Film cameras are interesting objects. They appeal to collectors who will desire them for their historical importance, their pleasant esthetics, and for their scarcity, and to active photographers, who make their purchase decisions based on the feature set, the availability of good lenses, and the quality of the user experience.
The least desirable cameras (and therefore the cheapest) are characterized by an abundant supply of working but unremarkable bodies with a meager selection of lenses, the most desirable by a limited availability of cameras in working order, combined with an interested set of features, a pleasant user experience, and a broad selection of good lenses: in other words, cameras of great systems (Canon, Contax, Nikon, Leica, Olympus, for instance) that are scarce because they sold in small numbers, and/or because they did not age gracefully, with few of them surviving in working condition.
Let’s focus on the 4 Japanese brands I know best.
Manual focus Canon cameras were mass produced (Canon was the constant best seller except for a few years when Minolta took the lead), and generally reliable. Because the autofocus EOS product line is totally incompatible with the older manual focus cameras, users of autofocus Canon film cameras (and of modern digital EOS models) were not tempted to carry an old manual focus SLR in addition to their modern autofocus camera, and the offer of second hand manual focus cameras from Canon has always seemed to exceed demand. As a result, prices have tended to be low.
- There is one glaring exception, the F-1, with nice copies proposed above $400.00 (Canon also produced limited editions to commemorate events like its 50th anniversary that command prices above $1,000). Another interesting Canon camera is the T90.
- T90: the poster child of a second hand camera which checks all the marks, but is penalized by its lack of reliability:
- On the plus side, it’s very interesting from a historical point of view : it was designed with the input of Luigi Colani’ studio, and its ergonomics study is a precursor of the Canon EOS cameras and of almost all camera currently sold
- Its sales volume was relatively limited (for a Canon camera): it was an expensive high end camera, only sold for 2 years, when Canon had no autofocus camera to propose and was getting a beating from Minolta and Nikon on the marketplace.
- The T90 was part of a very broad camera system, very popular with professional photographers. There is large supply of very good lenses, for cheap. Historical interest, relatively low sales volume, broad system – it should command high prices.
- But on the other hand, the T90 did not age well: some of the components deteriorate if the camera is not used frequently, others have a limited lifespan, and Canon stopped servicing those cameras a long time ago – in fact, a lot of them display an “EEE” error and simply don’t work.
- Therefore, there is not a strong demand for the T90. It commands prices starting in the $150.00 range for a tested model, which is less than what is asked for an A-1 or even a AE-1 Program.
Fujica (the AX bayonet mount line)
Fuji’s screw mount cameras sold in respectable numbers in the 1970s, and aged relatively well. They were replaced in 1979 by a new generation of bayonet mount cameras that did not sell very well and had reliability issues. A Fujica SLR such as the STX or the AX-3 in working condition is not as easy to find as a Canon AE-1 or a Nikon FE, for instance, but at the same time it does not qualify as exceptionally difficult to locate. The truth is that those cameras don’t seem to be interesting collectors (lack of aura) or active photographers (lack of lenses). Except maybe for the AX-5.
- AX-5 – it was the full featured top of line, and was proposed at prices higher than the Canon A-1 it was supposed to compete with.
- On the Plus side, it’s really a scarce camera. At any given time, no more than two or three are offered for sale on eBay, worldwide
- On the Minus side, it’s not a very “interesting” camera: it’s a me-too product largely inspired by Canon’s A-1, with a toned down and more “feminine” design
- the whole Fujica “X” product line has a reputation for being fragile (electronics)
- there is very limited supply of lenses (good or bad), and the ones you can find are seriously expensive.
- the market of second hand AX-5 cameras is too small – and there is not enough sales volume to establish a price of reference: I’ve seen working copies proposed above $150.00 but actual sale prices seem much lower.
Very few Nikon cameras qualify as “scarce”. Nikon cameras generally sold in high volumes (within their class of products) and are extremely reliable – a lot of them survived. Some of the cameras designed for professional photographers (the F3, the FM2) had production runs of almost 20 years. You will have to look for specific variants of a mainstream model such as the F3p or the F3AF to reach the level of scarcity that commands high prices (above the $1,000 bar). That being said, Nikon cameras of that vintage are very pleasant to use (they ooze build quality), they benefit from a huge supply of lenses and accessories (Nikon have been using the same bayonet mount since 1959, and the current flash system is downwards compatible down to the FE2 of 1983), and they take great pictures. They have a great usage value, but a limited collector’s appeal. A few exceptions:
- F3: a regular F3 camera is becoming expensive – $200.00 to $400.00 for a nice one. The F3P (a derivative for Press Photographers) sells in the $400.00 to $500.00 range, and the AF models of 1983 (with their dedicated viewfinder and lenses) can easily reach $1,200.00.
- FM2 – the workhorse (or the perfect backup camera) of generations of Nikon photographers. Usable models are available below $200.00, while models popular with collectors (the FM2/T with a titanium body) start at approximately $500.00 to reach up to $1,500.
- The FM3A was only produced for a few years, in small quantities. It’s a recent product with a high usage value (it’s an automatic which can also operate without a battery at any shutter speed) and it commands prices between $300.00 and $600.00.
In the 80s, Olympus had a line of low end “two digit cameras” (OM-10, OM-20, OM-30, OMG..) for amateurs and a line of single digit cameras (OM-2s, OM-4) for the discerning enthusiasts. The two digit cameras are extremely abundant, but unremarkable. The OM-2s and OM-4 are relatively easy to find, but are plagued by lousy battery management issues that limit their attractivity. At the end of their production life, the “single digit” cameras were upgraded to become “T” or Ti” models, which solved the electronics issues of their predecessors, and switched their brass top-plates for Titanium ones. Those T and Ti cameras are highly attractive for the active photographer (small size, unique light metering capabilities, broad system of lenses and accessories) and for the collector – they’re beautiful and are in limited supply. The OM-3Ti – the semi-automatic version- was produced in very limited quantities (6,000 units according to zone-10.com) and was selling at the same price as a Leica M6. The OM-4t and Ti had a long production run, but they were launched in the middle of the autofocus craze, when the large majority of the enthusiasts were busy converting their equipment to Minolta Maxxums, Canon EOS or Nikon N8008.
- OM-3ti – proposed for any price between $1,200 and $4,000.
- OM-4ti – proposed for any price between $250.00 and $800.00
Except for commemorative models (they often never leave the box they were shipped in), Leica SLRs models of all generations typically sell in the $200.00 to $800.00 range (the R4 are the cheapest, the R6.2 the most expensive). Contax models benefit from the aura of the Zeiss lenses, and sell in the same range as the Leicas.