?

  1. Great subject. I like that you alluded to Kendall Jenner, it seems like the price of the Contax T2 doubled as soon as people saw it on TV; it kind of reminds me of the story of the S&W .44 magnum revolver which became the most successful handgun after Dirty Harry was released. A bunch of sheep are ruining the market, but I’m not sure if “overvalued” is quite the right word to use here, because for going on 20 years film cameras as a whole have been UNDERVALUED. My main camera that I used for a decade was picked up at a garage sale with a lens for $5.00 (a Pentax Spotmatic SPII)!

    Perhaps I’d clarify that I think certain models have become overvalued by the 2nd hand market. I think part of the blame should go to people who have based their entire online presence around proclaiming what they consider to be the best model of this or that. The Pentax K1000 has been touted to be the best student camera for years, and now it costs probably twice as much as better cameras with more features. I suppose that with film sales on the rise and more people wanting the cameras the price of what there is will steadily go up, but these spikes are caused by a lot of voices praising a few distinct models, and also…LAZY BUYERS.

    The majority of my social media presence these days is in the Super 8mm group on Facebook and it seems like every couple of days you have some guy who just joins and immediately asks what camera he should buy; even more aggravating are that he’ll get a bevy of voices all touting that the camera they own is the best model and he should have one of those. I wrote an article reacting to that and I hope you don’t mind me linking to it:

    Whenever possible I try to talk about what features I value rather than any particular model of camera because I’d rather help the ones that are going to put in the effort; those are the ones that will stick with it in the long run! So the main problem as I see it is that you have a bunch of newcomers (to both super 8 and 35mm stills) that really don’t care that much, aren’t willing to do the research, would rather just get the buy it now price on the ‘bay. Now in both cases it’s very easy to get a working camera for $150 or less. But my local camera store will sell you one for that and it’s been serviced with a 6-month warranty! And I know whom I’d rather support, too.

    I recently made some investments in more known and high-tier cameras because they have a good reputation for reliability and features. I think at some point they might end up costing a whole lot more and I’m glad I was able to get a good deal on them as I see it as an investment in the future. It should be noted though that whatever the high esteem that certain models might hold at the moment, a whole lot of people still value film cameras as worthless and the best deals are still out there. I found out a couple years back that one of my friends had thrown his Canon AE-1 and about 5 lenses in the trash because he thought no one would want them, and this is after I’ve already been known as the guy who shoots film and have had many people in my church give me their old cameras. I have another friend who gave a nice set of Zeiss primes in Canon FD mount to a guy he knew (again because he didn’t value them) and this guy turned around and made a couple grand selling them on the ‘bay.

    Now what I’d really like to see is film cameras being made again and maybe if the price rises on a few distinct models one of the camera manufacturers might consider making an updated version, but the reality is that there’s no reason when there are so many options that cost way less than what a new camera would.

    1. Hi Joe. I agree with you. It’s all about “influencers”, the ones that show their Contax T3 or their Lomo LC-A on Instagram or on the late night shows, and the ones who tell you “the Pentax K1000 is a perfect learner camera” when even if its heyday it was an outdated camera with a base design rooted in the Spotmatic of 1964, and deprived of a depth of field preview function at the top of that. Do your home work and think out of the box, that should be the answer. Cheers.

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