Buy a Classic Camera safely

Views 9 Likes Comments Comment
Like if this guide is helpful

Have you ever bought a camera on eBay (or anywhere else) and on using it found that it does not work properly? (And a camera that does not work properly may as well not work at all!)

If this has not happenned to you, then you are very lucky, or have not bought a camera here before. In fact over 80% of all classic SLR cameras sold on eBay have faults which need addressing before they can be put back to use.

Considering the cheapest repair service for any classic camera will cost at least £55, your 'bargain buy' could easily end up costing more than purchasing a reconditioned example. That's if it is repairable at all!

It is an unfortunate fact that few sellers of used classic cameras are qualified to pass an opinion on the state of the cameras they sell. How many of these listing use phrases like "I don't know a lot about camera's, but it appears to be in great condition." ?  Others may tell you that the camera worked perfectly last ime it was used. (And how long ago was that exactly!)

These sort of descriptions and comments tell you nothing about the camera you propose to buy. The seller may be being perfectly honest, but if that is the case all they are telling you is that they have no idea if the camera works properly or not, and probably do not even care. In reality they are telling you that you won't be able to claim that their listing was deceptive.

Sadly most of these cameras are in reality being sold by car-boot-cowboys (Sorry guys, but....) who only care about making a few quid, and want exactly as much come-back as they would get from a car boot sale. (Ie none!)  At most all they know is the highest price they ever saw one sell for at auction, and how to wheedle out of giving you your money back!

Most of these cameras are obtained during house clearance work or probate actions. (In some cases the seller may already have been paid to take them away!) These may have been sitting about in damp warehouses, or in the back of a white van for months. Even in the case of the honest 'grandads old camera' it may have been lying around neglected for years.  

However, there are some very good  sellers of classic photographic equipment on eBay. Not many I'll grant, but they are there. The trouble is how do you tell?

Rule 1.

Unless you yourself are an expert buyer, only buy from an expert!

Choosing the seller is the most critical factor in ensuring that you are going to get a decent piece of kit. You need to assure yourself that whoever you buy your camera from is qualified to make a judgement of the camera you are thinking of buying.

So how do you spot an expert? Apart from the 'I know nothing' brigade, there are a lot of sellers who are very good at looking professional who are no such thing. (A flashy looking listing tells you nothing. These are easy to create, or have created for you.)

Well it's not too hard.  the first and easiest rule is to ask the seller a question!

I know that this is something harped-on about in buying guides, but it really is true. You can find out a lot about a seller with a few carefully chosen questions!

Look and see what else the seller deals in. If it's boot-sale bric-a-brac then it's not very likely they specialise in cameras, or are particulary knowledgable.

Research any claims made for the camera, expecially exceptional ones, such as the item being declared as 'rare'.

I cannot list the number of times I see the word 'Rare' in the title for the sale of quite a common model. I even see it for Olympus Trip 35's. There is a rare version, and it's quite easily identified, and even then not terribly rare, but Iv'e yet to see one on eBay!  An expert would never make this mistake.

Rule 2.

Make sure your seller is operating within the law, and eBay rules.

This should be blindingly obvious! You may think that some of eBay's rules, or parts of the law are totally daft. I might even agree, but that does not mean they can be ignored!

If you think the seller is a business seller, but does not say so, then they may be breaking the law. There is only one rule in law for determining if a person selling something is in buiness, and that is if they regulary make a profit doing so. If it looks that way to you, then it is probably the case.

eBay applies the power-seller rule. That is if a member sells enough to qaulify as a power-seller than they are assumed to be running a business, and will eventually insist they register as such, but of course it is possible to sell just under that and still limit make a healthy profit!

There are a number of reasons why people do not want to admit to running a business, and taxes are the least. More importantly is that there are strict laws which apply to the business of selling to the public. Especially 'at a distance'. These ensure that consumers do not get cheated when they buy online. If someone is trying to pretend they are not a business then...... (Work it out!)

One thing that a buiness seller must do by law, is tell their customers the geographical address of the place that the buiness is conducted from, before the customer comits to buy. On ebay that means before you bid, or click the BIN button. So if you can't find an address in the listing, or within one click of the listing, then the seller is breaking the law. If they are willing to break one law.......

If you see business sellers who fail to comply with this policy, report them to ebay.

(Note that this is very important. eBay/Paypal can only offer limited protection from dishinest sellers, and it is easy for a seller to hide behind a username, or a new account. What you need to know is who you are actually dealing with. It is sometimes said that displaying an address this way is somehow dangerous, or interferes with the sellers right to privacy. But this is flanell, you are not trading as a private individual, a buisiness does not have the same rights.)

Rule 3.

(Unless you are an expert.) Don't buy from a seller that does not offer a returns policy.

This should be obvious. Do not accept any disclaimers about returns policies. (This includes any 'I know nothing' clauses._

If the seller is a business seller they are probably illegal in any case.' If you are buying from a busines seller, then make sure you know your rights. There wil be link on the listing which will (eventually) take you to websites which explain these.

Watch out for weasel clauses in the listing too. I know one seller who used to claim all his items were optically perfect' in the listing title. I have no idea what he meant by that, but he didn't mean the camera or lens worked. If you read the listing carefully, you would find hidden disclaimers. (Such as the one that pointed out that the words 'optically perfect' did not mean that the camera was mechainically perfect!)

A useful tip here is to watch for text typed in capital letters, and/or different coloured typefaces. These are not used to make the listing pretty (!) or to draw your attention to particular points of interest. Their purpose is to confuse the eye, so that you miss or skip over important points. Of course later this will be pointed to when you try to claim the item was misdescribed. It's a pretty crude trick, but it works.

Text scattered accross the listing in odd lines, or groups can also be another way of making the listing difficult to read. 

Don't be put off by seemingly large tracts of text. There is usually less than you think. Many serious ebay sellers like to include information about posting etc. for their customers to see exactly what they are getting. Also it is important that a seller describes the item fully, and this might take more than a few lines.

The key thing is readability. In general a good seller want's you to read the listing, a bad seller doesn't.

Rule 4. 

If it is sold for 'spares or repair' it is probably irreparably damaged.

A reputable seller with cameras for sale which cannot be economically repaired, will not usually try to imply a camera is repairable. Anyone who is qualified to make that assessment is also usually capable of repairing the camera.

It is occassionally the case that a camera might be repairable, but just not economical for the seller to undertake, but if that is the case then the seller should be able to describe the faults accurately.

Such a camera may be sold for salvage, but you should ask if you are buying for particular parts.

It is impotant to remember that is a camera is sold for spare parts it must be capable of producing usable parts to some degree. If it is sold for repair, it must be possible (even if not economical) to repair it. It should not be used as an excuse to sell scrap metal.

Any seller who tries to tell you that no return will be accepted for a item sold this way is not acting honestly. In fact this is illegal for a business seller, even if the item is sold under auction.

Rule 4. 

Serviced or Overhauled cameras are the best. (Or at least one bought from someone who sells these!)

A camera which has been serviced or overhauled will at the very least, have been properly tested and inspected internally as well as outside.

A seller of such cameras will be an expert. (Or at least should be!) If so the camera will be properly described. And priced too!

It is important to remember that some cameras (almost all of them sooner or later.) will require servicing to work properly. If the camera has not been serviced it may not work very long. It does not matter if the camera looks great, it needs to work!

Cameras sold as serviced etc, should carry an extra guarantee. That is because the servicing should have sorted any problems with the camera, but also partly because any camera service man will admit that sometimes a repair does not 'take' properly first time, or an adjustment made may need time to settle in.

This is in fact the safest way of buying a camera on eBay. But make sure that the seller is an expert, and not just pretending!

Rule 5

Don't be tempted by 'extras'. Especially do not accept the presence of extras as evidence of good maintenance or condition.

You will see cameras offered with for example 'with the original box', etc. Such things mean very little.

It could in the case of the box mean that it has been well kept, but it could also mean that the box came from a completly different camera. (I usually check to see if the camera serial number is printed on the box, and guarantee stubs etc are with it as well!) 

In any case, unless you are collecting camera boxes as well, the box itself is of little value.

Also, if the camera is offered with the original manual, check it is the manual for that camera, and ask yourself why a manual (Which might have value of it's own!) is being sold with the camera?

A user manual may have value as an item of photographic ephemera, but it is not necessary, and usually these can be downloaded from one of the many photo-enthusiast sites.

Other items such as spare lenses cases etc should not be though of as 'free items' but at the same time unless you really want or need those extras do not feel obliged to bid for them. Other people may well only be interested in the camera body, while others may only be interested in the lens. So you may well end up bidding for a camera body for someone who is after a lens.

Usually it is better to buy these separately. That way you can get a description of each item and a separate guarantee etc for each item. I have often bought a camera 'with lens' only to find that the lens is in fact an inferior type, or damaged, and then have a return refused on the grounds that the lens was a 'free' extra, or that I will have to return both camera (which I want) and the damaged lens (which I don't want) to obtain a refund.

Usually sellers will have suitable accessories for the camera you buy, and a discount may be offered if you buy the camera and accessories at the same time.


Some good questions to ask the seller.

Ok I said earlier that assesing the seller is the most important ting to do, and that asking some questions will help. So here are some good ones! 

Has the shutter been timed? If so how?

An experienced technician can make a reasonably good assesment of how even a focal plane shutter is running, but to check the speed accurately requires the use of a test instrument of some sort. That the shutter 'looks about right' is not really good enough.

A focal plane shutter needs to be checked at it's maximum speed. This can be difficult if the camera has no manual shutter speed control. In such cases it may not be possible to check this without some sort of test instrument.

(The instruments required are not particularly complictated, and anyone equipped with a reasonable oscilloscope, and a bit of electonic knowledge can build a set-up quite adequate for accurate timing!)

Is the meter accurate? Does the speed shown in the viewfinder match?

Some cameras use a completely different metering circuit for the viewfinder indication from the one that is used to control the shutter. (Olympus OM1 for example.) If this is the case the viewfinder can show shutter speeds wildly different from the actual shutter speed. 

This means that checking the meter by means of the viewfinder indication can also be way out!

Again the shutter should be timed electronically whilst the camera is 'looking' at an accurate reference. Professionals use a lightbox, and a refernce aperture, but comparison with an accurate lightmeter using a known accurately calibrated lens and a evenly illuminated card is almost as good. (It takes a little longer, and finding a properly calibrated lens can be difficult!)

Then the viewfinder indication should be checked (with a porperly fitting eye-cup) to see if the indication matches the actual speed.

What about the condition of the light seals/traps?

These are often strips of foam rubber around the door edges. Their job is to prevent stray light entering the camera. There are often more light traps inside where you can't see tham.

These perish with age, and almost any camera with this kind of light seal which is more than 20 years old will have perished seals. These can be renewed quite cheaply, but it would cost £30 to be done 'proffessionally'.

There is no reason why this cannot be done by the seller, except that it takes 20 minutes!

However, the internal seals take longer to do, and should these start to come apart they can jam the camera solid.

Cameras where this can be a big problem are Pentax ME series camera (Particularly ME Super), where the shutter will eventually jam unless the problem has been addressed. This can cost a lot of money to get fixed. (I get most of mine already jammed, but this is fixed by the overhaul!) 

Have you had the camera long?

This can tell you a lot about the seller. If it is a privately owned camera then you can get a good idea of the use that the camera has been put to, and when it was last services and, any work done.

I stress that 'having work done' is usually a cood thing provided it's been dome properly!

If it is a trader expect to be told that is the case in response to this question!  

Have you personally tested this camera? If so how?

Sometimes the answer will ne no. Draw your own conclusions from that!

Often you are told that the seller has 'run a film through it'. This is best taken at face value, ie a film was put in, and would on to the end. That means the winder works, and the camera does not actually jam. (Not yet anyway!) It does not tell you anything useful!

If the film has been exposed, developed, and printed (an expensive operation for a trader!) it still does not tell you much more than the fact that the camera takes some pictures in certian conditions.

Remember shutter problems will show up at fast shutter speeds, and might not show at lower speeds, and unless the camera is used in widely varying light conditions the meter will not have been tested adaquately this way.

In fact you would neet to use several rolls of film to test a film camera, to cover all the possible combinations!

All it can really do is test that the camera focuses correctly!

So electronic testing of some sort is much to be preferred.

Has this camera been overhauled recently?

Ideally yes, or at least serviced. A service will at least have revealed any probelms and any adjustments made. But please note that man problems will only be addressed by an overhaul. 

What is your returns policy? Is there a guarantee?

If buying at a fixed price from a business seller, there should be a returns policy already shown! If not ask what it is.

You should also be offered a guarantee if the camera has been ovehauled. Sometimes the camera will need re-adjusted after a run-in period after an overhaul. This is not terribly common, but the seller should have a policy to cope with this.

Asking these questions should be enough to sort out the sheep from the wolves. Dont' however assume that a seller who can't answer all these questions is a 'wrong un', it is simply a fact that many cameras are sold by people who really don't know enough to tell you most of this, and you should make your own mind up.

What about pricing/bidding?

I hope you have realized by now that a good reliable camera bought on eBay may cost the seller a little more to prepare for sale. In some cases this can be several hours for a single camera. So obviously they will cost a little more.

Compare though the price of a similar item from a traditional camera shop. The camera shop item is also unlikely to have been serviced or overhauled (if this is offered for the ebay seller).

For them it is less necessary to do so than the Ebay seller. Their customer is not going to leave negative feedback, and if a customer claims there is a problem it is common for the customer to return to the shop. It is also quite expensive for the traditional shop owner to have each camera serviced, just ask how nuch it would cost in your local camera shop!

However a high price does not always mean a good camera, so always check the sellers credentials, just don't expect a great camera for no money!

In conclusion.

It should go without saying that if you want the best camera your money can buy, you should choose a seller who is a specialist in cameras. You should particularly look for those with a degree of technical knowledge, as they are the most likley to be selling cameras in good mechanical condition.

Buying cameras from non specialists will sometimes get you a bargian, but more often than not it will be average at best.

It's really up to you who you choose, but be careful, some cameras sold as good are really poor, and that is usually due to the seller not really knowing what they are selling.

If you wan to buy a broken camera for spares, of just to take apart to see how it works, these can be a good source, but don't let anyone fool you into thinking you are getting a perfect example, just make sure not to bid too much. 

(And you will be doing the camera rebuilder and repairer a favour. This is after all where they get their raw material.)


Have something to share, create your own guide... Write a guide
Explore more guides