The league of the $5.00 film cameras

How cheap can it get?

The price of used film cameras on eBay is racing to the bottom. No brand is immune – not even Nikon or Leica –  only a few models seem to be worthy of the consideration of the buyers  and still sell for more than $100.00:

  • single digit Nikon F models,
  • Nikon FM2 or  FM3A,
  • Contax 159mm or ST,
  • pristine and tested Canon T90 or Canon New F-1,
  • all rangefinder cameras from Leica and a few of their SLRs,
  • Olympus OM-3t / OM-4t.

The very last high end film auto-focus SLRs of Canon, Minolta and Nikon – such as the EOS-3 and EOS-1 V, the Maxxum 7 and 9, and the F100 and F6 – are also in a a category of their own. As the “ultimate” film SLRs, very close technically from the current dSLRs of the same brand, they can be sold for anything between $200.00 and $2,000.00.

OM-2000-6210
Olympus OM-2000 – a beautiful member of my $5.00 league

The rest is trending towards being virtually free, and autofocus SLRs fare even worse than manual focus bodies: I recently paid  $3.25 for a nice N6006, a Nikon SLR from the early auto-focus era and $15.00 for a beautiful Minolta 9xi with a good lens,  its original catalog and user manual. We already passed the point where the shipping costs exceed the sale price of the camera, and where a set of batteries can be many times more expensive than the camera itself – the lithium battery of the N6006 cost me $12.00, almost 4 times the price of the camera.

cameras--6624
Nikon N6006 – a very competent auto-focus camera, to be had for less than $5.00 on eBay

For the photographer starting to shoot with film, there has never been a better time to buy a good camera on the cheap. Collectors are more attracted by pro or high-end cameras which were expensive when new, and still are in top condition. The  “last pro or last high-end film cameras manufactured by a given brand…” fare particularly well: a tested and working Pentax LX, a beautiful Olympus OM-4Ti or a Canon EOS-1 V are relatively rare and can sometimes reach prices between $400 and $1,000.

cameras-2-21
Canon AV-1 – It was part of a $8.00 bundle which also included 3 other cameras. In all fairness the other cameras were all defective, but this one worked pretty well.

SLRs  originally positioned as mid level cameras for enthusiasts or experts provide the best opportunities, in particular if you’re willing to accept a few scratches or blemishes on the body: they tend to be much more usable than entry level cameras (they’re almost as feature rich as the high end models, if not as solid), but don’t catch the attention of the collectors because they’re too ordinary and too easy to find.

On my short list of recommended cameras:

Manual Focus cameras: strangely enough, manual-focus cameras from big brands tend to be more expensive than most of their auto-focus SLRs.

Although not as expensive as a T90, a FM3A or an OM-4Ti, the three cameras listed below can still command prices in the $70.00 to $100.00 range. They are very competent tools, they benefit from a large supply of good lenses, and are a great way to move one step higher with  film photography:

  • Canon A-1
  • Nikon FE2
  • Olympus OM-2n
they could be bought in 1983
Nikon FE2 – Canon A-1 – certainly not cheap cameras – but still a bargain at the current price level

You can find cheaper manual focus alternatives – the Olympus OM-2000 is one of my $5.00 cameras, but I’d be more prudent with brands like Fujica (and other brands which did not have strong following on the expert or enthusiast markets). Not that they did not make good cameras – but good lenses are going to be more difficult to find – and without a set of good lenses, a SLR camera is not really worth having.

02-2017-camera-5848
Fujica AZ-1 – the camera can be had for cheap, but apart for the ubiquitous 50mm lens and the zoom shown here, Fujinon EBC lenses (operating at full aperture) are rare and expensive.

Auto-focus Cameras: manufactured in the early to mid-nineties by the big four (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax), they are mature technically, with a good multi-sensor auto-focus, matrix metering, and a long eye point viewfinder. The lenses are still somehow  compatible with the current dSLRs of the brand – and they’re incredibly cheap.  A few examples of the “expert” or “enthusiast” category:

  • Minolta 600si
  • Minolta 9xi
  • Nikon N90s
cameragx-6594
The “prosumer” cameras of the early to mid eighties – they can be yours for $15.00 to $25.00 now, with a (good) zoom included.

Auto-focus cameras designed for amateurs (such as the Minolta 3xi or the Nikon N6006) are the cheapest of them all, but the price difference with the “expert”, “enthusiast” or “prosumer” model of the same brand is minimal (the price of their disposable Lithium battery, roughly). Don’t hesitate. Go for the top of the line.

As usual,  I only recommended cameras I’ve used and liked. I’m sure there are very good auto-focus cameras from Canon (EOS mount), and great manual focus cameras from Minolta (MD mount) or Pentax (K mount). They’re all supported by a great line of lenses and will also constitute very good buys.

One last word…of caution

When you buy a camera for less than $5.00, you don’t always win.

  • shopgoodwill.com  is a very good source for cheap equipment, but you have to consider it’s sold as is, by people  who – generally –  have absolutely no clue of what they’re selling and can’t describe it in any useful way.  To me, it has been a bit of a hit and miss – cameras from the 90s (the Olympus OM-2000, the Minolta 9xi, the Nikon N90s) were diamonds in the rough, and after a good cleaning, they worked perfectly. Older cameras (a Spotmatic, a Fujica AX-3) were broken and could not be fixed. The older the camera, the riskiest it gets. But most cameras are sold with a lens, and even if the camera is defective, the value of its lens alone sometimes makes buying the set a good deal.
  • eBay – thanks to the system of feedback, sellers tend to describe their items with some level of accuracy. In my experience, if you stick with sellers with an almost perfect feedback score (99% or better), and read the item description extremely carefully,  you won’t be disappointed.

Image
Dogs playing. Nikon N90s – Fujicolor 400 – The Nikon N90s nailed the exposure and the focus perfectly.

 

An alternative to eBay? shopgoodwill.com


eBay has been here for 15 years now. Buyers and sellers had ample time to learn all the tricks of the trade, and if reasonably careful, they face little risk of a really bad surprise.


A significant percentage of the sellers on eBay are professionals, or experts in their field. Others have been using a product for years and can write about its history. Most know the value of the products they’re selling, and how to attract the attention of their audience. They take good pictures of the items they want to sell, and because they want to preserve their hard earned feed-back, they won’t provide blatantly misleading product descriptions.


But if the risk is somehow limited, the odds of scoring big are also getting pretty slim. With more than 200 million registered users, 2 million new auctions a day, and all sorts of search and reporting options, eBay is as transparent as a market can get. If the seller did his home work and followed the rules of the game when posting his listing, more than one buyer will notice, a small bidding war will take place, and the final price of the item will be very similar to the average of what similar items sold for during the weeks preceding the auction.


Shopgoodwill.com – the online auction site of Goodwill Industries – is a much smaller marketplace. Founded in 1999, it “provides a safe and secure venue for Goodwill® member organizations to sell donated items through an online auction“.


The photography related auctions of the day
The photography related auctions of the day


On Shopgoodwill, the cameras and lenses presented for auction have been donated, and the people describing the products know very little about their past. Most of them are not specialists of photographic equipment, either. They do not want to raise false expectations, and will stay extremely conservative in their assessments. In the best case, they will write that the product “appears to be in a good condition” or that it “appears to be working”, but all items are sold as is.


The item descriptions are sometimes very generic (“Nikon Camera”) or written by someone who can’t tell the difference between a filter and camera (“Hoya 49mm camera made in Japan”). The quality of the pictures of the items improved significantly lately, but they are still low res, and it’s often difficult to find out what’s really being sold.


While not as large as eBay, the number of potential buyers is far from small, and the odds are that a rare and valuable item will be discovered by more than one buyer. I’ve seen a few Leica cameras for sale on Shopgoodwill, and they all fetched good prices. But I’ve also seen nice vintage cameras stay unnoticed.


So where is the fun? Shopgoodwill is like a garage sale or a flee market. Tonight 27,000 film cameras were listed on eBay. Less than 300 were listed on Shopgoodwill. You have relatively few items to look at, and you can go rapidly through the list of cameras or lenses being auctioned. The product descriptions are not always very good, but lovers of old equipment will raise to the challenge and put their geekiness to good use, with the hope of discovering a true gem.


Example of a listing on Shopgoodwill.com


Buying a camera or a lens at Shopgoodwill is a bit of a gamble. The intentions of the sellers are undoubtedly good, but their expertise is somehow limited, and the buyer will know little about the true condition of the item he’s bidding for. I never had the guts to buy a really expensive camera or lens on Shopgoodwill, and I never spent more than $30 on an item.


The camera I bought (a Praktica camera sold under the “Cavalier” name in the US) was cosmetically nice, and ended up working after some TLC, in spite of its old age. I also bought a lens, on a separate occasion. Although a bit dirty, it was in good general condition, and proved to be a very nice item once cleaned. A good experience overall. Try your luck too; it’s for a good cause.



More about Shopgoodwill.com
The presentation of the Shopgoodwill site by Goodwill Industries
A review of Shopgoodwill by Time: 50 best Websites 2009: Shopgoodwill.com



Olympus OM-1 / Praktica LTL - The Praktica (sold as a Cavalier in the US) was bought on Shopgoodwill.com.

Buying photo equipment on eBay


I bought most of my cameras and lenses on ebay.com, sometimes through auctions, sometimes at  “buy it now” prices. I never had a bad experience so far.


If you buy on eBay, you will face three types of sellers:

  • on-line stores specialized in photographic equipment, new or second hand.


That’s the low risk option. Some stores limit their inventory to a few brands, and only carry high quality, very nice to pristine cameras. Others are less restrictive, and also have cameras which have lived a more difficult life. If your intention is to really use the camera you’re purchasing, buying a comestically challenged camera may be a good option, as long as it’s in good mechanical condition. Specialized stores are supposed to know what they sell, and will not plead ignorance if the product does not work or is not completely similar to the published description. They will arrange for a free return, and a refund.


A word of caution, though: the products are evaluated before being listed, and the obvious lemons don’t pass, but the tests are not always as thorough as one would wish: a lens may have looked OK when tested on a particular type of body, but will fail to operate on another one, which is in theory 100% compatible but is interacting with the lens differently. Always test the equipment you purchased as soon as you receive it, and contact the seller if there is any issue. Reputable stores will listen to you, and they have a good return policy.


Over the years, I bought cameras or lenses from Adorwin (the eBay store of Adorama), Betteroffblu, Cameta and Shutterblade and could appreciate their professionalism.

  • Stores not specialized in photography


That’s the riskiest option, in my opinion. The store could be anything, from a pawn shop to an antique dealer, the worst being a dollar store or a shady repair shops buying broken electronic equipment in bulk and making one sellable camera out of 3 broken ones. Even if they know a few things about the products they’re selling, they will generally plead ignorance, and will offer little or no support if there is an issue with the equipment. I never had a really bad experience on eBay, but it’s with this type of seller that I came the closest to being seriously disapointed. Buyer beware.

  • Low volume and non professional sellers


Low volume sellers belong to multiple sub categories. You will see items sold by a person who pretends he got the equipment he’s selling from a friend but that he knows nothing about it, and  you will find the passionate amateur photographer who bought his equipment new 20 years ago, used it day in day out and took great care of it; he will take pride in providing a honest and accurate description of his equipment, and that’s the person you want to be buying from.


Because of the way the auctions work, the prices tend to be highly variable and very unpredictable. Professional sellers tend to protect themselves with a “buy-it-now” price, and if the item does not sell this time, they just list it again. Non professional sellers tend to use the auction system more than professionals. With the number of people watching eBay listings every day, it’s difficult to find a real bargain, but some sellers (lazy or inexperienced) still publish unappealing listings (blurry pictures, ambiguous descriptions) that a trained bargain hunter will be able to interpret to his advantage: I bought my Nikon F3 this way, at 30% of what the action would have reached if the listing had been professionally layed out.


As always, do your homework and try and understand the market first (ads in magazines, completed items list on eBay). Set a limit for the price of the equipment you want to buy second hand. In any case, read the ads very carefully, ask questions, and only place a bid if you feel confident enough.


Other reputable sources

  • keh.com


    I never had the opportunity to buy second hand equipment from keh, but good friends did. keh has the reputation of being very conservative in the way they describe the equipment they’re selling (if they say it’s in good condition, then it’s very very good). They only sell over the phone or on the Internet – no walk-ins.

  • bhphotovideo.com


    B&H is a big photo video mail to order company, with a huge brick and mortar store in New York. I bought new equipment from them on multiple occasions. A very pleasant experience. I never had the opportunity to buy second hand equipment from them, though.



Feel free to share your comments and experiences. Thank you.


Nikon FE2
Nikon FE2